1480 Alonso Sánchez of Huelva

During the time between when Christopher Columbus resided in Pôrto Santo and his presentation to King João II of Portugal, a mariner from Huelva named Alonso Sánchez may have already reached America by sailing west.

Alonso Sánchez’ adventure, usually considered mythical, occurred in 1480, twelve years before Columbus finally reached the islands off Central America for the Spanish monarchs. But news of it did not circulate until 1535, forty-five years later and twenty-nine years after Columbus’ death. Many claim it was a vicious rumor to discredit the famous explorer.

However, Fernando Columbus included the story in his biography of his father, written some time before 1539. Sixteenth-century Spanish writer Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdéz said he heard the story while visiting Santo Domingo in New Spain in 1514. Bartolomé de Las Casas repeated the story in his narration of Christopher Columbus’ voyages. Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616) recounted the story in 1535. And Reverend Cotton Mather, a prominent New England scholar and minister, related Garcilaso de la Vega’s version of the story in his The Glorious Works of Christ in America: The Ecclesiastical History of New England in 1702.

We will summarize the version related by Sebastián Garcilaso de la Vega y Vargas, who was better known as El Inca. He heard the story from his father’s conquistador friends, who, supposedly, had first hand information – a credible source.

El Inca was a well respected and well received historian from Peru, having been born in the new Spanish Vice-royalty in 1539, not long after it became a Spanish colony. He was the illegitimate son of a Spanish conquistador named Sebastián Garcilaso de la Vega y Vargas and an Inca princess name Palla Chimpu Ocllo. El Inca grew up listening to the tales told by his father and other conquistadors. When he was twenty-one, and after his father died, El Inca moved to Spain to be recognized by his father’s family. He spent the rest of his life in Spain and became the first American-born person to chronicle and write about Inca history, culture, and society.

El Inca claimed that as a young child [in the 1540s] he heard his father’s friends talking about Alonso Sánchez, verifying the claim published by Garcilaso de la Vega in 1535. The story went like this:

In the year 1480, a mariner and trader named Alonso Sánchez was on his way home to Huelva from Madeira. He commanded a trading ship, probably a carrack, with a crew of fifteen [some say seventeen] men. As we mentioned, Huelva was a major seaport that serviced Seville.

Sánchez was often hired by Spanish merchants to transport goods between the seaports of Huelva, Southampton in England, Madeira, and the Canary Islands.

As Sánchez’ ship sailed north in 1480, she got caught in a tempest and was badly damaged. With her sails torn and her masts broken, Sánchez could no longer navigate her. The ship drifted at the mercy of the Volta do Mar. Strong winds blew the broken vessel drastically off course into unknown seas. She strayed toward the southwest for several weeks.

Sánchez and his crew were terrified. As the weather grew warmer, they were certain they would run into the boiling seas and that the sun would burn them to death. Some seamen still believed the world was flat and that they were about to fall over the precipice at any moment. The Castilians finally sighted land somewhere near the later-discovered-and-named island of Española [New Spain]. They coasted until they found human habitation in a small port village. Using the ship’s shoreboat [a long rowboat], Sánchez and some scouts tentatively disembarked, wondering if they were in the land of the Antipodes.

Like the Aztecs to the north, the people of Española believed the myth that gods would one day visit them, and that when the gods visited them, they would come from the sea [as in the Prince Madog story]. Algonquians in North America claimed, as part of their oral history, that their people came to America from the north on sheets of floating ice.

Impressed by the Spaniards’ height and beards [the people of Española could not grow beards], the natives thought Sánchez and his men were divine. They ceremoniously showered them with food, gold, and the gift of their women. [Venereal and other diseases could have been transferred between the cultures as early as that year.]

Sánchez’ men set about repairing their ship. They mended the sails and found trees on the island for fashioning new masts. Meanwhile, Sánchez calculated the latitude of their location and wrote it in his ship’s log along with a description of the place. When their bark was ready, the Castilians sailed for home.

By the time the ship reached the Madeiras archipelago, only Sánchez and five crew still lived. They were more dead than alive. The islanders took them to the home of Christopher Columbus, who by that time had been married to Felipa for one year and [according to this legend] was living on Pôrto Santo. Sánchez’ crew died one by one, then he himself took his last breath. Whereupon Columbus inherited Sánchez’ ship’s log and the charts of his adventure.

Alonso Sánchez of Huelva’s trip occurred after Columbus’ father-in-law Bartolomeu Perestrello collected his library of ship logs. However, there were other reasons that might explain why Sánchez was placed in Columbus’ care.

One of Columbus’ brother-in-laws, Miguel Moliarte [Muliart], was also from Huelva, and a well known explorer. Miguel Moliarte later joined Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the New World. We already know that Bartolomeu Perestrello II was the capitão of Pôrto Santo, and that Felipa’s half-sister, Inez Perestrello, was married to the capitão of Graciosa Island in the Azores. We repeat, it was a small world.

If the story is true, why did Columbus get credit for the discovery rather than Sánchez?

To answer that question, we must remember the Treaty of Alcáçovas-Toledo signed the year before, in 1479. Excepting the Canary Islands, the treaty allotted all lands and all trade rights in the Atlantic on the way to the Indies to Portugal. Alonso Sánchez had probably obtained permission from the Portuguese to sail to Madeira to conduct trade. However, he was not allowed to sail farther west. In 1492, Columbus will be required to obtain permission to sail in western waters after he leaves the Canary Islands. King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile were equally aware of the restrictions. After all, they had signed the treaty, which had been in force since it was affirmed by Pope Sixtus IV. If Ferdinand and Isabella recognized Sánchez’ claim, they would have had to hand the land over to Portugal.

Next Article: Christopher Columbus Leaves Portugal