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It Ain’t Necessarily So

April 2024
1min read

Every schoolchild knows the name of Columbus’ flagship when he discovered America: the Santa Maria . Right? Wrong, probably. Edward T. Stone, author of the article in our April/May, 1978, issue on La Navidad, Columbus’ first settlement in the New World, sends us some surprising information derived from his many years of study in Spanish archives:

“From my research, I have become convinced that the flagship was never known in Columbus’ lifetime as the Santa Maria . Columbus in his Journal invariably referred to her as ‘La Capitana’ or ‘The Flagship.’ Columbus’ great admirer and the major historian of the Discovery, Father Las Casas, never called her by the name, either. He referred to her as ‘La Capitana’ or simply as ‘La Nao’ (‘The Ship’). Nowhere in any of Columbus’ extant journals and letters nor in Las Casas’ Historia will you find the name Santa Maria with reference to Columbus’ ship on the First Voyage.

“Oviedo, the second of the major contemporary historians, in his two specific references to the ship, called her ‘La Gallega’ because of her Galician origin around the Bay of Biscay. In court testimony, two witnesses referred to her as the Mariagalante , which undoubtedly was her registered name. Mariagalante may be roughly translated as ‘Gay Mary’ or ‘Flirtatious Mary,’ a name which Columbus and the pious Las Casas may have deliberately shunned as being out of character with what they considered the sacred mission of the First Voyage.

“Of the contemporary historians, only Ferdinand Columbus, illegitimate son of the Discoverer, called his father’s ship the Santa Maria . But Ferdinand’s Historie is replete with factual errors, and it is likely that he confused the Mariagalante with a ship actually named Santa Maria , which took part in the Third Voyage. Thus the error was perpetuated by later generations of historians who used Ferdinand Columbus as a prime source.”

Santa Maria , however, is a grand old name, and it may be some time before the correction is accepted out there where the first grade eagerly propagates the gospel of history.

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