Admiral of the Ocean Sea: I. The Discovery of America





AT the end of the year 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science, and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past.

Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom. Every effort to recover the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, touchstone of Christian prestige, had been a failure. The Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had overrun most of Greece, Albania, and Serbia; presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna. For half a century each successive pope had proclaimed a new crusade, but Europe regarded these appeals to duty as a mere device to raise money; and no wonder, since papal diplomacy was as cynical as any. Innocent VIII even used a Turkish prince as hostage to extract money and support from the sultan in order to checkmate France, whose king was showing unmistakable signs of embarking on the easy adventure of invading Italy instead of the hard one of fighting Turks. One great scandal of Christendom, the great schism, had indeed been overcome, but only at the cost of suppressing reforms within the Church, thus rendering the greater and more permanent protestant schism inevitable; and in 1492 the papacy touched bottom when Rodrigo Borgia, a corrupt ecclesiastical politician, was elected to the throne of Saint Peter as Alexander VI.

If one turned to the Holy Roman Empire, secular counterpart to the Catholic Church, the picture was no brighter. The amiable but listless Emperor Frederick III, driven from his Austrian lands by the king of Hungary, had finally retired to dabble in astrology and alchemy; his son Maximilian was full of promise but short in performance. In England the Wars of the Roses were over, but few expected the House of Tudor to last long. Only in the Iberian peninsula, in Portugal and Castile, were there signs of new life; but these kingdoms were too much on the periphery of Europe to alter the general picture of degeneracy and decay.

Copyright 1941, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

With the practical dissolution of the Empire and the Church’s loss of moral leadership, Christians had nothing to which they might cling. The great principle of unity represented by emperor and pope was a dream of the past that had not come true. Belief in the institutions of their ancestors was wavering. It seemed as if the devil had adopted as his own the principle ‘divide and rule.’ Throughout Western Europe the general feeling was one of profound disillusion, cynical pessimism, and black despair.

One may catch the prevailing mood by reading the final pages of the Nuremberg Chronicle. The colophon of this stately old folio, dated July 12, 1493, declares that it contains ‘the events most worthy of notice from the beginning of the world to the calamity of our time.’ Lest any reader feel an unjustified optimism, the Nuremberg chroniclers place 1493 in the Sixth or penultimate Age of the world, and leave six blank pages on which to record events from the date of printing to the Day of Judgment. Such, one may say, was the common expectation of serious thinkers in 1492. Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Niña scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon, with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany, and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and astounding. ‘A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.’1

Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory, and accomplishment. His mediæval faith impelled him to a modern solution — expansion. If the Turk could not be pried loose from the Holy Sepulchre by ordinary means, let Europe seek new means overseas; and he, Christopher the Christ-bearer, would be the humble yet proud instrument of Europe’s regeneration. So it turned out, although not as he anticipated. The First Voyage to America that he accomplished with a maximum of faith and a minimum of technique, a bare sufficiency of equipment and a superabundance of stoutheartedness, gave Europe new confidence in herself, more than doubled the area of Christianity, enlarged indefinitely the scope for human thought and speculation, and ’led the way to those fields of freedom which, planted with great seed, have now sprung up to the fructification of the world.’2

In his faith, his deductive methods of reasoning, his unquestioning acceptance of the current ethics, Columbus was a man of the Middle Ages, and in the best sense. In his readiness to translate thought into action, in lively curiosity and accurate observation of natural phenomena, in his joyous sense of adventure and desire to win wealth and recognition, he was a modern man. This dualism makes the character and career of Columbus a puzzle to the dull-witted, a delight to the discerning. It unlocks most of the so-called Columbus ‘mysteries,’ ‘questions,’ and ‘problems,’ which were neither mysteries, questions, nor problems to his contemporaries, but recent creations by dull pedants without faith who had never tasted the joy of sea adventure.

My main concern is with the Columbus of action, the Discoverer who held the key to the future in his hand, and knew in exactly which of a million possible keyholes it would turn the lock. I am content to leave his ‘psychology,’ his ‘motivation,’ and all that to others. Yet, as the caravels sail on tropic seas to new and ever more wonderful islands, and to high mountain-crested coasts of terra firma where the long surges of the trade winds eternally break and roar, I cannot forget the eternal faith that sent this man forth, to the benefit of all future ages. And so, writing in a day of tribulation both for Europe and for America, I venture to close this introduction by the prayer with which Columbus began his work: —

Jesus cum Maria
Sit nobis in via.


Everyone knows the long, uphill struggle that Columbus went through before his Great Enterprise of sailing west to ‘the Indies’ was adopted by Ferdinand and Isabella on April 17, 1492. The next four months were spent in preparations. A Galician-built ship of about a hundred tons burthen, named Santa María, was chartered from her owner-master Juan de la Cosa, and chosen by Columbus for his flagship. Niña and Pinta, caravels of about sixty tons burthen, were provided by the municipal authorities of Palos de la Frontera, at the royal command. The one was commanded by Vicente Yañes Pinzón and the other by his elder brother Martín Alonso Pinzón, members of a leading family of Palos shipowners. The total complement of men, Spaniards all except for one Portuguese, two Italians, and Columbus himself, amounted to ninety. It was a well-found, wellequipped fleet for the purpose; smaller and far less efficient vessels have crossed the Atlantic under sail, even in recent years.

All three set sail from Palos on August 3, 1492, and reached the Canary Islands nine days later. Three weeks were spent in the Canaries, repairing Pinta’s damaged rudder, changing Niña’s rig from lateen to square, and taking on additional water and provisions. The fleet took off from the island of Gomera on September 6, and, after two days’ drifting in the ‘Canary calms,’ caught a fresh northeast trade wind. Ferro, westernmost of the islands, and the last of the Old World, was passed on September 9. Columbus set the course due west, for he believed that the parallel of the Canaries led to Japan, some 750 leagues or 2385 nautical miles out. If his somewhat antiquated information about Japan proved to be faulty, he was certain of hitting the coast of China. It was as simple as all that, in his mind. The only question was this: Was he right about the distance, or was Ptolemy? If Ptolemy was right, the distance was at least double.

This most momentous voyage in modern history was also one of the easiest, from the nautical point of view. The vessels were in fine shape after their ‘shake-down cruise’ to the Canaries and the repairing and rerigging at Las Palmas; they had water, wine, provisions, and stores enough to last a year; the officers and men had had five weeks to get used to each other and to their ships. Now that the Canaries had dropped below the eastern horizon, and the wind came fair, Columbus was serene and confident of success. Ptolemy was wrong, for Aristotle had said that the sea was narrow between Spain and the Indies and could be traversed easily paucis diebus, ‘in a few days.’ And, if we insert ‘West’ before ‘Indies,’ was he not right? Thirty-three days from departure to landfall was a few days, as traveling was counted in that era; it was less time than a Roman needed to reach Britain, or than a pilgrim from Northern France required for a sea voyage to the Holy Land. The only doubt was whether these ‘few days’ would not be too many for the men, whether their fears would not force Columbus to turn back when the goal was just over the horizon, as had happened to Bartholomew Dias, and doubtless to other brave captains.

In other words, the difficulties ahead of Columbus on this voyage were entirely of a moral or (if you will) psychological nature. Practical difficulties there were none; no storms or prolonged calms, no foul winds or heavy seas, no shortage of victual or drink, nothing to bother a well-built, properly equipped, and well-found ocean-going fleet, as this was. If Columbus had died in the West Indies before the fleet returned to Spain, there might be some reason to suspect that he was merely a competent mariner with an idea, but no great navigator. His opportunities to prove seamanship of the highest order occurred on the homeward passage in 1493, and on the other three voyages.

During the next two weeks of September, there was little to record, as the vessels slipped along before the northeast trade wind, making an average speed of better than four knots. September 20 was the first of six days of light and variable winds, in the course of which all hands thought they saw one of the phantom islands which everyone expected to find in that part of the Atlantic. On the twenty-sixth the trade wind returned, and for the rest of the month was very gentle and moderate. On October 1, it returned in full strength.

And how they did sail, that first week of October! An average of 142 miles every twenty-four hours for five days (October 2-6), including the best day’s run, 182 miles, of the outward passage —almost 8 knots. The magnetic course was still due west, but owing to the unsuspected variation of the compass the fleet was slowly (and fortunately as it turned out) trending southward. Rumblings of revolt were heard forward, but flocks of petrels and other birds came to the rescue of authority on October 3 and 4, raising new hopes of land.

By dawn, October 6, the fleet has sailed so much further than the expected 750 leagues that everyone who has kept a reckoning is asking the question, Supposing we have missed Japan? Pinta shoots under the flagship’s stern, and Martín Alonso shouts something like Sudoeste cuarta del oeste, señior; sudoeste cuarta del oeste . . . Cipango — ‘Southwest by west, sir, southwest by west . . . Japan.’ His explanation of why he wants this change of course, and the connection of it with Japan, is lost in the sound of rushing of waters; but Columbus, who is anxious enough himself, assumes that Martín Alonso believes that they have passed Japan hull-down, and advises a southwest-by-west course in order to reach China. Or, maybe the captain of Pinta thinks Japan lies southwest by west. In any case, Columbus decides that, even if they have missed Japan, a due-west course will take them to land quicker than a more southerly rhumb, which might miss the southeast cape of China, where the maps located Zaitun. It would be best to make sure of land first, and visit Japan on the way home.

At sunrise on Sunday, October 7, when the fleet was about 370 miles northeast of Turks Island, came the second false landfall. Niña, ranging ahead of her consorts contrary to Columbus’s orders, in the hope of winning the reward, broke out a flag at her masthead and fired a gun, the signal for land dead ahead. People aboard the flagship had seen this ‘land’ earlier, but dared not sing out; for the Captain General was so fed up with false landfalls that he gave orders to the effect that anyone who raised another false cry of tierra would be disqualified for the reward, even though he should sight the true land later. (By the same token, Columbus should later have disqualified himself!)

By sunset, when they had run 67 miles and no land had materialized, Columbus ordered the course to be changed to west-southwest (one point more westerly than Martín Alonso had recommended) because great flocks of birds were passing overhead to the southwestward. He remembered that the Portuguese had discovered the outermost Azores by attending to the flight of birds. This judgment was sound, for the fall migration of North American birds to the West Indies via Bermuda was in full flight. A great deal was made of this change of course in post-mortems on the voyage, and rightly so; but most of the witnesses attributed it to Pinzón’s advice. The Journal shows that the birds of North America deserve the credit.

During the eighth day of October, when ‘“Thanks be to God” says the Admiral “the air is soft as in April in Seville, and it’s a pleasure to be in it, so fragrant it is,”’ the west-southwest course was maintained. On the ninth a shift of wind forced them west by north for 43 miles, but on the tenth a fine run of 171 miles was made to the westsouthwest. Moon came full on the fifth, consequently there was no risk of overrunning the land. And all night, October 9-10, the men could hear flocks of birds flying overhead to the southwestward, and sometimes could see them against the moon. Pinzón remarked to his men, ‘Those birds know their business.’

Notwithstanding this encouraging sign, October 10 was the most critical day of the entire voyage, when the enterprise came nearest to failure through the stubborn conservatism of the men. It is unfair to present the issue between Columbus and his crew as one between a brave man and cowards. Nor was it one between knowledge and ignorance, education and superstition: for if Columbus had had a university education, or listened attentively to the best opinions of his day, he would never have expected Japan to lie 750 leagues west of the Canaries. It was, rather, the inevitable conflict between a man of one great, compelling idea and those who did not share it in anything like the same degree. Look back at the events of the voyage, think of the two false landfalls, the various ‘signs of land’ that failed to make good; glance at the fleet’s position, October 10, on a modern chart with America blotted out and reflect that, thirty days out, they had doubled all previous records for ocean navigation, that they had long passed the position where Columbus predicted land would be found, and that the men knew it. So can we fairly blame them? Their issue with Columbus was the eternal one between imagination and doubt, between the spirit that creates and the spirit that denies. Oftentimes the doubters are right, for mankind has a hundred foolish notions for every sound one; it is at times of crisis, when unpredictable forces are dissolving society, that the do-nothings are tragically wrong. There are tides in the affairs of men, and this was one of them.

And so, on October 10, when the fleet was steering straight for the Bahamas and the nearest land was less than 200 miles ahead, all the smouldering discontent of the men flared up into open mutiny. They had done enough and more than enough; the ships should and must turn back. This mutiny, so far as we have any record, was confined to the flagship, although the crews of Niña and Pinía were as eager to return. Aboard Santa María there was a clique of stubborn, know-it-all Basques and Galicians, and to all her crew the Captain General was a foreigner. What Columbus noted down (and Las Casas abstracted) is short and to the point, and not ungenerous to the men: —

‘Here the people could stand it no longer, complained of the long voyage; but the Admiral cheered them as best he could, holding out good hope of the advantages they might have; and he added that it was useless to complain, since he had come to go to the Indies, and so had to continue it until he found them, with the help of Our Lord.’

Perhaps what the Captain General said was not quite so dramatic; for it was later stated, as a matter of common report, that he promised the men to turn back if they did not sight land within two or three days. He would certainly have pointed out that, with a fresh easterly trade wind and rising sea, the ships could do nothing anyway on a course for home, and so might as well carry on until the next soft spot in the weather. In any case, the mutiny was quelled.

All day Thursday, October 11, the trade wind still blew a gale, the sea rose higher than at any time on the voyage, and the fleet ran 78 miles between sunrise and sunset, an average speed of 6.7 knots. But signs of land were so many and so frequent that ‘everyone breathed more freely and grew cheerful.’ Niña picked up a green branch with a little flower that resembled the dog roses on hedges in Castile. Pinta gathered quite a collection: a cane and a stick, a piece of board, a land plant, and ‘another little stick fashioned, as it appeared, with iron,’ doubtless carved by an Indian with a stone chisel. These objects must have floated up from the Lesser Antilles or even South America; but they served their purpose of stopping the complaints, and preparing every man aboard the fleet for a speedy end to this first Atlantic crossing.


Sun set under a clear horizon about five-thirty, every man in the fleet watching for a silhouette of land against its red disk; but no land was there. All hands were summoned as usual, and after they had said their evening prayers and sung the Salve Regina, ‘which all seamen are accustomed to say and sing in their own fashion,’ Columbus on the sterncastle made his men a little speech, reminding them of the grace Our Lord had shown them in conducting them so safely and prosperously with fair winds and a clear course and in comforting them with signs that better things were to come; and he urged the night watch to keep a particularly sharp lookout on the forecastle, reminding them that, although he had given orders to do no night sailing after reaching a point 700 leagues from the Canaries, the great desire of all to see land had decided him to carry on that night, hence all must make amends for this temerity by keeping a particularly good watch, and looking sharp for the land; and to him who first sighted it he would then and there give a silk doublet, in addition to the albricias promised by the Sovereigns — 10,000 maravedis a year for life. The gromet then sang his littleditty for changing the watch and turned the half-hour glass, boatswain Chachu bellowed out the Castilian equivalent to ‘Watch below lay belo-o-w!’ and the men took their stations with eyes well peeled.

During the eleven and a half hours since sunrise, with a brisk trade wind and the heaviest following sea of the entire voyage, the fleet had made 78 miles, an average of almost 7 knots. At sunset it breezed up to gale force, until the vessels were tearing along at 9 knots. At the same time Columbus ordered the course changed from west-southwest back to the original west. Why he did this, nobody has explained. I suspect that it was simply a desire to prove that he was right. He had begun the voyage by steering a course due west for Japan, and so he wished to pick up land on a due-west course. I have known commanders, good seamen too, who are like that. Or the change may have been just a hunch. If so, it was a good one, for the west-southwest course would have missed Guanahaní, and put the fleet next day in a dangerous position with the long shelterless shore of Long Island under its lee. Common prudence would have made Columbus heave-to for the night, since shoals and rocks invisible by moonlight might lie ahead. His pilot, Peralonso Niño, is said to have so advised him; but the Captain General felt that this was no time for common prudence. He had promised the men to turn back if land were not made within three days, and he intended to make all possible westing in this gale of wind. So the signal was made for oesie!

Anyone who has come onto the land under sail at night from an uncertain position knows how tense the atmosphere aboard ship can be. And this night of October 11-12 was one big with destiny for the human race, the most momentous ever experienced aboard any ship in any sea. Some of the boys doubtless slept, but nobody else. Juan de la Cosa and the Pinzons are pacing the high poops of their respective vessels, frequently calling down to the men at the tiller a testy order, — ‘Keep her off! Damn your eyes, must I go below and take the stick myself?’ — pausing at the break to peer under the main course and sweep the western horizon, then resting their eyes by looking up at the stars. Consultation as to whether or not to shorten sail; Martín Alonso perhaps confiding to pilot Cristóbal García that he doesn’t like carrying sail this way in a gale of wind with possible shoals ahead, but if that crazy Genoese can carry sail we can carry sail; Pinta can stand it better than that Galician tub, and heave-to quicker if anything shows up, and I want one of you men of Palos to win that albricias, d’ye see? Lookouts on the forecastles and in the roundtops talking low to each other — ‘Hear anything? Sounds like breakers to me’ — ‘Nothing but the bow wave, you fool’ — ‘I tell you we won’t sight land till Saturday; I dreamt it, and my dreams’ — ‘You and your dreams! Here’s a hundred maravedis says we raise it by daylight.’ . . . The seamen tell each other how they would have conducted the fleet — ‘The Old Man should never have set that spritsail, she’ll run her bow under’ — ‘If he’d asked my advice, and I was making my third voyage when he was playing in the streets of Genoa, I’d have told him. . . .’ Under such circumstances, with everyone’s nerves taut as the weather braces, there was almost certain to be a false alarm of land.

An hour before moonrise it came, at 10 P.M. Columbus, standing on the sterncastle, thought he saw a light, ‘so uncertain a thing that he did not wish to declare that it was land,’ but called Pedro Guitiérrez to have a look, and he thought he saw it too. Rodrigo Sànchez was then appealed to, ‘but he saw nothing because he was not in a position where he could see anything.’ One guesses that Rodrigo was fed up with false alarms, and merely stuck his head out of the companionway to remark discouragingly that he didn’t ‘see nothing; no, not a thing.’ The light, Columbus said, ‘was like a little wax candle rising and falling,’ and he saw it only once or twice after speaking to Guitiérrez.

What was this feeble light resembling a wax candle rising and falling, which Columbus admits that only a few besides himself ever saw? It cannot have been a fire or other light on San Salvador, or any other island; for, as the real landfall four hours later proves, the fleet at 10 P.M. was at least 35 miles offshore.

I agree heartily with Admiral Murdock, ‘ the light was due to the imagination of Columbus, wrought up to a high pitch by the numerous signs of land encountered that day.’ Columbus admitted that only a few even thought they saw it. Anyone who has had much experience trying to make night landfalls with a sea running knows how easy it is to be deceived, especially when you are very anxious to pick up a light. Often two or three shipmates will agree that they see ‘it,’ then ‘it’ disappears, and you realize that it was just another illusion. There is no need to criticize Columbus’s seamanship because he sighted an imaginary light; but it is not easy to defend the fact that for this false landfall, which he must have known the next day to have been imaginary, he demanded and obtained the annuity of 10,000 maravedis promised by the Sovereigns to the man who first sighted land. The best we can say in extenuation is to point out that glory rather than greed prompted this act of injustice to a seaman; Columbus could not bear to think that anyone but himself sighted land first. That form of male vanity is by no means absent from the seafaring tribe today.

At 2 A.M. on October 12 the moon, past full, was riding about 70° high over Orion on the port quarter, just the position to illuminate anything ahead of the ships. Jupiter was rising in the east; Saturn had just set, and Deneb was nearing the western horizon, toward which all waking eyes were directed. There hung the Square of Pegasus, and a little higher and to the northward Cassiopeia’s Chair. The Guards of Polaris, at 15° beyond ‘feet,’ told the pilots that it was two hours after midnight. On sped the three caravels, Pinta in the lead, their sails silver in the moonlight. A brave trade wind is blowing and the caravels are rolling, plunging and throwing spray as they cut down the last invisible barrier between the Old World and the New. Only a few moments now, and an era that began in remotest antiquity will end.

Rodrigo de Triana, lookout on Pinta’s forecastle, sees something like a white sand cliff gleaming in the moonlight on the western horizon, then another, and a dark line of land connecting them. ‘Tierra! tierral ‘ he shouts, and this time land it was.

Martín Alonso Pinzón, after a quick verification, causes a lombard already loaded and primed to be fired as the agreed signal, and shortens sail in order to wait for the flagship. As soon as Santa María approached (remembered Pinta’s steward many years later) Columbus called out, ‘ Señor Martín Alonso, you have found land!’ and Pinzón replied, ‘Sir, my reward is not lost,’ and Columbus called back, ‘I give you five thousand maravedis as a present.’ The fleet had made 65 miles in the eight and a half hours since sunset, an average better than 7½ knots; according to our reckoning they were very near latitude 24° north, longitude 74° 20' west when Rodrigo sang out. Columbus estimated the land to be distant about six miles.

As the fleet was heading straight for a lee shore, Columbus wisely ordered all sail to be lowered except the papahigo, the main course without bonnets; and, with the main yard braced sharp and port tacks aboard, Santa María, Pinta, and Niña jogged off-and-on until daylight. When they appeared to be losing the land they wore around to the starboard tack, so the net result was a southerly drift at a safe distance from the breakers, during the remaining two and a half hours of moonlit night. The windward side of the island today is strewn with the wrecks of vessels that neglected this precaution.

This first land of the Western Hemisphere sighted by Columbus, or by any European since the voyages of the Northmen, was the eastern coast of one of the Bahamas now officially named ‘San Salvador or Watlings Island.’

Other candidates there have been for this honor: the Grand Turk, Cat Island, Rum Cay, Samaná Cay, and Mayaguana. But there is no longer any doubt that the island called Guanahaní, which Columbus renamed after Our Lord and Saviour, was the present San Salvador or Watlings. That alone, of any island in the Bahamas, Turks, or Caicos groups, fits Columbus’s description. The position of San Salvador and of no other island fits the course laid down in his Journal, if we work it backward from Cuba.


Somewhere on this beach of Long or Fernandez Bay took place the famous Landing of Columbus, often depicted by artists, but never with any respect for the actual topography. In Las Casas’s abstract of the Journal we have this description: —

Presently they saw naked people, and the Admiral went ashore in the armed ship’s boat with the royal standard displayed. So did the captains of Pinta and Niña, Martín Alonso Pinzón and Vicente Yañes his brother, in their boats, with the banners of the Expedition, on which were depicted a green cross with an F on one arm and a Y on the other, and over each his or her crown. And, all having rendered thanks to Our Lord kneeling on the ground, embracing it with tears of joy for the immeasurable mercy of having reached it, the Admiral arose and gave this island the name San Salvador.

In his Letter to the Sovereigns, which was promptly printed at Barcelona and widely distributed throughout Europe in a Latin translation, Columbus lays stress on the gentleness and generosity of the natives: —

They are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything that they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it, and they are content with whatever trifle be given them, whether it be a thing of value or of petty worth. I forbade that they be given things so worthless as bits of broken crockery and of green glass and lace-points, although when they could get them, they thought they had the best jewel in the world.

Guanahaní, the native name of this island, means the iguana, which is now extinct there. Columbus described it as ‘very big and very level and the trees very green, and many bodies of water, and a very big lake in the middle, but no mountain, and the whole of it so green that it is a pleasure to gaze upon.’ The island is honeycombed wit h salt lagoons, the largest of which is only a few hundred yards from the beach where Columbus landed; and the highest hill on the island is only 140 feet above sea level. Later, after exploring the northern part, Columbus noted groves of trees the most beautiful he had ever seen, ‘and as green and leafy as those of Castile in the months of April and May.’ Visitors to San Salvador and the other Bahamian Islands find Columbus’s descriptions of nature extravagant, and are inclined to accuse him of laying it on thick to impress the Sovereigns.

Any land looks good to seamen after a long and perilous voyage, and every woman fair; but Columbus’s description of the Bahamas was not extravagant for 1492. At that time they were highly fertile and covered with a dense growth of tropical hardwood, which the Indians had cleared but slightly to plant gardens. In the late eighteenth century, the English colonists (many of them loyalist refugees from the United States) caused a large part of the forest to be cut down in order to grow sea-island cotton. This exhausted the soil, and hurricanes stripped the island at not infrequent intervals. When cotton culture ceased to pay, the fields were abandoned, and today such parts of the islands as the Negroes do not use for their potato patches and pasturage are covered with a scrubby second growth and ruins of old plantation houses. Large trees for making dugout canoes of the size that Columbus described no longer exist. Near an inland lagoon of San Salvador we were shown a surviving grove of primeval forest which for lushness and beauty merits Columbus’s praise, and this grove harbors a variety of tropical woodpecker that must once have had a wider forest range. Skeletal remains of other birds which could only have lived among dense foliage have been discovered on the island by naturalists.

All day Saturday, October 13, the caravels lay at anchor in Long Bay with a swarm of canoes passing back and forth, while the Spaniards in turn took shore leave, wandered into the natives’ huts, did a little private trading for the curios that all seamen love, and doubtless ascertained that the girls of Guanahaní were much like others they had known. Columbus, who ever had an eye for ‘improvements,’ reported that he found ‘a quarry of stones naturally shaped, very fair for church edifices or other public uses.’ Three centuries elapsed before anyone thought to build a church at San Salvador, and then it was found easier to fashion the soft coral rock into rectangular blocks; the outcrop that Columbus saw at Hall’s Landing just north of his landing place, partly under water and curiously split into squares like flagstones, is still unquarried.

The Admiral was busy gathering such information as he could from signs and gestures; his Arabic interpreter was of no use in this neck of the Indies. On Saturday night he decided that no time must be lost, he must press on to Japan. But first San Salvador must be explored. On Sunday morning the three ships’ boats took the Admiral north along the leeward coast ‘to see the other side, which was the eastern side; what was there, and also to see the villages; and soon I saw two or three, and the people all came to the beach, shouting and giving thanks to God. Some brought us water; others, things to eat. Others, when they saw that I did not care to go ashore, plunged into the sea swimming and came aboard, and we understood that they asked us if we had come from Heaven. And one old man got into the boat, and others shouted in loud voices to all, men and women, “Come and see the men who come from Heaven, bring them food and drink.” Many came and many women, each with something, giving thanks to God, throwing themselves flat and raising their hands to Heaven, and then shouting to us to come ashore; but I was afraid to, from seeing a great reef of rocks which surrounded the whole of this island, but inside it was deep and a harbor to hold all the ships in Christendom, and the entrance of it very narrow.’

This was the place now known as Grahams Harbor, formed by the reefs that surround the island coming together in an inverted V. At three or four places the reefs rise high enough to form cays, and beside one of these on the western side, Green Cay, is a good boat channel with seven feet of water. Here, rather than the alternate High Reef channel, which is difficult for a stranger to find, was probably where the boats entered. ‘Inside there are some shoal spots,’ Columbus correctly observed, ‘but the sea moves no more than within a well.’ The smooth water inside these coral-reef harbors is always a pleasant surprise to mariners. After inspecting the harbor the boats returned to the vessels at their anchorage in Long Bay, a row of some twenty miles going and coming; and in the early afternoon the caravels made sail for Cipangu.

So ended forty-eight hours of the most wonderful experience that perhaps any seamen have ever had. Other discoveries there have been more spectacular than that of this small flat sandy island that rides out ahead of the American continent, breasting the trade winds. But it was there that the Ocean for the first time ‘loosed the chains of things’ as Seneca had prophesied, gave up the secret that had baffled Europeans since they began to inquire what lay beyond the western horizon’s rim. Stranger people than the gentle Tainos, more exotic plants than the green verdure of Guanahaní, have been discovered, even by the Portuguese before Columbus; but the discovery of Africa was but an unfolding of a continent already glimpsed, whilst San Salvador, rising from the sea at the end of a thirty-three-day westward sail, was a clean break with past experience. Every tree, every plant, that the Spaniards saw was strange to them, and the natives were not only strange but completely unexpected, speaking an unknown tongue and resembling no race of which even the most educated of the explorers had read in the tales of travelers from Herodotus to Marco Polo. Never again may mortal men hope to recapture the amazement, the wonder, the delight of those October days in 1492 when the New World gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians.

(To be continued)

  1. Sir Charles Oman, On the Writing of History, p. 117.
  2. Woodrow Wilson, speech before the Columbus monument at Genoa, January 5, 1919.