- Historic Sites
Everything You Need To Know About Columbus
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
His indispensable instrument was a mariner’s compass. A combination of the ancient “rose of the winds” and a magnetized needle, the compass had been in use long before Columbus sailed. Known by the Chinese, Arabs, and Phoenicians, it had been rediscovered by the Europeans in the fourteenth century. In Columbus’s day the rose was a circular card on which a pattern of diamonds, lozenges, and lines marked the thirty-two compass points. No letters were used because most seamen could not read. Twelve winds were known to the ancients, but by Columbus’s time the number had been reduced to eight; we indicate them today as N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW.
Perhaps most important, Columbus was a master at dead reckoning, a half-instinctual process that involved laying down compass courses, noting speed through the water, charting direction and strength of winds, being aware of currents, and constantly picking up where you had left off.
His double crossing over the “sea of darkness” is a near miracle of dead reckoning.
He had sailed in the Mediterranean and had been to Africa, England, Ireland, and allegedly as far north as Iceland. Having grown up in the maritime community of Genoa, he had begun seafaring when he was fourteen years old. At least that’s what he says in his chronicles, though neither the records nor his claims are completely reliable. He also tells us in his log for December 21, 1492, that by then he had been at sea for twenty-three years “without leaving it for any time worth telling.”
We have very little data on what kinds of ships he sailed on, in what capacities, or under whose banners. In any event, Genoese mariners were among the most renowned of the Middle Ages. It was the Genoese marine that the pope called upon during the First Crusade, in the eleventh century, to conduct a massive fleet from the southern ports of France to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. During the following centuries, as the Mediterranean bustled with commerce and political intrigue, the republic of Genoa rose in power along with the republic of Venice. By the end of the thirteenth century the Genoese were attempting to find a water route to the Indies by way of Africa and in the process sailed far out into the Ocean Sea—or, as it was also known, the “green sea of gloom.”
He certainly did. But he was deeply devout, charged with a messianic zeal, and determined to take risks. Shipwrecks, drownings, mutinies, scurvy, gales, starvation—all were part of every sailor’s job at the time. The Renaissance poet Luis de Camoëns detailed the seamen’s working environment:
Nevertheless, Columbus believed that the mariner must, as he put it, probe “the secrets of this world.”
Seneca had prophesied, “The time will come when every land shall yield its hidden treasure; when men no more shall unknown course measure, for round the world no ‘farthest land’ shall be.” Columbus knew such words well. They fired his imagination and allayed his fears.
Columbus was a stranger at Palos de la Frontera, the small coastal town where the Spanish monarchs had made provision for two of his ships. He had virtually no connections with either common sailors or officers and was therefore obliged to rely on the help of two prominent seafaring families. The more powerful was that of Martin Pinzón of Palos; the other was the family of Juan Niño, of the nearby Andalusian town of Moguer. Together with Columbus, the Pinzóns and Niños managed to recruit about ninety men and boys for the three vessels. Martín Pinzón himself assumed command of the Pinta , while Juan Niño (with whom Columbus developed a close friendship) sailed as master of the Niña .
We know the names of all but three of those who signed on for the epochal trip. They came primarily from towns and villages in Andalusia; all but four were Spaniards. Columbus was, of course, one of the foreigners. Each ship had a master, a captain, a pilot, a marshal, and a surgeon, supported by the usual complement of able seamen and cabin boys.
Did they sign on eagerly? Not everyone. Experienced sailors questioned the feasibility of such a trip westward, but all were paid the going wage by the crown, and despite legends to the contrary, no prisoners were used to pad the crews.