The Man Behind Columbus

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The Pleitos were initiated by Diego Columbus, elder son of Christopher and the latter’s successor as admiral of the Indies. Diego brought suit in 1508, two years after his father’s death, to have restored to the Columbus family the titles and authority of viceroy and governor of the New World colonies, which King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had revoked in 1499, deposing Columbus and appointing a new governor. Defending the case for the Crown, the fiscal , or royal attorney, chose to base his defense not on the grounds of Columbus’ dubious record as governor but on the allegation that he was not the exclusive discoverer of America.

Testimony was presented in an attempt to prove that not only did Martín Pinzón organize and lead the expedition but that it was his idea in the first place. The latter claim, however, had so little evidence to support it that the Council of the Indies, before which the suit was tried, rejected it out of hand.

But the depositions relating to Pinzón’s predominant part in organizing the fleet and his role as partner and collaborator in the Discovery were abundant and explicit and were never challenged or denied by the attorneys and witnesses for Diego. Indeed, at least one witness for the plaintiff, Juan Rodríguez de Mafra, a veteran pilot, volunteered in his sworn statement, made in 1515, that if it had not been for Pinzón, Columbus never could have enlisted a crew.

The proceedings dragged on for twenty-five years, with periodic hearings over wide intervals of time and in widely separated places. In the end Luis Colón, wastrel grandson of Columbus, was conceded a dukedom in lieu of the viceroyalty demanded in the suit. Meanwhile descendants of Martín Pinzón were granted a coat of arms by the emperor Charles v in belated recognition of Pinzón’s contribution to the Discovery.

Thus but for the court records of the Pleitos the knowledge of Pinzón’s great role would have vanished forever. Aside from those records the documentary history of the Pinzón family is scanty.

Traditionally 1441 is given as the year of Martín’s birth in Palos. Nothing is known of his parents, but evidently the family had been settled in the Palos area for generations. Martín and his younger brothers, Vicente Ybáñez and Francisco Martín, lived together in a large house on Galle de la Nuestra Señor de la Râbida, the main street of Palos. Presumably they had inherited the house together with a finca , or farm estate, located upriver near Moguer.

Over the years Pinzón built up a prosperous deep-sea shipping business in which his brothers participated. His ships—he owned as many as three at a time—ranged far into the Atlantic and Mediterranean, particularly in the Guinea trade down the West African coast.

Las Casas, whose father later accompanied Columbus on the second voyage in 1493, described the Pinzón brothers as “wealthy mariners and principal persons to whom nearly everyone in their town deferred.” And Martín Pinzón, he went on, was the “chief and most wealthy and most honored, very courageous and well versed in matters of the sea.”

But it is in abundant testimony presented in the Pleitos that the full measure of Pinzón’s influence in his community is realized. Witness after witness, without a dissenting voice, told of the admiration and respect in which he was held by his fellow citizens as a sea captain and as a civic leader. And it was precisely Pinzón’s influence in the Tinto-Odiel comarca that was to be decisive in the discovery of America.

The declaration of Francisco Medel, regidor (magistrate) of Huelva, made in Seville in 1535, is typical of many:

The said Martín Alonso Pinzón was very knowledgeable in the art of navigation in all the seas and was a man than whom in all the kingdom there was no other more courageous in warfare nor more determined … for whatever he set his mind to, and at times he had one ship and at others two or three and this witness saw that he had them … and he had many honorable relatives and friends and superb equipment … to make the said discovery.

From the Pleitos we learn the name of Pinzón’s wife, María Alvarez, but little else about her. She was probably the daughter of one of the deep-sea mariners of Palos who formed an elite fraternity in a town devoted to the sea. The men who sailed the swift caravels of Andalusia to the far ports of Europe and Africa considered themselves a cut above the humbler fishermen whose daily forays into salt water were confined to the immediate area.

The couple were probably married in 1469, when Pinzón was about twenty-eight. This may be inferred from the testimony of their eldest son, Arias Pérez Pinzón, who was forty-five years old when he testified in 1515.