The Man Behind Columbus


The eldest of the Pinzón sons, Arias Pérez and Juan Martín, testified that Columbus had pledged half. So did Diego Hernández Colmenero, who after the voyage married Pinzón’s daughter Catalina. Their testimony might be considered suspect because of their close relationship. On the other hand, unless one makes the gratuitous assumption that they were lying, who would be in a better position to know the facts than the immediate members of the Pinzón family?


However, there was strong corroboration from other witnesses. Alonso Gallego of Huelva said he heard Columbus tell Pinzón: “Señor Martín Alonso we will go on this voyage and if God grants that we discover land, I promise you … I will share with you as I would my own brother.” Gallego added that he heard Columbus make that pledge “many times.” Francisco Medel, regidor (alderman) of Huelva, testified that “Martín Alonso Pinzón said to this witness that Columbus agreed … to give him all that he asked for and wanted.”

Father Las Casas, who was strongly partial to Columbus, nevertheless has left a fair assessment of the situation. “Christopher Columbus began his negotiation with Martín Alonso Pinón,” Las Casas wrote in the Historia de las Indias ,

begging that he come with him and bring along his brothers and relatives and friends and without doubt he made some promises because no one is moved except in his own interest… . We believe that Martín Alonso principally and his brothers aided Christopher Columbus greatly …

because of their wealth and abundant credit, mainly Martín Alonso Pinzón who was very courageous and well experienced in seamanship …

… And as Christopher Columbus had left the court in a very needy condition … it appears from accounts of expenses made before a notary public in the said town of Palos that the said Martín Alonso … himself advanced to Christopher Columbus a half million maravedis], or he and his brothers …

With the decisive intervention of Pinzón, most of Columbus’ difficulties vanished. Time was short if the expedition was to sail that summer, and the energetic Pinzón went all out in organizing the voyage. He discarded the embargoed caravels and substituted two of his own choice, the Pinta and the Niña , for a third vessel he and Columbus chartered a somewhat larger ship from the Bay of Biscay that happened to be in the Palos harbor with her owner, Juan de la Cosa of Santona. Columbus chose her for his flagship. Although she has gone down in history by the name Santa María , Columbus himself never referred to her by that name in his Journal of the First Voyage , invariably calling her La Capitana , or “the flagship.”

With the ships in hand, Pinzón began the task of manning them. His recruiting was little short of spectacular. He had a vast reservoir of friends and relatives in the comarca , most of them seamen. When word got out that the Pinzón brothers themselves would sail on the voyage, many volunteers came to the recruiting table.

But Pinzón didn’t leave it at that. He went up and down the little main street and the waterfront of Palos, exhorting his fellow citizens with all the fervor of a street evangelist. “Friends, you are in misery here; go with us on this journey,” he exclaimed to the men who gathered around him. “We will, with the aid of God, discover land in which, according to report, we will find houses with roofs of gold and everything of wealth and good adventure.”

This lively eyewitness account of Pinzón’s recruiting was given in a deposition by Fernan láñes Montiel of Huelva. Alonso Gallego testified that Pinzón advanced money out of his own pocket to some of the families of the sailors he induced to go on the voyage so they would not be in need.

In the faint light of predawn on August 3, 1492, the little fleet glided slowly down the Tinto toward the wide ocean and its rendezvous with history. Columbus commanded the flagship, Martín Pinzón the Pinta , and Vicente Pinzón the Nióa , smallest of the three.

Twice during the outward crossing Pinzón again came to the rescue of the expedition. As the voyage grew longer and longer a crisis occurred on the flagship. A disgruntled and fearful crew openly threatened a mutiny.

Testimony concerning this episode is copious and explicit, much of it bearing an air of credibility. The consensus is that it was Martín Pinzón who silenced the grumblers and encouraged Columbus to continue the voyage. One of the most circumstantial of the many witnesses was Hernán Pérez Mateos, a veteran pilot of Palos and a cousin of the Pinzóns, who said: