Columbus’ La Navidad

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Two ships of Columbus’ fleet of discovery idled languidly in flat water along the treacherous north coast of the island of Haiti, their sails slack in the luminous starlight of a tropical night. It was Christmas Eve, 1492.

Columbus in his flagship, Santa Maria , accompanied by the commander of the little caravel Niña , was on his way to visit a native named Guacanagari, who bore the title of cacique (chief). He was one of five regional and mutually independent rulers of the big island which the Spaniards called Isla Española (Spanish Island) or simply Española.

The fleet had reached the north coast of Cuba on October 28, sixteen days after the historic landfall on the tiny island of Guanahani (San Salvador) in the Outer Bahamas. During the following six weeks, Columbus had loitered along Cuba’s shores, entranced by the beautiful scenery but complaining continually in his journal of contrary winds. It was not until December 6 that he entered the Windward Passage between Cuba and its neighboring island of Haiti.

Meanwhile, on the gusty night of November 21, the third ship of the trio, the caravel Pinta , had vanished into the darkness. It was commanded by Martín Alonzo Pinzón, and Columbus was haunted by gloomy speculations about what his lieutenant might be up to. In his journal he accused Pinzón of deliberately having separated the Pinta from the other ships in order to beat the admiral to the rich sources of gold which Columbus imagined were in the immediate area. Even more disquieting was his fear that Pinzón might break for Spain in the fast-sailing Pinta to be the first to bring news of the discovery to the Catholic sovereigns and to “tell them lies” about the admiral’s conduct of the expedition.

Although Pinzón had organized the enterprise for Columbus and had partly financed it out of his own estate, relations between the two had progressively deteriorated. It was not in Columbus’ nature to exercise authority with tact, nor in Pinzón’s to accept gracefully the role of a subordinate. Even before the disappearance of the Pinta , there had been growing tension in the silent clash of two king-sized egos.

Still brooding on these problems, Columbus entered, on December 20, a beautiful and spacious bay to which he gave the formidable name of Puerto de la Mar de Santo Tomas. Here he received a canoe-borne envoy from the cacique Guacanagari, who lived farther along the coast, urging him to come and visit. The envoy had brought the admiral an intricately wrought girdle from which hung a gold mask, and declared that his lord was eager to share all that he had-including, presumably, an abundance of gold.

This was welcome news to Columbus, whose depressed spirits just then were in need of some kind of revival. In the ten weeks since the fleet had made its first landfall, the argonauts had failed to find gold in any appreciable quantity.

On the day before Christmas, Columbus had set out at dawn to keep his appointment with the cacique. The ships made slow headway against light contrary winds and at nightfall were still several miles short of their destination. Rather than anchor for the night, Columbus elected to pursue his course along the uncharted coast, which was studded with hidden reefs and rife with deadly currents. At 11 P.M., we read in Columbus’ journal, he retired to his bed “because he had not slept for two days and a night.” The seaman manning the tiller, following the admiral’s example, turned the steering over to a young apprentice and likewise went to sleep.

“Our Lord willed that at 12 o’clock at night, [the sailors] having seen the Admiral go to his repose and the sea being calm as if in a porringer,” the journal continues, “all lay down and went to sleep and the currents carried the ship onto a sand bank.”

The lad at the tiller felt the jar as the Santa María grounded; he shouted. Columbus and the ship’s master ran out on deck, but already it was too late. Despite frantic efforts through the night to work the stricken vessel into deeper water, she only became more firmly embedded in the sand. By Christmas daybreak she lay recumbent in the surf, and Columbus gave orders to abandon her and lighter the cargo ashore.

Two men were sent in the ship’s boat to notify the cacique of the disaster. Guacanagari promptly ordered his people to go to Columbus’ assistance, and soon the scene of the wreck was swarming with canoes. They unloaded the ship and piled everything that was removable onto the shore, where it was placed under guard.