Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Where is San Salvador?


Any one who has had the misfortune to be caught on board a sailing-ship in the so-called "horse latitudes" of the North Atlantic can understand the dismay and perplexity of the first sailors who entered that region of calms and baffling winds. As it very nearly coincided with the Sargasso, or (speaking literally) the Ocean of Sea-grapes, in which their course was impeded by the vast beds of weeds torn from the bottom of the sea, they imagined the water must be shallow and reef-strewn. Columbus dispelled this illusion by sounding with a deep-sea line, and, finding no bottom, was somewhat surprised, for he had imagined they might be sailing over the vestiges of the "lost Atlantis," which, according to his chart, should have been in that region.

The matted masses of sea-weed were so dense that the caravels were held almost immovable at times, and then the crews conjured up the spectre of perpetual imprisonment there, and again gave way to their dismal fears. As for several days the little wind that blew came from the westward, they insisted that this was their opportunity for standing about for Spain and home; for they surely had complied with every obligation, and could not be expected to sail on westward forever! They never came to open mutiny, as some historians have stated, but they reached a point most dangerously near it. The Admiral used every sort of argument he could summon to his aid, entreating some, appealing to the pride of others, and to the avarice of all. But he ever remained serene, inflexible, unmoved by argument or entreaty. It might be, as they urged, that their provisions, water, and wine, would soon become exhausted, and they would starve or perish of thirst; but westward they would continue to sail until land was discovered and the object of the voyage accomplished.

Throughout his trials at sea, Columbus was supported by the Pinzons, with whom he was in almost daily converse, the seas were so calm and the breezes so light. They interchanged observations on the weather, their latitude and longitude, and every phenomenon they had observed. One day, September 25th, they brought their vessels near together and a chart was thrown from the Pinta  to the Santa Maria, in order that Columbus might verify the surmise of Martin Alonzo that they were in the vicinity of Cipango. While he and his chief pilot were poring over the chart, they heard a glad cry from the Pinta: "Tierra olio!  (land in sight!) "and, looking in the direction pointed out by Captain Pinzon, saw in the distance what seemed, indeed, to be the object of their search. That was in the evening-time, however, and by morning the supposed "land" had dissolved into a cloud-bank and vanished. Columbus felt so certain that it was Cipango which had loomed upon the horizon that he gave thanks to the Almighty, while Martin Alonzo and his crew chanted the hymn beginning, "Glory be to God on high."

This apparition having appeared in the southwest, the course of the vessels was shaped in that direction during the night, but changed again to westerly, after its true nature was revealed. They stood on this course nearly two weeks more, but on October 7th, after having been a month at sea, it was altered to west-southwest. Increasing signs of land were seen during the three days following, such as floating herbage, birds in full song, a green rock-fish, and a branch of thorn-bush with red berries on it. This last was an indubitable token of land's vicinity, another, absolutely unmistakable, being a piece of wood, a cane or staff, artificially carved, which was picked up as it drifted past a caravel.

Even the most despondent felt they were on the verge of a great discovery. Some great event was pending, all were sure, and on the night of October 11th very few, if any, of the crew closed their eyes in sleep. They were stimulated to wakefulness and watchfulness by a reward Columbus offered, in addition to the pension promised by the sovereigns, to him who should first discover land. The Admiral himself was the first to claim the pension, and obtain it, for that night, as he was keeping his customary vigil on the high castle of his ship, he observed a light gleam on the dim horizon. Fearful lest he might be the victim of deception, he called a royal official, one Pedro Gutierrez, who also saw the light wavering above the waters, as if a torch borne by some one on shore, or in a canoe tossed by the waves. Another official was called, but by the time he had reached the post of observation the light had disappeared. It was seen no more; but about four hours later, or at two hours after midnight on the morning of the 12th, a gun boomed forth from the Pinta. As the fastest vessel of the fleet, she had forged ahead of the flag-ship, and one of her crew, a common sailor named Rodrigo de Triana, being on watch, was the favored one to first see land.

We cannot refrain in passing from pausing a moment in our narrative to make mention of the fact that, although Rodrigo was admittedly the very first to view the promised land, afterwards known as America, he reaped no advantage from it, as the reward was given to Columbus, on account of the light he claimed to have seen in the night. Poor Rodrigo felt himself cheated, mistreated and when, after the arrival in Spain on the return voyage, Columbus was not only awarded the pension, but took  it, he renounced his religion, went over to Africa, and became a Mohammedan.

For the time being, however, Rodrigo de Triana was the hero of the hour, and divided with the Admiral the honors of discovery. He then sank out of sight, only to reappear as an apostate, self-expatriated on account of an unworthy act of his commander.

As morning dawned, on Friday, October 12, 1492, the cry, "Tierra oho!"  was fully verified. There it lay, a fair stretch of glistening sands, with verdurous background, and white-fanged coral reefs dividing the intervening sea. Any land is welcome and attractive to a seafarer after long voyaging, and the picture presented to the eyes of those Spanish sailors that morning, though not strikingly beautiful, was most pleasing. It is doubtful, however, if Columbus cared whether the landscape were pleasing or otherwise, so absorbed was he in speculation as to what the land contained. Was he to behold fair temples and great palaces, populous cities and teeming marts of commerce? Would he, straightway, present his credentials to the Grand Khan, and be received at court with all the honors due him as the discoverer of a new route from Europe to the Indies? Slowly passed the hours between the moment of discovery and dawn, while the little craft, having reefed their sails and cast anchor, rolled lazily on the surface of the seas that came in from the ocean and sprayed the coral reefs with foam.

The eminently good-fortune that had attended the voyage hitherto stood by Columbus to the last, for, if he had known the coast and chosen his landfall, he could not have found a spot better favored than this. The island (as it afterwards proved to be) was reef-surrounded, but with openings affording passages for boats, while the barriers erected by the coral insects broke the force of the waves that came thundering in from the Atlantic, so that the waters within were as smooth as a pond.

Many descriptions have been written of this first landing in America, but none has been given clearer than that of Columbus himself, and this shall be our excuse for quoting it, as transcribed by Las Casas from the famous Diary of Colon, which was rediscovered in Spain in 1825: "Two hours after midnight the land appeared, about two leagues off. They lowered all the sails and lay to until morning, when they saw a small island of the Lucayos, called Guanahani  by the natives. They soon saw people naked, and the Admiral went on shore in the armed boat, also Martin Alonzo and Vicente Yanez Pinzon, commanders of the Pinta  and the Nina. The Admiral took the royal standard, and the two captains the two banners of the green cross, having an 'F' and a 'Y' [for Ferdinand and Ysabella] at each arm of said cross, surmounted by a crown. As soon as they landed, they saw trees of a brilliant green, abundance of water, and fruits of various kinds. The Admiral called the two captains and the rest, as well as the notary of the fleet, to certify that he, in the presence of them all, took possession of said island for the King and Queen, his sovereigns. Soon after large crowds of natives congregated there; and what follows is in the Admiral's own words, in his book on the first voyage and discovery of these Indies. 'I presented some of these people with red caps, strings of beads, and other trifles, by which we have got a wonderful hold on their affections. They afterwards came to the vessels, swimming, bringing us parrots, cotton thread in balls, and such things, which they bartered for glass beads and cascabels. All of them go as naked as they came into the world; their forms are graceful; their features good; their hair as coarse as a horse's tail, cut short in front and worn long upon their shoulders. They are dark of complexion, like the Canary-Islanders, and paint themselves in various colors. They do not carry arms, and have no knowledge of them, for when I showed them our swords they took them by the edges, and through their ignorance cut themselves. Neither have they any iron, their spears consisting of staffs tipped with stone and dog-fish teeth.

Landing of Columbus


I swear to your Majesties, there are no better people on earth; they are gentle, without knowing what evil is, neither killing nor stealing. . . . At dawn of Saturday, October 13th, many of the men came out to the ships in canoas  [canoes, then for the first time seen by Spaniards] made out of the trunks of trees, each of one piece, and wonderfully built, some containing forty men and others but a single one. They paddle with a peel like that of a baker, and make great speed, and if a canoe capsizes all swim about and bail out the water with calabashes. I examined them closely to see if there was any gold, noticing that some of them wore small pieces in their noses, and by signs I was able to understand that by going around the island to the southward, I would find a king who had large golden vessels, and also gold in great abundance.'

These are the words of Columbus himself, and is it not more interesting to receive his own impressions at first hand, rather than through transcribers who are separated from him by centuries of time? Writing at evening time of the second day, probably sitting encastled in the Santa Maria, with the fair prospect spread before him of shining sea and verdure-clad island, he says: "At this moment it is dark, and all have gone ashore in their canoes. I have determined to lose no time, . . . but to wait till to-morrow evening, and then sail for the southwest, . . . to try if I can find the island of Cipango."

Columbus could not understand—in fact, he was long in learning—that he had discovered, not the confines of the Indies, but an entirely new world. He was on the eastern coast of the Indies (thus he reasoned), and so, of course, the natives must be Indians—by which name he called them; and "Indians" they have ever since remained. They and their canoes were two more discoveries to be added to those already mentioned, and many more were yet to come.

The relation between the Spaniards and the first red folks they found in that island called Guanahani, was all that could be desired; but those who followed after the discoverers were not so humane. Twenty years later Spaniards from Haiti hunted them down with blood-hounds, and within fifty years they had ceased to exist. What we know of them is derived from the descriptions of Columbus and from the few remains they have left, such as the "celts," or stone implements: arrow and spear heads, war-clubs and knives, which are occasionally found in caves and clefts of the rocks.

The natives of the island have disappeared, and regarding the island itself, that first land discovered by Columbus in the New World, the same doubt exists that enshrouds his birthplace and his early life. That is, no one may positively assert that he can identify the Admiral's "landfall," or the coast he sighted, on that memorable October morn in 1492. "To the first island I found," he wrote in his journal, "I gave the name of San Salvador (or Saint Saviour), in remembrance of his High Majesty, who hath marvellously brought all these things to pass; the Indians call it Guanahani." But where that island lies, and just where Columbus landed, are matters of dispute to-day. Many enthusiastic investigators have tried to trace the voyagings of the Admiral, following after him with chart and compass; but whether he first landed on Cat Island, on Watling's, or on Eleuthera, the only thing we can affirm is that the island lies somewhere mid-chain of the Bahamas.

So here is a matter left over for the young explorers of the present or a coming generation; and perhaps there may be a reader of these lines who will earn the honor of rediscovering the "landfall" of Columbus! For his guidance, let us quote the words of Columbus: "This island is level, has a large lagoon in the middle, is without any mountains, and is covered with verdure most pleasing to the eye." This description applies very well to the island now known as Watling's, which lies in latitude 24 north, and, so far as it refers to the vegetation, might answer for any of the Bahamas, for it is tropical, or semitropical, throughout the chain. When Columbus landed there, doubtless, the present "scrubby" growth was overtopped by gigantic palms, which waved their golden fronds above the native huts formed of their leaves. Here dwelled those happy, simple people, in primitive state, but perfectly contented. The Spaniard came, and the red folks' Eden was transformed into an inferno.

On Sunday, October 14th, Columbus wrote in his diary: "At dawn I ordered the boats of the ship and of the caravels to be got ready, and went along the island. I was afraid of a reef of rocks which entirely surrounds it, although there is within it depth and ample harbor for all the vessels of Christendom; but the entrance is very narrow. . . . I observed all that harbor, and afterwards I returned to the ship and set sail, and saw so many islands that I could not decide which one to visit first . . . In consequence, I looked for the largest one, and determined to make for it, and am so doing, and it is probably five leagues distant from this of San Salvador, the others, some more, some less."

He reached that island and then sailed to another, of which he says: "If the other islands are beautiful, this is still more so, it has so many trees, very green and very large, while gentle hills enhance with their contrasts the beauty of the plains. I anchored here because I saw this cape so green and beautiful, as are all the things and lands of these islands, so that I know not which to go to first; nor do my eyes grow tired with looking at such beautiful verdure, so different from our own. The grass is as green as in Andalusia in April, and the songs of the little birds are such that it seems as one could never leave here at all."