DAY BY DAY more and more marvelous things are reported from the new world through Columbus the Ligurian,” Pietro Martire wrote Giovanni Borromeo of Milan on October 20, 1494. Martire thus became the first person to apply to Columbus’s discoveries the term that would come to define them: orbe novo in the original Latin of the letter—“new world.”
Martire was a Milanese scholar, poet, and chaplain at the court of Fernando and Isabel who first met Columbus at Barcelona on his return from the initial voyage. In the same letter, Martire confided, “I have begun to write a work concerning this great discovery.” Martire indeed became the first historian of Columbus’s voyages. When he wrote Borromeo with news of a new world, he had been grappling for more than a year with the issue of exactly what it was the Admiral of the Ocean Sea had found.
As a poet, Martire was employing the term new world more in a lyrical way than in a strict geographic one. The term also had a popular precedent. In July 1492, in the widely read volume of human history, Liber chronicarum, the Nürnberg humanist and physician Hartmann Schedel had called Portugal’s discoveries in West Africa in 1483 a “new world.” The lands Columbus had reached truly were a new world to Martire, one of frightening cannibals and promised riches of gold, precious stones, pearls, cinnamon, pepper, and so much more, and a novel landscape of flora and fauna. The more concrete idea that Columbus’s discoveries represented a radically new geographic fact, a place no existing cosmography could account for, was years away.
Columbus’s immortal reputation as the discoverer of the New World was an achievement of historical hindsight. He had not expected to find any such place as we define it, and in fact he had not yet reached a new continental landmass. His worldview hewed to the essential Toscanelli scheme: Sailing west would deliver a voyager first to Antilla (alternately the Isle of Seven Cities), then to Cipango, and finally, beyond a curtain of innumerable islands, to the Indies of the Asian mainland. Columbus was determined to shoehorn his actual findings into that geographic scheme while overlaying them on a globe much smaller than it actually is.
The related notion that Columbus dared to challenge the seemingly limitless mystery of a vast and empty ocean was an artifact of his success. He never expected to spend what proved to be more than a month trekking westward from Gomera in the Canaries. Within a week of clearing the Canaries on September 8, 1492, the flotilla was hopeful of finding land, and took heart from clues such as clouds, rainfall patterns, birds, and clumps of weed. On September 18, Martín Alonso Pinzón, master of the Pinta, took leave from Columbus, aboard the Santa María, to chase after a flock of birds in hope that they would lead the fleet to land.
On September 25, Columbus asked Pinzón to return him his chart, which had been aboard the Pinta for three days. Las Casas stated that the chart “had certain islands depicted in that area of the sea,” by which Columbus could only have meant Antilla. Martín Alonso agreed that according to the chart, they should have been among them. Columbus proposed that currents had carried them northeast and that they hadn’t actually sailed as far west as their pilots had calculated.
It is a testament to Columbus’s sheer determination that he did not lose hope, as others before him surely had, when experience defied his expectations. The voyage was also a tribute to his powers of persuasion—and conniving—in that he managed to convince the crews of three ships, some ninety men in all, to keep pressing westward. Rarely did a seaman of the late fifteenth century have to spend more than a week out of sight of land when making a passage, and even then he had a known destination. Columbus had to stave off mounting disquiet verging on outright mutiny over the lack of results. No one was worried about sailing off the edge of a flat earth, but they had genuine concerns that they would never see home again. The trade winds blowing so favorably from the east in sweeping them westward could prevent them from ever returning, as ships of this time could not make effective progress into the wind.
Daily at dawn and dusk, Columbus gathered the three ships so that everyone could scan the horizon together for signs of land in the low slanting light. By October 3, Columbus was sure that he was passing Antilla but was determined to reach the Indies without delay. Such a false milestone—of attainable land presumed to exist beyond sight—kept the flotilla pressing forward. Rather than being cast upon a vast, empty sea, they were united by a hallucination of coherent geography, with imagined options of steering for Antilla or hurrying on for the Indies. On October 6 came a suggestion from Martín Alonso of a change in course to the southwest. Las Casas wrote that Pinzón had in mind an encounter with Cipango, but Columbus resolved to maintain his westerly heading.
Pinzón proposed a course change toward the southwest in order to chase after another flock of birds, to which Columbus agreed. Had the flock not crossed paths with the flotilla, had Columbus kept sailing west, he would have run into Florida, perhaps around Cape Canaveral or Daytona Beach.
Instead, on October 12, 1492, the grand delusion of the New World began. Having been driven forward by theory, Christopher Columbus now confronted the concrete experience of actual people and geography on a Bahamian beach. Coming ashore through aquamarine waters onto fine white sand, banners unfurling in an ocean breeze unimpeded by low barrier dunes guarding a brackish inland lake, Columbus surely believed he had achieved the geographic goal that had inspired the voyage. However wrong that preconceived idea would prove to be, it had provided him momentum when other men would have (and already had) lost hope and turned back. The promises of Antilla, Cipango, and the Indies had steeled his resolve, and they continued to shape his interpretation of the landfalls he encountered. The late thirteenth-century tales of Marco Polo, amplified by Nicolò de’ Conti and Toscanelli, continued to reinforce the expectation that Columbus would encounter the Great Khan, as he carried the letter from his monarchs to the ruler of a Mogul empire that had not existed for more than a century; the Mings had been in power since 1368.
The actual experience of landing on what the local Arawakan people, the Lucayo, told him was Guanahaní, which he renamed San Salvador, did not discourage Columbus. (“This island is very large and very flat, the trees are very green, and there is much water; there is a very large lake in the centre,” Las Casas quoted Columbus. “There are no mountains and it is all so green that it is a pleasure to see.”) Geographers had littered the Ocean Sea on the perimeter of the Indies with a multitude of islands, and Columbus adjusted his expectations accordingly. He accepted the sand-skirted, low limestone shelves of the Bahamas, unadorned by civilization, as primitive outlands of the empire he sought, and pressed forward through them. A new voyage was beginning, in search of the wealth he was sure was close at hand.
From the moment of his arrival, however, Columbus was also imagining a harvest of a sort of wealth that had nothing to do with the Indies. He cast a predatory eye over the bodies of the Lucayo he met on October 12, noting “they are naturally the colour of Canary Islanders.” The comparison was more than physiological: “They ought to make good slaves for they are of quick intelligence since I notice that they are quick to repeat what is said to them,” Columbus added. Although Columbus also believed the Lucayo “could very easily become Christians, for it seemed to me that they had no religion of their own,” he had revealed his essential conception of these people. They were one and the same as the indigenous Guanches the partnership of Berardi, Riberol, and Lugo were at that moment enslaving back in the Canaries. The essential similarity would haunt the Arawaks of the Caribbean (and their Carib enemies and Ciboney neighbors) over the next few cruel and traumatic years.
Columbus had a dogged singularity of purpose and vision that had served him well. He had persisted with his quest to secure a royal privilege for this voyage for nearly a decade, and the voyage itself (regardless of what some Pinzón acolytes would allege) had reached the Bahamas because of his relentless determination to stay the course westward. But once in the New World, that dogged singularity became a hobbling impediment: He could interpret what he found only within the framework of what he had promised to find. It would have been remarkable for any man of his time to recalibrate his perceptions within days or even weeks of arrival, to come up with an alternate idea of a world’s configuration that no respected geographer had yet put forward. But Columbus’s delusion was not temporary; he remained faithful to his original conviction that he had landed on the edge of the Indies to the end of his life, even as the evidence mounted that he must have been somewhere else entirely.
The expedition had brought along samples of pepper, cinnamon, and other spices that reached the Mediterranean through Venetian galleys doing business at Beirut and Alexandria. The flotilla’s men had never seen them growing, and hoped that showing these samples to natives, whom they had immediately labeled Indians, could lead them to more. There was much optimistic interpretation of plants and trees that affirmed the natural wealth of their landfalls and persuaded Columbus that he was indeed on the edge of the Indies.
The flotilla took on board Lucayan guides and picked its way through the Bahamas. Columbus resolved on October 23 to sail for “the island of Cuba which I believe must be Cipango, to judge from the signs which these people give of its size and riches.” He struggled with how to interpret Cuba. Columbus had every reason to believe it was an island, as the Lucayo told him when he arrived on the north coast on October 28 that “in their canoes they cannot circle the island in 20 days.” While he set aside the idea that it was Cipango, he still provisionally accepted that it was an island and named it Juana, for the young crown prince. On his first day there he somehow gathered from the local Arawaks “that large ships came there from the Great Khan, and that from there to the mainland was a journey of 10 days.” As the Arawaks had in the past been in contact with the Maya and may have continued to trade with what is now Guatemala, Columbus likely misunderstood an attempt to tell him about the peoples of Central America and what is now Mexico, where the Aztec empire was at its zenith.
Martín Alonso Pinzón helped change Columbus’s mind about Juana, telling him on October 30 (according to the Las Casas abstract) that he understood “Cuba” was the name of a city and that the so-called island “was a very large stretch of mainland which extends a long way to the N, and that the king of that land was at war with the Great Khan, whom they call Cami.”
Las Casas also recorded the first latitude fix for the voyage: Columbus had determined he was at 42° north, which was wrong by some 20 degrees. The error was so enormous it defies belief, yet Columbus reiterated it on November 2 with an evening sighting of the polestar.
“It is certain, says the Admiral, that this is the mainland,” Las Casas wrote for November 1. Columbus was forcing his exploration results into a Toscanelli scheme steeped in the Marco Polo narrative; Las Casas wrote that Columbus thought he was “near Zaytó and Quinsay, within a hundred leagues more or less of one or the other.” Zaytó—or Zai Tun, as Marco Polo described it—was supposed to be around the Tropic of Cancer, which was Columbus’s true latitudinal position. But Columbus was insisting he was much closer to a port city called Quinsay (now Guangzhou, or Hangzhou), which geographers placed around latitude 45.
Toscanelli had advised of his letter’s accompanying chart:
From the city of Lisbon straight toward the West there are on the said chart 26 spaces, each one of which contains 250 miles, as far as the most noble and great city of Quinsay, which is 100 miles around . . . where there are ten marble bridges. The name of this city signifies City of Heaven, of which many marvelous things are told in regard to the great genius of the inhabitants and the size of the buildings and the great revenues.
The Book of ser Marco Polo already had sung the praises of “the most noble city of Kinsay, a name which is as much as to say in our tongue ‘The City of Heaven.’ . . . the city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world.”
Columbus dispatched two men to make contact with the rulers of what he was convincing himself was mainland Asia. Accompanying Rodrigo de Jerez was a converso, Luis de Torres, who “knew Hebrew and Chaldean and some Arabic.” They were to press inland on Cuba with the assistance of local Arawaks and be back in six days. It was baffling that Columbus was not looking for the great commercial centers of Zai-Tun and Quinsay from the water rather than with a two-man shore party. If trade in pepper alone from Quinsay was one hundred times as great as what the Venetians conducted through Alexandria, as Marco Polo had claimed, surely the ocean would have teemed with large vessels that could guide Columbus there, much as one would expect if searching the eastern Mediterranean for Alexandria itself. Instead, despite reporting several times of hearing about great ships, Columbus only ever encountered dugout canoes powered by men wielding paddles that he said were “a kind of baker’s peel.”
Jerez and Torres never found Quinsay, Zai-Tun, the Great Khan, or any evidence of his kingdom. Columbus and his men continued to encounter only Stone Age peoples in scattered villages—one of which was abandoned on his approach—amid tropical verdure, and the sea was empty of trading vessels. But Columbus’s mind nevertheless began to harden around the idea that Cuba was the Asian mainland.
On November 12, Columbus allowed himself to be distracted from the search for the cities of the Great Khan to seek out an island to the east called Baneque (or Babeque). There, he understood from the Lucayo, “the people collect gold by candlelight at night on the beach and afterwards beat it into bars with hammers.” But he did not rush toward it, and the flotilla was still tentatively coasting the northeastern shore of Cuba when Pinzón broke with Columbus on the night of November 26, slipping anchor and disappearing with the Pinta.
Pinzón had lost patience with the lack of progress in finding Baneque and its gold. But the rift coincided with an admission by Columbus that his latitude reading of 42° north was impossible. Columbus now blamed his quadrant and said he would stop using the instrument until they had reached land again and he could repair it. It is hard to imagine what could have been so catastrophically wrong with such a simple angle-measuring device, or why he did not double-check his observations with his astrolabe, which Las Casas mentioned him having on the voyage home.
Columbus either did not understand how to use the quadrant or the astrolabe or had been pursuing a fiction about his location in the Indies that could not withstand the skepticism and impatience of an experienced mariner like Martín Alonso Pinzón. The former is almost unthinkable. On the way home, Columbus claimed to determine an accurate latitude fix just by eyeballing the height of the polestar, when the weather was too rough to use the quadrant or astrolabe. This could not be the same mariner who had spent several days believing an error of 20 degrees with the simplest form of celestial navigation.
Columbus may have been spinning a fiction about his latitude at Cuba in order to persuade Fernando and Isabel that he was close to reaching the Great Khan, so they would send him out again. He also could have been lying to mislead the other members of the flotilla about where they actually were, to ensure that he alone knew how to find this place again. Insulted, and impatient to locate the much-promised gold, Martín Alonso had chosen to plot his own course to riches.
On the outbound voyage, Columbus had striven to maintain discipline and faith among his largely ill-educated crew by keeping his plotting chart mostly to himself and by lying about his progress. Every day he gathered from the pilots of the vessels estimates of their distance covered in leagues, and according to Las Casas, he routinely understated his own estimates: “[H]e always pretended to the men that he was making little headway so that the voyage should not seem long; so that he kept two reckonings for that voyage: the shorter was the false one and the longer was the true one.” Columbus’s record of daily leagues, if truly intended to mislead, actually may have been aimed at the educated men on board theSanta María: Pero Gutiérrez, who was Fernando’s chamberlain, and Rodrigo Sánchez de Segovia, who had been assigned by the monarchs as comptroller for the enterprise. These royal representatives would have been especially concerned if the voyage was not unfolding as Columbus had promised and might have been amenable to turning back if others agitated to abandon an ill-conceived and potentially fatal quest.
Columbus would confess on the return voyage to additional deceptions: Las Casas observed how Columbus “says that he pretended to have sailed further [eastward] to mislead the pilots and sailors who were plotting the course so that he would remain master of that route to the Indies, as he in fact remains, because none of the others was certain of the course and none can be sure of his route to the Indies.”
Keeping a double set of books to track his westward progress had been a clever way to overcome crew fears that doubtless had defeated previous Portuguese attempts to make westward discoveries. But the deception led Columbus into a complex strategy of misrepresentation and denial that would mark his entire career in the New World. He would have to work tirelessly to keep afloat competing realities in order to defend the privileges he spent years striving to secure. The 1492 Columbus voyage had established a prime operating principle of this new age of westward exploration: If it served your purposes, lie about where you had been. But in this hothouse of misdirection and misrepresentation, the lies expanded in all directions.
IN THE DECADES THAT FOLLOWED Columbus’s discovery, there would be no consensus on what had transpired on the most famous, most consequential voyage in the history of seafaring. The most essential facts would be disputed vehemently in the ensuing legal battle over Columbus’s heritable rights. The venture would defy agreement on who conceived of it in the first place, who sighted land after more than a month at sea, what that initial landfall even was, and who deserved credit for its various discoveries. It was as if, less than thirty years after the United States had sent a manned rocket to the moon, no one could agree on who had thought of the Apollo 11 mission, recruited the participants, paid its expenses, piloted the craft, overcame its adversities, and pressed the first footprint into the powdery surface of the distant satellite.
At the heart of the most famous voyage in exploration history had pulsed one of its great rivalries. There were plenty of men—both aboard the expedition’s ships and back on shore in Spain, in and around the port of Palos from which they had departed—who believed that the true hero and visionary of the voyage was Martín Alonso Pinzón. Many would testify to that end, as the squabble over the heritable rights to Columbus’s discoveries saw some two hundred witnesses on both sides of the Atlantic swear out depositions between 1512 and 1536.
The counternarrative was encouraged by crown attorneys, as a way to undermine the claims of the troublesome Diego Columbus to his father’s discoveries. The main dispute involved later finds along the Caribbean coast of South America, but the depositions expanded into a vigorous assault on the credit Columbus deserved for the original voyage’s achievements. Men who were on board the ships, or who had friends or relatives on board, or who personally knew the principal characters in an increasingly bitter and resentful tale were prepared to diminish and demean Columbus’s role and instead place credit—some of it, all of it—with the Pinta’s captain.
Some said the very idea of a westward voyage had belonged to Martín Alonso, that he had copied, while on a trading voyage to Rome, a map in the Vatican that dated to the time of Solomon. Some linked him to Pedro Vásquez de la Frontera, who supposedly had already made a westward voyage for Portugal. Some said Martín Alonso had organized the ships and crews in Palos and that there was a written agreement between him and Columbus to share the voyage’s spoils. Some said that it was Martín Alonso’s skills as a mariner and a leader of men that had guided the flotilla across the Ocean Sea, suppressing dangerous mutinies along the way. Some said Martín Alonso and his men were the first to sight the white sands of the island of San Salvador; some even alleged that Columbus had lost hope and had wanted to turn back, or actually had turned back, when Martín Alonso’s resolve gave him no choice but to follow the Pinta. And some said Martín Alonso had been the one to discover Española and, most important, its gold.
Typically forthright was Garcia Fernández, who sailed under Martín Alonso as the Pinta’s dispenser, or steward; on a 1499 voyage to South America, Fernández would serve with Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, Martín Alonso’s brother, who had commanded the Niña in 1492. Fernández’s testimony possibly was tainted by the fact that Martín Alonso was his godfather. Nevertheless, as Fernández told the crown attorney at Huelva, Martín Alonso “was an energetic man of great heart, and he knows that if it were not for Martín Alonso giving [Columbus] the two ships, the admiral would not have gone where he went nor would he have found people [to sail with him] and the reason was because no one knew the admiral, and the admiral went on that voyage because of the esteem for Martín Alonso and because of the two ships.”
The Pinzóns unquestionably deserved more credit for their role in the first voyage than is usually granted them. Whether they deserved virtually all of the credit, as some depositions proposed, is another matter. The idea that Martín Alonso initiated the voyage is unsupportable. The Pinzóns evidently became involved because Columbus had the power from Isabel to embargo the necessary vessels, and the town council of Palos was ordered by the crown on April 30, 1492, to provide Columbus with two ships for one year as a means of settling a penalty from a court case.
The two vessels were secured from or through the Pinzóns; Martín Alonso also agreed to command the Pinta and Vicente Yáñez the Niña. For his flagship, Columbus went to the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda at the mouth of the Guadalquivir; using money borrowed from Gianotto Berardi, he chartered a Basque não, or cargo vessel, which he rechristened the Santa María, from Juan de La Cosa, who commanded her under Columbus’s authority as captain-general of the flotilla.
That said, Martín Alonso was a leading citizen of Palos, and the 1492 flotilla included two of his brothers and one of his sons. Two of the three ships were under their command, and the fleet included “many other men of esteem, friends and relatives” of Martín Alonso, according to the 1532 testimony by Palos’s mayor, Alonso Vélez, who also agreed that when Columbus returned to Palos with his capitulation from the monarchs, he needed the assistance of the Pinzóns to mount the voyage.
The idea that the Pinzóns’ connections, reputation, expertise, and enthusiasm helped make the voyage possible is entirely credible. Save his in-laws in Huelva and his supporters at the Franciscan monastery of La Rábida, Columbus had little standing in the harbor community, especially among its mariners. He was a poor foreigner, a Genoese transplanted from Portugal. Columbus relied on Martín Alonso’s experience in preparing the voyage and consulted him on key decisions during it.
The Palos physician Garcia Fernández (not to be confused with the Pinta steward of the same name), who testified in detail to Columbus’s preparations, was among those who swore that a formal agreement was struck between Columbus and Martín Alonso, which Fernández said included Vicente Yáñez. Columbus made his pact with the Pinzóns “because they were suitable and knowledgeable people concerning matters of the sea.” Dr. Fernández and Columbus evidently were comfortable discussing with the friar Juan Pérez the finer cosmographic points of the proposed voyage, but the abilities to assemble a flotilla “were beyond [Dr. Fernández’s] knowledge and that of don Cristóbal Colón.” The Pinzóns “advised him and taught him many things that were beneficial for that voyage.”
The voyage played out more like a joint venture between Columbus and Martín Alonso than an undertaking by an unquestioned commander and a useful subordinate. The three days on the outbound passage during which Martín Alonso had custody of Columbus’s plotting chart suggests a period in which he had actual command. But in the end, there was not enough room in the enterprise for both of their egos, their ambitions, their avarice. The race to prove a westward route to the Indies turned into a race to be the first home in order to secure glory and benefits.