They headed south to the Canary Islands, seeking winds from the east before they faced into the west. After a long stay at the islands they ventured forth (September 6) along the twenty-eighth parallel of latitude—not quite far enough south to get the full boon of the trade winds; we know now that a still more southerly crossing would have shortened the distance and tribulation to America. The weather was kindly, “like April in Andalusia,” Columbus noted in his log; “the only thing wanting was to hear nightingales.” Thirty-three days passed anxiously. Columbus understated to his men the nautical mileage of each day; but as he overestimated his speed, his statements were unwillingly correct. The calms persisting, he changed his course, whereupon, even more than before, the crew felt lost in the aimless wastes of the sea. On October 9 the captains of the Pinta and the Niña boarded the flagship and pleaded for an immediate turnabout back to Spain. Columbus promised that unless land were sighted in three days he would do as they wished. On October 10 his own crew mutinied, but he appeased them with the same pledge. On October 11 they drew from the ocean a green branch bearing flowers; their trust in the Admiral returned. At two o’clock the next morning, under a nearly full moon, Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on the Niña, shouted Tierra! tierra! It was land at last.
When dawn came they saw naked natives on the beach, “all of good stature.” The three captains were rowed to the shore by armed men; they knelt, kissed the ground, and thanked God. Columbus christened the island San Salvador—Holy Saviour—and took possession of it in the name of Ferdinand, Isabella, and Christ. The savages received their future enslavers with civilized courtesies. The Admiral wrote:
In order that we might win good friendship—because I knew that they were a people who could better be freed and converted to our Holy Father by love than by force, I gave to some of them red caps, and to some glass beads... and many other things of slight value, in which they took much pleasure. They remained so much our friends that it was a marvel; and later they came swimming to the ships’ boats, and brought us parrots and cotton thread... and many other things, and in exchange we gave them little glass beads.... . Finally they exchanged with us everything they had, with good will.9
The report of the “friendly and flowing savage” which was to bewitch Rousseau, Chateaubriand, and Whitman may have begun then and there. But among the first things that Columbus learned on the island was that these natives were subject to slave raids by other native groups, and that they themselves, or their ancestors, had conquered earlier indigenes. Two days after landing, the Admiral struck an ominous note in his journal: “These people are very unskilled in arms.... With fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.”10
But alas, there was no gold in San Salvador. On October 14 the little fleet sailed again, seeking Cipango—Japan—and gold. On October 28 a landing was made on Cuba. There too the natives were well disposed; they tried to join their visitors in singing the Ave Maria, and did their best to make the sign of the cross. When Columbus showed them gold they seemed to indicate that he would find some at a point in the interior which they called Cubanacam—i.e., mid-Cuba. Mistaking this for El gran can—the Great Khan of China—he sent two Spaniards, with full diplomatic credentials, to find that elusive potentate. They returned without locating the Khan, but with a pleasant account of the courtesies with which they had been everywhere received. They brought also the first report, by Europeans, of American tobacco: they had seen male and female natives smoking tabaco herbs rolled into a cigar, which was inserted into the nose. Disappointed, Columbus left Cuba (December 4), taking with him, by force, five native youths to serve as interpreters, and seven women to comfort them. All died en route to Spain.
Meanwhile Columbus’s senior captain, Martín Alonso Pinzón, had deserted with his ship to hunt gold on his own. On December 5 Columbus reached Haiti. There he remained four weeks, welcomed and feasted by the natives. He found some gold, and felt himself a bit closer to the Khan; but his flagship grounded on a reef, and was smashed to pieces by waves and rocks, on the eve of the Christmas that he had planned to celebrate as the happiest of his life. Luckily the Niña was near by to rescue the crew, and the kindly natives ventured out in their canoes to help salvage most of the cargo before the vessel sank. Their chieftain consoled Columbus with hospitality and gold, and assurances that there was plenty of the murderous metal in Haiti. The Admiral thanked God for the gold, forgave Him for the shipwreck, and wrote in his journal that Ferdinand and Isabella would now have funds sufficient to conquer the Holy Land. He was so impressed with the good manners of the natives that he left part of his crew as a settlement to explore the island while he returned to Spain to report his discoveries. On January 6, 1493, Pinzón rejoined him with the Pinta; his apologies were accepted, for Columbus was loath to sail back with only one ship. On January 16 they began the journey home.
It was a long and miserable voyage. All through January the winds were hostile, and on February 12 a violent storm buffeted the tiny ships, which were not much more than seventy feet long.11 As they approached the Azores, Pinzón deserted again, hoping to be the first to reach Spain with the great news that Asia had been found. The Niña anchored off Santa Maria in the Azores (February 17); half the crew went ashore, partly to make a pilgrimage to a shrine of the Virgin; they were arrested by the Portuguese authorities and were kept in jail for four days while Columbus fretted offshore. They were released, and the Niña sailed again; but another storm drove it from its course, split its sails, and so depressed the sailors that they vowed to spend their first day on land fasting on bread and water and observing the Ten Commandments. On March 3 they sighted Portugal, and though Columbus knew that he was risking a diplomatic mess, he decided to debark at Lisbon rather than attempt the remaining 225 miles to Palos with one sail. John II received him with courtesy; the Niña was repaired; and on March 15 it reached Palos after “infinite toil and terror” (said Columbus), 193 days after leaving that port. Martín Pinzón had landed on northwestern Spain several days before, and had sent a message to Ferdinand and Isabella, but they refused to see him or his messenger. The Pinta sailed into Palos a day after the Niña. Pinzón fled in fear and disgrace to his home, took to his bed, and died.