Columbus’ La Navidad


From time to time the cacique sent one of his relatives to console Columbus by weeping in his presence and begging him to feel no sorrow. It is doubtful that this did much for the admiral’s morale, but the chief soon found a more effective means of consolation for his distraught visitor. It required only a few presents of gold to change Columbus’ despondency to rejoicing. “As the king Guacanagari saw that the Admiral’s sorrow was lightened by the samples and news of the gold, he took great satisfaction therein and told the Admiral by words and signs that he knew where there was much gold near there; that he should be of good heart and he would have as much gold as he wished for,” wrote Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, the great contemporary historian of the West Indies.

By now Columbus was in a state of euphoria. He decided the Lord had willed that the ship should run aground there as a dramatic means of revealing the unexpected bounty of gold. In the raptures of his golden vision an idea occurred to Columbus that would be far more serious in its consequences than the loss of the ship. He would leave the crew of the wrecked vessel to make a settlement on the island and gather the promised gold, while he returned to Spain to report to the sovereigns and organize a second expedition. To this end he ordered the ship dismantled to provide timbers for a small fortress.

“I have ordered a tower and fortress to be constructed and, a large cellar, not because I believe there is any necessity on account of [the natives],” he noted in his journal. “I am certain the people I have with me could subjugate all this island … as the population are naked and without arms and very cowardly.”

Columbus decided to call the colony La Navidad (The Nativity), because it was born on Christmas day. He appointed Diego de Arana—cousin of his Córdoba mistress, the mother of his younger son, Ferdinand-as governor of the settlement, and named Pedro Gutiérrez, butler of the royal household, and one Rodrigo de Escobedo as Arana’s lieutenants.

The admiral spent a happy week of feasting and exchanging presents with his royal host. But by January 3 the euphoria had worn thin, and the nagging dilemma imposed by the continued absence of the Pinta found expression in his journal. He noted that if he had the Pinta with him, he could “collect a tone! [barrel] of gold,” but he dared not linger in further exploration for fear of some accident to the Nina, his sole remaining ship, that would hinder his return to Castile “to give news to the Sovereigns of all the things he had discovered.”


Columbus decided to wait no longer. Not even word that the cacique had ordered a statue of gold as large as the admiral himself which would arrive in ten days could sway him from his determination to leave immediately on the return voyage.

Father Las Casas relates that Columbus signalized his departure with a hortatory address to the thirty-nine sailors he was leaving behind as Spain’s first settlement in the New World. Las Casas summarized the speech in the Historia de lau Indias: They were to commend themselves at all times to God’s mercy; they were to respect and revere the cacique Guacanagari; they were to remain virtuous persons, strong and courageous, etc., and “Fourthly, he ordered them to do no harm or violence to any Indian man or woman or compel them to do anything against their will; above all, to refrain from any injury or violence to the women.”

Only an incurable visionary could have expected twoscore undisciplined young men, left to their own devices thousands of miles from the normal restraints of their own society amid a timid people whom they naturally regarded as their racial inferiors, to conduct themselves in this saintly manner. As Las Casas remarked, “In this the Admiral had more confidence in the Spaniards than warranted … and not only Spaniards but those of any other nationality which we know today. …”

On Friday, January 4, 1493, Columbus set sail in the Niña . Plagued by contrary winds, he made scant progress for two days. On Sunday morning a sailor wyho had been sent aloft to watch for hidden reefs descried the missing Pinta approaching from the east, her sails full-bellied in the fresh trade wind. Within the hour she drew alongside her sister caravel. The two ships sailed together to a suitable anchorage, and Martín Pinzón went aboard the Niña for a confrontation with Columbus.

It turned out that the Pinta had preceded Columbus to Haiti by more than two weeks and had been exploring the island’s north shore. According to Columbus’journal, Pinzón “sought to excuse himself, saying the separation [from the fleet] had been against his will and he gave his reasons but the reasons were all false.” Columbus does not explain why he considered them false. At any rate, he says he “dissimulated” his anger, pretending to accept his associate’s explanation so as not to give scope to the “evil works of Satan who desired to obstruct that voyage as he already had done.”