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"The greatest event in world history, excepting the birth and death of Christ..." 
Francisco Lopez de Gomara (1552)

Perhaps the most famous explorer was Christopher Columbus. Born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451 to a weaver, young Columbus first went to sea at the age of fourteen. Shipwrecked near the Portuguese coast in 1476, he made his way to great port City of Lisbon, where his younger brother, Bartholomew was an expert chart maker. As a young man, he settled in Portugal and married a woman of noble background,  Dona Felipa, who died soon after his son, Diego, was born (c.1480). In 1485, Columbus and his young son Diego moved to Spain.

Like most learned men of his time, Columbus knew the world was round and shared the theory that a ship could eventually reach the Far East from the opposite direction. Mapmakers had no knowledge of North and South America or the Pacific Ocean. They did accept Marco Polo's erroneous location for Japan--2,400 km (1,500 mi) east of China -- and Ptolemy's underestimation of the circumference of the Earth and overestimation of the size of the Eurasian landmass. Columbus believed that Japan was about 4,800 km (3,000 mi) to the west of Portugal --a distance that could be sailed in existing vessels. Engaged as a sugar buyer in the Portuguese islands off the west coast of Africa  by a Genoese mercantile firm, he met pilots and navigators who believed in the existence of islands farther west. 

Thus Columbus was but one among many who believed one could reach land by sailing west.  His uniqueness lay rather in the persistence of his dream and his determination to realize this “Enterprise of the Indies,” as he called his plan. 

By the 1400s, the passages to the East were denied to the Christian West by the Muslims who controlled the main overland routes to the Orient. Bandits, desert heat and sand storms, as well as other hazards eventually made Europe's alternate overland routes too dangerous and expensive. A new route, by sea, was the challenge.

For a decade, Columbus approached the Portuguese king and the Spanish monarchs to obtain a grant to explore possible trade routes to the west.

Contrary to many stories, Queen Isabella did not have to pawn her jewelry to finance the expedition

By the late 13th century, the Spanish Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon had reconquered most of the Muslim-controlled territory. In 1479 the two kingdoms were united as a result of the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. The last Muslim kingdom, Granada, was reconquered in 1492.

 After turning him down many times, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reconsidered as Columbus was preparing to take his enterprise to France. Columbus promised to bring back gold, spices, and silks from the Far East, to spread Christianity, and to lead an expedition to China. Contrary to popular belief, the Queen did not have to sell any jewelry to fund the exhibition.  

The voyage was financed in part by a syndicate of seven noble Genovese bankers resident in Seville (the group was linked to Américo Vespucci, who managed funds belonging to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici ). The shipbuilding family from Palos, the Pinzons, besides fulfilling a town obligation to the crown by providing two ships, were also obligated by Columbus to put up a 1/8 share.

1st Voyage 
Only 90 men made the first voyage of discovery from Palos Spain. The ships were quite tiny by modern standards -- no longer than a tennis court, and less than 30 feet wide. The Santa Maria had 40 men aboard, the Pinta, 26, and the Nina, 24. The Nina was captained by Martin Alonzo Pinzon. The Pinta, a was captained by Pinzon's brother, Vicente Yanez. Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria,  was  a large nao  with a round hull compared to the lightly built caravels with narrow hulls. The Santa Maria was slow and unwieldy during the long ocean voyage. 

Early on the morning of October 12th land was indeed sighted, and a landing party arrived on an island in the Bahamas and named it San Salvador. It had been thirty-three days since the three ships had left the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Africa. The natives must have been surprised to hear that their island now belonged to Spain. Over the next few weeks landings were also made on Cuba, named Juana by Columbus, and Española, now known as Hispaniola and shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. 

Martin  Pinzon was unwilling to acknowledge Columbus' authority during the famous voyage. On 21 November, 1492, he deserted Columbus off Cuba, hoping to be the first to discover the imaginary golden island of Osabeque. He was the first to discover Haiti (Hispaniola), and the river where he landed (now the Porto Caballo) was long called after him the River of Martin Alonso. He carried off thence four men and two girls, intending to steal them as slaves, but he was compelled to restore them to their homes by Columbus, whom he rejoined on the coast of Haiti on 6 January, 1493.

Columbus' ships covered approximately 150 miles a day. His seafaring instincts were extraordinary. Columbus, relied on "dead reckoning,"  which used not only navigational instruments but also experience, intuition, observations, and guesswork to determine his ships' positions

2nd Voyage

   Christopher Columbus departed Spain on September 25, 1493, on his second voyage to the New World. 17 assorted vessels and over 1200 men made up "The Grand Fleet" in an attempt to establish a permanent Spanish colony. His destination was La Navidad, off the north coast of Haiti, where, during his first voyage he had left 39 men in a fortress built from the wreckage of the Santa Maria. Arriving nearly two months later, on November 28, 1493, Columbus found the makeshift fortress burned and all his men dead, probably killed by the fierce Carib Indians who often raided coastal settlements.

During his second voyage, Columbus was told by the Indians of Espanola (Haiti), that Black people had been to the island before his arrival.
"there had come to Hispaniola people who have the tops of their spears made of a metal which they call quanin, of which he had sent samples to the Sovereigns to have them assayed, when it was found that of 32 parts, 18 were gold, six of silver and eight of copper."
 These spears, sent back to Spain on a mail boat, were identical to the proportion then being forged in African Guinea.


3rd Voyage:
Columbus left the port of Sanlucar in southern Spain on May 30, 1498 with six ships. Leaving the Canary Islands on June 19, the fleet split into two squadrons: three ships to sail directly for Hispaniola with supplies for the colonists, and the other three to explore further south. The fleet was becalmed in the Doldrums, an area off the coast of equatorial Africa notorious for its lack of winds, for eight days and arrived in the West Indies short of fresh water. After changing course to north by east, the fleet sighted an island in the west at noon that same day. Because the island had three hills, Columbus named it Trinidad, after the Holy Trinity. 

The crew became the first Europeans to see the continent of South America as they obtained water on the south coast of Trinidad in the Gulf of Paria. This included the first women colonists, who Columbus had been allowed  to recruit at the ratio of one woman for every ten emigrants. Some of his crew went ashore and found natives using colorful handkerchiefs of symmetrically woven cotton in the same style the Moors had brought to Europe from West Africa. They also noted that married women wore cotton panties (bragas), also a likely West African Muslim influence.

Moreover, Columbus modified his belief in a round earth when his navigational readings detected the bulge in the earth at the equator. He proposed that the earth was shaped like a pear with a rise "like a woman's breast" on which rested the "Terrestrial Paradise" or Garden of Eden, to which no man could sail without the permission of God.

"God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John [Rev. 21:1] after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it."  Columbus 1500  

 After a short time exploring the coast, Columbus set sail for  Hispaniola on a northwest by north course. Arrivals in the new City of Santo Domingo on August 19, 1498 found open hostility to Columbus' continued rule. Eventually the dispute was resolved when Ferdinand and Isabela appointed Francisco de Bobadilla as royal commissioner, with powers above those of Columbus himself. Bobadilla first order of business was to send the Admiral and his two brothers Bartolome and  Diego back to Spain in shackles in  October of 1500. 

 4th Voyage
"Columbus made his fourth voyage from Spain to the Americas in 1502. He was such a sure navigator by then that the 3500-mile voyage took a mere 21 days. But he did not arrive happy. At Santo Domingo on June 29, Columbus requested entry into the harbor for his five ships, and he urged the governor to detain a 30-ship fleet ready to sail to Spain. He warned a terrible storm was brewing. The governor and his retinue mocked Columbus as a phony fortune-teller. Not only did the governor order the fleet to sail but denied Columbus entry into the harbor.
     "May God take you!' fumed Columbus. That was always his strongest curse.
     Once again Columbus was thwarted by dull, proud people. He was no gypsy fortune-teller but the sea captain supreme. The mix of oily swells from the southeast, abnormal tide, heaviness in the air, aching arthritis, wispy cirrus clouds streaming high overhead, and a magnificent crimson sunset meant only one thing: a savage hurricane was coming from the north or east! Denied the harbor, Columbus anchored his ships off the southwest shore of the island with protection from north and west. If anchors broke loose the winds would drive them out to sea, not into shore. The 30 ships of the fleet sailed east, then north through the Mona Passage. Barely underway into the Atlantic, the gold-laden fleet was hammered by ferocious winds. Within hours 20 ships sank with all hands. Nine others were driven ashore and battered to bits. One ship of the fleet survived. A fortune in gold, 29 ships and 500 men were lost.
     Columbus, with every anchor of his five caravels down, bitterly wrote in his journal during the raging hurricane: 'What man ever born, not excepting Job, would not have died of despair when in such weather - seeking safety for son, brother shipmates and self - was forbidden the land and the harbors that he, by God's will and sweating blood, had won for Spain!'
     But once again the master of the sea prevailed. Columbus lost not one ship from the deadly storm, not one man…
"[source: Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus by Samuel Eliot Morison, 1942 as posted at 
 Sam Wellman's Biography Site at

  The Time of Caravels

The Nina Originally lateen-rigged, she was squared-rigged by Columbus during a stopover in the Canary Islands on the first voyage.  The Libro de Armadas in the Archivo Generale de Indias in Seville mentioned that the ship carried 10 breech-loading swivel guns, called bombardas.  The Nina made 4 more voyages to the new world after the 1492/93 trip. The original Captain, during the first voyage, was Vincente Yanez Pinzon, but after the loss of the Santa Maria, Columbus became the captain. Vincente Yanez  later discovered the Amazon on an independent voyage. Her given name was 'Santa Clara' but was always called 'Nina', after her master-owner Juan Nino of Moguer. She was with Colombus on his second and third voyage, and carried some cargo to Espagnola/Hispagnola on two other occasions. In 1499, the historical caravel was sold.

The Pinta made several more voyages across the Atlantic until 1500.  Vincente Yanez Pinzon commanded the Pinta when she as the flagship for the discovery of the Amazon river.  In July 1500, la Pinta was caught in a hurricane and went down in the vicinity of the Turks and Caicos Islands. In 1978 the first serious expedition to locate the Pinta was undertaken by Carribean Venture,Inc. in the Turks & Caicos, but misleading information and lack of money ended the expedition before the wreck was discovered.

 [F] 1492: an ongoing voyage 
Best historical exhibit on line   
information about the ships of many of the world explorers from an archeological standpoint. 

Return of the Caravels
Return of the Caravels at amazon.comBy Antonio Lobo Antunes (Translated by Gregory Rabassa) Arguably Portugal's greatest living author, who writes using narrative collages and juxapostions. Here the famous Vasco da Gama and his crew dock in modern Lisbon 'The Return of the Caravels' Reviewed by Alan Kaufman at sfgate

Get it at amazon
Hardcover - 208 pages (March 12, 2002)
Grove Press; ISBN: 0802117082 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.79 x 8.22 x

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