Chronicles of America 

Preparations for the Voyage

In nautical skill, the scientific feature of seafaring, Columbus according to the most competent opinion was, however, little advanced. He claimed that on his Guinea trips he had verified Alfraganus's calculation of the length of a degree on the equator as 56% Italian miles. But, aside from the fact that at the period of these trips (1482-84) he could hardly have known of Alfraganus or his calculation, for he then presumably knew nothing of the Imago Mundi, of Pierre d'Ailly — a book possibly not then even published —there remains the further fact that verification was a process quite too complex for any means at his disposal. His claim, therefore, tends only to prove him guilty of what a stanch admirer does not hesitate to characterize as "insufferable braggadocío."

But, daunted as little by the obstacle of ignorance as by other obstacles, the would-be discoverer held unflinchingly to his role, and, when all was over and the triumph won, could bring himself to say: "I had from [our Lord] a spirit of intelligence. In regard to navigation He made me very intelligent; of Astrology He gave me what was sufficient; and also of Geometry and Arithmetic. He gave me an ingenious mind and hands apt in designing this sphere, and upon it the cities, mountains and the rivers, the islands and harbors, all in their proper place. In this time I saw and studied diligently all the books of Cosmography, History & of Philosophy, & of other sciences." Yet for all this confidence, if the voyage of 1492 had depended on the technical knowledge of Columbus, its history would be brief. Indeed, had it not been for Martín Alonso Pinzón, it would never have been made in that year.

Pinzón, we may recall, was in 1492 the chief citizen of Palos. After the Spanish sovereigns had decided to sanction and subvention the Columbian undertaking, they gave decree that of the three caravels required two should be furnished by the town of Palos in discharge of a feudal liability to the Crown, and Columbus on the 12th of May set out from Granada to make sure of the vessels. The pending expedition was unpopular in itself and still more unpopular in that its admiral was a foreigner. But at length Columbus obtained the three caravels — the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria (capitana). So far well, or fairly well, and then a balk. The seamen of Palos unanimously and persistently refused to embark. To them the project was "perilous, chimerical, and vain, " a subject of derision. Columbus had papers for the impressment of criminals, but to escape this necessity he went to Pinzón, who supplied the sailors on being assured of some share in the enterprise.

In respect to size, rig, and equipment, the three Columbian caravels were nearly the same. The Santa Maria, which was slightly the largest, measured about eighty feet in length, twenty-five feet in breadth, and fifteen feet in depth, and had a capacity of over two hundred tons. All were fully decked, had three masts, and, except upon the mizzen, were square rigged. The Santa Maria and Pinta had each a high poop-deck and forecastle; but the Nina, reputed the smallest of the three, had neither. All were good sailers, making as a flotilla an average speed of fifteen Italian miles an hour, and each had something of an armament.

The personnel of the expedition comprised some ninety seamen and thirty royal officials, servants, domestics, and cabin boys; but no friar or ecclesiastic was listed. In supreme command of the expedition was Columbus himself, on the Santa Maria; and in command of the Santa Maria was her owner, the cosmographer Juan de la Cosa. This vessel carried also two pilots, a grand constable, a physician, an archivist, and an interpreter versed in several tongues. The Pinta was commanded by Martín Alonso Pinzón; and one of its two pilots was Martín's brother Francisco; while as commander of the Nina sailed Vicente Yañes Pinzón, youngest brother of Martín Alonso, and one of the two future discoverers of subequatorial South America. The pilot was the owner, Pero Alonso Niño.

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