Discovering New Worlds


Giuliano Dati,  La lettera dellisole che ha trouato nuouamente el re dispagna. Florence, 26 October 1495.  Original McGregor Library (A 1495 .D37)

Columbus’s official report of his first voyage—the profoundly important “Columbus Letter”—was quickly reprinted throughout Europe following his triumphant return to Barcelona. The news spread in Italy via this Italian verse translation by Giuliano Dati, a Florentine priest. Consisting of 68 eight-line stanzas, the poem was meant to be recited publicly by professional street singers. Listeners could purchase the text in a printed pamphlet with an evocative title-page woodcut depicting King Ferdinand of Spain, Columbus and his three ships, and the peaceful Indians the explorer encountered. This is one of only six surviving copies of the five known editions.

Fracanzano da Montalboddo, Itinerariu[m] Portugalle[n]siu[m] e Lusitania in India[m] [et] inde in occidentem [et] demum as aquilonem. Milan: J. A. Scinzenzeler, 1508.  Original McGregor Library (A 1508 .F73

A landmark in historical geography, Montalboddo’s work was the first to chronicle the early European voyages of discovery. Chapters on Columbus’s first three voyages and Amerigo Vespucci’s third voyage are supplemented by accounts of Portuguese and Spanish explorations in Africa and the North Atlantic, Pedro Alvares Cabral’s discovery of Brazil, and Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India. The large woodcut map on the title page was the first to accurately depict Africa as a continent almost entirely surrounded by ocean. This Latin translation was published a year after the original Italian edition, which the McGregor Library also holds. 

Ptolemy, Geographie ... Strassburg: Johann Schott, 12 March 1513.  Original McGregor Library (A 1513 .P76)

Often described as the earliest “modern” atlas, Schott’s 1513 edition was the first to add twenty new maps based on the recent Spanish and Portuguese explorations. Cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Mathias Ringman drew from many sources, including Waldseemüller’s famous 1507 world map. In the hand-colored woodcut map shown, the New World is not labeled “America” (as on the 1507 map) but “Terra Incognita.” Europeans’ geographic knowledge of the Caribbean, Florida, and northeast Brazil was expanding rapidly; this map was outdated on publication.

Maximilian, of  Transylvania,  De Moluccis insulis Cologne: Eucharius Cervicornus, January 1523.  Original McGregor Library (A 1523 .M39

It was soon clear that Columbus had not met his goal of finding a westward trade route to the vast riches of the East Indies. A Spanish expedition organized by Ferdinand Magellan achieved that goal in 1522, completing the first circumnavigation of the earth. He set sail from Spain in 1519 with five ships and 237 men. Following mutiny, shipwreck, and mercenary battles, only 18 survivors returned on a single vessel. Maximilian, secretary to King Charles V, promptly interviewed the survivors and published this first account of the voyage four months later.



Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés,  La Historia general delas Indias. Seville: Juan Cromberger, 30 September 1535.  Original McGregor Library  (A 1535 .O85 no. 1

As a young royal page, Oviedo witnessed Columbus’s victorius return from the New World in 1493. Later he served as a Spanish official in present-day Panama, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. Appointed royal chronicler of the Indies in 1530, Oviedo mined colonial archives and interviewed conquistadores in order to write the best contemporary account of the New World. Books 1-20 (of 50), covering the years 1492 to 1520, were published in 1535. This first edition copy bears Oviedo’s autograph on the final page. The book’s woodcut illustrations were the first careful depictions of Native Americans and New World plants. Here Oviedo describes how canoes were fashioned.

Bartolomé de las Casas, Narratio Regionum Indicarum per Hispanos quosdam devastatarum verissima. Frankfurt: Theodor de Bry & Johann Saur, 1598.  Acquired 1942 (A 1598 .C37

On his arrival in the New World in 1502, Las Casas, like his fellow Spaniards, supported the subjugation of the indigenous population. By 1515, however, he began working tirelessly on the Indians’ behalf and railed against their enslavement. In recognition of his work Las Casas was appointed Protector of the Indians. Shown here is his most famous work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which details in horrific terms the cruelties inflicted by the Spanish. First published in 1552 and widely reprinted, this Latin translation was the first edition to be illustrated. The disturbingly graphic engravings by Joos van Winghe made his message even more compelling.