Christopher Columbus had three ships on his first voyage: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Their path through the Bahamas is shown here.
On August 3, 1492 they sailed from the Cadiz, Spain to the Canary Islands, and finally departed on a westward passage to the East Indies being blown Westwards by the trade winds. All three ships were under canvassed and over loaded, Columbus’s dead reckoning navigation was far from accurate, plus he thought he was headed to the East Indies. After 36 days at sea his crew was rebellious, thirsty for fresh water, and on the verge of mutiny. Finally land was sighted but it was behind a long continuous coral reef which denied the ships any chance of finding an anchorage. The ships followed the reef for two full days sailing west until the reef came to end in deep water. The ships turned towards the land and the crew and captain thanked God that their prayers have been answered. The date was October 12th. 1492. They had no idea where in the world they had made landfall.
But we know where they were! By following the ship’s path on the map it is obvious that The Santa Maria had followed the reef that lies offshore of what is now North Eleuthera, to the deep water channel where the reef ended, allowing his ships to make landfall at Egg Island.
The flagship Santa Maria had the nickname La Gallega. She was broad and slow, designed for hauling cargo. Some sources say that the Santa Maria was about 100 tons, meaning that it could carry 100 toneladas, which were large casks of wine. There has been much speculation about just how large such a ship would be; the best current thinking, by Carla Rahn Philips, puts the length of Santa Maria at 18 meters, keel length at 12 meters, beam 6 meters, and a depth of 3 meters from keel to deck.
The Santa Maria had three masts, each of which carried one large sail. The foresail and mainsail were square; the sail on the mizzen, or rear, mast was a triangular sail known as a lateen. In addition, the ship carried a small square sail on the bowsprit, and small topsail on the mainmast above the mainsail.
The Pinta was captained by Martín Alonso Pinzón, a leading mariner from the town of Moguer in Andalucia. Pinta was a caravel, a smaller, lighter, and faster ship than the tubby Santa Maria. We don’t know much about Pinta, but it probably was about 70 tons. Philips puts the length of Pinta at 17 meters, keel length 13 meters, beam 5 meters, and depth 2 meters. She probably had three masts, and most likely carried sails like those of Santa Maria, except for the topsail, and perhaps the spritsail.
The Niña, smallest of the fleet, was captained by Vicente Añes Pinzón, brother of Martín. The Niña was another caravel of probably 50 or 60 tons, and started from Spain with lateen sails on all masts; but she was refitted in the Canary Islands with square sails on the fore and main masts. Unlike most ships of the period, Niña may have carried four masts, including a small counter-mizzen at the stern with another lateen sail. This would have made Niña the best of the three ships at sailing upwind. Philips puts her length at 15 meters, keel length 12 meters, beam 5 meters, and depth 2 meters.
The two brothers who captained the Nina and the Pinta were both far better sailors and navigators than Columbus. Evidence shows that the faster Nina led the journey across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to Egg Island using a method of navigation known as latitude navigation. In simple terms this navigational technique is used to keep a ship on a straight line course in order to keep the voyage to the minimum number of days at sea, it was not used to determine a ship’s position. The latitude of the southernmost point of the Canary Islands is 26 degrees 20 minutes, while that of Egg Island is 25 degrees 29 minutes, a difference in nautical miles of approximately 50 miles! This is by far the closest by more than 100 miles to a direct route than any of the other suggested Bahamian landfalls.
The Vikings were most likely here previously, but the credit of “discoverer” of the Americas still goes to Christopher Columbus. When he set foot on foreign soil in 1492, the Old World of Europe and the New World of the Americas were connected in a way that would change the history of the world.
Almost from Day One, however, there has been a debate on where that first footprint was made. Nobody has been able to decisively say which island in the Bahamas was the site that ended Columbus’s failed quest for a route to Asia.
Scholars have tried to follow Columbus’s written sailing log to arrive at a conclusion and some have even tried to track the voyage backwards from a specific island to the Canary Islands, where his trek across the Atlantic began.
There is a diary of Columbus that would, one would think, provide a definitive answer. Unfortunately, only about 20% of the manuscript was actually written by Columbus, with the remaining text written by a Dominican friar who had not been on the voyage. The description in the diary of that initial island is also controversial. The described agricultural features of the island are quite vague and could apply to most of the islands in the area. One key phrase: “una laguna en medio muy grande” could, according to historian Paul Aron, mean either a large lake in the middle of an island, which Egg Island has, or a large lagoon in the middle of the shoreline.
From what we know, even as new explorers were picking over his discovery and agreeing it was a new land to be conquered, Columbus insisted until his death that he had landed on islands very near Asia.
It may never be possible to re-trace Columbus’s voyage to specify with certainty where his initial landing was. That question is almost insignificant, however, compared to the global effect the discovery had on both sides of the Atlantic.
Christopher Columbus, of course, thought he had arrived in the “Indies,” the medieval name for Asia. Using Marco Polo’s Travels among other sources, Columbus calculated that his voyage would lead him to Cathay (China), Cipango (Japan), the Spice Islands (the Mollucas), and India.
After landing on a small island on Oct. 12, 1492, in what he believed were the Indies, Columbus sailed along the coast of Cuba, certain that he had finally reached the continent of Cathay. He searched in vain for the magnificent cities Marco Polo had described, hoping to deliver a letter from the Spanish monarchs to “the great Khan,” the Chinese emperor. “Afterwards,” Columbus wrote on Oct. 21, “I shall set sail for another very large island which I believe to be Cipango, according to the indications I receive from the Indians on board.” Columbus’s Japan proved to be the island of Hispaniola.
But confusion over where Columbus landed in the New World has not been restricted to the explorer himself. For centuries scholars have hotly debated where Columbus first set foot in the Western Hemisphere—the so-called landfall controversy. All have agreed that Columbus arrived on an island in the Bahamas. Dozens of different islands have been bandied about by numerous historians as the genuine landfall. The most popular contestants have been Watlings Island (called San Salvador today), Cat Island and Egg Island.
More than 500 years later, there still is no definitive answer to the landfall question. Among the early historians involved in the landfall controversy was Washington Irving, whose volume, Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), suggested that the explorer first landed on Cat Island, to the northeast of Watlings. As the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World drew near, a special investigation of various Bahamian islands was commissioned, meant to clear up the controversy once and for all. The report, however, just emphasized how muddled the controversy had become:
“…No two investigators agree as to the first landfall without disagreeing as to the second; and if they happen to coincide on the first, it is only to fall out over the fourth.” —Frederick A. Ober, In the Wake of Columbus (1893)
The difficulty in pinpointing Columbus’s first landing is in part the result of the sketchy information provided in his captain’s log. The island is described as large, level, and with a lagoon, and like all the other islands he encounters, “these lands are the most fertile, temperate, level, and beautiful countries in the world.” With so little to go on, it is easy to make an argument for nearly any beautiful lagoon in the Bahamas.
Another difficulty is the lack of archeological evidence. Columbus landed only briefly on the island—he was far more interested in moving on to richer and more promising parts of the Indies. No definitive trace of his presence has ever been uncovered.
At the time of Christopher Columbus, celestial navigation was just being developed by the Portuguese. Before the development of celestial navigation, sailors navigated by dead reckoning. This was the method used by Columbus and most other sailors of his era. In dead reckoning, the navigator finds his position by measuring the course and distance he has sailed from some known point. Starting from a known point, such as a port, the navigator measures out his course and distance from that point on a chart, pricking the chart with a pin to mark the new position. Each day’s ending position would be the starting point for the next day’s course-and-distance measurement.
Course was measured by a magnetic compass. Distance was determined by a time and speed calculation: the navigator multiplied the speed of the vessel by the time traveled to get the distance
In Columbus’ time, the ship’s speed was measured by throwing a piece of flotsam over the side of the ship. The pilot had a chant to time the movement of the flotsam past two marks on the ships side. The time taken to pass the marks was used to give a rough guide to the speed of the ship. Speed and course were measured every hour. Not wildly accurate, but sufficient for most navigators of the day.
Columbus was the first sailor who kept a detailed log of his voyages. We therefore know how Columbus navigated, and that he was a dead reckoning navigator. On the first voyage westbound, Columbus sticks to his (magnetic) westward course for weeks at a time. Only three times does Columbus depart from this course: once because of contrary winds, and twice to chase false signs of land southwest.
Although Columbus was primarily a dead reckoning navigator and evidently not a very good one, he did experiment with celestial navigation from time to time. In celestial navigation, the navigator observes celestial bodies (Sun, Moon and stars) to measure his latitude. Each star has a celestial latitude. If you know the latitude of a star that is directly overhead, that’s the same as your latitude on earth. Even if a star isn’t directly overhead, if you can measure the angle between the star and the overhead point, you can still determine your latitude that way – provided you measure the star at the time of night that it is highest in the sky.
On his first voyage he made at least five separate attempts to measure his latitude using celestial methods. Not one of these attempts was successful, sometimes because of bad luck, and sometimes because of Columbus’s own ignorance of celestial tools.
The most important tool used by Columbus in his celestial attempts was the quadrant. Columbus also carried an astrolabe on the first voyage, which is similar to the quadrant. The quadrant was accurate to about a degree or so, and the astrolabe was a little less accurate. Time aboard ship was measured by a sandglass. It was the responsibility of the ship’s boy to turn the glass every half-hour. The sandglass was checked daily against the times of sunrise, sunset, or midnight. Midnight could be determined by using a nocturnal, a tool which tells the time of the night by the rotation of stars around the celestial pole.
Columbus tried to find his latitude using the quadrant on October 30, 1492. At the time, he was about 20 degrees North latitude. But the result he obtained from the quadrant was 42 degrees. He made another reading from the same place on November 2, and got the same flawed result.
Continuing along the coast of Cuba, Columbus again tried a quadrant latitude reading on November 21, and again came up with 42 degrees. December 13, while anchored in a harbor in northern Haiti, he used the quadrant again to determine the altitude of the North Star, and this time got a reading of 34 degrees, not his correct latitude of 19 degrees. Finally, on February 3, 1493, while on the return voyage, Columbus tried to determine the altitude of Polaris using both the quadrant and astrolabe; but the waves were so high he could not get a reading.
Based on the premise as described above that Columbus used latitude sailing to maintain a due West Atlantic crossing, it has long been held that Columbus left his first footprints on the beaches of Egg Island at the northwest corner of Eleuthera.
“The overwhelming weight of evidence from all sources points to Egg Island.” — Arne Molander
Advocates of this theory have re-enacted his voyage. Sailing east-northeast from Harbour Island about six nights after a full moon, you will reach a location six miles east of Man Island at 2 a.m., the moon should be high enough to reflect off Eleuthera’s surf, just as it did for Columbus’ lookout 500 years ago. If you follow the coast cautiously along northern Eleuthera’s reef into the Northeast Providence Channel you’ll note three important landfall features unique to Eleuthera, the shallows behind it, and the equally spaced triple cusps on the north coast of Royal Island. At first light you should keep an eye out for the same benthic (bottom-growing) seaweed Columbus “found in the gulf when he arrived at his discovery” so says his ship’s log. (There is no gulf at either Watlings or Samana Cay, two other contenders for the site of his first landfall in the Bahamas). When you reach the end of Eleuthera’s reef shortly after dawn you will see Columbus’s first lee anchorage opportunity southwest of Egg Island. Now you can begin following 30 features uniquely matching descriptions Columbus himself recorded in his Journal of Discovery.
To read Columbus’s very confusing daily log (diario de a bordo) you would think that his small fleet was never very far from land. For 32 days after leaving Gomera in the Canary Islands on September 9th, the diario makes repeated reference to signs of land. Sailing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest land, Columbus observed “river weed” (sargassum seaweed), a live crab “not found more than 80 leagues (240 miles) from land,” a booby or gannet, birds that “do not depart more than 20 leagues from land,” and “a large cloud mass, which is a sign of being near land.” But it was not until two hours after midnight, the 12th of October that land finally did appear.
The land was an island, which the native Lucayans called Guanahani. Scholars agree that Guanahani is in the Bahama archipelago, but that is where agreement ends. To date, ten different islands have been identified as the first landfall; a truly remarkable number when you consider that only 20 islands in the entire archipelago are even remotely possible candidates. In addition, more than 25 routes have been proposed to take Columbus to the three other Lucayan islands he visited before departing for Cuba.
Why hasn’t Guanahani been identified with certainty? The answers lay in the quality of the evidence. The only detailed information concerning Columbus’s first voyage is contained in his diario. Columbus presented the original to Queen Isabel who had a copy made for Columbus. The whereabouts of the original are unknown, and all trace of the copy disappeared in 1545. What has survived is a copy made by Bartolomé de las Casas, a third hand manuscript handwritten in sixteenth-century Spanish that has numerous erasures, unusual spellings, brief illegible passages, and notes in the margins. The ambiguities, errors, and omissions in this manuscript have been compounded in modern-language translations.
Putting such problems aside for the moment, what of that account might be used to identify Guanahani? Arne Molander, an advocate of Egg/Royal Island, has identified 99 clues, many of which require specialized knowledge and most of which are subject to multiple interpretations. A different approach to the crossing is to simply use Columbus’s statement that Guanahani was on the latitude of Ferro in the Canary Islands. Latitude sailing was certainly possible in Columbus’s day, and it shows that the latitude from Ferro, the jumping off point in the Canary Islands, crosses Egg Island just north of Eleuthera.
The Arawak people including the Taíno occupied the islands of North Eleuthera, where they fished, farmed and lived in peace without any threat. The Spanish described them as a peaceful primitive people.
Imagine, if you can the fear that they experienced on seeing a group of white sails heading west six miles offshore of their home outside of the coral reef that protected their islands and was their main source of food.
They had never seen sails or had ever heard of or seen ships of any kind. Almost instinctively they would have followed the ships along the shore in their dugout canoes keeping within the shallow waters. They must have watched as the ships sailed by what is now St. Georges Cay and Royal Island, their two sources of precious fresh water, as more and more observers joined the panic-stricken tribe. By the time the ships reached the western tip of the coral reef and turned south into the deep water off Little Egg Island, a crowd had assembled on the shore of Egg Island, the obvious anchorage to which the ships were heading. It must have been comparable to the landing of an alien space ship in today’s world, and even today we must not belittle or underestimate the enormity of the encounter or the historic consequence of this occasion.
It is imperative that this historical Bahamian landmark is preserved. While the debate surrounding the actual landfall of Columbus will continue for a long time to come, when definitive new evidence is found it would be an embarrassment for a Bahamian Government to have sacrificed any of the possible sites to commercial development, and for those first Spanish footprints in the Western hemisphere to have been obliterated by those of Mickey Mouse and his friends!