Chronicles of America 

Columbus Voyage of 1492

Columbus set sail from Palos on August 3, 1492, at sunrise. First, however, he had arranged for sending his young son Diego to Cordova, to be cared for by Beatrix Enríquez, with whom was his younger son Ferdinand. First also — supremely first! — he had made confession and solemnly received the Sacrament. As his ships cleared the bar of Saltes and gathered headway, naught but inspiring could have been the spectacle: the high prows, the huge square sails each emblazoned with its cross, the magnificent sweep of the rakish lateens athwart the towering sterns, the flags and streamers; the officers crowding the poop-decks, the sailors thronging the forecastles and crow's-nests — all saluting, many praying, some no doubt weeping, all crying "Adios!" How tremendous it all was! How much it meant!

As a mere feat of seamanship, however, this first recorded voyage across the Atlantic was not considerable. The flotilla left the Canary Island of Gomera on September 6, 1492, and shaped a course westward. The winds blew steadily astern; no storms arose; the resources of navigation were in no wise taxed. Indeed, on the 16th of September and often afterwards, Columbus notes that "they met with very temperate breezes so that there was great pleasure in enjoying the mornings, nothing being wanted but the song of nightingales. . . . The weather," he says, "was like April in Andalusia."

Apprehension nevertheless did not sleep; it lurked. Already solemn Teneriffe had raised above them in greeting — mayhap in warning! —its staff of fire. The needle, victim perchance of subtle necromancy, had begun straying from the pole. Grass, first in green tufts, then in fine masses, then in tangles and skeins with crabs enmeshed, that grass before which a Prince of Portugal had once turned back, was all about them.

And those winds, so balmy but so fatefully setting into the unknown West! Was it not all a snare of unseen Powers? There were murmurs — plots, it is said — to seize the Admiral unawares and hurl him overboard. Columbus, on his part, laughed at the fears of the sailors and made them big offers of wealth. Had he not the whole of Cathay before him?

That in his mind Columbus had Asia, the country of the Great Kaan, as in some sort a destination, cannot well be gainsaid if we are prepared to yield any substantial credence to his Journal as we have it. According to that document, he was expecting, as early as the 16th of September, to come upon "islands" but "made the main land to be more distant," and thought it better to go at once to the continent and afterwards to the islands. But of the events of this voyage, his though it was, Columbus was not sole arbiter.

Martín Alonso Pinzón, by circumstances and also perhaps by agreement, was an associate; and in his mind, evidently, the destination was Cipangu or Japan. As will be recalled, he had brought from Rome a "chart" and a " book, " both of which he had handed to Columbus. Now in the "book" was this sentence: "In navigating by the Mediterranean Sea to the end of Spain, and thence in the direction where the Sun sinks between the North and the South, you will find a land of Sypanso [Cipangu] which is so fertile and so rich that by aid of its resources you will [be able to] subjugate both Africa and Europe." Furthermore, inspired by the " book, " and also by Marco Polo, Pinzón in a recruiting appeal to the seamen of Palos had said: "Friends, come with us! Come with us on this voyage! Here you are in poverty. Come with us, for according to accounts you will find the houses with roofs of gold, and you will return rich and prosperous!"

When, therefore, on the 25th of September, Martín Alonso called Columbus's attention to the fact that, according to a " chart " which both were using, the flotilla ought to be sighting "certain islands, " we are not surprised, for it was islands, or at least the island of Japan, and not a mainland, in which the interest of Pinzón centered. And when, on the 7th of October, Columbus in deference to the wish of Pinzón actually changed direction from west to west-southwest; and when, on the 12th, land, Guanahani or Watling Island, rewarded the change, it was natural that both Columbus and Pinzón should be convinced that they were in an archipelago of Asiatic Indía, with Japan not far away.

The expedition now had traversed 1123 leagues, or 4492 Italian miles, from the Canaries; and yet, as Ferdinand Columbus informs us, 700 or 750 leagues (3000 miles) was the distance at which the Admiral had told his men that he expected to find land. If this "land" was the Antillia-Salvagio Reyella Group (West Indies or Antilles), as seems probable, it is represented on Behaim's globe (through a composite Antillia) as from 2200 to 2500 miles west from the Canaries; and it was at about this distance, on and near the 25th of September, that both Columbus and Pinzón began anxiously scanning the horizon. The fact that 3000 miles was given out by Columbus as the distance to be covered before land might be looked for, may be explained by his wish to mislead his crews into the belief that they were committed to a longer unbroken voyage than they really were. He, in fact, states repeatedly, in his Journal, that he kept a dual reckoning, one of actual distances for himself and one of minimized distances for his men. How he could have contrived to do this, with half a dozen pilots and a score or more of others at his elbow more competent at rating a ship's progress than himself, "goodness, " as Lord Dunraven puts it, "only knows."

A landfall, in the case of any fifteenth century voyage of discovery, was momentous, but especially was it so in the case of a Spanish voyage. Commanders fell on their knees and gave thanks; crews chanted the Gloria in Excelsis Deo and crowded into the rigging and tops; flags were run up and guns were fired. So was it at Guanahani on October 12, 1492. Clad in armor, over which, true to his taste in color and to his instinct for effect, he had thrown the crimson robe of an Admiral of Castile, Columbus, with the furled royal standard grasped in his left hand, bent low to the earth, which he saluted. His actions were imitated by the captains of the Pinta and Nina, Martín Alonso Pinzón and his brother Vicente Yañes, who bore standards emblazoned each with a green cross. Then, rising, Columbus summoned to him the royal notary and the royal inspector as witnesses, unfurled the royal standard, drew his sword, and proclaimed the island the possession henceforth of the Crown of Spain, naming it San Salvador.

So the day ended; but early the next morning, as we are told, the natives gathered on the shore in large numbers, and, destitute of beards themselves, looked with wonder on the bearded Spaniards, on Columbus in particular. To his beard and those of his men they "reached out their fingers, and viewed attentively the whiteness of the Spanish hands and faces."

On the 28th of October the expedition discovered Cuba, and on the 5th of December, Hayti or Española. Everywhere Columbus was charmed with the scenery. "The herbage is like that of April in Andalusia." Andalusia serves always as the standard of comparison. So pleasant are the songs of birds that "it seems as though a man could never wish to leave the place." Parrots rise in "flocks so dense as to conceal the sun." In Cuba are "palm trees differing from those in Spain and Guinea." As for the inhabitants of the new regions, they are "docile," "very gentle and kind," going "naked without arms and without law." But the things which make a particular appeal to the discoverer are five: gold, religion, spices, Cipangu, and Cathay.

Gold he began inquiring about from the natives on the day following the landing. "I was attentive and took trouble to ascertain, " he says, "if there was gold." But gold, in the Journal, is a theme hardly more emphasized than religion. On the very day of the landing Columbus writes: "I believe that they [the natives] would easily be made Christians as it appeared to me they had no sect."

He was equally attentive to any mention of spices. "According as I obtain tidings of gold or spices, I shall settle what must be done." Moreover it is in connection with spices that the Journal introduces Cipangu and Cathay. Having, on the 7th of October, given over the search for the "mainland," Columbus on the 21st speaks of proceeding to Cipangu, which he identifies with Cuba because of the latter's "size and riches." It is better, he says, to "inspect much land until some very profitable country is reached, my belief being that it will be rich in spices." And on the 24th he resumes: "On the spheres that I saw [before leaving Spain], and on the paintings of world-maps, Cipangu is in this region." Then, on the 26th of October, the subject is dropped with the remark: "I departed . . . for Cuba, for, by the signs the Indians made of its greatness and of its gold and pearls, I thought that it must be the one — that is to say, Cipangu."

But the mainland recurs in his thoughts; and on the 30th he decides, from a statement by the Indians, that Cuba itself is the mainland of Asia, with Cathay and the Great Kaan somewhere therein; and that he must send to the latter the credentials he bears from Ferdinand and Isabella. Accordingly, on the 2d of November, he dispatches from a point on the Cuban coast his official interpreter, Luis de Torres, a converted Jew, with a party carrying " specimens of spices, " to "ask for the King of that land." To him they are to deliver the credentials, and from him they are to inquire "concerning certain provinces, ports, and rivers, of which the Admiral has notice."

Later, Columbus identified Cipangu with Hayti; but Cuba he consistently continued to regard as the mainland, peering expectantly into its bays and up its streams for "populous cities" such as the Kinsay of Marco Polo and of the world maps, maps like Fra Mauro's of 1457-59, which he "saw" before leaving Spain. Having completed his voyage by "finding what he sought, " though manifestly not "populous cities," Columbus set sail from the eastern end of the island of Hayti for home on January 16, 1493.

Two occurrences hastened his return. On November 21, 1492, Martín Alonso Pinzón, impatient for the discovery of Cipangu and the realization of those dreams of gold on the strength of which he had secured enlistments at Palos, had gone off in the Pinta for some prospecting of his own. Then, on Christmas night, the Santa Maria had been wrecked, leaving the Admiral with only the Nina wherein to continue his explorations. Thus handicapped, he had been forced to build on Espanola (Hayti) a fortress, La Navidad, where he left thirty-seven of his men, and crowded into the Nina the remainder.

Pinzón had rejoined the expedition on January 6, 1493, but the Admiral was much vexed and not disposed to parley or linger. Nor is his vexation hard to understand. Columbus was the titular and technical head of the expedition, but in reality he was much the servant of his lieutenant, for Pinzón was a Spaniard, the friend and fellow-townsman of the crews, who would not have endured to see him disciplined.

In strong contrast to the voyage out, the voyage back was tempestuous. Storms began on the 12th of February and so grew in violence that on the 14th Columbus placed in a barrel a parchment inscribed with an account of his discoveries and committed it to the sea. But he succeeded in making port in the Portuguese island of Santa María, one of the Azores, whence he sailed for Castile. More storms delayed him, but on the 4th of March the Nina entered the Tagus and anchored off Rastelo. Of the fate of the Pinta, meanwhile, nothing had been known since the 14th of February, when she had disappeared running before the wind.

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