- Historic Sites
Everything You Need To Know About Columbus
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
He hoped to reach the Indies. That was the geographic term then in use for the eastern stretches of Asia, which included the fabled land of Cathay, the island of Cipangu (Japan), Burma, India, Indonesia, and the Moluccas.
A route to the Indies had for some time been the goal of Portuguese princes who sought a nautical path to trade in Oriental silks and spices. Convinced the way lay eastward via the southern coast of Africa, they staunchly backed the repeated attempts of their navigators to find it. Columbus was aware of these forays but stubbornly held to his view that the most direct route to the Indies lay not eastward but westward, by the Ocean Sea. He expected he might pass some islands along the way, but he had no idea he would come upon new continents.
Columbus sailed with a diminutive fleet of three-masted vessels: the Niña , the Pinta , and the Santa María . The Niña and the Pinta , classed as caravels, measured at about sixty tons each—that is, they could carry sixty Spanish tuns, a liquid measure, of wine. Lightly constructed, caravels were known for their speed. The Santa María was classed as a nao (a Spanish word for ship) and estimated at about ninety tons. This somewhat larger vessel was round and chunky, less graceful-looking than the caravels, and definitely less maneuverable.
Columbus was proud of his ships, as well he might be, since all three made it on a blind journey to a phantom destination. Still, he did have his troubles with them. On the third day out, the rudder of the Pinta jumped. He wrote in his diary that it was repaired off the Canary Islands “with great labor and diligence of the Admiral.” There, too, the Niña , which was lateen-rigged (outfitted with triangular sails hung at a forty-five- to sixty-degree angle to the deck), had to be fitted with square sails on yards parallel to the deck. Lateens could sail closer to the wind, but square-rigged vessels were easier to maneuver.
The Santa María was Columbus’s flagship, but the Niña became his favorite ( Niña was a nickname; the craft’s true name was the Santa Clara ). The Santa María ran aground in the New World, and Columbus came home aboard the Niña . Measured against today’s transoceanic vessels, Renaissance ships were pitifully small. Their average length of seventy to one hundred feet would be dwarfed by the nearly one thousand sleek feet of the Queen Elizabeth 2 .
The phrase Mundus Novus (New World) was coined by a Venetian printer in 1504. He lit on it as a title for a letter written by the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci following the latter’s return from newly discovered Brazil. The phrase caught on. The revelation of an entirely unknown and inhabited world, credited to Vespucci, was far more sensational than Columbus’s report of a few islands and a new route to the Indies.
Moreover, Vespucci’s description of the New World, laden as it was with vivid accounts of cannibalism and sexual promiscuity among the natives, assured his account instant popularity. Columbus himself never used the phrase New World . His own characterization of the lands he discovered was Other World , a term perhaps more appropriate.
That other world was, of course, not new, but to this day we tend to date the history of the Americas in terms of the five centuries since Columbus’s landing there—the relatively brief span since European intervention. Shakespeare comes to the point in The Tempest when he has Miranda exclaim, “O brave new world, / That has such people in ’t!” and Prospero replies, “Tis new to thee.”
He had no real idea. He imagined that he had reached the Indies, and he promptly spoke of the natives he encountered as Indians. But nothing he saw in the Caribbean coincided with descriptions of the East. Instead of sophisticated Orientals dressed in sumptuous brocaded coats, he found naked inhabitants who seemed gentle and naive. Instead of the glittering city with golden-roofed temples that Marco Polo had recounted, there were simple huts. It was all rather baffling. Columbus pressed on from island to island, and when he reached Cuba, which he named La IsIa Juana, he followed its coast west. “I found it to be so long,” he wrote, “that I thought it must be the mainland, the province of Catayo [in China]. And since there were neither towns nor cities on the coast, but only small villages, with the people of which I could not have speech because they all fled forthwith, I went forward on the same course, thinking that I should not fail to find great cities and towns.”