This Week in History

Columbus Thinks He Has Reached the Indies: October 12, 1492

This text comes from our high school text, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. Please visit our webpage to peruse sample chapters of our book. For ordering information on Lands of Hope and Promise and our other texts, please click here.

“The Virgin of Navigators,” a mid-16th century painting by Alejo Fernández, commemorating the discovery of America

With a crew of 90 men and boys and a fleet of three small ships, or caravels, Columbus set sail from Palos harbor on August 3, 1492. The largest of his ships, the Santa María, served as the flagship. The other two caravels, the Pinta and the Niña, were piloted by the brothers Pinzón — Martín Alonso and Vicente Yáñez.

Columbus set off for the Indies laden with proud titles and wide powers. In confirming his expedition, the Catholic Monarchs agreed to Columbus’ demands, naming him Admiral of the Ocean Sea, viceroy and governor general over all the islands and parts of the mainland he should discover. These titles meant that Columbus was, under the monarchs, sole ruler of these lands. Isabel and Fernando also granted Columbus the privilege of keeping a tenth of all the wealth found in the lands he discovered.

The sea crossing, though not difficult on the outward voyage, was yet a novelty to the sailors. In those days, most sailing ships hugged the coasts, rarely venturing out onto the open sea. The sailors did not fear sailing off the end of the world, for they knew that the earth is a sphere; but they did not know how far west land actually lay and, they were worried that, so far out at sea, they would find no wind to blow them back again to Spain. To assuage their fear that they were sailing too far from Spain, Columbus kept two log books. In one (for himself) he marked down what he thought was the actual distance they had sailed each day; in another (for the sailors), he jotted a shorter distance.

Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo

The voyage revealed new wonders. In late September, the ships entered the Sargasso Sea in the mid-Atlantic, where the prows plowed through miles of thickly matted seaweed. From September 23–25, the three caravels hit calms where no wind blew and the sea was smooth as glass. The sailors bathed in the still, salt waters.

Finally on September 25, after about two months of sailing, the sea-weary sailors heard the long hoped-for cry, “Tierra! Tierra! Señor, albricias!” (“Land! Land! Sir, the good news!”) The cry lifted the hearts of the mariners, but their spirits deflated when they discovered it was a false landfall — probably the watch had seen a bank of clouds on the horizon. It was not long before disappointment changed to resentment, and resentment to growing insubordi­nation. For the next five days the fleet made little headway, and the crew began to grumble and contemplate mutiny. Columbus used all his powers of persuasion on his men, who only wanted to return to Spain, coaxing them with soft words and hopes of fame and riches. On October 7, the disappointed Columbus turned the fleet to follow the course of migratory birds he had seen, thinking they would surely head toward land.

By October 10, the crews had had enough. Open mutiny broke out. Columbus, hiding his own uneasiness that they had not yet reached land, again tried to encourage his men. But matters had gone too far. In the end he was forced to agree that, if after two or three days no one sighted land, the fleet would return home. As the day passed from morning, to afternoon, to night, how long the hours must have seemed to Columbus!

Christopher Columbus lands on San Salvador, by John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

 

But, then, it came, and the history of the world changed forever. It was 2 a.m. on the second day, October 12, 1492. A moon just past full rode in the western sky. The lookout on the Pinta spied a dark line on the horizon. It was flanked by what looked to be white sand cliffs. Then captain and crew heard the cry — “Tierra! Tierra!

This time it was no false landfall.

 

A Blending of Cultures

The coming of Columbus to the New World led to a blending of indigenous and Spanish cultures. This piece, composed by Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739) is an example of traditional Jarocho music, a style found along the coast lands around Veracruz in Mexico. One hears in it the mingling of Native American and Spanish music styles. This performance is by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI.