On Columbus Day, Uncovering the Language of America’s First Written Laws

Americans expect the documents that shaped their history to be in English—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address. But one set of documents that preceded them all was written not in English but in Spanish and Latin, and it has irrevocably shaped the history of the Americas for the past 500 years.

The Book of Privileges

When Christopher Columbus set sail in the late 15th century for what he thought would be Asia, he undertook not just an exploration, but a business deal between himself and the rulers of Spain—what King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella would gain by the lands he would discover, how Columbus would profit, and how the Native peoples would forfeit everything to the Spanish crown. Columbus’s Book of Privileges is the compilation of the various legal documents, writs, decrees, and correspondence that set forth this audacious claiming of the New World. The Privileges are written in Spanish, with the exception of the papal bulls, or letters, that blessed the entire business. Those are in Latin.

Neither language was known to the Native peoples—who were not, of course, Asians, but the indigenous peoples of the Americas. But other languages were commonplace for Columbus. As David Bellos tells us in his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, he knew both Castilian Spanish and Latin, plus Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and most likely some Hebrew. Like other seafarers of his day, he no doubt also used the mishmash of Italian, Spanish, and Arabic syntax that served as a lingua franca for the sailors plying the Mediterranean.

Columbus dictated the various agreements contained in his Book of Privileges to royal scribes, known as continos. The books are not so much written as meticulously lettered—page upon page of beautiful calligraphic flourishes. Only four principal copies of the Book are known to exist. Two are in Europe and two in the Americas—one at the Huntington Library in California and the other at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Levenger Press has just published an authorized facsimile of the Library of Congress’s copy.

Although the legal stipulations set forth in the Book of Privileges are not the laws of the land in the Americas today, they set in motion consequences that would indelibly shape the geopolitics of North and South America. A gorgeous artifact, the Book of Privileges serves as a grim reminder of the power that language yields.


About Mim Harrison

Mim Harrison is the author of three books on the English language, Wicked Good Words, Smart Words (both, Penguin/Perigee) and Words at Work (Walker Publishing). A longtime professional writer and editor, she is also a producer of specialty books that are published in cooperation with leading cultural institutions. Her interest in languages began during her misadventures as a college student abroad.