Chapter III. The Great Voyage.


At last all was ready. That is to say, the fleet was so far ready that Columbus was ready to start. The vessels were small, as we think of vessels, but he was not dissatisfied. He says in the beginning of his journal, "I armed three vessels very fit for such an enterprise." He had left Grenada as late as the twelfth of May. He had crossed Spain to Palos,[*] and in less than three months had fitted out the ships and was ready for sea.

[*] Palos is now so insignificant a place that on some important maps of Spain it will not be found. It is on the east side of the Tinto river; and Huelva, on the west side, has taken its place.

The harbor of Palos is now ruined. Mud and gravel, brought down by the River Tinto, have filled up the bay, so that even small boats cannot approach the shore. The traveler finds, however, the island of Saltes, quite outside the bay, much as Columbus left it. It is a small spit of sand, covered with shells and with a few seashore herbs. His own account of the great voyage begins with the words:

"Friday, August 3, 1492. Set sail from the bar of Saltes at 8 o'clock, and proceeded with a strong breeze till sunset sixty miles, or fifteen leagues south, afterward southwest and south by west, which is in the direction of the Canaries."

It appears, therefore, that the great voyage, the most important and successful ever made, began on Friday, the day which is said to be so much disliked by sailors. Columbus never alludes to this superstition.

He had always meant to sail first for the Canaries, which were the most western land then known in the latitude of his voyage. From Lisbon to the famous city of "Quisay," or "Quinsay," in Asia, Toscanelli, his learned correspondent, supposed the distance to be less than one thousand leagues westward. From the Canary islands, on that supposition, the distance would be ten degrees less. The distance to Cipango, or Japan, would be much less.

As it proved, the squadron had to make some stay at the Canaries. The rudder of the Pinta was disabled, and she proved leaky. It was suspected that the owners, from whom she had been forcibly taken, had intentionally disabled her, or that possibly the crew had injured her. But Columbus says in his journal that Martin Alonso Pinzon, captain of the Pinta, was a man of capacity and courage, and that this quieted his apprehensions. From the ninth of August to the second of September, nearly four weeks were spent by the Pinta and her crew at the Grand Canary island, and she was repaired. She proved afterwards a serviceable vessel, the fastest of the fleet. At the Canaries they heard stories of lands seen to the westward, to which Columbus refers in his journal. On the sixth of September they sailed from Gomera and on the eighth they lost sight of land. Nor did they see land again for thirty-three days. Such was the length of the great voyage. All the time, most naturally, they were wishing for signs, not of land perhaps, but which might show whether this great ocean were really different from other seas. On the whole the voyage was not a dangerous one.

According to the Admiral's reckoning--and in his own journal Columbus always calls himself the Admiral--its length was one thousand and eighty-nine leagues. This was not far from right, the real distance being, in a direct line, three thousand one hundred and forty nautical miles, or three thousand six hundred and twenty statute miles.[*] It would not be considered a very long voyage for small vessels now. In general the course was west. Sometimes, for special reasons, they sailed south of west. If they had sailed precisely west they would have struck the shore of the United States a little north of the spot where St. Augustine now is, about the northern line of Florida.

[*] The computations from Santa Cruz, in the Canaries, to San Salvador give this result, as kindly made for us by Lieutenant Mozer, of the United States navy.

Had the coast of Asia been, indeed, as near as Toscanelli and Columbus supposed, this latitude of the Canary islands would have been quite near the mouth of the Yang-tse-Kiang river, in China, which was what Columbus was seeking. For nearly a generation afterwards he and his followers supposed that the coast of that region was what they had found.

It was on Saturday, the eighth of September, that they lost sight of Teneriffe. On the eleventh they saw a large piece of the mast of a ship afloat. On the fourteenth they saw a "tropic-bird," which the sailors thought was never seen more than twenty-five leagues from land; but it must be remembered, that, outside of the Mediterranean, few of the sailors had ever been farther themselves. On the sixteenth they began to meet "large patches of weeds, very green, which appeared to have been recently washed away from land." This was their first knowledge of the "Sargasso sea," a curious tract in mid-Atlantic which is always green with floating seaweeds. "The continent we shall find farther on," wrote the confident Admiral.

An observation of the sun on the seventeenth proved what had been suspected before, that the needles of the compasses were not pointing precisely to the north. The variation of the needle, since that time, has been a recognized fact. But this observation at so critical a time first disclosed it. The crew were naturally alarmed. Here was evidence that, in the great ocean, common laws were not to be relied upon. But they had great respect for Columbus's knowledge of such subjects. He told them that it was not the north which had changed, nor the needle, which was true to the north, but the polar star revolved, like other stars, and for the time they were satisfied.

The same day they saw weeds which he was sure were land weeds. From them he took a living crab, whose unintentional voyage eastward was a great encouragement to the bolder adventurer westward. Columbus kept the crab, saying that such were never found eighty leagues from land. In fact this poor crab was at least nine hundred and seventy leagues from the Bahamas, as this same journal proves. On the eighteenth the Pinta ran ahead of the other vessels, Martin Alonso was so sure that he should reach land that night. But it was not to come so soon.

Columbus every day announced to his crew a less distance as the result of the day than they had really sailed. For he was afraid of their distrust, and did not dare let them know how far they were from home. The private journal, therefore, has such entries as this, "Sailed more than fifty-five leagues, wrote down only forty-eight." That is, he wrote on the daily log, which was open to inspection, a distance some leagues less than they had really made.

On the twentieth pelicans are spoken of, on the twenty-first "such abundance of weeds that the ocean seemed covered with them," "the sea smooth as a river, and the finest air in the world. Saw a whale, an indication of land, as they always keep near the coast." To later times, this note, also, shows how ignorant Columbus then was of mid-ocean.

On the twenty-second, to the Admiral's relief, there was a head wind; for the crew began to think that with perpetual east winds they would never return to Spain. They had been in what are known as the trade winds. On the twenty-third the smoother water gave place to a rough sea, and he writes that this "was favorable to me, as it happened formerly to Moses when he led the Jews from Egypt."

The next day, thanks to the headwinds, their progress was less. On the twenty-fifth, Pinzon, of the Pinta, felt sure that they were near the outer islands of Asia as they appeared on the Toscanelli map, and at sunset called out with joy that he saw land, claiming a reward for such news. The crews of both vessels sang "Glory to God in the highest," and the crew of the little Nina were sure that the bank was land. On this occasion they changed from a western course to the southwest. But alas! the land was a fog-bank and the reward never came to Martin Pinzon. On the twenty-sixth, again "the sea was like a river." This was Wednesday. In three days they sailed sixty-nine leagues. Saturday was calm. They saw a bird called "Rabihorcado," which never alights at sea, nor goes twenty leagues from land," wrote the confident Columbus; "Nothing is wanting but the singing of the nightingale," he says.

Sunday, the thirtieth, brought "tropic-birds" again, "a very clear sign of land." Monday the journal shows them seven hundred and seven leagues from Ferro. Tuesday a white gull was the only visitor. Wednesday they had pardelas and great quantities of seaweed. Columbus began to be sure that they had passed "the islands" and were nearing the continent of Asia. Thursday they had a flock of pardelas, two pelicans, a rabihorcado and a gull. Friday, the fifth of October, brought pardelas and flying-fishes.

We have copied these simple intimations from the journal to show how constantly Columbus supposed that he was near the coast of Asia. On the sixth of October Pinzon asked that the course might be changed to the southwest. But Columbus held on. On the seventh the Nina was ahead, and fired a gun and hoisted her flag in token that she saw land. But again they were disappointed. Columbus gave directions to keep close order at sunrise and sunset. The next day he did change the course to west southwest, following flights of birds from the north which went in that direction. On the eighth "the sea was like the river at Seville," the weeds were very few and they took land birds on board the ships. On the ninth they sailed southwest five leagues, and then with a change of wind went west by north. All night they heard the birds of passage passing.

On the tenth of October the men made remonstrance, which has been exaggerated in history into a revolt. It is said, in books of authority, that Columbus begged them to sail west only three days more. But in the private journal of the tenth he says simply: "The seamen complained of the length of the voyage. They did not wish to go any farther. The Admiral did his best to renew their courage, and reminded them of the profits which would come to them. He added, boldly, that no complaints would change his purpose, that he had set out to go to the Indies, and that with the Lord's assistance he should keep on until he came there." This is the only passage in the journal which has any resemblance to the account of the mutiny.

If it happened, as Oviedo says, three days before the discovery, it would have been on the eighth of October. On that day the entry is, "Steered west southwest, and sailed day and night eleven or twelve leagues--at times, during the night, fifteen miles an hour--if the log can be relied upon. Found the sea like the river at Seville, thanks to God. The air was as soft as that of Seville in April, and so fragrant that it was delicious to breathe it. The weeds appeared very fresh. Many land birds, one of which they took, flying towards the southwest, also grajaos, ducks and a pelican were seen."

This is not the account of a mutiny. And the discovery of Columbus's own journal makes that certain, which was probable before, that the romantic account of the despair of the crews was embroidered on the narrative after the event, and by people who wanted to improve the story. It was, perhaps, borrowed from a story of Diaz's voyage. We have followed the daily record to show how constantly they supposed, on the other hand, that they were always nearing land.

With the eleventh of October, came certainty. The eleventh is sometimes spoken of as the day of discovery, and sometimes the twelfth, when they landed on the first island of the new world.

The whole original record of the discovery is this: "Oct. 11, course to west and southwest. Heavier sea than they had known, pardelas and a green branch near the caravel of the Admiral. From the Pinta they see a branch of a tree, a stake and a smaller stake, which they draw in, and which appears to have been cut with iron, and a piece of cane. Besides these, there is a land shrub and a little bit of board. The crew of the Nina saw other signs of land and a branch covered with thorns and flowers. With these tokens every-one breathes again and is delighted. They sail twenty-seven leagues on this course.

"The Admiral orders that they shall resume a westerly course at sunset. They make twelve miles each hour; up till two hours after midnight they made ninety miles.

"The Pinta, the best sailer of the three, was ahead. She makes signals, already agreed upon, that she has discovered land. A sailor named Rodrigo de Triana was the first to see this land. For the Admiral being on the castle of the poop of the ship at ten at night really saw a light, but it was so shut in by darkness that he did not like to say that it was a sign of land. Still he called up Pedro Gutierrez, the king's chamberlain, and said to him that there seemed to be a light, and asked him to look. He did so and saw it. He said the same to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, who had been sent by the king and queen as inspector in the fleet, but he saw nothing, being indeed in a place where he could see nothing.

"After the Admiral spoke of it, the light was seen once or twice. It was like a wax candle, raised and lowered, which would appear to few to be a sign of land. But the Admiral was certain that it was a sign of land. Therefore when they said the "Salve," which all the sailors are used to say and sing in their fashion, the Admiral ordered them to look out well from the forecastle, and he would give at once a silk jacket to the man who first saw land, besides the other rewards which the sovereigns had ordered, which were 10,000 maravedis, to be paid as an annuity forever to the man who saw it first.

"At two hours after midnight land appeared, from which they were about two leagues off."

This is the one account of the discovery written at the time. It is worth copying and reading at full in its little details, for it contrasts curiously with the embellished accounts which appear in the next generation. Thus the historian Oviedo says, in a dramatic way:

"One of the ship boys on the largest ship, a native of Lepe, cried 'Fire!' 'Land!' Immediately a servant of Columbus replied, 'The Admiral had said that already.' Soon after, Columbus said, 'I said so some time ago, and that I saw that fire on the land.' " And so indeed it happened that Thursday, at two hours after midnight, the Admiral called a gentleman named Escobedos, officer of the wardrobe of the king, and told him that he saw fire. And at the break of day, at the time Columbus had predicted the day before, they saw from the largest ship the island which the Indians call Guanahani to the north of them.

"And the first man to see the land, when day came, was Rodrigo of Triana, on the eleventh day of October, 1492." Nothing is more certain than that this was really on the twelfth.

The reward for first seeing land was eventually awarded to Columbus, and it was regularly paid him through his life. It was the annual payment of 10,000 maravedis. A maravedi was then a little less than six cents of our currency. The annuity was, therefore, about six hundred dollars a year.

The worth of a maravedi varied, from time to time, so that the calculations of the value of any number of maravedis are very confusing. Before the coin went out of use it was worth only half a cent.