The earliest written documentation about the Virgin Islands and the indigenous Virgin Islanders was created by three Spaniards who, after returning to Spain, wrote eyewitness accounts of the landing of Christopher Columbus’ fleet at St. Croix on November 14, 1493. A portion of the first of these letters, written in Spanish by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca of Seville, is printed here. Although frequently biased and unreliable, eyewitness accounts provide onsite information about events and actions that are otherwise undocumented.
In this activity students will use questions to investigate a letter written by a doctor that traveled with Christopher Columbus. Students will discuss what the doctor wrote about the people they encountered on St. Croix. They will define and discuss bias, then identify it in the letter and use it to understand the past. They will use prior knowledge or research to write an essay about an encounter with a different culture from the perspective of the visitor, and from the perspective of a member of the community that was visited.
Primary Sources in this Activity
Suggested Teaching Instructions
This activity is related to early colonization of the Americas. Viewed as a sensitive topic for classroom lessons, teachers should consider their students ability to engage with the topic, give background information, create a safe environment for discussion, and be prepared to support their students’ questions and responses to the subject matter.
Lead the class in a discussion as to what a Primary Source is and to name different types of primary sources. Introduce students to a letter as a primary source.
Explain that the letter the class will look at is by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca. The original letter is from 1494. The class will not look at the original letter however because a digitized version was not found. Additionally, it has not been determined, for the purposes of this activity, if the original letter still exist. The letter the class will look is cited as: “La Carta que escribio a la Ciudad de Seville, Febrero a Marzo 1494,” in “Coleccion de los Viages y Descrubrimientos. Que Hicieron por Mar Los Espanoles desde Fines del Siglo XV. v. 1. Edited by Martin Fernandez de Navarrete (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1825). pp 206-207. That letter was later translated and presented in English in the book “St. Croix 1493, An Encounter of Two Worlds” by Arnold R. Highfield. The class will look at the English version of the letter from the Highfield book. In the truest definition of a primary source, this translated letter is not a primary source. Ask students if they agree with this assessment?
Define transcription and translation as needed. Transcription is the process of putting characters/letters, into another written or printed form. For example, taking a handwritten letter written in gothic script, identifying the letters and then typing the letters and words on a keyboard. The new typed version is a transcription of the original. Translation involves changing words from one language to another language. Ask students how transcribing an original text could affect its original meaning? And how translating an original text could affect the thoughts the original author intended to convey?
Load the English version of the letter onto an interactive smart board and have students make observations together. If there is not a smart board, students can work in small groups at computers.
Help students to read the letter and analyze it. Engage students in a discussion about the content of the letter.
Analyze the Primary Source
Analyze the Document:
Who wrote it?
When is it from?
Where is it from?
What is it talking about? What is the main idea/theme?
Write on sentence summarizing this document?
Why did the author write it?
What did you find out from this document that you might not learn anywhere else?
What other documents or historical evidence are you going to use to help you understand this event or topic?
The main questions that can be used to analyze this letter are above. You may however load the Analyze a Document worksheet on the smart board or on computers so that you can lead students through answering the questions from the worksheet, print the worksheet and distribute to your students, or adapt the questions from the worksheet to create your own. Primary Source Analysis Worksheets
Primary sources are a great resource for historians. They provide a first-hand account of events that allows historians to know more about past. Primary sources can also have bias. Bias is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “a favoring of some ideas or people over others”. The teacher should help students to understand that if a person is writing a journal or letter about events, their knowledge is limited to their own experience, and it will therefore have a bias naturally, and additionally the writer might have additional bias in the form of prejudice. Prejudice is an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling formed without enough thought or knowledge.
Interpret the letter: What was the author’s observation about the native people? What was the author’s viewpoint? Is his description biased? Why? (Use evidence to support) Is his letter a reliable source? Why? What can historians learn about the native people of the Caribbean through this letter? What can historians learn about the explorers through this letter?
Making Connections: Pick a culture that you studied in class, have some knowledge of, or research a culture and pretend you are encountering it today, for the first time. Write a four paragraph essay, include an introduction to the culture and how you came to interact with it, second describe what you observed through your encounter, the third paragraph should be from the perspective of a member of the community that you visited, where they describe their interaction with you, the fourth paragraph should conclude your description of the experience and can include differences and similarities between your culture and the one you encountered.