1492 – Christopher Columbus’ First Voyage

Christopher Columbus’ presentation to King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile did not convince many people. A witness named Rodrigo Maldonado wrote later, “all of them agreed that what the admiral wished was impossible to be true and that the admiral persisted against the opinion of most of them in making the voyage.”

Martín González, who lived near Palos, from where Columbus would launch his fleet, pointed out that “many wise seamen said that running to the west from Cape Saint Vincent and by other winds they pointed out, they would never find land even if they traveled two years.”

But Luis de Santángel, a converso [a Jew who had converted to Christianity], who was the chancellor of Fernando’s household and treasurer of Aragon, stepped forward and asked Columbus how much money he wanted and how many vessels. Columbus replied that he needed 3000 gold pieces and two ships.

Santángel arranged for Isabella to obtain a loan from a new source of funds accessed by Ferdinand and Isabella’s general police force, the Sancta Hermandad [Holy Brotherhood]. Those funds were the money and properties that had been confiscated from the Jews when they were expelled from Spain that May.

Isabella used the money [that she had stolen from the Jews] to help pay for the Niña and the Pinta. Columbus would borrow the rest he needed from a Florentine investment banker and slaver named Gianotto di Lorenzo Berardi to charter and outfit the Santa Maria. She was partially owned by an experienced mariner and cartographer, Juan de la Cosa, who would serve as Columbus’ pilot and help survey the new land.

Friar Juan Pérez of La Rábida Monastery, where Columbus and Diogo, now about twelve years old, were living, helped Columbus negotiate a contract with the Catholic Monarchs. They held the meeting at Ferdinand and Isabella’s fort in Santa Fé(1) near Málaga. The first draft of the agreement, which gave Columbus ten percent of the profits from lands he discovered, was executed on April 17, 1492. But Columbus requested some revisions. He wanted the monarchs to award him royal offices and hereditary titles to newly claimed lands similar to those held by his father-in-law Bartolomeu Perestrello, but on a much larger scale. The Monarchs thought Columbus was crazy. However, since they believed he would sail into the sunset and disappear forever, they agreed. They signed the final, revised version of the contract in Granada on April 30 of the same year.

Columbus’ tiny fleet left Palos [across the inlet from Huelva, and not far from La Rábida Monastery] on August 3, 1492, nine days after the Genoese Pope Innocent VIII died, and fifteen days before he was replaced by a cardinal from Aragon who became Alexander VI. This new Pope would be very useful to Ferdinand, King of Aragon when Christopher returned to Spain.

Columbus carried a letter of greeting from Ferdinand and Isabella to the Great Khan, ruler of Cathay. Neither Columbus or the monarchs knew that there were no more khans. The Ming Dynasty had been in power since 1368(2). Columbus’ ships carried samples of oriental spices, particularly cinnamon and pepper. Assuming there would be language barriers, Columbus wanted something to show to the Indians to illustrate what he was looking for.

As you already know, the fleet consisted of three ships, the Pinta [which meant painted ship], the Niña [which meant little girl and was actually the nickname for the Santa Clara owned by Juan Niño] and the Santa María [Saint Mary]. Martín Alonso Pinzón commanded the Pinta. His brother, Vincent Yánez Pinzón, commanded the Niña.

Martín Pinzón was a leading citizen of Palos. He was more esteemed in the local maritime community than the unknown foreigner from Genoa, Christopher Columbus. When, on April 30, 1492, Queen Isabella ordered the town council of Palos to provide two ships for Columbus for one year, “as a means of settling a penalty from a court case,”(3) the Pinzóns provided the Pinta and the Nina from their fleet. Many of the 900 – plus or minus – passengers and crew on board the three ships were friends and relatives of the Pinzóns. Furthermore, the Pinzóns “advised [Columbus] and taught him many things that were beneficial for the voyage.”

The ships first sailed to the Canary Islands. Columbus’ mission there entailed more than stocking up on water and wood, or catching the easterlies of the Volta do Mar. His fleet happened to arrive at the same time another Spanish fleet was about to invade Gran Canaria Island and subjugate the Guanche people. The second Spanish fleet was backed by the same group of Florentine bankers, including Berardi, who were sponsoring Columbus. Ferdinand and Isabella had promised the Florentines 700,000 maravedí if they succeeded in subjugating the Guanche within one year.

Columbus’ fleet stayed in the Canaries from August 9 to about September 6, nearly a month. He dropped the Pinta off at Gran Canaria Island to have her rudder repaired and her rigging converted. Pinzón wanted square sails for crossing the Atlantic with the winds, not the triangular shaped lateen sails that were better for tacking back and forth against the winds.

The Niña and the Santa Maria sailed to La Gomera Island, where the invasion was about to take place. Historians wonder if Columbus and Juan de la Cosa had some messages from the Florentine Bankers to deliver. De la Cosa was a partner of Berardi’s, and probably assisted the other Florentines with his ship and cartography skills. At La Gomera, Columbus restocked wood, water, and meat. And, according to a friend of his, the “lord admiral” visited “a woman with whom he had once been in love.”

The notoriously beautiful, thirty-year-old Beatriz de Bobadilla had been a lady in waiting to Queen Isabella. In 1482, after Bobadilla became a lover of King Ferdinand, Isabella arranged for her to marry Hernán de Peraza, the capitão of La Gomera. Isabella wanted too make sure that Beatriz lived far away from Spain. When Peraza was killed in a slave rebellion in 1488, Beatriz became the regent for her son, Guillén, and took charge of La Gomera. She was still the acting ruler – and single – when Columbus visited her in 1492. According to historian Douglas Hunter, Beatriz “would be remembered foremost for her tempestuous love affairs and her cruel treatment of the Guanche slaves who toiled in her sugarcane fields.”

Both Beatriz and Columbus had connections to Alonso de Lugo, the leader of the nine hundred or more Spanish soldiers who were about to invade Gomera and battle the Guanche people – a maneuver that was far more important to Ferdinand and Isabella than Columbus’ excursion over the Ocean Sea.(4) But Columbus’ fleet would leave before Alonso de Lugo arrived.

Columbus knew that when he left the Canaries, he was sailing into Portuguese controlled waters. There are no records showing he obtained the required permissions. When King João II heard the Genoese was on La Gomera, he sent three caravels to intercept Columbus’ fleet as soon as they ventured west. The Pinta, Niña, and Santa Maria departed from the Canaries on September 6. They managed to avoid the Portuguese caravels. Columbus would be out of contact from all of Europe for the next six months.

One week on the open ocean out of sight of land was more than most of Columbus’ crew had experienced. Even Columbus was surprised when after two weeks, he did not run into Antilla. Other mariners had warned him not to be fooled by the Saragossa Sea(5). Still, he thought the grasses, birds, and particular cloud formations meant he was near land. At one point, Martín Alonso Pinzón went on a wild bird chase in the Pinta, but found nothing.

Had the ships continued on their path, they would have run into Florida and the mainland of North America. But Columbus and Pinzón worried they had been blown farther north than they wanted to be and turned southwest. At the end of the third week, they arrived at the Bahamas Islands.

The Bahamas are not in the Gulf of Mexico or in the Caribbean. The archipelago consists of over 700 islands, cays [pronounced keys], and islets southwest of Florida and north of Cuba. They were occupied by a local Lucayan tribe of Arawak(6)-speaking Taino people.]

On October 12, Columbus and a smaller party of scouts stepped ashore a sandy beach. The local Lucayo natives – whom Columbus called Indians because he thought he was in India – told him the island was called Guanahaní. Historians still debate about the exact location within the Bahamas archipelago that Columbus made landfall. Since he renamed the island San Salvador, it is generally thought he landed on the island that currently bears that name. A granite monument takes credit for the landing spot.

Columbus was impressed by the large, flat island with “very green” trees, “much water” and “a large lake in the center,” Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest who wrote a journal of Columbus’ first voyage [the only journal that has survived], quoted Columbus as saying. “There are no mountains and all is so green it is a pleasure to see.”

Columbus noted that the natives were the “natural color of the Canary Islanders,” with their tawny-colored skin. He was surprised by “their mild and pacific temperament.” He wrote, “I could conquer them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” He captured from ten to twenty-five natives to take back to Spain “to be taught to read and write” in Spanish, so they could help Christianize other natives.

Using sign language, the Europeans asked the natives how to reach Cipangu. The natives thought Columbus and Pinzón were describing Cuba, so they told them how to get there. They described the island as being so big that “in their canoes they cannot circle the island in twenty days.” Canoe was a new word to the Europeans. De Casas described the paddle as “a kind of baker’s peel.”

When Columbus reached Cuba, he named it Juana after the crown prince, Juan of Aragon. Again he tried to communicate with the natives. But he mistakenly interpreted them as saying that large ships came from the Great Khan after a journey of ten days from the mainland. The natives were probably talking about the large Mayan canoes that sailed in from Guatemala. Martín Alonso Pinzón thought the natives were telling him that Cuba was a peninsula extending from the mainland a long way to the north.

Columbus further confused things by incorrectly measuring their location at 42 degrees north latitude. 42 degrees would have placed Columbus in today’s Boston, Massachusetts. San Salvador is at 24 degrees north latitude. Columbus insisted he was across a water channel from Marco Polo’s “most noble city, Quinsay.” [Hangzhou is located at 30 degrees north latitude]. Columbus dispatched two men to follow Cuba northward to find the Great Khan.

One of the emissaries, named Luis de Torres, had been taught “Hebrew, Chaldean, and some Arabic” so he could communicate with the Great Khan and his people. He probably carried the letter that Ferdinand and Isabella had written to the ruler of the Mongols. The group returned after six days. They had not found Cathay. And they had not learned that Cuba was an island.

It is possible that Columbus recorded the wrong coordinates of his location on purpose – a mistake of 20 degrees. He did not want his captains and distinguished passengers knowing his true route to the Indies. Bartolomeu de Las Casas reported, “He kept two reckonings [measurements] for the voyage; the shorter was the false one and the longer was the true one.” Columbus would later correct the measurement and blame the mistake on a broken quadrant. But Las Casas stated, “He pretended to have sailed farther [eastward] to mislead the pilots and sailors who were plotting the course so that he would remain master of that route to the Indies, as he in fact remains, because none of the others were certain of the course, and none can be sure of his route to the Indies.”

Martin Alonso Pinzón became so exasperated by Columbus’ ambiguity that one day he struck out on his own. He came across the island later named Española [Hispañola, New Spain], today’s Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Pinzón led a small party up a river he named after himself, Martín Alonso River, and saw, according to his son Arias Pérez Pinzón, “such signs of gold in this land that everyone was astonished and greatly pleased.” Pinzón sent several natives in a canoe to fetch Columbus, whom he had not seen in six weeks, from Cuba.

As Columbus and Vincent Yánez Pinzón reached Española, Columbus and Juan de la Cosa wrecked the Santa Maria on her north shore. Since there was not enough room on the Niña for all the crew from both ships, Columbus’ men built a simple fort using wood salvaged from the Santa Maria. He named the fort La Navidad [the nativity, or the birthplace]. Then he chose thirty-nine men to stay at La Navidad under the command of a three-member council: Pero Gutiérrez de Segovia, Rodrigo de Segovia, and Diego de Arana [the second cousin of Beatriz Enriques de Arana, Columbus’ mistress]. Columbus told them to scour the countryside for gold while they waited for him to return with fresh ships.

The Niña finally met up with the Pinta, Columbus and Martin Pinzón reunited, though tensely, and the two ships began the voyage home to Spain. They soon hit a tempest and were separated. Columbus was so terrified that he would drown before he could reach Spain and claim his discoveries that he wrote a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella and inserted a copy of it in a sealed barrel that he threw into the sea. The letter has yet to be found.

The storm finally abated just as the two ships sited Santa María Island, the largest island in the eastern grouping of the Azores – the cluster closest to Portugal. Columbus needed to stop and re-ballast the Niña. But when his shore party rowed to the beach, locals seized them and charged them with piracy. Columbus was sailing under Castilian banners and the Azores were Portuguese.

Columbus, still on the Niña with a skeleton crew, dashed to São Miguel Island some forty miles away hoping to get help. [Graciosa Island, where his brother-in-law(6) was the capitão at the time, was in the middle cluster of islands and several hundred miles away.] By the time he had sorted things out, Martin Pinzón in the Pinta had sailed far ahead. Columbus was afraid that Pinzón would reach Spain first. Maybe Pinzón would distort past events. Maybe he would claim that gold on Española was his find. Before the Niña could catch up to the Pinta, she ran into another storm. Ferocious winds, rain, and lightning ravaged her sails. Luckily the weather calmed by morning.

That day, March 4, 1493, Columbus sighted the Rock of Sintra that marked the entrance to Lisbon Harbor. He knew he was in trouble with the Portuguese, but he passed over The Bar anyway and anchored on the north shore of the Tagus River.

Bartolomeu Días happened to be the captain of a nearby Portuguese warship. Having no idea who Columbus was, Días ordered a small crew to row him to the Niña and demanded to be allowed on board. Días instructed Columbus to turn himself in to the trade authorities. Columbus refused. He provided his royal commission from the King of Aragon and Queen of Castile. Astonished, Días let Columbus alone, debarked, and went straight to King João, who was at the royal palace of Santa Maria das Virtudes trying to escape an outbreak of plague in Lisbon.

Columbus, in the meantime, quickly wrote a letter to his patrons. “I have come with the fleet that Your Highnesses gave me from the Indies, to which I crossed in thirty-three days after departing from your kingdoms.” He informed Ferdinand and Isabella that Pinzón had misbehaved, just in case Pinzón arrived to see them before he did.

Next, Columbus sent a letter to King João II asking for permission to sail the Niña into the main harbor of Lisbon “in case some villains, thinking that she is carrying a lot of gold, and seeing her in a deserted harbor, should take it into their heads to commit some act of villainy, and also so that the King might know that she [and the gold in her belly] has not come from Guinea but from the Indies.”(7) Columbus did not want to get charged an import tax for gold he was not planning to import. He also did not want to be taken again for a pirate.

João II ordered Columbus to meet him at Santa Maria das Virtudes, which he did. Columbus would later report “The king seemed to be very pleased that the voyage had been undertaken and had ended successfully, but that he understood that according to the treaty [of Alcáçovas-Toledo] between the [Catholic] Monarchs and himself, the conquests belonged to him.”

On Columbus’ way back to Lisbon, he stopped to pay tribute to João’s wife, Leanor of Viseu and her brother Manoel, Duke of Viseu, Duke of Beja.

Columbus finally arrived at the Saltés [the sandbar in front of the entrance to the harbors of Huelva, Palos, and La Rábida] to a grand reception by the Catholic Monarchs. He learned later that Martín Alonso Pinzón in the Pinta had been thrown 230 nautical miles north of Lisbon to a Spanish port in Galicia called Baiona. From there, Pinzón sent a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella. The monarchs told him to return to Palos promptly.

Pinzón arrived only hours after Columbus in the Niña. But he was afraid that Columbus was going to implicate him in insubordination, and he had come down with an illness while in Española. As soon as he debarked, he fled to his estate near Moguer without seeing Columbus or his king and queen. Pinzón’s illness became so severe that he was taken to the care of the Franciscan monastery at La Rabida, where he died a few days later.

Martín Alonso Pinzón would never know that his crew claimed he was the true hero for first discovering Española and its gold. Columbus countered, saying that he was already on the north shore of Española when Pinzón broke rank and traded with the natives. But even if Pinzón had remained alive, he could not have claimed differently without admitting to mutiny. With his death perished an important witness to the first recorded voyage of a European to America.

The Demise of Doña Felipa Columbus

Historian Carlos Fontes contended that Felipa Perestrello Colón was still alive when Columbus returned from his voyage. It was two years after she re-entered the Convent of Todos Santos. She did not die until July 29, 1497, at age forty-five. She was buried in the Lady of Mercy Chapel of the Carmo [Carmelite], where generations of Moniz had been given exclusive burial privileges. Her descendants end her story by saying that the earthquake that hit Lisbon in 1755 destroyed the chapel and many city records, causing the family to move the graves [and lose them]. But according to her son Diogo Columbus’ will, his mother’s body was moved [or someone considered moving it] to the monastery of Las Ceuvas in Seville. Today, no one seems to know where she is.


  1. The Catholic Monarchs built a fort at Santa Fe in 1490 as a base for fighting the Muslims in Granada to the east.
  2. The Ming Dynasty lasted until just after John Winthrop landed in America, 1644. It was the last dynasty ruled by ethnic Han Chinese.
  3. Hunter, Douglas. The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost history of Discovery, Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 1001 p.64
  4. Hunter, Douglas. ibid, pp 47-51.
  5. The Saragossa Sea was a large shallow area in the western Atlantic with sea grasses known as Saragossa.
  6. Arawak is the term that refers to the people living in northeast South America who share a similar language. Taino people are a subgroup of the Arawaks and the Lucayans are a subgroup of the Taino.
  7. Pedro Correia da Cunha, 1st Capitão of Graciosa Island-Azores, was married to Izeu Perestrello, the daughter of Felipa Perestrello Colon’s father’s third wife Brites Furtado de Mendonça, who was the aunt of King João II’s mistress Ana de Mendonça who was the mother of Jorge of Lancaster, João’s bastard son.
  8. Hunter, Douglas. ibid, p. 73

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