Then consider that these documents are the reason why there is a place called the United States, even though only a handful of people who live in the U.S. have any knowledge that these documents exist.
And of those who do know about the documents, few can read them.
Welcome to American History—The Untold Story.
A multilingual blueprint
The documents are called the Book of Privileges. The creator? Christopher Columbus. The Book is the collection of legal agreements that formed the blueprint for how Columbus, the Spanish Crown and the Church would divide up a new world.
Columbus had brought some of these documents with him on his first voyage to the New World, but then kept them behind, for safekeeping, during the course of his next three voyages. He also had copies made.
The Library of Congress owns one of four copies of the Book of Privileges, and one intended for Columbus’s heirs. The Book does, indeed, move under armed guard within the Library, as this
video attests. (Scroll down to Number 4 on the playlist, "Columbus's Most Prized Possession.")
It’s likely that few of us will ever get to see this nearly priceless book. Even if we did, most of us would struggle to read it. It’s written in Spanish (except for the parts that are in Latin). Plus, this is Spanish from centuries ago and a world away. Even our Argentinean friends scratched their heads at some of the writing.
But this is our history—the first written chapter of it. That’s why Levenger decided to publish an exacting facsimile of the Book of Privileges in partnership with the Library.
Calligraphy and context
Physically, the Book is beautiful, the handwork of scribes who lettered each folio with precision and flourish. But what makes our facsimile edition even more meaningful is the narrative that three Library of Congress scholars provide—John Hessler, Chet Van Duzer and Daniel De Simone.
Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison worked with the three of them during the course of publishing the Book. They had many talks about this mysterious hidden chapter of America’s history. Here are some of those conversations.
Levenger Press: Why would such a history-changing collection of documents not be part of most history books?
John Hessler: The amazing thing about studying the history of the early modern period, and especially the earliest exploration of the New World, is that it is still an unsettled history, one that is living and full of surprises. Many of the documents are buried in difficult–to-reach archives in Central and South America, and in a whole range of understudied collections in the U.S. and Europe. It is not surprising that the Book of Privileges is not part of the Columbus mythology.
Levenger Press: Can you recount the story of how the Library acquired this treasure? It has elements of the unbelievable.
Daniel De Simone: The copy in the collections at the Library of Congress was lost for more than 300 years. It didn’t resurface until 1818, in Florence. An American named Edward Everett purchased it and kept it in his personal library. No one really knew about it, until 65 years later a biographer of Columbus tracked it down. By then, Edward Everett was deceased, and his son said he knew nothing about such a manuscript. But a few years later the son’s secretary stumbled upon it. The manuscript had been tucked away in a locked bookcase.
Levenger Press: So the son was sitting on this incredible treasure and didn’t know it?
Dan: Right. But in his defense, the leather binding it was in had no lettering. The son then took the manuscript to England in 1898 for authentication, and actually allowed it to be returned to him through the mail. The manuscript survived the journey, but that’s not the end of its story. Three years later, in 1901, there was a fire in Everett’s son’s house, and much of what was in his library was lost. But the Columbus manuscript, still in its wrapping from England, was rescued. Later that year it was sold to the Library of Congress—where much better safety controls are in place.
Chet Van Duzer: The influence was both subtle and hugely significant. Columbus thought he was in Asia, while he in fact was in the Caribbean and South America, and as reluctant as Columbus was to admit it, there was a large difference between what he found and what he had been hoping to find. If the New World had not stood in the way of his voyage to the east, and if Columbus had really reached Asia as he had hoped to, and had been able to trade with the rich societies there, the contents of the Book of Privileges would have been very different.
LP: For example?
Chet: The Book would have been filled with negotiations relating to trade in spices and precious metals, the procurement of interpreters, requests for more arms, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with powerful Asian potentates. There would not be any agreements about settling Spanish prisoners in the lands he reached, as there are in the Book of Privileges, and Asian societies would not have allowed Columbus to claim their lands and assign them to settlers.
LP: Why was Columbus so convinced he had reached Asia?
Chet: There was no previous knowledge of the Americas, and no reason to believe beforehand that there would be a landmass between Europe and Asia. Columbus was ardently hoping and expecting to reach Asia, the success of his plans depended on reaching Asia, and he let his hopes and expectations influence his interpretations of what he saw.
LP: Is this why he thought he’d found something akin to Eden—what he called the Terrestrial Paradise?
Chet: Columbus gave great weight to any piece of evidence that seemed to confirm that he was in Asia, and minimized anything that seemed to suggest otherwise. It was this same disposition that led him to believe that he had approached the Terrestrial Paradise on his Third Voyage. He had reached what was clearly a continental landmass (South America) where he expected to find continental Asia, and the rivers of that landmass were enormous, turning the sea to fresh water for miles in each direction. Eden, or the Terrestrial Paradise, was supposed to be located in eastern Asia, and was supposed to have a fountain that was the source of the four largest rivers in the world. So to Columbus, the deduction that he was near the Terrestrial Paradise was a natural one.
John: Except for the Papal Bulls, which are written in Latin, the documents are in the courtly and legal language of the 15th-century Spanish court. But Columbus would not have dictated any of the documents. Much like legal documents today, these have a particular form and jargon. The copies we find in the Book of Privileges would have been made by a notary and exactly reproduced from the original written and certified copies in Columbus’s possession.
LP: Speaking of law—is there any aspect of American law that was influenced by the Book of Privileges?
John: Certainly it profoundly influenced early law and provided the basis for the settlement of the first Spanish colonial outposts set up by Columbus in his early voyages. In this sense it provided the “legal” foundations for the conversion and domination of the Spanish over the Taino people that Columbus first encountered. Later, after the conquests of 1520, the book provided much material for argument on whether the Spanish claims of dominion could be justified under the traditional forms of Roman law.
LP: What about later in our history, when the United States was coming into its own?
John: Thomas Jefferson actually wrote a letter, in 1787, in which he states that all Americans should learn Spanish so they can read the original history of the New World and the legal foundations found in Spanish law.
I’m glad to know this Book exists, and is being so carefully watched over by America’s Librarians. Since it is owned by the Library of Congress, it is owned by you and me. I’m so proud of the team at Levenger and at our nation’s library who brought this magnificent facsimile to life so that you and I can hold it in our hands and savor its beauty. It’s a history that everyone who lives in the New World has a right to know. In any language, our knowledge is the richer for it.