The Man Behind Columbus


… Having sailed many days and not discovered land those who came with the said Colon wanted to rebel … saying they would be lost and the said Colñn told the said Martín Alonso what went on and asked what he should do and the said Martín Alonso Pinzón responded: “Señor, your grace should hang a half dozen or throw them into the sea and if you do not venture to do so I and my brothers will come alongside and do it for you, that the fleet which left with the mandate of such exalted princes should not return without good news.”

Probably Pinzón bellowed his advice from the rail of his own ship in the hearing of everyone on the flagship. Whatever threat of mutiny may have existed promptly subsided. Mateos added that he had the story of the crisis from the Pinzóns themselves.

Perhaps even more important was the testimony of Francisco Garcia Vallejos of Palos, who was a seaman on the Pinta .

“The said Admiral conferred with all the captains,” Vallejos explained, “and with the said Martñn Alonso Pinzón and said to them ‘What shall we do?’ (This was the sixth day of October of 92) ‘Captains, what shall we do since my people complain so bitterly to me? How does it appear to you that we should proceed?’ And then said Vicente Yáñez [Pinzón]: ‘We should keep on, Señor, for two thousand leagues and if by then we have not found what we have come to seek, we can turn back from there.’ And then responded Martín Alonso Pinzón ‘How, Señor? We have only just left and already your grace is fretting. Onward, Señor, that God may give us the victory in discovering land; never would God wish that we turn back so shamefully.’ Then responded the said Admiral: ‘Blessings on thee.’”

After the crisis had ended on the flagship and the Pinta had resumed her usual position far in advance of the other ships, Pinzón wondered if their due westerly course along the 28th parallel was the right one. Then, as sunset approached on October 6, there came a clear indication: birds.

They were land birds that foraged at sea by day and nested on shore at night, and they were flying over the caravel on what appeared to be a homing course—but not in the direction in which the ship was going. They were on the port side, headed southwesterly.

Pinzón reduced sail and waited for the flagship to catch up. As Columbus came alongside, Pinzón shouted his advice for a change of course toward the south. Columbus demurred and that night stubbornly adhered to his westerly course. But the next day he changed his mind and signaled a divergence toward the southwest. Columbus’ journal entry for October 6 mentions Pinzón’s advice and his rejection of it. The October 7 entry records the change of course, but characteristically it is now Columbus’ own idea.

Pinzón’s initiative in urging a change of course was confirmed by Seaman Vallejos of the Pinta in his testimony later in the Pleitos . Vallejos’ version differs in minor detail from that of Columbus:

He [the witness] knows and saw that [Pinzón] said on the said voyage: “It appears to me and my heart tells me that if we deviate toward the southwest we will find land sooner” and that then responded the said admiral don xtóbal colon “Be it so … that we shall do” and that immediately as suggested … they changed a quarter to the southwest …

Within five days after the change of course the fleet made its landfall on the tiny island of Guanahani in the outer Bahamas.

Had it continued due west along the 28th parallel, the voyage would have required many more days to reach the coast of what is now Florida. There is a good question whether the crews’ patience would have endured that long.

Pinzón was mortally ill when the fleet returned to Palos on March 15, 1493. He was borne from his ship to the Pinzón family estate near Moguer, where he could rest in seclusion. But he wanted to spend his last days in the sacred precincts of the monastery of La Rábida among his friends the monks. Sorrowing relatives and friends bore him to the sanctuary of his wish, and there he died in the waning days of March.