Columbus diligently catalogued the lifestyle, environment and habits of the indigenous people as he succinctly articulated his perception of the alien land. However, the letter soon acquired a sensational popularity and was published in Spanish in Spain and in Latin in Italy, with there being three editions for the latter. Its original copies, however, are just a handful with some of the biggest libraries of the world dedicated in the task to preserve them.

 

Letters travel with and without their authors and readers.

When Christopher Columbus wrote to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, of his sojourns in the ‘New World’ (modern day Bahamas) in 1439, he promised his intended readers an acquaintance with what lay beyond Europe and its waters.

Columbus diligently catalogued the lifestyle, environment and habits of the indigenous people as he succinctly articulated his perception of the alien land. However, the letter soon acquired a sensational popularity and was published in Spanish in Spain and in Latin in Italy, with there being three editions for the latter. Its original copies, however, are just a handful with some of the biggest libraries of the world dedicated in the task to preserve them.

The circulation and preservation of the letter has as curiously interesting a history as Columbus’ travels. Florence’s Riccardiana Library boasted of possessing one of the few original copies of the letter until 2012, when American immigration authorities investigated a lead that suggested that the copy is actually a replica–a photocopy and an impeccable one at that.

Curiosity did get the better of the American authorities, who then tried to inquire the whereabouts of the letter. Another wild whiff of information helped the authorities in finding the letter. And find it they did.

The letter was in the Library Congress, which received it as a donation in 2004 from an anonymous buyer who bought it for $300,000 from a rare-books collector in 1990.

This knowledge opened up a Pandora’s box as the librarians and authorities now busy themselves with finding out how did a replica manage to find its way into the Riccadiania library while the original was skilfully stolen and undertook a journey to the United States of America. In fact, according to Riccardiana Library’s head librarian, the letter (or what they thought was the original) preserved in the library may have been a stolen copy itself as it reached Rome’s shores in 1950.

As the American authorities duly returned the copy of the original letter to Italy in May 2016, the letter traveled once again carrying upon its fabric the imprints of a past that refuse to wither away.

 

Himanshi Sharma

Himanshi Sharma

Himanshi Sharma is an MPhil scholar at the Department of English, University of Delhi. Her research focuses on exploring multiple modernities in South Asia and how they find articulation in mediums across disciplines and genres. Her research interests include Modern English Literature, English Writing in South Asian subcontinent, Indian Cinema, and War/Conflict Literature.

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