The Sputtering Start To Christopher Columbus’ First Voyage To The New World

Momentous enterprises do not always have graceful starts. This was true of the famous explorer, Christopher Columbus, who—as the popular rhyme recounts—sailed the ocean blue in 1492. In terms of simply finding a patron for his expedition, Columbus only obtained his fateful partnership with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain after he had already unsuccessfully pitched his idea to the Portuguese and the English. And although Ferdinand and Isabella did eventually support Columbus’ endeavor, the regal couple spent a long time delaying and deliberating until they finally made a contract with the explorer in April 1492. Proudly possessing royal assurances that included an elevation to the nobility, a special rank of “High Admiral of the Ocean Sea,“ future governorship of any discovered lands, and the permission to keep a share of obtained treasure (almost all of these assurances were eventually voided), Christopher Columbus relocated to the city of Palos de Moguer to prepare for his journey. By August, he had gathered and equipped his three ships (the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria), and was ready to embark on the next minor step of his journey—sailing from Palos to the Canary Islands.

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his trio of ships set off from the Spanish mainland and started sailing for the Canaries. Unfortunately for Columbus, it did not take long for problems to begin occurring. On August 6—with the Canary Islands still a few days away—the ship mechanisms on the Pinta began malfunctioning. In particular, the rudder was said to have somehow or other been disabled. This problem was quickly fixed, but Christopher Columbus was worried, for he suspected sabotage, and such disruptive antics could be repeated. Columbus divulged the names of his prime suspects in his log book, summarized here by Bartolomé de las Casas (Columbus’ original was lost): “The rudder of the Pinta, whose captain was Martin Alonso Pinzón, jumped out of position; this was said to be the doing of one Gomez Rascón, and Cristóbal Quintero, the owner of the ship, who disliked the voyage. The Admiral says that before they sailed these men had been grumbling and making difficulties” (Digest of Columbus’ Log-Book On His First Voyage, entry for 6 August). Whatever the case, be it sabotage or terrible luck, the Pinta would prove to be a troublesome ship.

Although the ship had just been fixed the day before, the Pinta once again experienced a rudder failure on August 7. This time, the damage was much more difficult to correct, and the ship became more unruly as the days went on. By August 8, as told by the aforementioned log-book, the Pinta was “steering badly and shipping water,” and on August 9, the state of the ship had further devolved to being completely “unable to steer” (Bartolomé de las Casas, Digest of Columbus’ Log-Book, August 7-9). Ultimately, Christopher Columbus had to momentarily leave the Pinta behind, sailing on to the Canary Islands with his other ships.

After procuring supplies and hiring help, Columbus went to work thoroughly bringing the Pinta back to ship-shape. Repairs might have taken quite some time, for it was as late as September 2 (according to the logbook) when the Pinta was able to sail on its own to the Canary Islands. Christopher Columbus would remain in the Canaries for several more days, gathering supplies and setting his affairs in order, before sailing off toward the New World on September 6, 1492.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Oil sketch of the Landing of Columbus, by John Vanderlyn (c. 1775-1852), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian).



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