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Columbus’ La Navidad

July 2024
17min read

The Fate of the New World’s First Spanish Settlement

Two ships of Columbus’ fleet of discovery idled languidly in flat water along the treacherous north coast of the island of Haiti, their sails slack in the luminous starlight of a tropical night. It was Christmas Eve, 1492.

Columbus in his flagship, Santa Maria , accompanied by the commander of the little caravel Niña , was on his way to visit a native named Guacanagari, who bore the title of cacique (chief). He was one of five regional and mutually independent rulers of the big island which the Spaniards called Isla Española (Spanish Island) or simply Española.

The fleet had reached the north coast of Cuba on October 28, sixteen days after the historic landfall on the tiny island of Guanahani (San Salvador) in the Outer Bahamas. During the following six weeks, Columbus had loitered along Cuba’s shores, entranced by the beautiful scenery but complaining continually in his journal of contrary winds. It was not until December 6 that he entered the Windward Passage between Cuba and its neighboring island of Haiti.

Meanwhile, on the gusty night of November 21, the third ship of the trio, the caravel Pinta , had vanished into the darkness. It was commanded by Martín Alonzo Pinzón, and Columbus was haunted by gloomy speculations about what his lieutenant might be up to. In his journal he accused Pinzón of deliberately having separated the Pinta from the other ships in order to beat the admiral to the rich sources of gold which Columbus imagined were in the immediate area. Even more disquieting was his fear that Pinzón might break for Spain in the fast-sailing Pinta to be the first to bring news of the discovery to the Catholic sovereigns and to “tell them lies” about the admiral’s conduct of the expedition.

Although Pinzón had organized the enterprise for Columbus and had partly financed it out of his own estate, relations between the two had progressively deteriorated. It was not in Columbus’ nature to exercise authority with tact, nor in Pinzón’s to accept gracefully the role of a subordinate. Even before the disappearance of the Pinta, there had been growing tension in the silent clash of two king-sized egos.

Still brooding on these problems, Columbus entered, on December 20, a beautiful and spacious bay to which he gave the formidable name of Puerto de la Mar de Santo Tomas. Here he received a canoe-borne envoy from the cacique Guacanagari, who lived farther along the coast, urging him to come and visit. The envoy had brought the admiral an intricately wrought girdle from which hung a gold mask, and declared that his lord was eager to share all that he had-including, presumably, an abundance of gold.

This was welcome news to Columbus, whose depressed spirits just then were in need of some kind of revival. In the ten weeks since the fleet had made its first landfall, the argonauts had failed to find gold in any appreciable quantity.

On the day before Christmas, Columbus had set out at dawn to keep his appointment with the cacique. The ships made slow headway against light contrary winds and at nightfall were still several miles short of their destination. Rather than anchor for the night, Columbus elected to pursue his course along the uncharted coast, which was studded with hidden reefs and rife with deadly currents. At 11 P.M., we read in Columbus’ journal, he retired to his bed “because he had not slept for two days and a night.” The seaman manning the tiller, following the admiral’s example, turned the steering over to a young apprentice and likewise went to sleep.

“Our Lord willed that at 12 o’clock at night, [the sailors] having seen the Admiral go to his repose and the sea being calm as if in a porringer,” the journal continues, “all lay down and went to sleep and the currents carried the ship onto a sand bank.”

The lad at the tiller felt the jar as the Santa María grounded; he shouted. Columbus and the ship’s master ran out on deck, but already it was too late. Despite frantic efforts through the night to work the stricken vessel into deeper water, she only became more firmly embedded in the sand. By Christmas daybreak she lay recumbent in the surf, and Columbus gave orders to abandon her and lighter the cargo ashore.

Two men were sent in the ship’s boat to notify the cacique of the disaster. Guacanagari promptly ordered his people to go to Columbus’ assistance, and soon the scene of the wreck was swarming with canoes. They unloaded the ship and piled everything that was removable onto the shore, where it was placed under guard.

From time to time the cacique sent one of his relatives to console Columbus by weeping in his presence and begging him to feel no sorrow. It is doubtful that this did much for the admiral’s morale, but the chief soon found a more effective means of consolation for his distraught visitor. It required only a few presents of gold to change Columbus’ despondency to rejoicing. “As the king Guacanagari saw that the Admiral’s sorrow was lightened by the samples and news of the gold, he took great satisfaction therein and told the Admiral by words and signs that he knew where there was much gold near there; that he should be of good heart and he would have as much gold as he wished for,” wrote Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, the great contemporary historian of the West Indies.

By now Columbus was in a state of euphoria. He decided the Lord had willed that the ship should run aground there as a dramatic means of revealing the unexpected bounty of gold. In the raptures of his golden vision an idea occurred to Columbus that would be far more serious in its consequences than the loss of the ship. He would leave the crew of the wrecked vessel to make a settlement on the island and gather the promised gold, while he returned to Spain to report to the sovereigns and organize a second expedition. To this end he ordered the ship dismantled to provide timbers for a small fortress.

“I have ordered a tower and fortress to be constructed and, a large cellar, not because I believe there is any necessity on account of [the natives],” he noted in his journal. “I am certain the people I have with me could subjugate all this island … as the population are naked and without arms and very cowardly.”

Columbus decided to call the colony La Navidad (The Nativity), because it was born on Christmas day. He appointed Diego de Arana—cousin of his Córdoba mistress, the mother of his younger son, Ferdinand-as governor of the settlement, and named Pedro Gutiérrez, butler of the royal household, and one Rodrigo de Escobedo as Arana’s lieutenants.

The admiral spent a happy week of feasting and exchanging presents with his royal host. But by January 3 the euphoria had worn thin, and the nagging dilemma imposed by the continued absence of the Pinta found expression in his journal. He noted that if he had the Pinta with him, he could “collect a tone! [barrel] of gold,” but he dared not linger in further exploration for fear of some accident to the Nina, his sole remaining ship, that would hinder his return to Castile “to give news to the Sovereigns of all the things he had discovered.”


Columbus decided to wait no longer. Not even word that the cacique had ordered a statue of gold as large as the admiral himself which would arrive in ten days could sway him from his determination to leave immediately on the return voyage.

Father Las Casas relates that Columbus signalized his departure with a hortatory address to the thirty-nine sailors he was leaving behind as Spain’s first settlement in the New World. Las Casas summarized the speech in the Historia de lau Indias: They were to commend themselves at all times to God’s mercy; they were to respect and revere the cacique Guacanagari; they were to remain virtuous persons, strong and courageous, etc., and “Fourthly, he ordered them to do no harm or violence to any Indian man or woman or compel them to do anything against their will; above all, to refrain from any injury or violence to the women.”

Only an incurable visionary could have expected two score undisciplined young men, left to their own devices thousands of miles from the normal restraints of their own society amid a timid people whom they naturally regarded as their racial inferiors, to conduct themselves in this saintly manner. As Las Casas remarked, “In this the Admiral had more confidence in the Spaniards than warranted … and not only Spaniards but those of any other nationality which we know today. …”

On Friday, January 4, 1493, Columbus set sail in the Niña. Plagued by contrary winds, he made scant progress for two days. On Sunday morning a sailor who had been sent aloft to watch for hidden reefs descried the missing Pinta approaching from the east, her sails full-bellied in the fresh trade wind. Within the hour she drew alongside her sister caravel. The two ships sailed together to a suitable anchorage, and Martín Pinzón went aboard the Niña for a confrontation with Columbus.

It turned out that the Pinta had preceded Columbus to Haiti by more than two weeks and had been exploring the island’s north shore. According to Columbus’journal, Pinzón “sought to excuse himself, saying the separation [from the fleet] had been against his will and he gave his reasons but the reasons were all false.” Columbus does not explain why he considered them false. At any rate, he says he “dissimulated” his anger, pretending to accept his associate’s explanation so as not to give scope to the “evil works of Satan who desired to obstruct that voyage as he already had done.”

However, Columbus’ version of the meeting is at variance with credible evidence from other sources. Rather than the restrained exchange of amenities implied in the journal, a furious altercation apparently ensued. And the bitter quarrel was concerned not only with the Pinta ’s six-week absence from the fleet. The quarrel figured later in testimony in the Pleitos de Colón , the litigation initiated by Columbus’ older son, Diego, to compel restoration to the Columbus heirs of the title and authority of viceroy of the New World colonies, which in 1500 were revoked by the sovereigns. Francisco Medel, magistrate of the town of Huelva, talked to Martín Pinzón as he lay dying in the little monastery of La Rábida near his hometown of Palos. Thus Medel’s deposition in the Pleitos amounted to a deathbed statement from one of the principal actors in the drama.

Medel testified that, according to Pinzón, at the height of the altercation a furious Columbus threatened to have his associate hanged. “That I should deserve for having placed you in the honor in which you now find yourself,” Pinzón responded bitterly. He said Columbus accused him of exceeding his authority in setting out landmarks and taking possession of the island of Espanola in the name of the king during the Pinta ’s absence from the fleet.

Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, one of the three major contemporary historians of the discovery, emphasizes that during the angry scene on the deck of the Niña, Pinzón objected strenuously to Columbus’ determination to leave the flagship’s crew at La Navidad until it could be joined by a second expedition. Pinzón declared, wrote Oviedo, “that it was a bad thing that those Christians should be left so far from Spain, being so few, because they could not be provided for and would be lost. And to this purpose he said other things which the Admiral resented.”

Despite the argument, the two ships weighed anchor for Spain on January 8. During the journey, the Niña and Pinta lost contact again in a tempest off the Azores and went their separate ways by widely divergent routes. Almost incredibly, they reached their home port of Palos on the same day, March 15, 1493. Pinzón was terminally ill before he left his ship, and died a few days later in the monastery of La Rábida. Columbus went on in triumph to Barcelona, where the royal court then was in residence, to receive the accolade of the Catholic monarchs and authorization for a second expedition.

A fleet of seventeen ships was made ready in the Guadalquivir River at Seville. Cavaliers and peasants came flocking to Columbus’ banner, lured by the glitter of easy wealth implied in his florid description of the exotic new lands. Fifteen hundred men--no women--were chosen for the migration.

Among the passengers was Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician at the royal court, who signed on as fleet surgeon. Dr. Chanca wrote a lively report of the voyage to the municipal council of Seville which is perhaps the most authoritative eyewitness narrative of the fate of Spain’s first settlement in the New World.

Nine months to the day after the founding of La Navidad, the fleet left Cádiz, on September 25, 1493. Columbus undoubtedly had misgivings about the well-being of his colony despite his stubborn rejection of Pinzón’s angry warnings of disaster. But his anxiety to relieve it as soon as possible ran into continual delays and frustrations. Although the fleet took a much shorter route than the one followed on the first voyage, it was not until November 3 that land was sighted in the Windward Islands of the southern Caribbean. Dr. Chanca noted that Columbus’ flagship was a slow sailer and “many times the other ships had to reduce sail because we were far behind.” There also was a delay of several days when the ships were becalmed.

With one thing and another, it was November 22 when the fleet cleared another extensive island (Puerto Rico) and the flat eastern tip of Haiti (now the Dominican Republic) came into view. At first Columbus did not recognize the land as Española, Dr. Chanca wrote, and it was only “from information from the Indians we had with us that we suspected it was La Española.” The ships continued west until the voyagers sighted a landmark on Haiti’s north shore that Columbus thought he recognized, a high, rounded mountain which he had named Monte Cristi.

“We spent two days there to view the disposition of the land because it did not seem to the Admiral to be the place where he left the people to make a settlement,” Chanca reported. “We went ashore to study its disposition.”

The shore party not only confirmed the proximity of La Navidad but discovered a somber portent. Two human bodies were found on the bank of a river. They were too badly decomposed to determine whether they were natives or Europeans, but one body had a knotted cord around the neck, and the feet of the other were bound with a similar cord. On the following day two more corpses were found, one with a heavy beard. “Some of us suspected something was seriously wrong as the Indians are all beardless,” Dr. Chanca wrote.

With much apprehension, Columbus weighed anchor on November 27 for the short run to La Navidad. It was late in the day when the seventeen ships arrived at the reefs guarding the narrow entrance to the colony’s little harbor. Mindful of what happened to the Santa María at this same place, Columbus had the fleet anchor outside the harbor for the night. They were less than three miles from the beach, and the voyagers strained their eyes looking for some sign of human activity on shore, such as fires for cooking the evening meal. But no glimmer of light broke the dark outline of the forest.

Columbus ordered two cannon shots fired to alert the colony to the fleet’s arrival. There was no answering signal. “The people were much dejected and feared the worst,” Dr. Chanca wrote.

About midnight several natives came to the fleet in a canoe and asked to be taken to the admiral. One of them identified himself as a cousin of Guacanagari, and presented two gold masks to Columbus as a gift from the cacique. The visitors were asked how the Christians at La Navidad were faring. The Indians replied that they were well except that there had been some deaths from illness, and some others from disagreements among themselves.

The king’s cousin also presented Guacanagari’s regret for not coming to the fleet in person. The king was indisposed, it seemed, from a wound incurred in defending the Christians from an invasion by two neighboring caciques, one a truculent ruler named Caonabo, lord of the area where most of the gold was said to be found, and the other named Mayreni. Guacanagari’s village had been burned by the invaders, his cousin added.

The native envoys left before dawn, promising they would return later that day with Guacanagari. “With these parting words we were somewhat relieved,” Dr. Chanca commented.

Their relief was short-lived. In the morning Columbus sent a party of his officers, including Dr. Chanca, to the beach to investigate the situation at La Navidad. They were accompanied by an Indian interpreter who had been given the Christian name of Diego Cólon.

La Navidad was a scene of silent desolation as the shore party approached it from the beach. The little fortress which had been built from the timbers of Columbus’ wrecked flagship was in charred ruins. Some articles of clothing were scattered on the ground. A few natives were seen lurking on the edge of the forest but they vanished as the Spaniards came near. Later, however, another relative of Guacanagari’s appeared on the scene, and he and three of his companions were taken to Columbus in the ship’s boat. They confirmed his worst fears. Every man in the colony was dead, all thirty-nine of the sailors who had been his shipmates on his first great voyage. Most of them had been killed, the Indians told the admiral, in the invasion by the caciques Caonabo and Mayreni, who burned the fortress as well as Guacanagari’s nearby village.

“The next morning the Admiral went ashore with some of us and went to the site of the village and found it totally destroyed,” Dr. Chanca related. “We discussed a number of different theories as to what had happened; some suspected that Guacamari [ sic ] himself was the traitor and caused the deaths of the Christians; to others this appeared unlikely since the [chief’s] village had been destroyed.”

The bodies of eleven Spaniards were found in shallow graves overgrown with weeds. “All [the natives] said with one voice that Caonabo and Mayreni had killed them,” Dr. Chanca continued, “but along with this they expressed resentment that the Christians [each] had as many as three women and some four and we believed much evil resulted from their jealousy.”

Meanwhile Columbus waited in vain for Guacanagari’s promised appearance. At last he decided that if the chief could or would not come to him, he would go to the chief. Guacanagari had transferred his headquarters to a village of fifty huts about nine miles from the site of his ravaged town.

“The Admiral went ashore and all the principal persons with him, so well attired that their garb would have been appropriate in a principal city,” Chanca related. “When we arrived, we found [the chief] reclining on his bed, such as they use, suspended in the air.… He exhibited much sympathy, with tears in his eyes, for the death of the Christians and indicated as best he could how some had died of illness and others had gone to Caonabo to look for the gold mine and had died there and still others had been slain in the village. From the appearance of the bodies the deaths had occurred within the last two months.

“I and [another] surgeon from the fleet were present; the Admiral said to … Guacanagari that we were skilled in treating men’s infirmities and suggested he show us the wound.”

The cacique consented, and the two physicians loosened the bandage. Chanca said it was certain to him that the supposedly wounded thigh was in no worse shape than the other, although the chief pretended that it gave him much pain. “The Admiral did not know what to make of it; it seemed to him and to many others that they must dissimulate until the truth was better known.”

In his journal of the second voyage, Columbus recorded the declarations of natives who were familiar with the situation of the fortress. This journal is no longer extant, but both Las Casas and Ferdinand Columbus had access to it in writing their respective histories. Oviedo’s chronicle differs in minor detail from the others but concurs with them in substance.

“As none of those whom Columbus left in this island had any inclination to prudence or shame, they gave a bad account of their persons and thus forfeited their lives,” wrote Oviedo. “The Indians made it known how those Christians did many vicious things and robbed them of their wives and daughters and everything they had, as their fancy dictated. And with all this they acted as if each one was a law unto himself and they were insolent to the captain who had been left to command them and they strayed into the interior, a few at a time, so that all were slain.”


Additional details of the destruction of the colony were presented by Ferdinand Columbus: “A brother of the cacique Guacanagari along with some other Indians who could speak some words of Castilian talked to the Admiral. They said that very soon there began to be discord among the Christians and each one took whatever women and gold that he could and Pedro Gutiérrez and Escobedo [Arana’s lieutenants] killed a certain Jâcome and with nine others went with their women to a cacique called Caonabo, who was lord of the mines.

“The latter had them all killed and after many days Caonabo came with many of his people to La Navidad where only Diego de Arana held out with ten men who chose to stay with him to guard the fortress, all the others having scattered to various places in the island. Caonabo set fire at night to the houses where the Christians lived with their women.”

Ferdinand says the forlorn remnant of the colony was driven into the sea, where eight of them drowned, including Arana. Three others perished on the beach. With their deaths the colony ceased to exist.

A militant faction of the arriving colonists demanded that Columbus arrest Guacanagari for complicity in the massacre. Among the most vocal of this group was Father Bull, a Benedictine priest who had been assigned by the sovereigns to look after the spiritual needs of the new colony and begin the work of converting the natives to the Christian faith. Father Buil and Columbus soon became mortal enemies.

But Columbus had more pressing problems than an inquest into the La Navidad deaths. The fifteen hundred voyagers were exhausted from their long journey. Part of the stores of food which the ships had brought was rotting in the hot, humid climate. The last thing he needed was a confrontation with the natives.

A site for the settlement was hastily selected near the mouth of a river a few leagues east of the ill-fated La Navidad. Columbus named it La Isabela in honor of his royal patroness.

As if the curse of La Navidad fell on its successor, the short history of Isabela was one of unrelieved misery and despair. Famine, disease, and death were the daily companions of the pioneer settlers who had expected to find gold lying around in chunks for the taking.

“They were plunged into hard physical labor in constructing the works and the buildings,” Las Casas wrote. “The people all at once began to fall ill and many of them died so that there scarcely remained a man of the hidalgos and commoners who did not become terribly ill of the fever.… Supervening all the misfortunes was the great anguish they conceived in finding themselves without hope so far from their lands and finding themselves likewise defrauded of the riches which they had confidently expected.”

The site for Isabela had been badly chosen. It was in an unproductive part of the island with a poor harbor and exposed to strong winds from the north and west. Within three years Bartolomé Columbus, the energetic younger brother of the admiral, founded Santo Domingo on Haiti’s south shore. Isabela was abandoned, but its terrible memory lived on like a nightmare in the minds of the early Spanish colonists.

“There were many in this island of Espanola who would not venture, without fear, to go near Isabela after it became depopulated,” wrote Father Las Casas, who lived on Espanola from 1502 to 1527. “It was reported that one time toward the end of day, one or two men passing by the buildings of Isabela saw two files of men, like two choirs, in one of the streets. They appeared to be nobles and of the court, well-dressed, girded with swords and muffled in hooded cloaks such as those which were in fashion in Spain at that time. One of those to whom this vision appeared .. . saluted them and asked when and whence they came. They responded silently, only touching their hands to their hats in returning the salute. Then they removed their heads from their bodies, together with their hats, leaving them headless, and immediately disappeared.

“This vision and fantasy left those who witnessed it nearly dead and for many days they remained stricken with terror.”

The waning star of Columbus’ personal fortunes, which had shown so brightly at the end of the first voyage and dimmed so soon with the discovery of the massacre at La Navidad, found no resurgence with the move to the new capital at Santo Domingo. The unhappy island continued to be racked by incessant warfare with the harried natives; by recurring rebellions of the Spanish colonists and public hangings of the dissidents; by never-ending shortages and spartan rationing of food. The wretched economy could only be sustained by costly infusions of new capital and supplies from Spain, and by enslavement of the Indians. The sullen hostility of the colonists toward Columbus and his two brothers, who shared in the governing of Espanola, was reflected in reports by influential persons which poured into the royal court with increasing urgency.

At last, in the year 1500, Ferdinand and Isabella decisively intervened, sending a knight commander named Francisco de Bobadilla with plenary powers to take over the administration of Espanola. At the same time, they summarily dismissed Columbus from his high estate of viceroy and governor.

Unwisely, Columbus attempted to resist the takeover, claiming his authority from the sovereigns superior to that of Bobadilla. The latter responded by clapping Columbus and his brothers in irons and sending them as prisoners to Spain.

“With cruelty I have been cast into the depths,” Columbus wrote in anguish to Dona Juana de Torres, a lady who had befriended him at court. “I have come to such a state that there is none so vile who does not consider he may insult me.”

The sovereigns released the Columbus brothers from their chains and indulgently authorized the admiral to undertake another voyage. But by their firm decree he never set foot on Espanola again in the six years of life that remained to him. The first Spanish colonial offspring in the New World had come to a quick and bitter end.


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