The First Voyage of Columbus

Crossing Over | Land Ho! | Bahamas | Cuba | Hispañola | Return to Spain

On board the Santa Maria, in company with the Niña and the Pinta, Columbus sailed from Palos in Spain. The first stop of the three ships would be the Canary Islands. This was the place where the final preparations for the great adventure were made. Some repairs had to be effected especially on the Pinta. The Rudder had become "unshipped" or disconnected. Columbus, and the sailing master suspected that this had been done purposely by members of the crew who really did not want to make the journey.1 This was an indication that the crew was not entirely behind the expedition.

First Voyage of Columbus

On reaching the Canaries, Admiral Columbus actually considered leaving the Pinta behind as it was taking on water. But he could not find a suitable replacement for the ship. So a fairly long lay-over was made to repair the ship. Other provisions were brought on the ships and they departed to the west on 6 September 1492.

Crossing the Atlantic

Columbus kept two logs of the distance travelled. The one he showed to the crew showed they had not gone as far as Columbus believed. He did not want them to think that they were too far from home. On the 14th of September some terns were spotted. This was a bird that was known to stay fairly close to land. Columbus thought this a sign that they were getting close. Yet land still had not been sighted by the 16th. The Captain of the Pinta, however, was enthusiastic enough to press on ahead. But about the 18th of September the ships hit a calm, which considerably slowed their progress.

But the winds picked up again on about the 22nd. There were even some winds that blew to the north-east which heartened the crew who thought that the winds would only blow them to the west. They wished to be assured that they could regain Spain. On the 25th they thought they had sighted land, but it turned out to be some clouds on the horizon. This must have been discouraging to both the crews and captains, especially since they had access to a chart that pictured some fictional islands in their vicinity.3

The days slowly pass by. September moved into October, and a silent tension between the Admiral and his crew seems to grow, underlined by the fact that he felt constantly compelled to minimize the actual distance travelled. Throughout the journey the sea-farers took any small token as a sign of land, bits of seaweed, crabs, birds, whales, and even a drizzling rain. On the 7th of October another mistaken land-sighting was made, just increasing the tension more. On the 10th of October the discontent of the crew, who were certain they were on a fools errand, was beginning to come to a head. They complained to Admiral Columbus. Columbus argue and cajoled and expressed his determination to go forward4.

Land Is Sighted

Finally, land was sighted on the 12th of October 1492. There was some dispute over who actually spotted land first. The king and queen had offered a reward for the first to see land. Columbus claimed the reward based on the fact that he had seen lights and pointed them out to a few members of the crew. Rodrigo de Triana spotted land in the morning, but Columbus claimed the reward for himself based on the lights he had seen. There is some dispute over the particular island found. What is certain is that it was in the Bahamas and possibly Watling's Island.

The joy of reaching land was mixed with wonder at meeting the natives. These he described as naked, poor, friendly, impressionable, and quick to learn.5 From his account of meeting with the natives on the 13th of October, Columbus was very interested in finding gold. The natives has some which they wore in their noses, but they professed there was a king to the south that had great cups full of the ore. This yearning for gold drove him, after only a brief stay, to continue searching for Cipango (Japan) which he was certain was near.

Sailing in the Bahamas

On the 14th he sailed beyond the island he called San Salvador and saw so many islands that he had some difficulty decided where to head. Finally, he shaped a course for the biggest island he could see. At every island he claimed the discovery for the King and Queen of Castile. He traded with the natives, most of which he found friendly and curious. Columbus always returned the sentiments. He helped the Indians as much as he could, often saying that this would ensure that when other Spanish ships came to the Island they would be well received.

Though not a detailed observer, Columbus did take note of the new lands he was exploring. He was most concerned with their positions, but he also discussed their agriculture, food, and the remarkable flora and fauna. He seemed especially curious to note that there were no mammal "quadrupeds" such as sheep, cows, or pigs. He did, however, find some dogs on the third island.

Columbus in Cuba

On the 28th Columbus reached Cuba, which he had been sure was "Cipango" or Japan. He knew he had found a good sized island, for he came to a river that was relatively wide that his ships could sail into. He was fascinated by Cuba. It had highlands, was very large, and seemed more temperate that the low lying Bahamas. He was not greeted in a friendly manner. At first, most of the natives ran and hid from him. Finally, he sent an Indian whom he had with him to talk to some men in a village. He convinced them that the Spanish meant no harm. They sent messengers over the island announcing the presence of Admiral Columbus. Columbus spent the remainder of October here and much of November.

In the course of their dealings with the native Cubans, the Spaniards discovered tobacco, and were impressed with the cotton, growing wild everywhere. On the 21st of November while still cruising the coast of Cuba the Pinta under Martin Alonso Pinzon separated from the other ships and travelled east, exploring the Inaqua, Caicos, and Grand Turk Islands. Although Columbus had always commented on his competence, an animosity between Pinzon and Columbus seems to have arisen. Pinzon decided to go his own way because he thought he could better find gold on his own.

Hispañola and the Wreck of the Santa Maria

As the Santa Maria and the Niña approached the Island which would be named Hispañola they began to hear more stories of the Carib Indians, who ate other people. Initially Columbus discounted some of the talk. In early December. At Hispañola he found bays, and cultivated fields, although the inhabitants he found elusive. He finally got to talk to the natives by capturing a young woman, then treating her well and sending her among her own people with some crew-members. Columbus seemed very fond of Hispañola as it reminded him of Spain. In his journal he comments on the beauty and peacefulness of the people, as well as their industriousness, especially in growing yams, or sweet potatoes.

Off Tortuga Columbus was finding more gold, but it still was not found in large quantities. He spend much of December off the coast of Northern Hispañola, trading, and dealing with the Indians, until on Christmas eve a remarkable disaster occurred. Columbus went below to sleep for the night. The officer which was to command the watch decided to nap as well and left the helm of the ship in the charge of a boy. At about midnight on Christmas eve, 24 December, the Santa Maria ran aground. The Admiral tried everything he could do to save the ship, including cutting away the masts to lighten the ship and take her off the sandbar, but soon the ship began to break up and had to be abandoned. The crew of the Niña and the natives on shore in canoes helped to unload the doomed ship.

Columbus believed that the destruction of the Santa Maria was a sign from heaven that a settlement should be built on the spot. He hardly had much choice as the Niña could not carry its own crew plus the crew of the Santa Maria. This would be the first attempt at a settlement by Europeans since the Norse had landed in Newfoundland. The fort was built partly of the timbers of the Santa Maria and was provided much of the provisions from that ship. The garrison would include many skilled tradesmen, a carpenter, a gunner, a caulker and a cooper. It would have a boat, seeds for planting and every other provision. Their mission would be to find the source of the gold which was more plentiful in this region than anywhere else they had visited previously. The fort was to be called La Navidad because the wreck had occurred on the Nativity of Christ.6 44 men were left with the ship.

Columbus Returns to Spain

This incident helped to decide Columbus that it was time to return to Spain to report his discoveries. Also, it was reported to him that Pinzon and the Pinta had been seen in a bay further east along the coast of Hispañola. He may have been thinking that it was best to take this "loose cannon" back to Spain. As 1493 began, Columbus started to gather supplies for the journey back to Spain. Meanwhile, he was very suspicious of Pinzon, as well as the captain of the Niña who was a brother of Pinzon. The two ships sailed in company down the coast edging their way eastward. Pinzon captured four men and two women. Columbus forced Pinzon to release them. Columbus was determined to treat with the people honorably as he said they were subjects of the Spanish Crown.

Throughout his travels thus far, Columbus had seen few weapons. However, two days before they were to set sail for Spain the crew ran into people they thought were Caribs or Cannibals. There was a minor skirmish between men from the ships who had been sent ashore and the Indians. Two of the Indians seem to have been wounded. On the 16th of January the Niña and the Pinta set sail for Spain.

The journey back proved more grueling than the journey out. About the 12th of February they hit heavy seas. The reckoning of the location differed between the pilots and the admiral. The storm raged so fiercely that the Pinta became separated. The crew on the Niña thought they were lost and drew lots to determine that one or several should go on a pilgrimage if they should return home safely. All were to attend a mass as soon as they reached shore. Columbus drew first and he was one of those selected to go on the pilgrimage. Columbus then wrote a separate account of the journey, rolled it in wax, stuck it in a barrel and threw it over the side of the ship. He thought if the ship went down that some miracle might bring the barrel to a mariner and that on opening the letters inside might forward to the king and queen.

About the 15th of February the storm ceased. Columbus reckoned they were near the Canary Islands. It turns out they were in the Azores which were controlled by the Portuguese. Columbus, his crew exhausted, went to drop anchor near one of the Islands and promptly lost it. It is a good indication of how tired the crew and admiral were from the long journey and especially the storm. They had been very careful of their anchors for the entire journey because in the West Indies there would be no way to replace them. They found a decent harbor and came to shore. To fulfill the vow of the sailors that they should go to a church on shore, half the sailors went to a nearby church. They were promptly arrested by the governor of the island and a body of troops.

He was forced to make his escape from the island with only half his crew, most of whom did not know the proper running of the ship. He also needed to make some repairs. He flitted around the Azores trying to get the stores he needed.7 Making threats and cajoling, Columbus went back to the island where his crew had been taken. He finally won their release. Although he had not acquired the ballast he thought he needed for the rest of the trip, Columbus continued on as the winds were fair for his destination. Finally, they hit mainland Europe at about Lisbon. Here they got blasted by another storm. Columbus was sure they would break up. But they persevered. The Niña rode into the port and boldly sent to the King of Portugal to allow him to refit.

An armed gun-boat was sent to greet Columbus, it was demanded that he talk to agents of the King. He refused, saying he was Admiral of the Ocean Sea and he had letters from the King and Queen of Castile as his commission and protection. The Captain of the gunboat relented and promised to help Columbus get what he needed. News got around about what he had accomplished and soon many people came out to his ship to visit him. The King of Portugal himself treated Columbus well. Paying for his refit and sending him on his way. On the 15th of March, Columbus pulled into port in Spain.

The news of his voyage sped throughout Europe and soon would inspire many expeditions. Columbus was suddenly famous and for his second voyage would command a large fleet, with colonists.

<< Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria
The Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus >>

  1. The Journal of Christopher Columbus, (Monday 6 August entry)
  2. Ibid. (10 September entry)
  3. Ibid. (25 September entry)
  4. Ibid. (11 October entry)
  5. Ibid. (11 October entry)
  6. Ibid. (27 December entry)
  7. Ibid. (21 February entry)

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