The Life of Christopher Columbus by Edward Everett Hale
[The following passages, from Admiral Fox's report, give his reasons for believing that Samana, or Atwood's Key, is the island where Columbus first touched land. The interest which attaches to this subject at the moment of the centennial, when many voyages will be made by persons following Columbus, induces me to copy Admiral Fox's reasonings in detail. I believe his conclusion to be correct.]
This method of applying Columbus's words in detail to refute each of the alleged tracks, and the study that I gave to the subject in the winter of 1878-79 in the Bahamas, which has been familiar cruising ground to me, has resulted in the selection of Samana or Atwood's Key for the first landing place.
It is a little island 8.8 miles east and west; 1.6 extreme breadth, and averaging 1.2 north and south. It has 8.6 square miles. The east end is in latitude 23 degrees 5' N.; longitude 73 degrees 37' west of Greenwich. The reef on which it lies is 15 by 2 1/2 miles.
On the southeast this reef stretches half a mile from the land, on the east four miles, on the west two, along the north shore one-quarter to one-half mile, and on the southwest scarcely one-quarter. Turk is smaller than Samana, and Cat very much larger.
The selection of two so unlike in size show that dimension has not been considered essential in choosing an island for the first landfall.[*]
[*] I am indebted to T. J. McLain, Esq., United States consul at Nassau, for the following information given to him by the captains of this port, who visit Samana or Atwood's Key. The sub-sketch on this chart is substantially correct: Good water is only obtained by sinking wells. The two keys to the east are covered with guano; white boobies hold the larger one, and black boobies the other; neither intermingles.
The island is now uninhabited, but arrow heads and stone hatchets are sometimes found; and in places there are piles of stones supposed to have been made by the aborigines. Most of the growth is scrubby, with a few scattered trees.
The Nassau vessels enter an opening through the reef on the south side of the island and find a very comfortable little harbor with from two to two and a half fathoms of water. From here they send their boats on shore to "strip" guano, and cut satin, dye woods and bark.
When Columbus discovered Guanahani, the journal called it a "little island." After landing he speaks of it as "bien grande," "very large," which some translate, tolerably, or pretty large. November 20, 1492 (Navarette, first edition, p. 61), the journal refers to Isabella, a larger island than Guanahani, as "little island," and the fifth of January following (p. 125) San Salvador is again called "little island."
The Bahamas have an area of about 37,000 square miles, six per cent of which may be land, enumerated as 36 islands, 687 keys, and 2,414 rocks. The submarine bank upon which these rest underlies Florida also. But this peninsula is wave-formed upon living corals, whose growth and gradual stretch toward the south has been made known by Agassiz.
I had an unsuccessful search for a similar story of the Bahamas, to learn whether there were any probable changes within so recent a period as four hundred years.
The common mind can see that all the rock there is coral, none of which is in position. The surface, the caves, the chinks, and the numerous pot-holes are compact limestone, often quite crystalline, while beneath it is oolitic, either friable or hard enough to be used for buildings. The hills are sand-blown, not upheaved. On a majority of the maps of the sixteenth century there were islands on Mouchoir, and on Silver Banks, where now are rocks "awash;" and the Dutch and the Severn Shoals, which lay to the east, have disappeared.
It is difficult to resist the impression that the shoal banks, and the reefs of the Bahamas, were formerly covered with land; and that for a geological age waste has been going on, and, perhaps, subsidence. The coral polyp seems to be doing only desultory work, and that mostly on the northeast or Atlantic side of the islands; everywhere else it has abandoned the field to the erosive action of the waves.
Columbus said that Guanahani had abundance of water and a very large lagoon in the middle of it. He used the word laguna--lagoon, not lago--lake. His arrival in the Bahamas was at the height of the rainy season. Governor Rawson's Report on the Bahamas, 1864, page 92, Appendix 4, gives the annual rainfall at Nassau for ten years, 1855--'64, as sixty-four inches. From May 1, to November 1 is the wet season, during which 44.7 inches fall; the other six months 19.3 only. The most is in October, 8.5 inches.
Andros, the largest island, 1,600 square miles, is the only one that has a stream of water. The subdivision of the land into so many islands and keys, the absence of mountains, the showery characteristic of the rainfall, the porosity of the rock, and the great heat reflected from the white coral, are the chief causes for the want of running water. During the rainy season the "abundance of water" collects in the low places, making ponds and lagoons, that afterward are soaked up by the rock and evaporated by the sun.
Turk and Watling have lagoons of a more permanent condition, because they are maintained from the ocean by permeation. The lagoon which Columbus found at Guanahani had certainly undrinkable water, or he would have gotten some for his vessels, instead of putting it off until he reached the third island.
There is nothing in the journal to indicate that the lagoon at Guanahani was aught but the flooding of the low grounds by excessive rains; and even if it was one communicating with the ocean, its absence now may be referred to the effect of those agencies which are working incessantly to reshape the soft structure of the Bahamas.
Samana has a range of hills on the southwest side about one hundred feet high, and on the northeast another, lower. Between them, and also along the north shore, the land is low, and during the season of rains there is a row of ponds parallel to the shore. On the south side a conspicuous white bluff looks to the southward and eastward.
The two keys, lying respectively half a mile and three miles east of the island, and possibly the outer breaker, which is four miles, all might have been connected with each other, and with the island, four hundred years ago. In that event the most convenient place for Columbus to anchor in the strong northeast trade-wind, was where I have put an anchor on the sub-sketch of Samana.
[In a subsequent passage Admiral Fox says:--]
There is a common belief that the first landing place is settled by one or another of the authors cited here. Nevertheless, I trust to have shown, paragraph by paragraph, wherein their several tracks are contrary to the journal, inconsistent with the true cartography of the neighborhood, and to the discredit, measurably, both of Columbus and of Las Casas. The obscurity and the carelessness which appear in part of the diary through the Bahamas offer no obstacle to this demonstration, provided that they do not extend to the "log," or nautical part.
Columbus went to sea when he was fourteen years of age, and served there almost continuously for twenty-three years. The strain of a sea-faring life, from so tender an age, is not conducive to literary exactness. Still, for the very reason of this sea experience, the "log" should be correct.
This is composed of the courses steered, distances sailed over, bearings of islands from one another, trend of shores, etc. The recording of these is the daily business of seamen, and here the entries were by Columbus himself, chiefly to enable him, on his return to Spain, to construct that nautical map, which is promised in the prologue of the first voyage.
In crossing the Atlantic the Admiral understated to the crew each day's run, so that they should not know how far they had gone into an unknown ocean. Las Casas was aware of this counterfeit "log," but his abridgment is from that one which Columbus kept for his own use.
If the complicated courses and distances in this were originally wrong, or if the copy of them is false, it is obvious that they cannot be "plotted " upon a correct chart. Conversely, if they ARE made to conform to a succession of islands among which he is known to have sailed, it is evident that this is a genuine transcript of the authentic "log" of Columbus, and, reciprocally, that we have the true track, the beginning of which is the eventful landfall of October 12, 1492.
The student or critical reader, and the seaman, will have to determine whether the writer has established this conformity. The public, probably, desires to have the question settled, but it will hardly take any interest in a discussion that has no practical bearing, and which, for its elucidation, leans so much upon the jargon or the sea.
It is not flattering to the English or Spanish speaking peoples that the four hundredth anniversary of this great event draws nigh, and is likely to catch us still floundering, touching the first landing place.
First. There is no objection to Samana in respect to size, position or shape. That it is a little island, lying east and west, is in its favor. The erosion at the east end, by which islets have been formed, recalls the assertion of Columbus that there it could be cut off in two days and made into an island.
The Nassau vessels still find a snug anchorage here during the northeast trades. These blew half a gale of wind at the time of the landfall; yet Navarette, Varnhagen, and Captain Becher anchored the squadron on the windward sides of the coral reefs of their respective islands, a "lee shore."
The absence of permanent lagoons at Samana I have tried to explain.
Second. The course from Samana to Crooked is to the southwest, which is the direction that the Admiral said be should steer "tomorrow evening." The distance given by him corresponds with the chart.
Third. The second island, Santa Maria, is described as having two sides which made a right angle, and the length of each is given. This points directly to Crooked and Acklin. Both form one island, so fitted to the words of the journal as cannot be done with any other land of the Bahamas.
Fourth. The course and distance from Crooked to Long Island is that which the Admiral gives from Santa Maria to Fernandina.
Fifth. Long Island, the third, is accurately described. The trend of the shores, "north-northwest and south-southeast;" the "marvelous port" and the "coast which runs east [and] west," can nowhere be found except at the southeast part of Long Island.
Sixth. The journal is obscure in regard to the fourth island. The best way to find it is to "plot" the courses FORWARD from the third island and the courses and distances BACKWARD from the fifth. These lead to Fortune for the fourth.
Seventh. The Ragged Islands are the fifth. These he named las islas de Arena--Sand Islands.
They lie west-southwest from the fourth, and this is the course the Admiral adhered to. He did not "log" all the run made between these islands; in consequence the "log" falls short of the true distance, as it ought to. These "seven or eight islands, all extending from north to south," and having shoal water "six leagues to the south" of them, are seen on the chart at a glance.
Eighth. The course and distance from these to Port Padre, in Cuba, is reasonable. The westerly current, the depth of water at the entrance of Padre, and the general description, are free of difficulties. The true distance is greater than the "logged," because Columbus again omits part of his run. It would be awkward if the true distances from the fourth to the fifth islands, and from the latter to Padre, had fallen short of the "log," since it would make the unexplainable situation which occurs in Irving's course and distance from Mucaras Reef to Boca de Caravela.
From end to end of the Samana track there are but three
discrepancies. At the third island, two leagues ought to be two
miles. At the fourth island twelve leagues ought to be twelve
miles. The bearing between the third and fourth islands is not
quite as the chart has it, nor does it agree with the courses he
steered. These three are fairly explained, and I think that no
others can be mustered to disturb the concord between this track
and the journal.
Rev. Mr. Cronan, in his recent voyage, discovered a cave at Watling's island, where were many skeletons of the natives. It is thought that a study of the bones in these skeletons will give some new ethnological information as to the race which Columbus found, which is now, thanks to Spanish cruelty, entirely extinct.