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Christopher Columbus, Mariner

April 2024
63min read

The discoverer of the New World was first and foremost a sailor says the historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant biography of Columbus.

”I reached the conclusion,” writes Samuel Eliot Morison, “that what Columbus wanted was a sailor biographer, one who knew ships and sailing and who had visited, under sail, the islands and mainland that he discovered.” Accordingly Professor Morison organized the Harvard Columbus Expedition, which in 1939–40 retraced the great navigator’s voyages.

The fruit of these travels and of many years’ research was Admiral of the Ocean Sea, a monumental biography which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1942. Professor Morison, who subsequently became a rear admiral himself and official U.S. Navy historian of World War II, has now rewritten the entire Columbus story in shorter form under the title Christopher Columbus, Mariner (Little, Brown and Company and Atlantic Monthly Press, $3.75). The selections on the following pages deal with the preparation for the First Voyage, the voyage itself and the result.



Christopher Goes to Sea

Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World, was first and foremost a sailor. Born and raised in Genoa, one of the oldest European seafaring communities, as a youth he made several voyages in the Mediterranean, where the greatest mariners of antiquity were bred. At the age of twenty-four, by a lucky chance he was thrown into Lisbon, center of European oceanic enterprise; and there, while employed partly in making charts and partly on long voyages under the Portuguese flag, he conceived the great enterprise that few but a sailor would have planned, and none but a sailor could have executed. That enterprise was simply to reach “The Indies”—Eastern Asia-by sailing west. It took him about ten years to obtain support for this idea, and he never did execute it, because a vast continent stood in the way. America was discovered by Columbus purely by accident and was named for a man who had nothing to do with it; we now honor Columbus for doing something that he never intended to do, and never knew that he had done. Yet we are right in so honoring him, because no other sailor had the persistence, the knowledge and the sheer guts to sail thousands of miles into the unknown ocean until he found land.

This was the most spectacular and most far-reaching geographical discovery in recorded human history. Moreover, apart from the magnitude of his achievement, Columbus was a highly interesting character. Born at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he showed the qualities of both eras. He had the firm religious faith, the a-priori reasoning and the close communion with the Unseen typical of the early Christian centuries. Yet he also had the scientific curiosity, the zest for life, the feeling for beauty and the striving for novelty that we associate with the advancement of learning. And he was one of the greatest seamen of all time.

The story starts in Genoa with the Discoverer’s parents: Domenico Colombo, a wool weaver as his father had been before him, and his wife Susanna, a weaver’s daughter. Domenico belonged to the middle class of Genoa. He was a member of the local woolweavers’ gild, the medieval equivalent of a trade union. He owned his own looms and employed journeymen to help him produce woolen cloth. Popular in his community, he was elected to small offices in the gild, but his wife and family found him a somewhat poor provider. He was the kind of father whom boys love, who would shut up shop on a fine day and take them fishing. So the good canceled out the bad, and Christopher named the oldest city in the New World, Santo Domingo, after his father’s patron saint.

[See a list of other articles on Columbus in American Heritage.]

At some time between August and October 1451, the exact day is unknown, Susanna Colombo gave birth to a son who was named Cristoforo. Why his parents chose this name we do not know, but in so doing they furthered the natural bent of the boy’s mind. Saint Christopher was a tall, stout pagan who yearned to know Christ but could not seem to do anything about it. He dwelt on the bank of a river in Asia Minor where there was a dangerous ford, and by reason of his great stature and strength helped many a traveler to cross. One day when he was asleep in his cabin he heard a Child’s voice cry out, “Christopher! Come and set me across the river!” So out he came, staff in hand, and took the Infant on his shoulders. As he waded across, the Child’s weight so increased that it was all he could do to keep from stumbling and falling, but he reached the other bank safely. “Well now, my lad,” said he, “thou hast put me in great danger, for thy burden waxed so great that had I borne the whole world on my back it could have weighed no more than thee!” To which the Child replied, “Marvel not, for thou hast borne upon thy back the whole world and Him who created it. I am the Child whom thou servest in doing good to mankind. Plant thy staff near yonder cabin, and tomorrow it shall put forth flowers and fruit—proof that I am indeed thy Lord and Savior.” Christopher did as he was bid, and sure enough, next morning, his staff had become a beautiful date palm.

So from that day forth Christopher has been the patron saint of all who travel by land, sea or air. In his name Christopher Columbus saw a sign that he was destined to bring Christ across the sea to men who knew Him not. Indeed, the oldest known map of the New World, dated A.D. 1500, dedicated to Columbus by his shipmate Juan de la Cosa, is ornamented by a vignette of Saint Christopher carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders.

The Colombo family were respectable, but rather happy-go-lucky. Domenico was always on the move, though he never went farther than Savona, a few miles from Genoa, and he was always taking on new “lines” besides weaving, and losing money on them. After Christopher the eldest-at least of those who survived infancy—he had a boy who died young, a girl who married a neighboring cheesemonger, Bartholomew, who became the Discoverer’s partner, shipmate and executive; and Giacomo, Christopher’s junior by seventeen years, who also accompanied him to the New World and is always known by the Spanish equivalent, Diego, of his first name. Domenico’s brother Antonio also had a large family, and one of his sons, Giannetto (Johnny), commanded a caravel on the Third Voyage. Family feeling was very strong among the Genoese, as among the Corsicans (who then belonged to the same Republic), and just as Napoleon Bonaparte found thrones or titles for his entire family, so Christopher Columbus, a stranger in Spain, felt he could best trust his bothers and kindred.∗

∗ The name Colombo means “dove.” The English-speaking peoples have always called the Discoverer, Colombus, probably because they first read about him in the Latin history of Peter Martyr. When Colombus went to Portugal, he was called Colom; in Spain he first called himself Coloma and then changed to Colon, by which he is always known in Spanish-speaking lands. The French call him Christophe Colomb, but the Italians still refer to him by the name he was christened, Cristoforo Colombo.


The little we know about the Discoverer’s childhood and early youth can be quickly told. He had very little formal schooling, spoke the Genoese dialect, which was almost unintelligible to other Italians, and never learned to read and write until he went to Portugal. As everyone who described him in later life said that he had a long face, an aquiline nose, ruddy complexion and red hair, we can picture him as a little, freckled-faced redhead with blue eyes. One imagines that he was a dreamy little boy and very religious for one of his age, and he must have disliked working in his father’s loom shed, as he took every opportunity to go to sea.

There were plenty of opportunities in that seafaring community. Almost all the traffic along the Ligurian coast was sea-borne. And everyone who had no other job, besides many who did, went fishing. Big carracks and galleons were built in the harbor; there were boat yards in every cove along the shore; and the ships of the Republic traded with all parts of the Mediterranean and with Northern Europe.

In later life Columbus said that he first went to sea in 1461 when he was ten years old. Probably his seafaring at that age did not amount to much; maybe his father let him sail with a neighbor to Portofino to load dried fish, or even over to Corsica, which would have seemed like a foreign voyage to a little boy. What sailor can forget his first cruise? Every incident, every turn of wind, every vessel or person you meet stays in your memory for years. What pride and joy to be given the tiller while the skipper goes below and the mate snoozes on the sunny side of the deck! What a thrill to sight five mountains above the horizon, to watch them rise, spread out and merge into one as you approach! Then, to go ashore, to swap your jackknife for a curiosity, to see the island gradually sink below the horizon on the homeward passage, and to swagger ashore feeling you are a real old salt! Such things a sailor never forgets.

Exactly when Christopher decided to quit the weaving trade and make the sea his profession we do not know. Facts about his early life are few; one has to piece together incidents that he or his friends remembered after he became famous, or which were recorded in a notary’s office because of some litigation. It is probable that for a period of about eight years, between ages fifteen and twenty-three, Christopher made several long voyages in the Mediterranean but spent most of his time ashore helping his father. When he was nineteen, he served in a Genoese ship chartered by King René II of Anjou as part of his war fleet in a brief brawl with the King of Aragon. Christopher also made at least one voyage to Chios in the Aegean, in a ship owned by Genoese merchants, who had the monopoly of trade with that island.

In May 1476, in his twenty-fifth year, came the adventure that changed the course of Christopher’s life. Genoa organized an armed convoy to carry a valuable cargo to Northern Europe, and in this convoy Christopher sailed as seaman in a Flemish vessel named Bechalla . On August 13, when it had passed the Strait of Gibraltar and was off the southern coast of Portugal, the fleet was attacked by a French task force. The battle raged all day, and by nightfall three Genoese ships and four of the enemy’s had gone down. Bechalla was one of the casualties. Christopher, though wounded, managed to grasp a floating sweep and, by alternately kicking it ahead and resting on it, reached the shore six miles distant. The people of Lagos, near which he landed, treated him kindly, and on learning that his younger brother Bartholomew was living at Lisbon, sent him thither as soon as he could travel.

That was one of the best things that could have happened to Christopher Columbus.

Sailing for Portugal

Portugal was then the liveliest and most progressive country in Europe, and Lisbon the center for exploration and discovery. Almost half a century earlier the Infante Dom Henrique, the Portuguese prince whom we call Henry the Navigator, had set up a combined hydrographic and marine intelligence office at Cape St. Vincent, which attracted ambitious seamen from all over the Mediterranean. He subsidized voyages out into the Atlantic and down along the west coast of Africa. His captains discovered the seven islands of the Azores, one third of the way to America; the Portuguese colonized not only the Azores but the Madeira group which had been discovered earlier, and the Cape Verde Islands off Africa. That “dark continent” was Prince Henry’s particular interest. Every few years his captains made a new farthest south along the west coast, and by the time Columbus reached Lisbon, they had crossed the Gulf of Guinea. Fleets of lateen-rigged caravels, fast and weatherly little vessels specially designed for the African trade, set forth from Lisbon every spring carrying cargoes of red cloth, glass beads, hawks’ bells and horses, and every fall returned with rich cargoes of ivory, gold dust, Malagueta pepper and Negro slaves. Lisbon is an ocean-facing city; from her quays there is no long and tedious sail to blue water. At a time when the Levantine commerce of Genoa was being taken away by the Venetians and Turks, Lisbon was up-and-coming, pioneering trade routes around the great circle from Iceland through the Azores to the Gold Coast. Enterprising merchants and seamen of all countries, including those of Genoa, flocked to Lisbon to share the wealth. And the Portuguese crown deliberately fostered voyages to discover new islands and find a way to India around Africa.

Lisbon, moreover, was a learned city where it was easy for a newcomer like Columbus to learn Latin and modern languages, and to acquire books that increased his knowledge of the world. Bartholomew, who had already joined the Genoese community there, was employed in one of the chart-making establishments, where he got a job for Christopher, and before long the Columbus brothers had a thriving chart business of their own. That put them in close touch with master mariners and the like, for all charts at that time were based on information and rough sketches that seamen brought home. The two brothers would manage to be on hand whenever a ship returned from Africa or the Western Islands to invite the master or pilot to dine or drink with them, and would extract from him all the data they could for correcting their charts of known countries or extending those of the African coast. It may well be that in one of these conferences a grizzled captain, looking at a chart of the known world, remarked, “I’m sick of sailing along the fever-stricken Guinea coast, chaffering with local chiefs for a cargo of blackamoors; why can’t we sail due west beyond the Azores, till we hit the Golden East, and make a real killing?”

Why not, indeed? People had been talking of doing that since the days of the Roman Empire, but nobody had tried it within the memory of man. The ocean was reputed too broad, winds too uncertain; the ships could not carry enough cargo to feed their crews for several months, and the sailors themselves had acquired deep respect for that dark and turbulent waste, the North Atlantic, and would not engage in such an enterprise. That it was theoretically possible to reach the Orient by sailing west every educated man would admit, since every educated man knew the earth to be a sphere, but nobody had done anything to test the theory. In 1476, when Columbus reached Lisbon, the proposition of sailing west to reach the Orient was at about the same stage as man-made flight in 1900- theoretically possible but full of practical difficulties. Habit, custom and superstition were against it, too: “Man should not tempt the Almighty by seeking unknown depths of the ocean,” in 1476; “Man was made for the earth, not the sky,” in 1900. Most sensible people admitted that a voyage west to China could be made, and a few said it should be done, but nobody cared to try, until that young Genoese Cristoforo Colombo began pestering people to finance his project.

Exactly when and how he got the idea we do not know. It may have been put to him, as we suggest, by a shipmaster impatient of the dangers and disappointments of the Guinea trade. It may have come to him in a rush of religious emotion at Mass, when he heard Psalm 19, “The Heavens declare the Glory of God”; for a Genoa compatriot remarked that Christopher fulfilled the prophecy of the fourth verse, “And their words unto the ends of the world.” He may have read that prophecy of Seneca in the Medea , “A time will come when the chains of the Ocean will fall apart, and a vast continent be revealed; when a pilot will discover new worlds and Thule no longer be the ultimate.” That prophecy, too, was fulfilled by him, as his son Ferdinand duly noted in his copy of Seneca. We do not know how Columbus came by the idea of sailing west to reach the East, but once he had it, that was the truth for him; he was the sort of man in whom action is the complement of a dream. He knew the truth, but he could not rest until it was proved, until the word became flesh. And, let us admit, his combination of creative imagination with obstinate assurance, his impatience with all who were slow to be convinced and contempt for those who withstood him, made Columbus a fool in the eyes of some men and a bore to most. Like the pioneers of aviation, he was considered a little touched in the head: one who would fly in the face of God. And the worst of it was that he had to persuade stupid people in high places that his Enterprise of the Indies, as he called it, was plausible, because he wanted money, men and equipment to carry it out.

More maritime experience than that of foremast hand and apprentice chartmaker was needed before he could hope to convince anyone. And that he obtained, under the Portuguese flag. In the fall of the same year that he arrived in Lisbon, he shipped on one of the Portuguese vessels in the “Atlantic Corridor” trade—exchanging wool, dried fish and wine between Iceland, Ireland, the Azores and Lisbon. His vessel called at Galway, where, in later years, he recalled having seen two dead people in a drifting boat, of such extraordinary appearance that the Irish said they must be Chinese; probably they were Finns who had left a sinking ship. The master of the vessel in which Columbus sailed, in February 1477 went exploring to the north of Iceland for a hundred leagues before returning to Portugal, so Columbus could boast that he had sailed to the edge of the Arctic Circle.

The following year, when Columbus was twenty-seven years old, the Genoese firm under which he had earlier sailed to Chios employed him to purchase a quantity of sugar at Madeira and carry it to Genoa. They neglected, however, to supply him with money to pay for it, and the merchants of Funchal refused to deliver on credit, so Columbus reached Genoa without the sugar. There was a lawsuit, and Christopher made a deposition about the case at Genoa in the summer of 1479. That was probably his last visit to his native place. But “that noble and powerful city by the sea,” as he called it in his will, was ever close to his heart, and he hoped to be able from his property to maintain a home there forever for his descendants. He never became naturalized in any other country, and he appointed the Bank of St. George at Genoa executor of his will.

Upon his return to Lisbon from Genoa, Christopher married Dona Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, scion of one of the first families of Portugal, daughter of Bartholomew Perestrello, hereditary captain of Porto Santo in the Madeira group, and granddaughter to Gil Moniz, a knight companion of Prince Henry. The young couple lived for a time in Lisbon with Dona Felipa’s mother, who broke out her late husband’s logbooks and charts for the benefit of her son-in-law. Later they settled in Porto Santo, where Dona Felipa’s brother was governor, and there their only child, Diego, later known as Don Diego Colon, Second Admiral and Viceroy of the Indies, was born. About the year 1482 they moved to Funchal in Madeira, and while there Columbus made one and probably two voyages to São Jorge da Mina, the fortified trading post which the Portuguese crown had established on the Gold Coast. And on one of these voyages he was in command.

There is evidence, too, that he knew the Azores fairly well. Although it may not be true that on the northern point of Corvo he saw a natural rock statue of a horseman pointing west, the rock formations there are so fantastic that it requires no great imagination to see such figures. We, in 1939, made out there an armed and vizored crusader with folded arms, gazing toward Newfoundland, and hoped it did not mean Adolf Hitler!

Christopher Columbus, now aged thirty-one or -two, had “arrived,” according to the standards of his day. He was a master mariner in the Portuguese merchant service, then the finest and most far-ranging merchant marine in the world. He had sailed from above the Arctic Circle almost to the Equator, and from the Eastern Aegean to the outer Azores. He had learned all of practical navigation that could be acquired by entering ships “through the hawse hole” and working up to the captain’s cabin. He could make charts and figure latitude from the North Star. Besides, he was an avid reader of books on geography and cosmography. He was connected by marriage with two important families of Portugal. He had business connections with a leading merchant-banker house of Genoa. Columbus had only to continue in this career, persevere in the African trade with its many opportunities to make something on the side, and retire after a few years, a rich man. Or the King might give him one of the royal caravels to explore the African coast, as Diego Cão was doing in 1482∇1483; and Cão, for discovering a new farthest south on the African coast, was knighted and ennobled in 1484.

But Christopher had other ideas and a vaster ambition. His mind was seething with the notion of sailing west to the Orient, acquiring wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, and glory exceeding that of any earlier mariner.

A Great Enterprise Is Born

The Indies, meaning most of Eastern Asia—India, Burma, China, Japan, the Moluccas and Indonesia—cast a spell over European imagination in the fifteenth century. These were lands of vast wealth in gold, silver and precious stones, in silk and fine cotton, in spices, drugs and perfumes, which in small quantities were taken by caravans across Asia to Constantinople or to Levantine ports, thence distributed through Europe by ship, wagon and pack train. The cost of handling by so many middlemen and over such long and complicated routes made the prices of Oriental goods to the European consumer exorbitant; yet the increase of wealth and luxury in European cities kept the demand far ahead of the supply. That is why the kings of Portugal made repeated attempts to get around Africa to India, where Oriental products could be purchased cheap. Columbus decided that the African route was the hard way to the Indies; he proposed to find a bold but easy way, due west by sea.

And there were other reasons for seeking a new and easy contact with the Far East, which appealed to so religious a man as Columbus, and still more to the churchmen who held many of the highest posts in European governments. It was a matter of intense mortification to them that the Crusades had failed, that Christians had been forced to evacuate the Holy Land, and that the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, and the birthplace of Our Lord, were now controlled by infidel Turks. Somewhere in the Orient, it was believed, existed a powerful Christian state ruled by a monarch known as Prester John. The substance behind this legend was the Kingdom of Ethiopia, over which Haile Selassie’s ancestors then ruled. If only contact could be made and an alliance concluded with Prester John, who was rumored to have enormous wealth and a big army, the Christian hosts might recover the Holy Land and send the Turks reeling back to Central Asia.

European knowledge of China at that time was slight and inaccurate. The Spanish Sovereigns, as their letter of introduction furnished to Columbus indicates, thought that the Mongol dynasty of Kubla Khan still reigned in the Celestial Empire, although the Ming dynasty had supplanted it as far back as 1368. Most of the information (and misinformation) that Europe had about China came from The Book of Ser Marco Polo , the Venetian who spent about three years in China around the turn of the fourteenth century. This account of his experiences was circulated in countless manuscript copies and was one of the earliest books to be printed. Marco Polo not only confirmed the rumors that Chinese emperors were rolling in wealth, but he wrote a highly embellished account of an even wealthier island kingdom named Cipangu (Japan) which, he said, lay 1500 miles off the coast of China.

We must constantly keep in mind that nobody in Europe had any conception or suspicion of the existence of the continent that we call America. The voyages of the Northmen in the eleventh century to a part of the east coast of the future Canada or New England, which they called Vinland, were either unknown or forgotten in Southern Europe; and if Columbus had heard about them on his voyage to Iceland, they were of no interest to him, since he was not interested in wild grapes, pine trees and codfish, but in gold and spices. Everyone regarded the Ocean Sea as one and indivisible, flowing around Europe, Asia and Africa, which formed, as it were, one big island in one big ocean. The great questions before Columbus, and before the various monarchs and officials who must decide whether or not to support him, were, “How far west is the Far East? How many miles lie between Spain and China or Japan? How long would the voyage take? And is such a voyage practicable?”

Everyone, we repeat, admitted that the Earth was a i sphere, and the convention of dividing a circle or sphere into 360 degrees had been arrived at by the Greeks. But how long was a degree? On your answer to that depended your estimate of the size of the Earth. Ptolemy of Alexandria, whose book was the geographical Bible of Columbus’s day, said that it was 50 nautical miles ∗ long—the correct measure is 60. Alfragan, a Moslem geographer of the ninth century, said the degree measured 66 nautical miles, but Columbus misread him and decided that Alfragan’s degree was 45 miles long and that Alfragan, not Ptolemy, was right. In other words, he underestimated the size of the world by 25 per cent.

∗ I use in this book the standard nautical mile of 2000 yards, which is equivalent to one minute of latitude or to one minute of longitude on the equator. The old authorities I quote used different units, but I have reduced them all to nautical miles.

Besides this mistake on the size of the globe, Columbus made another colossal error in reckoning how far eastward Asia stretched. The actual combined length of Europe and Asia is roughly 130 degrees from Cape St. Vincent to Peiping, or 150 degrees to Tokyo. Ptolemy guessed that it was 180 degrees, which was half the circumference of the globe. Marinus of Tyre, an earlier authority whom Columbus naturally preferred, stretched out this land mass to 225 degrees. Marco Polo, who took two or three years to cross Asia by land, made some rough calculations and tacked on 28 degrees more for China and 30 degrees additional for Japan; this, added to Marinus’s 225 degrees, would place Tokyo on the meridian that runs through Western Cuba, Chattanooga, Grand Rapids and Western Ontario! Moreover, as Columbus proposed to jump off from the western Canary Islands, which lie on a parallel 9 degrees west of Cape St. Vincent, he figured he would have only 68 degrees of westing to make before hitting the coast of Japan. Combining that gross miscalculation with his underestimate of the length of a degree, he figured that the length of the ocean voyage from the Canaries to Japan would be 2400 nautical miles. The actual air-line distance is 10,600 miles!

Columbus did not, however, come to this conclusion all by himself. He had the support of a learned physician of Florence, Paolo Toscanelli, who dabbled in astronomy and mathematics. Toscanelli, believing Marco Polo’s estimate of the length of Asia to be correct, had written to a Portuguese friend in 1474, urging him to persuade the King to organize a voyage west to Japan, “most fertile in gold,” and to the Chinese province of Mangi. He envisioned a voyage of 3000 miles from Lisbon to Cipangu (Japan) and 5000 miles from Lisbon to Quinsay (Hangchow), and sent a chart to demonstrate his theory. Columbus, tremendously excited when he heard about this, wrote to the Florentine sage asking for more details, and received an encouraging letter and another chart, which he carried with him on his great voyage of discovery. This correspondence took place shortly after Columbus’s return from the Gold Coast, in 1481 or early 1482. The Toscanelli letter and chart were always his Exhibits “A” and “B.”


Of course he had other exhibits as well: some literary, others practical. There were plenty of Biblical texts besides Psalm 19—“The isles that are in the sea shall be troubled at thy departure” (Ezekiel xxvi 18), “And His dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah ix 10; repeated in Psalm 72, verse 8), “The isles saw it, and feared; the ends of the earth were afraid, drew near, and came” (Isaiah xli 5). Aristotle was said to have written that one could cross the Ocean from Spain to the Indies in a few days. Strabo, the Greek geographer who lived at the time of Christ, wrote that it had actually been attempted by mariners of his day, who returned “through want of resolution and the scarcity of provisions.” Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi , Columbus’s bedside book for years-his copy, still preserved at Seville, is covered by hundreds of manuscript notes—insisted that the Ocean was “of no great width” between Morocco and the eastern coast of Asia, that it could be navigated in a few days with a fair wind.

Thus, very early in the game, Columbus, absolutely convinced of the truth of his theory, brushed aside all doubts and difficulties and began collecting every possible text or quotation that could be used to support it. For instance, the statement in the apocryphal Second Book of Esdras (vi 42), “Six parts hast thou dried up,” was frequently used by Columbus to prove that six sevenths of the globe is land; ergo , the Ocean covers only one seventh of the globe and cannot be very broad.

On the practical side, in the course of his voyages he observed evidence such as exotic tree trunks and “horse-beans,” which are the fruit of an American mimosa, washed ashore in the Azores; the flat-faced corpses seen at Galway, who, if Chinese, could not have floated many thousand miles without decomposing; numerous reports of islands west of the Azores and the Canaries. For Columbus did not assume that he had to make his transoceanic voyage in one jump. There was no reason to suppose that Flores and Corvo were the last islands before you hit “The Indies.” The legendary voyages of Saint Brendan, the Irish seagoing monk of the sixth century, were believed to be true, and the Portuguese had their own legend about the Island of Antilia, settled by refugees from the Moorish wars in the eighth century. An old salt in Lisbon even claimed he had been there and had been chased out. Toscanelli, too, mentioned Antilia as a convenient island of call, and, as we shall see, Columbus made a brief search for it on his First Voyage.

In 1484 he made his first effort to interest a prince—John II, King of Portugal, a nephew of Henry the Navigator who was intensely interested in new discoveries. According to the contemporary Portuguese historians and chroniclers, the Columbian project was exactly the same then as later-to reach Japan by sailing west and to discover other islands en route. “The King,” says one of the historians, “as he observed this Christovão Colom to be a big talker and boastful … and full of fancy and imagination with his Isle Cypango … gave him small credit.” Nevertheless, the King committed the project to a junta consisting of a prominent churchman and two Jewish physicans of reputed skill in celestial navigation. They turned it down, flat. Their reasons for so doing are not recorded, but we may assume that they had a more accurate idea of the distance to be covered than did Columbus.

It may be, however, that Columbus simply asked too much, since the kings of Portugal were accustomed to having their discoveries made free. There are about a dozen records of the monarch granting one of his captains an island, such as one of the Azores, or an island west of the Azores, if he could find it. In the very year 1485, when the King’s committee rejected Columbus’s project, he gave permission to two Portuguese mariners, Dulmo and Estreito, to set forth and discover Antilia at their own proper charge and expense. If they found it, they would be hereditary captains there and receive suitable honors and titles. They agreed to sail west for forty days and then return if they found nothing.

It is obvious why this and all other pre-Columbian Portuguese attempts to discover islands west of the Azores failed. In the first place, there was no Antilia, and no island nearer than Newfoundland; in the second place, to sail west from the Azores, as all these men did, one had to buck westerly winds in high latitudes. Columbus, in his African voyages, had observed the steady easterly tradewinds between the Equator and the latitude of the Canaries, and so chose the Canaries as his point of departure. That is the plain reason why he succeeded in finding something, even though it was not what he wanted.

Before Christopher could try it his way, he must have money and support. In 1485, the same year that the Portuguese committee turned him down, his wife Dona Felipa died at Lisbon. That broke his strongest tie with Portugal. Nobody there would stake him if the King would not, so Columbus decided to try his luck in Spain. He knew no one there except a sister of his late wife who was married to a Spaniard in Huelva, so to that part of Spain, the County of Niebla adjoining Portugal, Columbus took ship with his five-year-old son Diego.

It must have been with sinking heart that Columbus entered the Rio Saltés and sighted the sleepy little ports of Huelva and Palos, a sad contrast to bright, bustling Lisbon. As his ship rounded into the Rio Tinto, he observed on a bluff the buildings of the Franciscan friary of La Rábida. That suggested a solution to his problem of what to do with Diego, as the Franciscans were known to take “boarders.” So, after landing at Palos, he walked with his little son four miles to the friary, knocked at the gate and asked the porter for a drink of water and some bread for the boy. Fortunately, Antonio de Marchena, a highly intelligent Franciscan who had studied astronomy, came to the gate and got into conversation with Columbus. He invited both father and son to stay, accepted Diego as a pupil and introduced Columbus to the Count of Medina Celi, a grandee of Spain and also an important shipowner of Cadiz.

Medina Celi, of whom Columbus asked “three or four well-equipped caravels, and no more,” had almost decided to underwrite the enterprise when it occurred to him to ask permission of the Queen. He did so, and Isabella refused, believing that so important an enterprise as that of Columbus should be conducted by the crown. But this transfer from Count to Queen postponed Columbus’s voyage some six years.

Bargaining with Princes

About nine months elapsed before Columbus could obtain an audience with the Queen, because the court was traveling from city to city in central and northern Spain, and he had no funds to follow. From Seville, where his negotiations with Medina Celi had taken place, he went to the nearby city of Cordova to await the Queen’s good pleasure.

At Cordova, as in most cities of the Peninsula, there was already a colony of Genoese, one of whom was an apothecary; and apothecary shops in those days were meeting places for physicians and amateur scientists. Columbus naturally dropped in at the shop of his compatriot, and here became acquainted with a frequenter of the informal club, Diego de Harana. Diego invited him to his house, where he met a twenty-year-old country cousin of the Haranas, Beatriz Enríquez. She became Columbus’s mistress and in 1488 bore him his second son, Ferdinand. The fact that Columbus never married Beatriz has troubled his more pious biographers, as, judging from certain provisions for her in his will, it troubled his conscience; but nobody at the time seems to have held this lapse of morals against him. His wife had been a lady of rank who helped him to establish a position in Portugal, and according to the standards of the day, a second marriage with a peasant’s daughter would have been unsuitable for one who intended to be a nobleman and admiral. The Harana family were pleased with the connection; at least two Haranas subsequently served under Columbus, and the friendship between them and the legitimate Colóns continued for two or three generations.

On May Day 1486, almost a year from the time he had first set foot in Spain, Columbus was received by the Queen in the Alcazar that still stands at Cordova. Isabella the Catholic was one of the ablest European sovereigns in an age of strong kings. She had an intuitive faculty for choosing the right man for a job, and for doing the right thing at the right time. She was very close to Columbus’s age and similar to him in temperament, and in coloring—blue eyes and auburn hair. Her marriage with Ferdinand of Aragon had united all “the Spains,” excepting Portugal, to which she was allied, and the remnant of the Moorish Caliphate of Cordova, which she had resolved to conquer. Some spark of understanding evidently passed between Christopher and Isabella at their first meeting, and although she turned down his enterprise more than once, he found that he could count on her in the end. On this occasion she appointed a special commission under Hernando de Talavera, her confessor, to examine the Great Project and recommend whether she should accept or reject it, or allow Medina Celi to back it.

Then began a period of almost six years, the most unhappy in Columbus’s entire life. He had to sustain a continual battle against prejudice, contumely and sheer indifference. A proud, sensitive man who knew that his project was feasible and that it would open new pathways to maritime achievement and opportunity, he had to endure clownish witticisms and crackpot jests by ignorant courtiers, to be treated worse than a beggar, and at times actually to suffer want. Worst of all, perhaps, he learned by experience the meaning of the phrase cosas de España , the irritating procrastination of Spaniards, who never seemed to be able to make up their minds, to carry out a plain order, or to make a firm decision without fees or favors. In later years he often alluded bitterly to these experiences and tactlessly contrasted the enormous wealth and power he had conferred on Spain with his pitiable and protracted efforts to obtain a fair hearing.

The Talavera commission, meeting at Salamanca∗ around Christmastide 1486, could not reach an agreement. At least one member, Diego de Deza, was in favor of the Great Enterprise, and it was doubtless due to his influence, or Talavera’s, that early in 1487 Columbus was given a retaining fee of 12,000 maravedis a year.∗ That was the pay of an able seaman, enough to support a man of Columbus’s simple tastes, if it had been paid regularly.

∗ It is this commission whose deliberations have been so distorted by Washington Irving and others as a debate on whether the world was a sphere or not. Actually, we know nothing definite about the arguments, but we may be certain that since the commission consisted of men of learning, the sphericity of the earth never came into question.

∗ To convey the equivalent of Spanish currency of this era, I have tried to state the gold content in British and U. S. coinage before both countries went off the gold standard. Thus, 12,000 maravedis equalled $83 in gold (four double eagles plus, $3.00), or 16½ guineas.

Month followed month, another Christmas passed, but nothing issued from the Talavera commission. So, early in 1488, Columbus wrote to John II of Portugal, requesting another hearing and asking for a safe-conduct from arrest for his unpaid bills in Lisbon. The King replied promptly and most cordially, urging Columbus to come immediately, and promising protection from lawsuit or arrest. There were probably two reasons for this sudden and flattering change of attitude—Dulmo and Estreito had not located the mythical Island of Antilia, and Bartholomew Dias, embarked on perhaps the twentieth Portuguese attempt to reach the Indies by rounding Africa, had been gone seven months and nothing had been heard from him.

For want of funds, Christopher was delayed in leaving for Lisbon, and before he and his brother Bartholomew (who had remained there) could “do business” with John II, Dias returned. The Columbus brothers were present in December 1488 when the three caravels commanded by Dias sailed proudly up the Tagus. Their great captain had rounded the south cape of Africa—the Cape of Good Hope the King named it—and was well on his way up the east coast when his men mutinied and forced him to turn back. That ended King John’s interest in Columbus. His man had found a sea route to the Indies, so why invest money in the doubtful West-to-the-Orient project?

Moreover, Columbus had a rival in Portugal, Martin Behaim, a young Nuremberger who like him had made voyages under the Portuguese flag and married the daughter of a Portuguese master mariner. Behaim’s ideas of the size of the Earth and the length of Asia, incorporated in a globe that he constructed in 1492, were almost identical with those of Columbus, and in 1493, just too late, he proposed to John II to do exactly what Columbus had done, or thought he had done.

Around New Year’s, 1489, the Columbus brothers decided on a plan of action. Christopher returned to Spain, where he still had hopes from the slow-moving Talavera commission, while Bartholomew wound up the chart-making business and embarked on a long journey to try to sell the West-to-the-Orient project to some other prince. Unable to make any impression on Henry VII of England, Bartholomew proceeded to France, where Anne de Beaujeu, sister to King Charles VIII, befriended him and employed him to make charts for her at Fontainebleau. Through her, Bartholomew became friendly with the French King but never obtained any certain prospect of his support.

Success to Christopher always seemed to be just around the corner, but in 1489 he still had three years to wait before obtaining anything definite. We know very little of how he passed the time. According to one contemporary, he started a branch of “Columbus Brothers, Chartmakers and Booksellers” at Seville. The Queen took notice of his return to Castile by giving him an open letter to all local officials, ordering them to furnish him board and lodging en route to court, which was then in a fortified camp outside the Moorish city of Baza, under siege by the Spanish army. There is some indication that Christopher joined the army as a volunteer while waiting for an answer, and he certainly had the time to fire a few shots at the infidels.

Not until late in 1490 did the Talavera commission issue its report, and it was unfavorable. The experts advised the Queen that the West-to-the-Orient project “rested on weak foundations”; that its attainment seemed “uncertain and impossible to any educated person”; that the proposed voyage to Asia would require three years’ time, even if the ships could return, which they judged doubtful; that the Ocean was infinitely larger than Columbus supposed, and much of it un-navigable. And finally, it was not likely that God would have allowed any uninhabited lands of real value to be concealed from His people for so many centuries. Rejection could not have been more flat, and we must admit that all the commission’s arguments, save the last, were sound. Suppose there had been no America, no ship then built, however resolute her master and crew, or frugal in provision, could have made the ten-thousand-mile voyage from Spain to Japan.

Apparently a complete deadlock. Columbus knew he could do it; the experts were certain he could not. It needed something as powerful as feminine intuition to break the log jam.

For the present, all the Queen would do was to give Columbus fresh hope. He could apply again, said she, when the war with the Moors was over. He waited almost another year and then decided to leave Spain and join his brother in France. Calling at the La Rábida friary near Palos to pick up his son Diego, now about ten years old, he was persuaded by the prior, Father Juan Pérez, to give the Queen another chance, and wrote to her to that effect. She replied by summoning Columbus to court, and sent him a generous gift to buy himself some decent clothing and a mule.

Columbus always found more friends and supporters among priests than among laymen. They seemed to understand him better, since his thoughts and aspirations were permeated with religious emotion. He was far more particular than most laymen in saying the daily offices of the church—prime, tierce, sext, none and compline. He seldom missed an opportunity to attend Mass, and in an age of picturesque and elaborate profanity, he was never heard to utter any other oath than “By San Fernando!” or to curse, except that he would blurt out, “May God take you!” when exasperated. He had a fine presence and an innate dignity that impressed people, of whatever estate, and although he never spoke perfect hidalgo Castilian, it was not expected that he should, as Genoa-born and of long residence in Portugal.


At about Christmas time 1491, Columbus again appeared at court, which was then being held in the fortified camp of Santa Fe during the siege of Granada. A new commission was appointed, and the Royal Council reviewed their findings. The exact details are not known, but it seems probable that the commission, reading the Queen’s mind, recommended that Columbus be allowed to try this project, and that the Council rejected it because of the price he asked. For this extraordinary man, despite poverty, delays and discouragement, had actually raised his demands. In 1485 he had been willing to sail west for Medina Celi on an expense-account basis, without any particular honors or emoluments. Now he demanded not only ennoblement and the title of Admiral, but also that he be made governor and viceroy of any new lands he might discover, that both titles be hereditary in his family, and that he and his heirs be given a ten per cent cut on the trade. He had suffered so many outrages and insults during his long residence in Spain that—by San Fernando!-he would not glorify Spain for nothing. If the Sovereigns would grant him, contingent on his success, such rank, titles and property that he and his issue could hold up their heads with Spanish grandees, well and good; but no more bargaining. Take it, Your Majesties, or leave it.

Leave it they did, in January 1492, immediately after the fall of Granada. Ferdinand and Isabella told him this at an audience that the King, at least, intended to be final. Columbus saddled his mule, packed the saddlebags with his charts and other exhibits, and started for Seville with his faithful friend Juan Pérez, intending to take ship for France and join Bartholomew in a fresh appeal to Charles VIII.

Just as, in Oriental bargaining, a storekeeper will often run after a departing customer to accept his last offer, so it happened here. Luis de Santangel, keeper of King Ferdinand’s privy purse, called on the Queen the very day that Columbus left Santa Fe and urged her to meet Columbus’s terms. The expedition, he pointed out, would not cost as much as a week’s entertainment of a fellow sovereign, and he would undertake to raise the money himself. As for the honors and emoluments, Columbus asked only for a promise of them in the event of his success, and if he did succeed, they would be a small price to pay for the discovery of new islands and a western route to the Indies. Isabella, who had probably felt that way all along, jumped at this, her really last chance. She even proposed to pledge her crown jewels for the expenses, but Santangel said that would not be necessary. And she sent a messenger who overtook Columbus at a village four miles from Santa Fe, and brought him back.

Although everything was now decided in principle, there were plenty more cosas de España to be overcome, and it was not until April 1492 that the contracts between Columbus and the Sovereign, the Capitulations, as they are generally called, were signed and sealed. Therein the Sovereigns, in consideration that Cristóbal Colón (as henceforth Columbus called himself) is setting forth “to discover and acquire certain islands and mainlands in the Ocean Sea,” promise him to be Admiral of the Ocean Sea,∗ Viceroy and Governor of lands that he may discover. He shall have ten per cent of all gold, gems, spices or other merchandise produced or obtained by trade within those domains, tax free; he shall have the right to invest in one eighth of any ship going thither; and these offices and emoluments will be enjoyed by his heirs and successors forever. The sovereigns also issued to him a brief passport in Latin, stating that they were sending him with three caravels “toward the regions of India” ( ad partes Indie ), and three identical letters of introduction, one to the “Grand Khan” (the Chinese Emperor) and the other two with a blank space so that the proper titles of other princes could be inserted.

∗ Colombus’s title of Admiral had nothing to do with command of a fleet; it meant that he would have admiralty jurisdiction over the Ocean and any new lands discovered. His title when commanding a fleet on any of his four voyages was Captain General, corresponding to our Commodore.

It will doubtless seem impossibly naïve to the modern reader that anyone could expect Columbus to land somewhere on the coast of China or Japan with less than one hundred men, and “take over.” But Europe was then very ignorant of the Far East; the Portuguese had had no difficulty in dealing with Negro kings in Africa, so why shouldn’t Columbus do the same thing in Asia? Moreover, the colony that Columbus had in mind was not what we mean by a colony, but a trading factory. The trading factory (what we would call a trading post) had long been familiar to Europeans. It was an extension of one country’s sovereignty into another’s, for commercial purposes; it might be armed, if in a relatively savage region, like the Genoese trading factory in the Crimea or the Portuguese São Jorge da Mina on the Gold Coast; or it might be a peaceful extra-territorial settlement, such as the Hanseatic League’s Steelyard in London, and the Merchants Adventurers’ factory in Amsterdam. The 1492 globe of Martin Behaim, who shared Columbus’s geographical ideas, shows an archipelago south of Japan, corresponding to the Ryukyus; if there had been no American barrier, and the Ocean had been as narrow as Columbus supposed, he doubtless would have established a trading factory on an island like Okinawa, which would have become an important entrepôt between China and the West, both for commerce and missionary effort. That was no extravagant expectation, as is proved by the fact that, eighty years later in the Philippines, Legaspi occupied the site of Manila for Spain and built the old city with no more force than Columbus had, and no prince or potentate objected. Manila became an immensely valuable trading factory where the products of Spain were exchanged for those of China.

It may also seem odd that the Sovereigns should have consented to give Columbus so much as ten per cent of expected profits. It was, however, then usual throughout Europe for princes to reward their servants and subjects in that manner, and it is still done in Eastern countries: Abdulla Dawaish, Prime Minister of the Arabian Sultanate of El Katar or Quttar on the Persian Gulf, gets ten per cent of all imports and exports, including oil, in 1954. There was good reason for this sort of financial expedient in the fifteenth century, when the revenues of princes were relatively low, and the resistance of their subjects to taxation had not been broken down by habit and necessity.

Preparations for the First Voyage

Although it was now settled in principle, the success of the Enterprise depended on an infinite number of practical details. First, it was decided to fit out the fleet and recruit the men at Palos, the little port in the Niebla where Columbus had first set foot in Spain, and for several reasons. Columbus had made friends there of the Pinzón family, leading shipowners and master mariners; both ships and sailors were available. And Palos had committed some municipal misdemeanor for which the Queen conveniently fined her two well-equipped caravels. Columbus made a public appearance in the Church of St. George, Palos, on May 23, 1492, with his friend Fray Juan Pérez, while a notary read the royal order that “within ten days” the two caravels were to be provided and crews recruited, with four months’ advance pay.

Ten days, of course, was preposterous, and it actually took about three months for Columbus to get to sea. He had been promised three caravels, not two, but it so happened that a ship from Galicia, owned and captained by Juan de la Cosa, was then in port, and Columbus chartered her as his flagship.

Santa María , as this ship was called, is the most famous of Columbus’s ships. She left her bones on a reef off Hispaniola, and no picture or model of her has survived, but several conjectural models have been made and two full-size “replicas” have been constructed in Spain. The original Santa Mariía was probably of about 100 tons’ burthen, which meant that her cargo capacity was 100 “turns” or double hogsheads of wine. Her rig was the conventional one of the period, when ships were just emerging from the one-big-mast type of the Middle Ages: a mainmast higher than she was long, a main yard as long as the keel, carrying an immense square sail—the main course—which was counted on to do most of the driving. Above the main course was spread a small main topsail. The foremast, little more than half the height of the mainmast, carried only a square fore course or foresail. The mizzenmast, stepped on the high poop, carried a small lateen-rigged sail, and under the bowsprit, which pointed up from the bows at a sharp angle, was spread a small square sail called the spritsail, which performed rather inefficiently the function of the modern jib.

A Spanish ship in those days had an official name, usually that of a saint, and a nickname which the sailors used; Santa Maria was La Gallega , “The Galician.” One of the two caravels provided by the town of Palos was named Santa Clara , but she is universally known by her nickname Niña , so given because she belonged to the Nifio family of Palos. Niña was Columbus’s favorite. She carried him safely home from his First Voyage, took him to western Cuba and back to Spain on the Second, and made another voyage to Hispaniola. She measured about 60 tons, her length was not over 70 feet, and at the start she was rigged with three lateen sails, like a Portuguese caravel, but in the Canaries Columbus had her re-rigged square like Santa Maria , because square sails are much handier than lateen rig when running before the wind.

Pinta , also a locally built caravel, was probably a little larger than Niñna , and square-rigged from the first. Her real name we do not know; Pinta probably was derived from a former owner named Pinto. She was a smart sailer; the New World was first sighted from her deck and she was first home to Spain.

All vessels carried inside stone ballast. They were fastened mostly with wooden trunnels or pins, such as one sees in the frames of old American houses; their sides were painted gay colors above the waterline and, below it, payed with pitch, which was supposed to discourage barnacles and teredos. Crosses and heraldic devices were emblazoned on the sails, and the ships carried a variety of large, brightly colored flags which were flown on entering and leaving port. Queen Isabella’s royal ensign, quartering the castles and lions of Castile and Leon, was hoisted on the main truck, and on the foremast or mizzen was displayed the special banner of the expedition: a green cross on a white field, with a crown on each arm—a concession to Aragon. All three vessels carried a little crude artillery, to repel possible pirates or other unwelcome boarders, but they were in no sense combatant ships, and carried neither soldiers nor gunners.

Columbus, a foreigner in the Niebla, could never have recruited officers and men without the enthusiastic support of three leading shipping families of Palos—the Pinzóns, Niños and Quinteros. Martín Alonso Pinzón commanded Pinta and took his younger brother Francisco along as master, a rank that corresponds roughly to the modern “exec.,” or first officer. Another brother, Vicente Yánez Pinzón, commanded Niña , whose master-owner was Juan Niño, and a brother of Juan, Peralonso Niño, piloted Santa Maria . Columbus himself commanded the flagship, but her owner, Juan de la Cosa, remained on board as master. Each vessel had a pilot, an officer who shared the duties of the modern first officer and had charge of navigation, and a surgeon. In the fleet were several specialists—Luis de Torres, a converted Jew who knew Arabic, which, it was thought, would enable him to converse with the Chinese and Japanese; Rodrigo de Escobedo, secretary of the fleet, who would make an official record of discoveries; Rodrigo Sánchez, the royal comptroller, whose main duty was to see that the crown got its share of the gold; and Pedro Gutiérrez, butler of the King’s dais, who apparently was tired of court life, since he shipped as chief steward; Diego de Harana, cousin of Columbus’s mistress, the marshal of the fleet, corresponding to the old naval rating of master-at-arms. The names of 39 officers and men of Santa Maria , 26 of Pinta and 22 of Niña are known, and there were probably two or three more, which would bring the total complement of the fleet up to 90.

Almost all the enlisted men—stewards, boatswains, caulkers, able seamen and “gromets,” or ship’s boys—were from the Niebla or nearby towns of Andalusia like Seville, Cordova and Jerez de la Frontera. Each seaman received about the equivalent of $7 in gold per month, the petty officers twice that and the boys about $4.60. The only foreigners, besides Columbus, were another Genoese, one Portuguese and a Venetian. The story that Columbus had an Englishman and an Irishman on board is a myth, but there is some foundation for the tradition that the crews included jailbirds. Three lads who had been given life imprisonment for helping a condemned murderer to break jail were set free in order to ship with Columbus; they turned out to be trustworthy men and went with the Admiral on later voyages, as did a large number of the others. On the whole, the crews of these ships were good, capable fellows from the neighborhood, with members of three leading families in key positions. Encouraged by an ancient pilot who was sure he had just missed the Indies on a Portuguese voyage westward forty years earlier, these men and boys overcame the natural conservatism of a mariner in the hope of glory, gold and adventure. Those who survived won plenty of the first two, and all shared in one of the greatest adventures of history—Columbus’s First Voyage.

First Crossing of the Atlantic

By the second day of August, 1492, everything at last was ready. That night every man and boy of the fleet confessed his sins, received absolution and made his communion at the church of Palos, which by happy coincidence was dedicated to Saint George, patron saint of Genoa. Columbus went on board his flagship in the small hours of Friday the third and gave the signal to get under way. Before the sun rose, all three vessels had anchors aweigh, and with sails hanging limp from their yards were floating down the Rio Tinto on the morning ebb, using their long sweeps to maintain steerageway. As they swung into the Saltés and passed La Rábida close aboard, they could hear the friars chanting the ancient hymn lam lucis orto sidere with its haunting refrain Et nunc et in perpetuum , which we render “Evermore and evermore.

This fleet of good hope, whose achievements would radically after world history, sailed parallel to another fleet of misery and woe. On the very same tide there dropped down the Saltés the last vessel carrying the Jews whom Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled from Spain. August 2 was their deadline; any who remained thereafter were to be executed unless they embraced Christianity. Thousands of pitiful refugees, carrying what few household goods they could stow in the crowded ships, were bound for the more tolerant lands of Islam, or for the only Christian country, the Netherlands, which would receive them. Columbus in all his writings dropped no word of pity for the fate of this persecuted race, and even expressed the wish to exclude them from the lands he discovered. But if there had been a new prophet among the Spanish Jews, he might have pointed out the Columbian fleet to his wretched compatriots on that August morning and said, “Behold the ships that in due time will carry the children of Israel to the ends of the earth.”


Columbus’s plan for the voyage was simple, and its simplicity insured his success. Not for him the boisterous head winds, the monstrous seas and the dark, unbridled waters of the North Atlantic, which had already baffled so many Portuguese. He would run south before the prevailing northerlies to the Canary Islands, and there make, as it were, a right-angle turn; for he had observed on his African voyages that the winter winds in the latitude of the Canaries blew from the east, and that the ocean around them, more often than not, was calm as a millpond. An even better reason to take his departure from the Canaries was their position astride latitude 28 degrees North, which, he believed, cut Japan, passing en route the mythical Isle of Antilia, which would make a good break in the westward passage. Until about a hundred years ago when chronometers became generally available to find longitude, sailors always tried to find the latitude of their destination and then would “run their westing” (or easting) down until they hit it.∗ That is what Columbus proposed to do with respect to Japan, which he had figured out to be only 2400 nautical miles due west of the Canaries.

∗ A New England shipmaster of whom someone inquired the route from Cape Cod to Barbados said, “Run South until your butter melts, then West!”

The first leg of the voyage was made in less than a week. Then, within sight of the Grand Canary, the fleet ran into a calm that lasted two or three days. Columbus decided to send Pinta into Las Palmas for some needed repairs while Santa Maria and Nina went to Gomera, westernmost of the Canaries that the Spaniards had wrested from their native inhabitants. At Gomera the Captain General (as we should call Columbus on this voyage before he made Admiral) sent men ashore to fill extra water casks, buy breadstuffs and cheese, and put a supply of native beef in pickle. He then sailed to Las Palmas to superintend Pinta’s repairs and returned with her to Gomera.

On September 2 all three ships were anchored off San Sebastian, the port of that island. Columbus then met for the first time Doña Beatriz de Bobadilla, widow of the former captain of the island. Beatriz was a beautiful lady still under thirty, and Columbus is said to have fallen in love with her; but if that is true, he did not love her warmly enough to tarry to the next full moon. Additional ship’s stores were quickly hoisted on board and struck below, and on September 6, 1492, the fleet weighed anchor for the last time in the Old World. They had still another island to pass, the lofty Ferro or Hierro. Owing to calms and variables Ferro and the 12,000-foot peak of Tenerife were in sight until the ninth, but by nightfall that day, every trace of land had sunk below the eastern horizon, and the three vessels were alone on an uncharted ocean. Columbus himself gave out the course: “West; nothing to the north, nothing to the south.”

Before going into the details of the voyage, let us see how those vessels were navigated, and how a day was passed at sea. Celestial navigation was then in its infancy, but rough estimates of latitude could be made from the height of the North Star above the horizon and its relation to the two outer stars (the “Guards”) of the Little Dipper. A meridian altitude of the sun, applied to available tables of the sun’s declination, also gave latitude, by a simple formula. But the instruments of observation—a solid wood or brass quadrant and the seaman’s astrolabe—were so crude, and the movement of a ship threw them off to such an extent, that most navigators took their latitude sights ashore. Columbus relied almost completely on “dead reckoning,” which means plotting your course and position on a chart from the three elements of direction, time and distance.

The direction he had from one or more compasses which were similar to those used in small craft until recently—a circular card graduated to the 32 points (N, N by E, NNE, NE by N, NE, and so on), with a lodestone under the north point, mounted on a pin and enclosed in a binnacle with gimbals so it could swing freely with the motion of the ship. Columbus’s standard compass was mounted on the poop deck where the officer of the watch could see it. The helmsman, who steered with a heavy tiller attached directly to the rudder head, was below decks and could see very little. He may have had another compass to steer by, but in the smaller vessels, at least, he was conned by the officer of the deck and kept a steady course by the feel of the helm. On a sailing vessel you can do that; it would be impossible in any power craft.

Time on the vessels of that day was measured by a half-hour glass which hung from a beam so the sand could flow freely from the upper to the lower half. As soon as the sand was all down, a ship’s boy turned the glass and the officer of the deck recorded it by making a stroke on a slate. Eight glasses made a watch; the modern ship’s bells were originally a means of marking the glasses. This half-hour-glass time could be corrected daily in fair weather by noting the moment when the sun lay due south, which was local noon.

Distance was the most variable of these three elements. Columbus had no chip log or other method of measuring the speed of his vessels. He and the watch officers merely estimated it and noted it down. By carefully checking Columbus’s Journal of his First Voyage, Captain J. W. McElroy ascertained that he made an average 9 per cent overestimate of his distance. This did not prevent his finding the way home, because the mistake was constant, and time and course were correct. It only resulted in Columbus placing the islands of his discovery farther west than they really were.

Even after making the proper reduction for this overestimate, the speed of his vessels is surprising. Ships of that day were expected to make 3 to 5 knots in a light breeze, up to 9½ in a strong, fair gale, and at times to be capable of 12 knots. In October 1492, on the outward passage, the Columbus fleet made an average of 142 miles per day for five consecutive days, and the best day’s run, 182 miles, averaged 8 knots. On the homeward passage, in February 1493, Niña and Pinta covered 198 miles one day, and at times hit it up to ii knots. Any yachtsman today would be proud to make the records that the great Admiral did on some of his transatlantic crossing in the fifteenth century. Improvements in sailing vessels since 1492 have been more in seaworthiness and comfort than in speed.

One reason Columbus always wanted two or more vessels was to have someone to rescue survivors in case of sinking. But he made an unusual record for that era by never losing a ship at sea, unless we count the Santa Maria , grounded without loss of life. Comforts and conveniences were almost totally lacking. Cooking was done on deck over a bed of sand in a wooden firebox protected from the wind by a hood. The diet was a monotonous one of salt meat, hardtack and dried peas. For drink they had wine, while it lasted, and water in casks, which often went bad. Only the Captain General and the ships’ captains had cabins with bunks; the others slept where they could, in their clothes.

In those days, sailors were the most religious of laymen. On each vessel a boy was charged with singing a ditty at daybreak, which began:

Blessed be the light of day And the Holy Cross, we say;

after which he recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Ave Maria, and invoked a blessing on the ship’s company. Every half hour a boy sang out when turning the glass. For instance, at what we would call five bells, he sang:

Five is past and six floweth, More shall flow if God willeth, Count and pass make voyage fast.

After sunset, and before the first night watch was set, all hands were called to evening prayers. The service began with the boy whose duty it was to light the binnacle lamp singing:

God give us a good night and good sailing; May our ship make a good passage, Sir Captain and Master and good company.

All hands then said the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ave Maria, and concluded by singing the Salve Regina . Here are the correct words and music of the ancient Benedictine chant, but as Columbus himself said, “Seamen sing or say it after their own fashion,” bawling it out in several keys at once and murdering the stately Latin words. But was it the less acceptable to the Virgin, under whose protection all sailors felt secure?

Now the boy who turns up the glass for the eighth time sings:

The watch is called, The glass floweth. We shall make a good voyage If God willeth.

And as the vessels sail westward through the soft tropic night, rolling and pitching, sails bellying and slatting, cordage straining, bows throwing foam, every half hour is marked by this chantey:

To our God let’s pray To give us a good voyage, And through the Blessed Mother, Our advocate on high, Protect us from the waterspout And send no tempest nigh.

So much for the sea ritual that went on every day, whatever the weather. Now for the events of the voyage.

On September 9, the day he dropped the last land below the horizon, Columbus decided to keep a true reckoning of his course for his own use and a false one to give out to the people, so that they would not be frightened at sailing so far from land. But, owing to his overestimate of speed, the “false” reckoning was more nearly correct than the “true”!

During the first ten days (September 9 to 18), the easterly trade wind blew steadily, and the fleet made 1163 nautical miles’ westing. This was the honeymoon of the voyage. Que era plazer grande el gusto de las mañanas —“What a delight was the savor of the mornings!” wrote Columbus in his Journal. That entry speaks to the heart of anyone who has sailed in the trades; it recalls the beauty of the dawn, kindling clouds and sails rose color, the smell of dew drying on a wooden deck, and, something Columbus didn’t have, the first cup of coffee. Since his ships were at the northern edge of the northeast trades, where the wind first strikes the water, the sea was smooth, and the air, remarked the Captain General in his Journal, was “like April in Andalusia; the only thing wanting was to hear the song of the nightingale.” But there were plenty of other birds following the ships: the little Mother Carey’s chickens, dabbling for plankton in the bow waves and wakes; the boatswain bird, so called (as old seamen used to say) because it carries a marlinspike in its tail; the man-of-war or frigate bird, “thou ship of the air that never furl’st thy sails,” as Walt Whitman wrote; and when the fleet passed beyond the range of these birds, the big Jaeger gulls gave it a call. During this period the fleet encountered its first field of sargassum or gulfweed and found that it was no hindrance to navigation. “Saw plenty weed” was an almost daily notation in the Captain General’s log. The gulfweed bothered him much less than observing a westerly variation of the compass, for in European waters the variation is always easterly.

On September 19, only ten days out from Ferro, the fleet temporarily ran into an area of variable winds and rain. It was near the point on Columbus’s chart where the fabled island of Antilia should have been, and all hands expected to sight land. The Captain General even had the deep-sea lead hove, and found no bottom at 200 fathoms; no wonder, since the ocean is about 2300 fathoms deep at the point he had reached. But the seamen who, on the tenth day of the northeast trades, were beginning to wonder whether they could ever beat back home were cheered by the change of wind.

During the next five days only 234 miles were made good. During this spell of moderate weather it was easy to converse from ship to ship and to talk about this or that island, St. Brendan’s or Antilia, which they might pick up. In the middle of one of these colloquies, a seaman of Pinta gave the “Land Ho!” and everyone thought he saw an island against the setting sun. Columbus fell on his knees to thank God, ordered Gloria in excelsis Deo to be sung by all hands, and set a course for the island. But at dawn no island was visible; there was none. It was simply a cloud bank above the western horizon resembling land, a common phenomenon at sea. Martin Alonso Pinzón apparently wished to beat about and search for this island, but Columbus refused, because, he said, “his object was to reach the Indies, and if he delayed, it would not have made sense.”

The trade wind now returned, but moderately, and during the six days September 26 to October i, the fleet made only 382 miles. Under these circumstances the people began to mutter and grumble. Three weeks was probably more than they had ever been outside sight of land before. They were all getting on each other’s nerves, as happens even nowadays on a long voyage to a known destination. There was nothing for the men to do in the light wind except to follow the ship’s routine, and troll for fish. Grievances, real or imaginary, were blown up; cliques were formed; Spain was farther away every minute, and what lay ahead? Probably nothing, except in the eye of that cursed Genoese. Let’s make him turn back, or throw him overboard!

On the first day of October the wind increased, and in five days (October 2 to 6) the fleet made 710 miles. On the sixth, when they had passed longitude 65 degrees West and actually lay directly north of Puerto Rico, Martin Alonso Pinzón shot his agile Pinta under the flagship’s stern and shouted, “Alter course, sir, to southwest by west … Japan!” Columbus did not understand whether Martin Alonso meant that he thought they had missed Japan and should steer southwest by west for China, or that Japan lay in that direction; but he knew and Pinz’f6n knew that the fleet had sailed more than the 2400 miles which, according to their calculations, lay between the Canaries and Japan. Naturally Columbus was uneasy, but he held to the west course magnetic, which, owing to the variation for which he did not allow, was about west by south, true.

On October 7, when there was another false landfall, great flocks of birds passed over the ships, flying westsouthwest; this was the autumn migration from eastern North America to the West Indies. Columbus decided that he had better follow the birds rather than his chart, and changed course accordingly that evening. That was “good joss”; it was his shortest course to the nearest land. Now, every night, the men were heartened by seeing against the moon (full on October 5) flocks of birds flying their way. But by the tenth, mutiny flared up again. No land for thirty-one days. Even by the phony reckoning which Columbus gave out they had sailed much farther west than anyone had expected. Enough of this nonsense, sailing west to nowhere; let the Captain General turn back or else—! Columbus, says the record, “cheered them as best he could, holding out good hope of the advantages they might gain; and, he added, it was useless to complain, since he had come to go to the Indies, and so had to continue until he found them, with Our Lord’s help .”

That was typical of Columbus’s determination. Yet even he, conscious of divine guidance, could not have kept on indefinitely without the support of his captains and officers. According to one account, it was Martin Alonso Pinzón who cheered him by shouting, Adelante! Adelante! which an American poet has translated, “Sail on! Sail on!” But, according to Oviedo, one of the earliest historians who talked with the participants, it was Columbus alone who persuaded the Pinzóns and La Cosa to sail on, with the promise that if land were not found within three days, he would turn back. If this version is correct, as I believe it is, the Captain General’s promise to his captains was made on October 9. Next day the trade wind blew fresher, sending the fleet along at 7 knots; it so continued on the eleventh, with a heavy following sea. But signs of land, such as branches of trees with green leaves and flowers, became so frequent that the people were content with their Captain General’s decision, and the mutinous mutterings died out in the keen anticipation of making a landfall in the Indies.


As the sun set under a clear horizon October 11, the northeast trade breezed up to gale force, and the three ships tore along at g knots. But Columbus refused to shorten sail, since his promised time was running out. He signaled everyone to keep a particularly sharp watch, and offered extra rewards for first landfall in addition to the year’s pay promised by the Sovereigns. That night of destiny was clear and beautiful with a late rising moon, but the sea was the roughest of the entire passage. The men were tense and expectant, the officers testy and anxious, the Captain General serene in the confidence that presently God would reveal to him the promised Indies.

At 10 P.M. , an hour before moonrise, Columbus and a seaman, almost simultaneously, thought they saw a light “like a little wax candle rising and falling.” Others said they saw it too, but most did not; and after a few minutes it disappeared. Volumes have been written to explain what this light was or might have been. To a seaman it requires no explanation. It was an illusion, created by overtense watchfulness. When uncertain of your exact position, and straining to make a night landfall, you are apt to see imaginary lights and flashes and to hear nonexistent bells and breakers.

On rush the ships, pitching, rolling, throwing spray—white waves at their bows and white wakes reflecting the moon. Pinta is perhaps half a mile in the lead, Santa Maria on her port quarter, Niña on the other side. Now one, now another forges ahead, but they are all making the greatest speed of which they are capable. With the sixth glass of the night watch, the last sands are running out of an era that began with the dawn of history. A few minutes now and destiny will turn up a glass the flow of whose sands we are still watching. Not since the birth of Christ has there been a night so full of meaning for the human race.

At 2 A.M. , October 12, Rodrigo de Triana, lookout on Pinta , sees something like a white cliff shining in the moonlight, and sings out, Tierra! tierra! “Land! land!” Captain Pinzón verifies the landfall, fires a gun as agreed, and shortens sail to allow the flagship to catch up. As Santa Maria approaches, the Captain General shouts across the rushing waters, “Senor Martin Alonso, you did find land! Five thousand maravedis for you as a bonus!”

Yes, land it was this time, a little island of the Bahamas group. The fleet was headed for the sand cliffs on its windward side and would have been wrecked had it held course. But these seamen were too expert to allow that to happen. The Captain General ordered sail to be shortened and the fleet to jog off and on until daylight, which was equivalent to a southwesterly drift clear of the island. At dawn they made full sail, passed the southern point of the island and sought an opening on the west coast, through the barrier reef. Before noon they found it, sailed into the shallow bay now called Long or Fernandez, and anchored in the lee of the land, in five fathoms.

Here on a gleaming beach of white coral occurred the famous first landing of Columbus. The Captain General (now by general consent called Admiral) went ashore in the flagship’s boat with the royal standard of Castile displayed, the two Captains Pinz’f6n in their boats, flying the banner of the Expedition—the green crowned cross on a white field. “And, all having rendered thanks to Our Lord, kneeling on the ground, embracing it with tears of joy for the immeasurable mercy of having reached it, the Admiral rose and gave this island the name San Salvador ”—Holy Saviour.∗

∗ Although there is still some difference of opinion, the generally accepted identification of Columbus’s island is the one formerly called Watlings. It has been officially renamed San Salvador.

The natives of Guanahani, as they called this island, fled to the jungle when they saw three marine monsters approaching, but curiosity was too much for them, and when they peered out and saw strangely dressed human being coming ashore, they approached timidly, with propitiatory gifts. Columbus, of course, had to believe that he was in the Indies, so he called these people “Indians,” and Indians the native inhabitants of the Americas have become in all European languages.

Those first encountered were of the Taino branch of the Arawak language group. Coming from the mainland in dugout canoes, and with no better weapons than wooden spears, they had wrested the Bahamas and most of Cuba from the more primitive Siboney, within the previous century. The Tainos grew corn, yams and other roots for food; they knew how to make cassava bread, to spin and weave cotton and to make pottery. The Spaniards observed with wonder their fine build and almost complete nakedness, and noted with keen interest that some of them wore, suspended from the nose, little pendants of pure gold. The guilelessness and generosity of these children of nature—“they invite you to share anything that they possess, and show as much love as if their hearts went with it,” wrote Columbus—their ignorance of money and of iron, and their nudity, suggested to every educated European that these people were holdovers from the Golden Age. Peter Martyr, first historian of the New World, wrote, “They seem to live in that golden world of the which old writers speak so much, wherein men lived simply and innocently without enforcement of laws, without quarreling, judges and libels, content only to satisfy nature.”


[ Columbus was not looking for people of the Golden Age but for civilized Orientals. During the next three months his little fleet beat its way around the Caribbean islands, looking for gold, for splendid cities and for the court of the Great Khan. He saw natives smoking tobacco; he saw the first maize ever observed by a European, the first hammocks woven of native cloth, the first yams or sweet potatoes. But as for the source of the occasional gold trinkets they possessed, the natives always waved him on to the next island . Santa Maria went aground on a coral reef and Martin Alonso Pinzón in Pinta went chasing after a rumor of an island where the natives gathered gold on the beach by candlelight. In January, after establishing a camp at Navidad for the 39 men who would stay in the New World, Columbus prepared to sail on Nina with the rest of his men and a few Indians for exhibit . Pinta unexpectedly rejoined Nina and Columbus, still believing that he had reached the offshore islands of Asia, set his course for Spain .]

Homeward Passage

On Wednesday, January 16, three hours before daybreak, the caravels sailed from Samanÿ Bay. A rough voyage lay ahead, and a very difficult problem in navigation. This homeward passage was a far greater test of Columbus’s courage and seamanship and ability to handle men than anything he had hitherto experienced. With the greatest geographical discovery of all time locked in his breast, knowing that it would be of no use to anybody unless delivered, the Admiral had to fight the elements and human weakness as never before or since.

Before heading for home, Columbus intended to check an Amazonian myth of the Tainos about Matinino, the later Martinique. They told him that this island was inhabited only by Carib women, who received an annual male visitation but got rid of the men as soon as they had accomplished what they came for. The myth probably arose from the fact that Carib women fought beside their men, or alone if the men were absent. Columbus was not moved so much by curiosity as wishing to gather more Oriental evidence, because Marco Polo had told a tall tale about “Islands Masculina and Feminea” in the Indian Ocean, and they are depicted on Behaim’s globe. However, the intended call on the Amazons was canceled when the wind came west—unusual for that place and season. The Admiral thought it was too good a chance to miss, and decided to sail directly to Spain.

The west wind soon petered out, the easterly trades returned, and the caravels sailed as best they could, close-hauled on the starboard tack. Modern sailing craft can sail as close to the wind as four points (45 degrees) or, if very smart racers in smooth water, even closer. Niña and Pinta could lay up to five points (56 degrees) if the sea was smooth, but under ordinary conditions could not do better than six points (67½ degrees), and Pinta was slow on the wind, owing to a sprung mizzenmast.

In this manner Niña and Pinta continued through January, constantly reaching farther north and edging a little closer to Spain. As they were near the northern limit of the trades, the sea was smooth and, providentially, the wind held and blew them across the horse latitudes, as seamen used to call the calms between latitudes 30 and 33 degrees North. They successfully crossed the Sargasso Sea, having the rare experience of sailing with a fresh wind across an undulating meadow of gulfweed, under a full moon. That is indeed beautiful to the eye, and to the ear, too, as the sound of parting waters is replaced by a soft “hush-hush” as the weed brushes by. Without knowing it, Columbus had employed the best sailing strategy for getting home quickly. If he had tried to sail straight to Spain (as on his return passage in 1496), he would have had to beat to windward most of the way, but this long northerly leg took him up to the latitude of Bermuda into the zone of rough, strong westerlies.

On the last day of January the wind swung into the west, and four days later, when the Admiral figured by a simple “eye sight” of the North Star that he had reached latitude 37 degrees North (that of Cape St. Vincent) and actually was in that of Gibraltar, he set the course due east. This, owing to compass variation, was actually about 80 degrees true, which happened to be right for picking up the Azores. The weather now turned cold and a fresh gale blew up. For four days the caravels made an average of 150 miles, and during one twenty-four-hour period almost 200 miles, at times attaining a speed of eleven knots.

When any sailing yacht the length of Niña and Pinta hits it up to eleven or twelve knots today, it is something to talk about, and these caravels were having the finest kind of sailing. They were running before a fresh gale over deep blue, white-crested water. On they sped through bright, sunny days and nights brilliant with Orion and other familiar consellations that seemed to be beckoning them home. It is hard for any sailor to be sorry for Columbus, in spite of his later misfortunes; he enjoyed such glorious sailing weather on almost every voyage. But he had some very tough experiences, and one of the worst was about to come.

The two caravels were sailing into an area of very dirty weather in one of the coldest and most blustery winters on record—a winter in which hundreds of vessels were wrecked, the harbor of Genoa froze over, and ships lay windbound at Lisbon for months. The center of an area of very low pressure was passing north of the Azores with southwest to west winds of full gale strength (force 9 to 10 on Beaufort scale), and the caravels had to pass through three weather fronts.

On February 12, Niña stripped down to bare poles and scudded before the wind, laboring heavily. The wind moderated slightly next morning, then increased, and Nina ran into frightful cross seas. The following night, February 13-14, the two caravels lost sight of each other and never met again until they reached harbor in Spain. And they almost did not get there. We have no record of how Pinta fared, but Niña’s crew almost gave up hope on St. Valentine’s Day. Thrice, officers and men drew lots for one to go on a pilgrimage to some famous shrine if they were saved; but the wind only blew harder. Then all made a vow “to go in procession in their shirts” to the first shrine of the Virgin they might encounter. The wind then began to abate. Columbus afterwards admitted that he was as frightened as anyone. Desperate lest both ships and all hands perish, at the height of the gale he wrote in ink on a parchment an abstract of his journal of the voyage, wrapped it in waxed cloth, headed it up in a cask and hove it overboard in the hope that someone might pick up the true story of his discovery. The cask never was recovered, but sundry faked-up versions of the Admiral’s “Secrete Log Boke” are still being offered to credulous collectors.

Shortly after sunrise February 15, land was sighted dead ahead. Columbus correctly guessed that it was one of the Azores; which one he did not know. And as the wind then whipped into the east, three days elapsed before Nina was able to come up with this island and anchor. The Admiral sent his boat ashore and ascertained that it was Santa Maria, southernmost of the Azores.

There then took place what, in retrospect, seems the most comic incident of the entire First Voyage. Here were men bursting with the greatest piece of news since the fall of the Roman Empire, a discovery that would confer untold benefits on Europe and Europeans; yet, what was their first reception? While saying their prayers in the little chapel, clad only in their shirts (as a sign of penitence), half the crew were set upon by “the whole town” and thrown into jail. The Portuguese captain of the island suspected that they had been on an illicit voyage to West Africa! He even rowed out to capture Columbus and the few members of Niña’s crew who had stayed on board, intending to make their pilgrimage later. The Admiral refused to receive him and threatened to shoot up the town and carry off hostages if his people were not released. Before the captain could make up his mind, another storm blew up, Niña’s cables parted, and she was blown almost to São Miguel and back. And she did well to get back, because only three seamen and the Indians were left on board to help the Admiral and the skipper. By the time Niña returned, the Portuguese captain, having grilled the captured sailors and discovered no evidence of poaching on his King’s preserves, surrendered them and furnished the entire crew with much needed fresh provisions.

So on February 24 Columbus resumed his homeward voyage. The distance to his desired landfall, Cape St. Vincent, was only 800 miles, which should have required only a week’s sail in the prevailing north wind. But this piece of ocean in winter is a place where lowpressure areas hang around and make trouble for poor sailors, and the winter of 1493 was unusually foul. Another tempest overtook Niña about 250 miles from Santa Maria and stayed with her all the way. On the night of March 2 the warm front of the circular storm hit Niña , the wind changed to southwest, and she was able to sail her course, but that same night the cold front overtook her with a violent squall which split the main course and blew the furled forecourse and mizzen out of their gaskets, whipping them to ragged ribbons in a few minutes. So Columbus did the only thing he could do; he drove on under bare poles. Niña pitched and rolled frightfully in cross seas and the wind made another shift, to northwest, on March 3. This was the “backlash” of the cyclone, and, as in the hurricane that hit New England on September 11, 1954, it was worse than the forelash. As the dark winter afternoon waned, anxiety became intense. Columbus and the pilots knew by dead reckoning that they were driving right onto the ironbound coast of Portugal, and that only a miracle could prevent a smash-up against the cliffs.


Shortly after six o’clock, when the sun set, the crisis came. Lightning flashed overhead, great seas broke aboard from both sides, the wind blew so strong it “seemed to raise the caravel into the air.” Fortunately it was the night of full moon, which sent enough light through the clouds so that at seven o’clock land was sighted dead ahead, distant perhaps five miles. Columbus then performed the difficult maneuver, well known to every old-time seaman, of “clawing off” a lee shore. The coast ran north and south, the wind was northwest, so they set one little square foresail that had been saved in the locker, wore ship in a smother of foam, and shaped a course south, parallel to the coast, with wind on the starboard quarter. No wonder Niña became the Admiral’s favorite vessel, to stand all that beating and respond to this difficult maneuver without broaching.

When day broke on March 4, Columbus recognized prominent Cape Roca, that juts into the ocean from the mountains of Sintra, just north of the entrance to the Tagus. With only one square sail between him and utter destruction, the Admiral naturally elected to enter the Tagus and call at Lisbon to refit rather than attempt to continue around Cape St. Vincent to Spain. He knew perfectly well that he was taking a big risk in placing himself in the power of King John II, the ruthless monarch who had turned him down twice, but his first and second considerations—probably in that order—were to get the word of his discovery to Spain and to save his ship and crew. So, after sunrise, Niña whipped around Cape Roca, passed Cascais, where the fishermen were amazed to see so tiny a vessel coming in from sea, crossed the smoking bar at the river mouth, and by nine o’clock anchored off Belém, the outer port of Lisbon.

Selecting two or three followers and some of the healthiest of his captive Indians, Columbus landed at Lisbon and chartered a train of mules to take himself and suite upcountry. Pity the poor Indians who, after their terrible buffeting at sea, must now suffer the rigors of muleback transport along the narrow, muddy roads of Portugal! It took them two days to make the thirty-mile journey to the monastery of Santa Maria das Virtudes, where the King was then staying.

John II received Columbus with unexpected graciousness, but his court chronicler tells us that the King was inwardly furious with the Admiral for telling what sounded like a tall tale, and he suspected that the new discoveries had been made in a region where Portugal had prior rights. The courtiers urged the King to have this boastful upstart discreetly assassinated (just as he had recently disposed of an annoying brother-in-law), but, fortunately, he refused. And the King had to admit that his Indian guests looked very different from any Africans he had ever seen or heard of. Two of them impressed him deeply by making a rough chart of the Antilles with beans, at which the King was convinced, smote his breast and cried out, “Why did I let slip such a wonderful chance?”

On March 13, the gallant little caravel weighed anchor from Lisbon. Strange to relate, Pinta was following her, out of sight but not far astern. She had missed the Azores and so was not subjected to the last and worst of the tempests that swept over Niña , and she made port at Bayona near Vigo in northern Spain about the end of February. Martin Alonso Pinzón, whom Columbus had suspected of wanting to beat him home with the news, attempted just that. He sent a message across Spain to Ferdinand and Isabella at Barcelona, announcing his arrival and begging permission to come himself and tell them all about the voyage. The Sovereigns sent back word that they preferred to hear the news from Columbus himself. Pinta then sailed from Bayona for Palos.

At daybreak, March 14, Niña wore ship around Cape St. Vincent and passed the beach where Columbus had swum ashore after the sea fight seventeen years earlier. And at midday, March 15, she crossed the bar of Rio Saltés on the young flood tide and dropped anchor off Palos.

Pinta entered on the same tide. The sight of Niña already there, snugged down as if she had been at home a month, finished Martin Alonso Pinzón. Older than Columbus, ill from the hardships of the voyage, mortified by his snub from the King and Queen, he could bear no more. He went directly from Pinta to his country house near Palos, took to his bed and died within the month.

So ended, 224 days after it began, the greatest round voyage in history. Columbus’s final words to his Journal of it have been preserved:

Of this voyage I observe that the will of God hath miraculously been set forth (as may be seen from this journal) by the many signal miracles that He hath shown on the voyage and for myself, who for so great a time was in the court of Your Highnesses, with the opposition and against the opinion of so many high personages of your household, who were all against me, alleging this undertaking to be folly, which I hope in Our Lord will be to the greater glory of Christianity, which to some slight extent has already occurred.

On or shortly after Easter Sunday, April 7, his cup of happiness overflowed upon receipt of a letter from Ferdinand and Isabella, addressed to “Don Cristóbal Colon, their Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the Islands that he hath discovered in the Indies.” These were the exact titles that they’had promised him if he did reach the Indies, and the use of them indicated that they believed he had made good. They expressed their pleasure at his achievements, commanded him to attend court, and, “Inasmuch as we will that that which you have commenced with the aid of God be continued and furthered,” ordered preparations for a second voyage to be started immediately.

The Admiral purchased clothes suitable for his rank and formed a procession with some of his officers, hired servants and six of the long-suffering Indians. These wore their native full dress (largely feathers and fishbone-and-gold ornaments) and carried parrots in cages. The news traveled ahead, and everyone who possibly could flocked to marvel at these strange-looking men, so unlike any in European experience. Traversing lovely Andalusia, they entered Cordova, where the municipality gave Columbus a great reception and he saw his mistress and picked up his two sons. Around April 20 the cavalcade arrived at Barcelona, where “all the court and the city” came out to meet the great man.

Now the fortunes of Columbus reached apogee. As he entered the hall where the Sovereigns held court, his dignified stature, his gray hair, and his noble countenance tanned by eight months on the sea made the learned men present compare him with a Roman senator. As he advanced to make obeisance, Ferdinand and Isabella rose from their thrones, and when he knelt to kiss their hands, they bade him rise and be seated on the Queen’s right. The Indians were brought forward and presented, the gold artifacts and samples of alleged rare spices were examined, a multitude of questions asked and answered, then all adjourned to the chapel of the Alcazar where a Te Deum was chanted. And it was observed that at the last line, “O Lord, in Thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded,” tears were streaming down the Admiral’s face.


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