The Jubilant Mirage Sighting of Christopher Columbus

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from the Spanish city of Palos de Moguer on his flagship, the Santa Maria, which was accompanied by two sister ships, the Niña and the Pinta. Columbus then brought his ships to the Canary Islands and remained there for the remainder of August, as well as a few days into the next month. Finally, on September 6, 1492, Columbus set off on his mission to discover a westward passage to Asia—he would utterly fail in this mission, for the American Continents would block his path.

Morale was a serious issue in the modest expedition fleet. Columbus was fearful of sabotage (the Pinta had suffered a mysterious rudder failure before Columbus had even reached the Canary Islands) and the sailors on his ship were an inpatient, anxious lot. As early as September 9, Christopher Columbus began underreporting to his sailors just how far they had traveled, hoping to limit their fears and frustrations. Yet, by September 17—after days of nothing but treacherous water in sight—the morale of the expedition members was on a noticeable decline. A few days later, around September 22, Christopher Columbus observed with worry that the low spirits of his sailors had transformed into agitation and unrest. With speeches and enticements (such as the promise of a silk doublet to whoever saw land first), order was able to be maintained, but Columbus knew the crew was potentially close to mutiny. In this atmosphere of hope and fear, anxiousness and impatience, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria sailed on.

The next few days were largely uneventful—calm seas, unthreatening winds, sightings of various birds and seaweed. Yet, still no land. As the sun began to set on September 25, however, an incident occurred that instantaneously changed the mood of the sailors from melancholy to mirth. While there was still some light left in the sky, Captain Martin Alonso Pinzón of the Pinta spotted something on the distant horizon that filled him with excitement. Shouting loud enough for the crews of the three ships to hear, Martin Alonso proclaimed joyously that he had spotted land. Christopher Columbus described this event, and the spontaneous reactions of euphoria that it inspired, within the pages of his captain’s logbook, summarized here by Bartolomé de las Casas (Columbus’ original was lost):

“At sunset Martin Alonso went up into the poop of his ship and called most joyfully to the Admiral claiming a present, since he had sighted land. The Admiral says that when he heard this positive statement he fell on his knees to give thanks to God, and Martin Alonso and his men said the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. The Admiral’s men did the same and the whole crew of the Nina climbed the mast and rigging and all affirmed that it was land. The admiral believed so too and that it was about twenty leagues away. Until nightfall they all continued to claim that it was land” (Bartolomé de las Casas, Digest of Columbus’ Log-Book On His First Voyage, entry for 25 September).

Unfortunately, the crews were in for an unpleasant surprise. When sunlight returned to brighten up the sky again on the morning of September 26, the land that they thought they had seen at sunset was nowhere in sight. The ships had continued maintaining their course during the night, so they should have been closer to what they had seen, but instead, no signs or traces of land could be seen anywhere—causing the morale of the crews to once again plummet. By the end of September 26, Christopher Columbus and his crew had come to the conclusion that what they had seen the night before was merely a deceptive mass of clouds. A similar false alarm occurred again on October 7, 1492, and when faint hints of land began to appear again a few days later during the dark hours connecting October 11 and 12, the expedition members were hesitant to firmly declare that land was spotted. Yet, in the early morning of October 12, the strengthening evidence could no longer be ignored and a land sighting was declared. This time, it was not a false alarm.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from The Gulf Stream, by Winslow Homer (c. 1836–1910), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).



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