Historians, biographers, and commentators have narrated Columbus's seminal journey from Spain to the West Indies in epic terms ever since it became known to European audiences. His name continues to cue associations with the common mythos of a man called upon by powers beyond his realm of experience to pursue a hazardous quest, placing him in a lineage that extends from ancient Greece to modern Hollywood. 'Destiny,' however, does not easily coexist with the qualities of personal initiative, strong-headed confidence in the rightness of one's cause, and courage that are often attributed to him as virtues.
This ambiguity emerges in the discrepancy between views of Columbus's agency in the discovery of the New World found in the Admiral's own letter to his backers Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand set beside Captain Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo's post facto account of the voyage, General and Natural History of the Indies (1535). National pride and religious providence feature prominently as motivations and means toward completion of the journey in both narratives, however the degree to which these affect Columbus's personal relevance to the discovery differ dramatically. While Oviedo's account reduces Columbus to a role as agent of Spain's territorial and religious expansion, carried westward by an agenda national in scope, Columbus himself puts forward an account in which he appears more as arbiter between the New World and the Old, personally blessed and driven to carry out the will of his royal backers on his own accord.
For both Columbus and Oviedo, there is no question as to the importance of his landfall in the Caribbean for more than just his own pride as an ambitious navigator. The discovery of lands to the West of Europe rocketed Spain into a position of supremacy, first as spiritual victors in the knowledge that they 'got there first,' then later as practical victors when monetary wealth began to flow from the peoples and lands they conquered.
But Columbus did not necessarily see himself as a mere arm of Spain's national body. In his letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela upon returning from his first voyage, he wrote that "they should hold great celebrations... for the great triumph which they will have, by conversion of so many peoples to our holy faith and for the temporal benefits which will follow, for not only Spain, but all Christendom will receive encouragement and profit.". While he holds the royal court of Spain in esteem and sets them first as inheritors to his success, he does not see them as the only to benefit. His declaration reflects a certain independence of will that stems from the implicit belief that he is journeying in the service of a greater cause.
Throughout the letter he uses the language of an arbiter, not a vassal—"Their Highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they require, if they will render me some very slight assistance." Hinting toward the need for further funds to venture a second trip that might bear more tangible signs of success, Columbus seems to be bartering with the rulers of Spain. His constant use of personal language to describe his activities sets a boundary between his own achievements and the fruits of them that fall to Spain, noting that he renamed the islands along his route, he established relations with the islands' inhabitants, he has "take possession of them in their Majesties' names." Columbus may be working for the benefit of Spain, but he is doing so on his own terms.
Oviedo, in contrast, brings the harvest Spain wrought from the occupation of the Americas to the foreground at the expense of Columbus's achievement. Even amidst the praise of Columbus that opens his history of the expedition, he quips that the Admiral "rightly recognized that these lands had been forgotten, for he had found them described—and of this I am in no doubt at all—as one-time possessions of kings of Spain." The notion that some secret revelation of Spain's ancient 'right' to the lands he sought is a fanciful invention—Columbus believed himself to be sailing to the Indies, an exotic realm ruled by a 'Grand Khan' nonetheless known to most Europeans. As Oviedo himself relates, Columbus shopped around between nobles and monarchs, indiscriminately seeking out anyone with the means to back his expedition . But Oviedo is insistent that the New World belongs rightfully to Spain, as evidenced by the comparatively greater time he spends arguing through historiography for an ancient period in which Spain ruled the lands it was then in the process of conquering. He makes no qualms of minimizing toward the service of politics Columbus's role in precipitating this process.
Oviedo goes a step further with reducing Columbus's relevance in the discovery by situating him firmly in the course of 'God's Plan'—"So by the most ancient rights on this account and for other reasons that will be stated during the description of Christopher Columbus's voyages, God has restored the realm to the kings of Spain." This stands in stark contrast to Columbus's own conviction that he himself was the agent of Spain's territorial expansion, the object of God's blessings and aid—"God... grants to all those who walk in his way victory over apparent impossibilities."
This divine intervention on behalf of the discovery appears prominently in both accounts, but its primary object reveals the differing attitudes between Columbus and his historian as to the Admiral's role in the exploration of the Americas. Columbus becomes an ambiguous figure situated by his own ambition and initiative within the broader framework of a Spanish kingdom ravenous for Christian converts and monetary wealth. The two documents reflect different aims in their authors—Columbus was desperate for further support from the Spanish court to continue his exploration, and Oviedo sought political justification for Spain's encroachment on American lands and peoples—but together they shed light on the tension between the free will of the 'great man,' and the aura of destiny that gives him such glow in the minds of the West.