Columbus’ La Navidad
The Fate of the New World’s First Spanish Settlement
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
However, Columbus’ version of the meeting is at variance with credible evidence from other sources. Rather than the restrained exchange of amenities implied in the journal, a furious altercation apparently ensued. And the bitter quarrel was concerned not only with the Pinta ’s six-week absence from the fleet. The quarrel figured later in testimony in the Pleitos de Colón , the litigation initiated by Columbus’ older son, Diego, to compel restoration to the Columbus heirs of the title and authority of viceroy of the New World colonies, which in 1500 were revoked by the sovereigns. Francisco Medel, magistrate of the town of Huelva, talked to Martín Pinzón as he lay dying in the little monastery of La Rábida near his hometown of Palos. Thus Medel’s deposition in the Pleitos amounted to a deathbed statement from one of the principal actors in the drama.
Medel testified that, according to Pinzón, at the height of the altercation a furious Columbus threatened to have his associate hanged. “That I should deserve for having placed you in the honor in which you now find yourself,” Pinzón responded bitterly. He said Columbus accused him of exceeding his authority in setting out landmarks and taking possession of the island of Espanola in the name of the king during the Pinta ’s absence from the fleet.
Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, one of the three major contemporary historians of the discovery, emphasizes that during the angry scene on the deck of the Niña , Pinzón objected strenuously to Columbus’ determination to leave the flagship’s crew at La Navidad until it could be joined by a second expedition. Pinzón declared, wrote Oviedo, “that it was a bad thing that those Christians should be left so far from Spain, being so few, because they could not be provided for and would be lost. And to this purpose he said other things which the Admiral resented.”
Despite the argument, the two ships weighed anchor for Spain on January 8. During the journey, the Niña and Pinta lost contact again in a tempest off the Azores and went their separate ways by widely divergent routes. Almost incredibly, they reached their home port of Palos on the same day, March 15, 1493. Pinzón was terminally ill before he left his ship, and died a few days later in the monastery of La Rábida. Columbus went on in triumph to Barcelona, where the royal court then was in residence, to receive the accolade of the Catholic monarchs and authorization for a second expedition.
A fleet of seventeen ships was made ready in the Guadalquivir River at Seville. Cavaliers and peasants came flocking to Columbus’ banner, lured by the glitter of easy wealth implied in his florid description of the exotic new lands. Fifteen hundred menno women-were chosen for the migration.
Among the passengers was Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician at the royal court, who signed on as fleet surgeon. Dr. Chanca wrote a lively report of the voyage to the municipal council of Seville which is perhaps the most authoritative eyewitness narrative of the fate of Spain’s first settlement in the New World.
Nine months to the day after the founding of La Navidad, the fleet left Cádiz, on September 25, 1493. Columbus undoubtedly had misgivings about the well-being of his colony despite his stubborn rejection of Pinzón’s angry warnings of disaster. But his anxiety to relieve it as soon as possible ran into continual delays and frustrations. Although the fleet took a much shorter route than the one followed on the first voyage, it was not until November 3 that land was sighted in the Windward Islands of the southern Caribbean. Dr. Chanca noted that Columbus’ flagship was a slow sailer and “many times the other ships had to reduce sail because we were far behind.” There also was a delay of several days when the ships were becalmed.
With one thing and another, it was November 22 when the fleet cleared another extensive island (Puerto Rico) and the flat eastern tip of Haiti (now the Dominican Republic) came into view. At first Columbus did not recognize the land as Española, Dr. Chanca wrote, and it was only “from information from the Indians we had with us that we suspected it was La Española.” The ships continued west until the voyagers sighted a landmark on Haiti’s north shore that Columbus thought he recognized, a high, rounded mountain which he had named Monte Cristi.
“We spent two days there to view the disposition of the land because it did not seem to the Admiral to be the place where he left the people to make a settlement,” Chanca reported. “We went ashore to study its disposition.”
The shore party not only confirmed the proximity of La Navidad but discovered a somber portent. Two human bodies were found on the bank of a river. They were too badly decomposed to determine whether they were natives or Europeans, but one body had a knotted cord around the neck, and the feet of the other were bound with a similar cord. On the following day two more corpses were found, one with a heavy beard. “Some of us suspected something was seriously wrong as the Indians are all beardless,” Dr. Chanca wrote.