The Man Behind Columbus


As you approach the village of Palos de la Frontera, some fifty miles west of Seville in Spain’s Analgesía, the squat little church of San J’orge looms in the foreground at the base of a rocky cliff that overlooks the tidal flats created by the mingling of the rivers Tinto and Odiel. The shallow estuary where the two rivers converge, known of old as the Saltés, is undistinguished scenically, an obscure corner of Spain virtually unknown to American tourists.

But a visitor mounting the steps to the plaza of the seven-hundred-year-old church from the road below soon becomes aware of a dusty marble plaque affixed to the crumbling brown façade of the sanctuary. Now chipped and broken, it is a sad remnant of a long-forgotten burst of civic pride. Chiseled on it are these words:


(to the Pinzóns: Immortal sons of this town, codiscoverers with Columbus of the New World; August 3, 1910; the community of Palos).

But didn’t Columbus discover America all by himself? And who were the Pinzóns anyway? Good questions—and not one American in ten thousand probably knows the correct answers. Yet the role of the brothers Pinzón in the discovery of America, and particularly that of the eldest, their redoubtable leader, Martín Alonso Pinzón, can fairly be equated with that of Columbus himself.


Pinzón organized the expedition of 1492 after Columbus had failed to enlist a crew. Pinzón not only helped to finance the voyage but also advanced funds from his own pocket to the families of the sailors so they would not be in need during the absence of their breadwinners. One of the great sailors and navigators of his day, he contributed the maritime skill and knowledge necessary for the success of the expedition.

The Pinta , under Pinzón’s command, invariably led the fleet, and it was her crew who first sighted land in the predawn hours of October 12. Pinzón was the discoverer of the island of Haiti, where the Spaniards established their first New World colony, and he was the first European to strike gold in America.

Pinzón was, in fact, the de facto leader of the expedition, since the crews looked to him for direction rather than to Columbus, whom they mistrusted as a foreigner.

It is not difficult to assess the reasons for history’s neglect of Martín Pinzón. He died obscurely in Palos within two weeks after the return of the fleet of discovery on March 15, 1493. (Only two ships returned; Columbus’ flagship was wrecked on the north shore of Haiti on Christmas Eve.) Columbus and Pinzón quarreled bitterly in the West Indies, and only Columbus’ own version of the voyage has survived in conventional histories of the Discovery. He was a prolific writer of journals and letters; even if he and Pinzón had not quarreled, his incessant portrayal of himself as the lone discoverer of the New World would have prevailed because there was no other version.

After the quarrel Columbus’ complaints against his fellow argonauts were endless: the seamen of Palos were a bad lot, lawless and disobedient; the Pinzón brothers were greedy and insolent. The theme was picked up by two major contemporary historians, Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, an ardent admirer of Columbus, and Ferdinand Columbus, the illegitimate son of Christopher, who wrote a laudatory biography of his father. Subsequent histories of the Discovery were based almost exclusively on these three sources—Columbus himself, his son Ferdinand, and the partisan Las Casas.


But lying virtually forgotten for nearly three hundred years in the Archive of the Indies in Seville was a mass of unique historical data that revealed the great part Martín Pinzón played in the discovery of America. Preserved in the cramped handwriting of sixteenth-century court reporters are hundreds of thousands of words of sworn testimony about the first voyage that offer a considerably different view of the Enterprise of the Indies from that of the Columbus tradition.

Only gradually, in the last century and this, has this mine of historical evidence yielded its treasure through the work of successive Spanish scholars. Known as the Pleitos de Colón (litigation of Columbus), the transcripts of these extraordinary proceedings embody the eyewitness recollections of nearly a hundred residents of the comarca , or countryside, of the Tinto-Odiel, men who had been personally acquainted with both Pinzón and Columbus and who had witnessed or participated in the events in Palos immediately before the departure of the expedition of 1492 and after its return seven months later. At least five of the witnesses had been on the voyage.