The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8

Author: Christopher Columbus  | Date: A.D. 1492

Columbus Discovers America

A.D. 1492


The year 1492, in which Columbus discovered America, is adopted by some writers as separating the modern from the medieval period in history. It marks the culmination of the wonderful achievements in discovery for which the fifteenth century is so memorable. By 1492 the world had advanced far beyond the ignorance of the period when Marco Polo made and described his famous travels from Europe to the East, 1324, and when Sir John Mandeville’s extravagant account of Eastern journeys, 1357-1371, was published. European knowledge of the Orient had been greatly increased by the crusades, and this, together with the spread of commerce, had quickened the desire of Western peoples for still further explorations of the world.

During the first half of the fifteenth century the Portuguese were most enterprising in the work of discovery, and before 1500 they had searched the western coast of Africa, passed the equator, and seen the Cape of Good Hope, which Vasco da Gama doubled in 1497, on his way to India.

Meanwhile Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa, a famous maritime city, was planning a route of his own for a voyage to the East Indies—the great object, at that period, of all ambitious navigators. As the Portuguese sought, and at last found, an ocean route by the east around Africa, so Columbus meditated a westward voyage, and was the first to seek India in that direction. After vainly submitting his plan to John II of Portugal, to the Genoese Government, and to Henry VII of England, he appealed—at first without success—to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile. But at the end of their war with Granada, 1492, he obtained a better hearing, and gained the favor of Isabella, who joined the Pinzons, merchants of Palos, in fitting out for him three small vessels, the Nina, the Santa Maria, and the Pinta. With the concurrence of Ferdinand, she made Columbus, for himself and his heirs, admiral in all the regions that he should discover, and viceroy in any lands acquired by him for Spain.

When the bold mariner sailed from Saltes, an island near Palos, a small town in the province of Huelva, Spain, he had complete confidence in his theory of finding new lands to the west. And his unshakable faith in his idea and in his purpose constitutes the most heroic aspect of his first voyage.

Of recent years great interest and much historical discussion have been aroused in connection with real or imagined pre-Columbian discoveries of America, especially with the discovery by the Northmen. But all attempts to diminish the glory of Columbus’ achievement, by proving that the results of previous discoveries were known to him, have, as Hubert Howe Bancroft declares, signally failed. Columbus was not the first to conceive the possibility of reaching the East by sailing west. Toscanelli, the Italian astronomer, who made the map which Columbus used and others among his contemporaries entertained the theory; but the Genoese sailor was the first to act upon this belief.

Supposing, as he did to his latest day, that he had found the eastern coast of India, and not another continent, Columbus gave the name of Indies to the islands he discovered, whose inhabitants he also called Indians; yet he did not have the honor of giving his own name to the New World which he made known to mankind.

In the following pages his own unstudied account of the first voyage and discovery, and the narrative from the biography of Columbus by his son, furnish a very complete history of the enterprise from which so large a part of the world’s later development has followed. It should be noted, however, that both of the accounts manifest the not unnatural desire to give full prominence to the part taken by Columbus himself. His able coadjutors, the Pinzons, scarce receive such adequate mention as they are given by more modern narrators.

The letter to Gabriel Sanchez appears here in a careful edition, one of the treasured possessions of the New York Public Library—Lenox Library—through the courtesy of whose officers it is presented in this work. It is the first letter of Columbus, giving the earliest information of his discovery, and is here rendered in a new translation, as contained in the little volume published in 1892 by the trustees of the Lenox Library, as a tribute to the memory of the great discoverer.


[Letter of Christopher Columbus, to whom our age owes much, concerning the islands recently discovered in the Indian sea,1

for the search of which, eight months before, he was sent under the auspices and at the cost of the most invincible Ferdinand, King of Spain;2 addressed to the magnificent lord Raphael Sanxis,3 treasurer of the same most illustrious King, and which the noble and learned man Leander de Cosco has translated from the Spanish language into Latin, on the third of the calends of May,4 1493, the first year of the pontificate of Alexander VI.]

Because my undertaking have attained success, I know that it will be pleasing to you; these I have determined to relate so that you may be made acquainted with everything done and discovered in this our voyage. On the thirty-third day after I departed from Cadiz,5

I came to the Indian sea, where I found many islands inhabited by men without number, of all which I took possession for our most fortunate King, with proclaiming heralds and flying standards, no one objecting. To the first of these I gave the name of the blessed Saviour,6 on whose aid relying I had reached this as well as the other islands. But the Indians call it Guanahani. I also called each one of the others by a new name. For I ordered one island to be called Santa Maria of the Conception,7 another Fernandina,8 another Isabella,9 another Juana,10 and so on with the rest.

As soon as we had arrived at that island which I have just now said was called Juana, I proceeded along its coast toward the west for some distance. I found it so large and without perceptible end, that I believed it to be not an island, but the continental country of Cathay;11 seeing, however, no towns or cities situated on the sea-coast, but only some villages and rude farms, with whose inhabitants I was unable to converse, because as soon as they saw us they took flight, I proceeded farther, thinking that I would discover some city or large residences.

At length, perceiving that we had gone far enough, that nothing new appeared, and that this way was leading us to the north, which I wished to avoid, because it was winter on the land, and it was my intention to go to the south, moreover the winds were becoming violent, I therefore determined that no other plans were practicable, and so, going back, I returned to a certain bay that I had noticed, from which I sent two of our men to the land, that they might find out whether there was a king in this country, or any cities. These men travelled for three days, and they found people and houses without number, but they were small and without any government, therefore they returned.

Now in the mean time I had learned from certain Indians, whom I had seized there, that this country was indeed an island, and therefore I proceeded toward the east, keeping all the time near the coast, for three hundred twenty-two miles, to the extreme ends of this island. From this place I saw another island to the east, distant from this Juana fifty-four miles, which I called forthwith Hispana,12

and I sailed to it; and I steered along the northern coast, as at Juana, toward the east, five hundred sixty-four miles. And the said Juana and the other islands there appear very fertile. This island is surrounded by many very safe and wide harbors, not excelled by any others that I have ever seen. Many great and salubrious rivers flow through it. There are also many very high mountains there.

All these islands are very beautiful, and distinguished by various qualities; they are accessible, and full of a great variety of trees stretching up to the stars; the leaves of which I believe are never shed, for I saw them as green and flourishing as they are usually in Spain in the month of May; some of them were blossoming, some were bearing fruit, some were in other conditions; each one was thriving in its own way. The nightingale and various other birds without number were singing in the month of November, when I was exploring them. There are besides in the said island Juana seven or eight kinds of palm-trees, which far excel ours in height and beauty, just as all the other trees, herbs, and fruits do. There are also excellent pine-trees, vast plains and meadows, a variety of birds, a variety of honey, and a variety of metals, excepting iron. In the one which was called Hispana, as we said above, there are great and beautiful mountains, vast fields, groves, fertile plains, very suitable for planting and cultivating, and for the building of houses.

The convenience of the harbors in this island, and the remarkable number of rivers contributing to the healthfulness of man, exceed belief, unless one has seen them. The trees, pasturage, and fruits of this island differ greatly from those of Juana. This Hispana, moreover, abounds in different kinds of spices, in gold, and in metals. On this island, indeed, and on all the others which I have seen, and of which I have knowledge, the inhabitants of both sexes go always naked, just as they came into the world, except some of the women, who use a covering of a leaf or some foliage, or a cotton cloth, which they make themselves for that purpose.

All these people lack, as I said above, every kind of iron; they are also without weapons, which indeed are unknown; nor are they competent to use them, not on account of deformity of body, for they are well formed, but because they are timid and full of fear. They carry for weapons, however, reeds baked in the sun, on the lower ends of which they fasten some shafts of dried wood rubbed down to a point; and indeed they do not venture to use these always; for it frequently happened, when I sent two or three of my men to some of the villages, that they might speak with the natives, a compact troop of the Indians would march out, and as soon as they saw our men approaching they would quickly take flight, children being pushed aside by their fathers, and fathers by their children. And this was not because any hurt or injury had been inflicted on any one of them, for to everyone whom I visited and with whom I was able to converse I distributed whatever I had, cloth and many other things, no return being made to me; but they are by nature fearful and timid. Yet when they perceive that they are safe, putting aside all fear, they are of simple manners and trustworthy, and very liberal with everything they have, refusing no one who asks for anything they may possess, and even themselves inviting us to ask for things.

They show greater love for all others than for themselves; they give valuable things for trifles, being satisfied even with a very small return, or with nothing; however, I forbade that things so small and of no value should be given to them, such as pieces of plates, dishes, and glass, likewise keys and shoe-straps; although, if they were able to obtain these, it seemed to them like getting the most beautiful jewels in the world. It happened, indeed, that a certain sailor obtained in exchange for a shoe-strap as much worth of gold as would equal three golden coins; and likewise other things for articles of very little value, especially for new silver coins, and for some gold coins, to obtain which they gave whatever the seller desired, as for instance an ounce and a half and two ounces of gold, or thirty and forty pounds of cotton, with which they were already acquainted. They also traded cotton and gold for pieces of bows, bottles, jugs and jars, like persons without reason, which I forbade because it was very wrong; and I gave to them many beautiful and pleasing things that I had brought with me, no value being taken in exchange, in order that I might the more easily make them friendly to me, that they might be made worshippers of Christ, and that they might be full of love toward our King, Queen, and Prince, and the whole Spanish nation; also that they might be zealous to search out and collect, and deliver to us, those things of which they had plenty, and which we greatly needed.

These people practise no kind of idolatry; on the contrary they firmly believe that all strength and power, and in fact all good things, are in heaven, and that I had come down from thence with these ships and sailors; and in this belief I was received there after they had put aside fear. Nor are they slow or unskilled, but of excellent and acute understanding; and the men who have navigated that sea give an account of everything in an admirable manner; but they never saw people clothed, nor these kind of ships.

As soon as I reached that sea, I seized by force several Indians on the first island, in order that they might learn from us, and in like manner tell us about those things in these lands of which they themselves had knowledge; and the plan succeeded, for in a short time we understood them and they us, sometimes by gestures and signs, sometimes by words; and it was a great advantage to us. They are coming with me now, yet always believing that I descended from heaven, although they have been living with us for a long time, and are living with us today. And these men were the first who announced it wherever we landed, continually proclaiming to the others in a loud voice, "Come, come, and you will see the celestial people." Whereupon both women and men, both children and adults, both young men and old men, laying aside the fear caused a little before, visited us eagerly, filling the road with a great crowd, some bringing food and some drink, with great love and extraordinary good-will.

On every island there are many canoes of a single piece of wood, and, though narrow, yet in length and shape similar to our row-boats, but swifter in movement. They steer only by oars. Some of these boats are large, some small, some of medium size. Yet they row many of the larger row-boats with eighteen cross-benches, with which they cross to all those islands, which are innumerable, and with these boats they perform their trading, and carry on commerce among them. I saw some of these row-boats or canoes which were carrying seventy and eighty rowers.

In all these islands there is no difference in the appearance of the people, nor in the manners and language, but all understand each other mutually; a fact that is very important for the end which I suppose to be earnestly desired by our most illustrious King, that is, their conversion to the holy religion of Christ, to which in truth, as far as I can perceive, they are very ready and favorably inclined.

I said before how I proceeded along the island Juana in a straight line from west to east three hundred twenty-two miles, according to which course, and the length of the way, I am able to say that this Juana is larger than England and Scotland together; for, besides the said three hundred twenty-two thousand paces, there are two more provinces in that part which lies toward the west, which I did not visit; one of these the Indians call Anan, whose inhabitants are born with tails. They extend to one hundred eighty miles in length, as I have learned from those Indians I have with me, who are all acquainted with these islands. But the circumference of Hispana is still greater than all Spain from Colonia to Fontarabia.13

This is easily proved, because its fourth side, which I myself passed along in a straight line from west to east, extends five hundred forty miles.

This island is to be desired and is very desirable, and not to be despised; in which, although, as I have said, I solemnly took possession of all the others for our most invincible King, and their government is entirely committed to the said King, yet I especially took possession of a certain large town, in a very convenient location, and adapted to all kinds of gain and commerce, to which we give the name of our Lord of the Nativity. And I commanded a fort to be built there forthwith, which must be completed by this time; in which I left as many men as seemed necessary, with all kinds of arms, and plenty of food for more than a year. Likewise one caravel, and for the construction of others men skilled in this trade and in other professions; and also the extraordinary good-will and friendship of the King of this island toward us. For those people are very amiable and kind, to such a degree that the said King gloried in calling me his brother. And if they should change their minds, and should wish to hurt those who remained in the fort, they would not be able, because they lack weapons, they go naked, and are too cowardly. For that reason those who hold the said fort are at least able to resist easily this whole island, without any imminent danger to themselves, so long as they do not transgress the regulations and command which we gave.

In all these islands, as I have understood, each man is content with only one wife, except the princes or kings, who are permitted to have twenty. The women appear to work more than the men. I was not able to find out surely whether they have individual property, for I saw that one man had the duty of distributing to the others, especially refreshments, food, and things of that kind. I found no monstrosities among them, as very many supposed, but men of great reverence, and friendly. Nor are they black like the Ethiopians. They have straight hair, hanging down. They do not remain where the solar rays send out the heat, for the strength of the sun is very great here, because it is distant from the equinoctial line, as it seems, only twenty-six degrees. On the tops of the mountains, too, the cold is severe, but the Indians, however, moderate it, partly by being accustomed to the place, and partly by the help of very hot victuals, of which they eat frequently and immoderately. And so I did not see any monstrosity, nor did I have knowledge of them anywhere, excepting a certain island named Charis,14

which is the second in passing from Hispana to India.

This island is inhabited by a certain people who are considered very warlike by their neighbors. These eat human flesh. The said people have many kinds of row-boats, in which they cross over to all the other Indian islands, and seize and carry away everything that they can. They differ in no way from the others, only that they wear long hair like the women. They use bows and darts made of reeds, with sharpened shafts fastened to the larger end, as we have described. On this account they are considered warlike, wherefore the other Indians are afflicted with continual fear, but I regard them as of no more account than the others. These are the people who visit certain women, who alone inhabit the island Mateunin,15

which is the first in passing from Hispana to India. These women, moreover, perform no kind of work of their sex, for they use bows and darts, like those I have described of their husbands; they protect themselves with sheets of copper, of which there is great abundance among them.

They tell me of another island, greater than the aforesaid Hispana, whose inhabitants are without hair, and which abounds in gold above all the others. I am bringing with me men of this island and of the others that I have seen, who give proof of the things that I have described.

Finally, that I may compress in few words the brief account of our departure and quick return, and the gain, I promise this, that if I am supported by our most invincible sovereigns with a little of their help, as much gold can be supplied as they will need, indeed as much of spices, of cotton, of chewing-gum (which is only found in Chios), also as much of aloes-wood, and as many slaves for the navy, as their majesties will wish to demand. Likewise rhubarb and other kinds of spices, which I suppose these men whom I left in the said fort have already found, and will continue to find; since I remained in no place longer than the winds forced me, except in the town of the Nativity, while I provided for the building of the fort and for the safety of all. Which things, although they are very great and remarkable, yet they would have been much greater if I had been aided by as many ships as the occasion required.

Truly great and wonderful is this, and not corresponding to our merits, but to the holy Christian religion, and to the piety and religion of our sovereigns, because what the human understanding could not attain, that the divine will has granted to human efforts. For God is wont to listen to his servants who love his precepts, even in impossibilities, as has happened to us on the present occasion, who have attained that which hitherto mortal men have never reached. For if anyone has written or said anything about these islands, it was all with obscurities and conjectures; no one claims that he had seen them; from which they seemed like fables. Therefore let the King and Queen, the princes and their most fortunate kingdoms, and all other countries of Christendom, give thanks to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who has bestowed upon us so great a victory and gift. Let religious processions be solemnized; let sacred festivals be given; let the churches be covered with festive garlands. Let Christ rejoice on earth, as he rejoices in heaven, when he foresees coming to salvation so many souls of people hitherto lost. Let us be glad also, as well on account of the exaltation of our faith as on account of the increase of our temporal affairs, of which not only Spain, but universal Christendom, will be partaker. These things that have been done are thus briefly related. Farewell. Lisbon, the day before the ides of March.16


Admiral of the Ocean Fleet.

Epigram of R. L. de Corbaria, Bishop of Monte Peloso


"No region now can add to Spain’s great deeds:
To such men all the world is yet too small.
An Orient land, found far beyond the waves,
Will add, great Betica, to thy renown.
Then to Columbus, the true finder, give
Due thanks; but greater still to God on high,
Who makes new kingdoms for himself and thee:
Both firm and pious let thy conduct be."


All the conditions which the admiral demanded being conceded by their Catholic majesties, he set out from Granada on May 21, 1492, for Palos, where he was to fit out the ships for his intended expedition. That town was bound to serve the crown for three months with two caravels, which were ordered to be given to Columbus; and he fitted out these and a third vessel with all care and diligence. The ship in which he personally embarked was called the Santa Maria; the second vessel, named the Pinta, was commanded by Martin Alonso Pinzon; and the third, named the Nina, which had square sails, was under the command of Vincent Yanez Pinzon, the brother of Alonso, both of whom were inhabitants of Palos. Being furnished with all necessaries, and having ninety men to navigate the three vessels, Columbus set sail from Palos on August 3, 1492, shaping his course directly for the Canaries.

During this voyage, and indeed in all the four voyages which he made from Spain to the West Indies, the admiral was very careful to keep an exact journal of every occurrence which took place; always specifying what winds blew, how far he sailed with each particular wind, what currents were found, and everything that was seen by the way, whether birds, fishes, or any other thing. Although to note all these particulars with a minute relation of everything that happened, showing what impressions and effects answered to the course and aspect of the stars, and the differences between the seas which he sailed and those of our countries, might all be useful; yet, as I conceive that the relation of these particulars might now be tiresome to the reader, I shall only give an account of what appears to me necessary and convenient to be known.

On Saturday, August 4th, the next day after sailing from Palos, the rudder of the Pinta broke loose. The admiral strongly suspected that it was occasioned by the contrivance of the master on purpose to avoid proceeding on the voyage, which he had endeavored to do before they left Spain, and he therefore ranged up alongside of the disabled vessel to give every assistance in his power, but the wind blew so hard that he was unable to afford any aid. Pinzon, however, being an experienced seaman, soon made a temporary repair by means of ropes, and they proceeded on their voyage. But on the following Tuesday, the weather becoming rough and boisterous, the fastenings gave way, and the squadron was obliged to lay to for some time to renew the repairs. From this misfortune of twice breaking the rudder, a superstitious person might have foreboded the future disobedience of Pinzon to the admiral; as through his malice the Pinta twice separated from the squadron, as shall be afterward related. Having applied the best remedy they could to the disabled state of the rudder, the squadron continued its voyage, and came in sight of the Canaries at daybreak of Thursday, August 9th; but owing to contrary winds, they were unable to come to anchor at Gran Canaria until the 12th. The admiral left Pinzon at Gran Canaria to endeavor to procure another vessel instead of that which was disabled, and went himself with the Nifia on the same errand to Gomera.

The admiral arrived at Gomera on Sunday, August 12th, and sent a boat on shore to inquire if any vessel could be procured there for his purpose. The boat returned next morning, and brought intelligence that no vessel was then at that island, but that Dona Beatrix de Bobadilla, the proprietrix of the island, was then at Gran Canaria in a hired vessel of forty tons belonging to one Gradeuna of Seville, which would probably suit his purpose and might perhaps be got. He therefore determined to await the arrival of that vessel at Gomera, believing that Pinzon might have secured a vessel for himself at Gran Canaria, if he had not been able to repair his own. After waiting two days, he despatched one of his people in a bark which was bound from Gomera to Gran Canaria, to acquaint Pinzon where he lay, and to assist him in repairing and fixing the rudder. Having waited a considerable time for an answer to his letter, he sailed with the two vessels from Gomera on August 23d for Gran Canaria, and fell in with the bark on the following day, which had been detained all that time on its voyage by contrary winds. He now took his man from the bark, and, sailing in the night past the island of Teneriffe, the people were much astonished at observing flames bursting out of the lofty mountain called El Pico (or the Peak of Teneriffe). On this occasion the admiral was at great pains to explain the nature of this phenomenon to the people by instancing the example of AEtna and several other known volcanoes.

Passing by Teneriffe, they arrived at Gran Canaria on Saturday, August 25th, and found that Pinzon had only got in there the day before. From him the admiral was informed that Dora Beatrix had sailed for Gomera on the 20th with the vessel which he was so anxious to obtain. His officers were much troubled at the disappointment; but he, who always endeavored to make the best of every occurrence, observed to them that since it had not pleased God that they should get this vessel it was perhaps better for them, as they might have encountered much opposition in pressing it into the service, and might have lost a great deal of time in shipping and unshipping the goods. Wherefore, lest he might again miss it if he returned to Gomera, he resolved to make a new rudder for the Pinta at Gran Canaria, and ordered the square sails of the Nina to be changed to round ones, like those of the other two vessels, that she might be able to accompany them with less danger and agitation.

The vessels being all refitted, the admiral weighed anchor from Gran Canaria on Saturday, September 1st, and arrived next day at Gomera, where four days were employed in completing their stores of provisions and of wood and water. On the morning of Thursday, September 6, 1492, the admiral took his departure from Gomera, and commenced his great undertaking by standing directly westward, but made very slow progress at first on account of calms. On Sunday, September 9th, about daybreak, they were nine leagues west of the island of Ferro. Now, losing sight of land and stretching out into utterly unknown seas, many of the people expressed their anxiety and fear that it might be long before they should see land again; but the admiral used every endeavor to comfort them with the assurance of soon finding the land he was in search of, and raised their hopes of acquiring wealth and honor by the discovery. To lessen the fear which they entertained of the length of way they had to sail, he gave out that they had only proceeded fifteen leagues that day, when the actual distance sailed was eighteen; and, to induce the people to believe that they were not so far from Spain as they really were, he resolved to keep considerably short in his reckoning during the whole voyage, though he carefully recorded the true reckoning every day in private.

On Wednesday, September 12th, having got to about one hundred fifty leagues west of Ferro, they discovered a large trunk of a tree, sufficient to have been the mast of a vessel of one hundred twenty tons, and which seemed to have been a long time in the water. At this distance from Ferro, and for somewhat farther on, the current was found to set strongly to the northeast. Next day, when they had run fifty leagues farther westward, the needle was observed to vary half a point to the eastward of north, and next morning the variation was a whole point east. This variation of the compass had never been before observed, and therefore the admiral was much surprised at the phenomenon, and concluded that the needle did not actually point toward the polar star, but to some other fixed point. Three days afterward, when almost one hundred leagues farther west, he was still more astonished at the irregularity of the variation; for, having observed the needle to vary a whole point to the eastward at night, it pointed directly northward in the morning.

On the night of Saturday, September 15th, being then almost three hundred leagues west of Ferro, they saw a prodigious flash of light, or fire-ball, drop from the sky into the sea, at four or five leagues’ distance from the ships, toward the southwest. The weather was then quite fair and serene like April, the sea perfectly calm, the wind favorable from the northeast, and the current setting to the northeast. The people in the Nina told the admiral that they had seen the day before a heron, and another bird which they called rabo-de-junco. These were the first birds which had been seen during the voyage, and were considered as indications of approaching land. But they were more agreeably surprised next day, Sunday, September 16th, by seeing great abundance of yellowish green sea-weeds, which appeared as if newly washed away from some rock or island. Next day the sea-weed was seen in much greater quantity, and a small live lobster was observed among the weeds; from this circumstance many affirmed that they were certainly near the land.

The sea-water was afterward noticed to be only half so salt as before; and great numbers of tunny-fish were seen swimming about, some of which came so near the vessel that one was killed by a bearded iron. Being now three hundred sixty leagues west from Ferro, another of the birds called rabo-de-junco was seen. On Tuesday, September 18th, Martin Alonso Pinzon, who had gone ahead of the admiral, in the Pinta, which was an excellent sailer, lay to for the admiral to come up, and told him that he had seen a great number of birds fly away westward, for which reason he was in great hopes to see land that night; Pinzon even thought that he saw land that night about fifteen leagues distant to the northward, which appeared very black and covered with clouds. All the people would have persuaded the admiral to try for land in that direction; but, being certainly assured that it was not land, and having not yet reached the distance at which he expected to find the land, he would not consent to lose time in altering his course in that direction. But as the wind now freshened, he gave orders to take in the topsails at night, having now sailed eleven days before the wind due westward with all their sails up.

All the people in the squadron being utterly unacquainted with the seas they now traversed, fearful of their danger at such unusual distance from any relief, and seeing nothing around but sky and water, began to mutter among themselves, and anxiously observed every appearance. On September 19th a kind of sea-gull called alcatras flew over the admiral’s ship, and several others were seen in the afternoon of that day, and, as the admiral conceived that these birds would not fly far from land, he entertained hopes of soon seeing what he was in quest of. He therefore ordered a line of two hundred fathoms to be tried, but without finding any bottom. The current was now found to set to the southwest.

On Thursday, September 20th, two alcatrases came near the ship about two hours before noon, and soon afterward a third. On this day likewise they took a bird resembling a heron, of a black color with a white tuft on its head, and having webbed feet like a duck. Abundance of weeds were seen floating in the sea, and one small fish was taken. About evening three land birds settled on the rigging of the ship and began to sing. These flew away at daybreak, which was considered a strong indication of approaching the land, as these little birds could not have come from any far distant country; whereas the other large fowls, being used to water, might much better go far from land. The same day an alcatras was seen.

Friday, the 21st, another alcatras and a rabo-de-junco were seen, and vast quantities of weeds as far as the eye could carry toward the north. These appearances were sometimes a comfort to the people, giving them hopes of nearing the wished-for land; while at other times the weeds were so thick as in some measure to impede the progress of the vessels, and to occasion terror lest what is fabulously reported of St. Amaro in the frozen sea might happen to them, that they might be so enveloped in the weeds as to be unable to move backward or forward; wherefore they steered away from those shoals of weeds as much as they could.

Next day, being Saturday, September 22d, they saw a whale and several small birds. The wind now veered to the southwest, sometimes more and sometimes less to the westward; and though this was adverse to the direction of their proposed voyage, the admiral, to comfort the people, alleged that this was a favorable circumstance; because, among other causes of fear, they had formerly said they should never have a wind to carry them back to Spain, as it had always blown from the east ever since they left Ferro. They still continued, however, to murmur, alleging that this southwest wind was by no means a settled one, and, as it never blew strong enough to swell the sea, it would not serve to carry them back again through so great an extent of sea as they had now passed over. In spite of every argument used by the admiral, assuring them that the alterations in the wind were occasioned by the vicinity of the land, by which likewise the waves were prevented from rising to any height, they were still dissatisfied and terrified.

On Sunday, September 23d, a brisk gale sprung up west northwest, with a rolling sea, such as the people had wished for. Three hours before noon a turtle-dove was observed to fly over the ship; toward evening an alcatras, a river fowl, and several white birds were seen flying about, and some crabs were observed among the weeds. Next day another alcatras was seen and several small birds which came from the west. Numbers of small fishes were seen swimming about, some of which were struck with harpoons, as they would not bite at the hook.

The more that the tokens mentioned above were observed, and found not to be followed by the so anxiously looked-for land, the more the people became fearful of the event and entered into cabals against the admiral, who they said was desirous to make himself a great lord at the expense of their danger. They represented that they had already sufficiently performed their duty in adventuring farther from land and all possibility of succor than had ever been done before, and that they ought not to proceed on the voyage to their manifest destruction. If they did they would soon have reason to repent their temerity, as provisions would soon fall short, the ships were already faulty and would soon fail, and it would be extremely difficult to get back so far as they had already gone. None could condemn them in their own opinion for now turning back, but all must consider them as brave men for having gone upon such an enterprise and venturing so far. That the admiral was a foreigner who had no favor at court; and as so many wise and learned men had already condemned his opinions and enterprise as visionary and impossible, there would be none to favor or defend him, and they were sure to find more credit if they accused him of ignorance and mismanagement than he would do, whatsoever he might now say for himself against them.

Some even proceeded so far as to propose, in case the admiral should refuse to acquiesce in their proposals, that they might make a short end of all disputes by throwing him overboard; after which they could give out that he had fallen over while making his observations, and no one would ever think of inquiring into the truth. They thus went on day after day, muttering, complaining, and consulting together; and though the admiral was not fully aware of the extent of their cabals, he was not entirely without apprehensions of their inconstancy in the present trying situation, and of their evil intentions toward him. He therefore exerted himself to the utmost to quiet their apprehensions and to suppress their evil design, sometimes using fair words, and at other times fully resolved to expose his life rather than abandon the enterprise; he put them in mind of the due punishment they would subject themselves to if they obstructed the voyage. To confirm their hopes, he recapitulated all the favorable signs and indications which had been lately observed, assuring them that they might soon expect to see the land. But they, who were ever attentive to these tokens, thought every hour a year in their anxiety to see the wished-for land.

On Tuesday, September 25th, near sunset, as the admiral was discoursing with Pinzon, whose ship was then very near, Pinzon suddenly called out, "Land! land, sir! let not my good news miscarry," and pointed out a large mass in the southwest, about twenty-five leagues distant, which seemed very like an island. This was so pleasing to the people that they returned thanks to God for the pleasing discovery; and, although the admiral was by no means satisfied of the truth of Pinzon’s observation, yet to please the men, and that they might not obstruct the voyage, he altered his course and stood in that direction a great part of the night. Next morning, the 26th, they had the mortification to find the supposed land was only composed of clouds, which often put on the appearance of distant land; and, to their great dissatisfaction, the stems of the ships were again turned directly westward, as they always were unless when hindered by the wind. Continuing their course, and still attentively watching for signs of land, they saw this day an alcatras, a rabo-de-junco, and other birds as formerly mentioned.

On Thursday, September 27th, they saw another alcatras coming from the westward and flying toward the east, and great numbers of fish were seen with gilt backs, one of which they struck with a harpoon. A rabo-de-junco likewise flew past; the currents for some of the last days were not so regular as before but changed with the tide, and the weeds were not nearly so abundant.

On Friday, the 28th, all the vessels took some of the fishes with gilt backs; and on Saturday, the 29th, they saw a rabo-de-junco, which, although a sea-fowl, river rests on the waves, but always flies in the air, pursuing the alcatrases. Many of these birds are said to frequent the Cape de Verd Islands. They soon afterward saw two other alcatrases and great numbers of flying-fishes. These last are about a span long, and have two little membranous wings like those of a bat, by means of which they fly about a pike-length high from the water and a musket-shot in length, and sometimes drop upon the ships. In the afternoon of this day they saw abundance of weeds lying in length north and south, and three alcatrases pursued by a rabo-de-junco.

On the morning of Sunday, September 30th, four rabo-de-juncos came to the ship; and from so many of them coming together it was thought the land could not be far distant, especially as four alcatrases followed soon afterward. Great quantities of weeds were seen in a line stretching from west-northwest to east-northeast, and a great number of the fishes which are called emperadores, which have a very hard skin and are not fit to eat. Though the admiral paid every attention to these indications, he never neglected those in the heavens, and carefully observed the course of the stars. He was now greatly surprised to notice at this time that Charles’ Wain, or the Ursa Major constellation, appeared at night in the west, and was northeast in the morning. He thence concluded that their whole night’s course was only nine hours, or so many parts in twenty-four of a great circle; and this he observed to be the case regularly every night. It was likewise noticed that the compass varied a whole point to the northwest at nightfall, and came due north every morning at daybreak. As this unheard-of circumstance confounded and perplexed the pilots, who apprehended danger in these strange regions and at such unusual distance from home, the admiral endeavored to calm their fears by assigning a cause for this wonderful phenomenon. He alleged that it was occasioned by the polar star making a circuit round the pole, by which they were not a little satisfied.

Soon after sunrise on Monday, October 1st, an alcatras came to the ship, and two more about ten in the morning, and long streams of weeds floated from east to west. That morning the pilot of the admiral’s ship said that they were now five hundred seventy-eight leagues west from the island of Ferro. In his public account the admiral said they were five hundred eighty-four leagues to the west; but in his private journal he made the real distance seven hundred seven leagues, or one hundred twenty-nine more than was reckoned by the pi lot. The other two ships differed much in their computation from each other and from the admiral’s pilot. The pilot of the Nina, in the afternoon of the Wednesday following, said they had only sailed five hundred forty leagues, and the pilot of the Pinta reckoned six hundred thirty-four. Thus they were all much short of the truth; but the admiral winked at the gross mistake, that the men, not thinking themselves so far from home, might be the less dejected.

The next day, being Tuesday, October 2d, they saw abundance of fish, caught one small tunny, and saw a white bird with many other small birds, and the weeds appeared much withered and almost fallen to powder. Next day, seeing no birds, they suspected that they had passed between some islands on both hands, and had slipped through without seeing them, as they guessed that the many birds which they had seen might have been passing from one island to another. On this account they were very earnest to have the course altered one way or the other, in quest of these imaginary lands. But the admiral, unwilling to lose the advantage of the fair wind which carried him due west, which he accounted his surest course, and afraid to lessen his reputation by deviating from course to course in search of land, which he always affirmed that he well knew where to find, refused his consent to any change. On this the people were again ready to mutiny, and resumed their murmurs and cabals against him. But it pleased God to aid his authority by fresh indications of land.

On Thursday, October 4th, in the afternoon, above forty sparrows together and two alcatrases flew so near the ship that a seaman killed one of them with a stone. Several other birds were seen at this time, and many flying-fish fell into the ships. Next day there came a rabo-de-junco and an alcatras from the westward, and many sparrows were seen. About sunrise on Sunday, October 7th, some signs of land appeared to the westward, but being imperfect no person would mention the circumstance. This was owing to fear of losing the reward of thirty crowns yearly for life which had been promised by their Catholic majesties to whoever should first discover land; and to prevent them from calling out "Land, land!" at every turn without just cause, it was made a condition that whoever said he saw land should lode the reward if it were not made out in three days, even if he should afterward actually prove the first discoverer. All on board the admiral’s ship, being thus forewarned, were exceedingly careful not to cry out "Land!" on uncertain tokens; but those in the Nina, which sailed better and always kept ahead, believing that they certainly saw land, fired a gun and hung out their colors in token of the discovery; but the farther they sailed, the more the joyful appearance lessened, till at last it vanished away. But they soon afterward derived much comfort by observing great flights of large fowl and others of small birds going from the west toward the southwest.

Being now at a vast distance from Spain, and well assured that such small birds would not go far from land, the admiral now altered his course from due west which had been hitherto, and steered to the southwest. He assigned as a reason for now changing his course, although deviating little from his original design, that he followed the example of the Portuguese, who had discovered most of their islands by attending to the flight of birds, and because these they now saw flew almost uniformly in one direction. He said likewise that he had always expected to discover land about the situation in which they now were, having often told them that he must not look to find land until they should get seven hundred fifty leagues to the westward of the Canaries, about which distance he expected to fall in with Hispaniola, which he then called Cipango;17

and there is no doubt that he would have found this island by his direct course, if it had not been that it was reported to extend from north to south. Owing therefore to his not having inclined more to the south, he had missed that and others of the Caribbee islands, whither those birds were now bending their flight, and which had been for some time upon his larboard hand. It was from being so near the land that they continually saw such great numbers of birds; and on Monday, October 8th, twelve singing birds of various colors came to the ship, and after flying round it for a short time held on their way. Many other birds were seen from the ship flying toward the southwest, and that same night great numbers of large fowl were seen, and flocks of small birds proceeding from the northward, and all going to the southwest. In the morning a jay was seen, with an alcatras, several ducks, and many small birds, all flying the same way with the others, and the air was perceived to be fresh and odoriferous as it is at Seville in the month of April. But the people were now so eager to see land and had been so often disappointed that they ceased to give faith to these continual indications; insomuch that on Wednesday, the 10th, although abundance of birds were continually passing both by day and night, they never ceased to complain. The admiral upbraided their want of resolution, and declared that they must persist in their endeavors to discover the Indies, for which he and they had been sent out by their Catholic majesties.

It would have been impossible for the admiral to have much longer withstood the numbers which now opposed him; but it pleased God that, in the afternoon of Thursday, October 11th, such manifest tokens of being near the land appeared that the men took courage and rejoiced at their good-fortune as much as they had been before distressed. From the admiral’s ship a green rush was seen to float past, and one of those green fish which never go far from the rocks. The people in the Pinta saw a cane and a staff in the water, and took up another staff very curiously carved, and a small board, and great plenty of weeds were seen which seemed to have been recently torn from the rocks. Those of the Nina, besides similar signs of land, saw a branch of a thorn full of red berries, which seemed to have been newly torn from the tree.

From all these indications the admiral was convinced that he now drew near to the land, and after the evening prayers he made a speech to the men, in which he reminded them of the mercy of God in having brought them so long a voyage with such favorable weather, and in comforting them with so many tokens of a successful issue to their enterprise, which were now every day becoming plainer and less equivocal. He besought them to be exceedingly watchful during the night, as they well knew that in the first article of the instructions, which he had given to all the three ships before leaving the Canaries, they were enjoined, when they should have sailed seven hundred leagues west without discovering land, to lay to every night from midnight till daybreak. And, as he had very confident hopes of discovering land that night, he required every one to keep watch at their quarters; and, besides the gratuity of thirty crowns a year for life, which had been graciously promised by their sovereigns to him that first saw the land, he engaged to give the fortunate discoverer a velvet doublet from himself.

After this, as the admiral was in his cabin, about ten o’clock at night, he saw a light on shore; but it was so unsteady that he could not certainly affirm that it came from land. He called to one Pedro Gutierrez and desired him to try if he could perceive the same light, who said he did; but one Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, on being desired to look the same way, could not see it, because he was not up time enough, as neither the admiral nor Gutierrez could see it again above once or twice for a short space, which made them judge it to proceed from a candle or torch belonging to some fisherman or traveller, who lifted it up occasionally and lowered it again, or perhaps from people going from one house to another, because it appeared and vanished again so suddenly. Being now very much on their guard, they still held on their course until about two in the morning of Friday, October 12th, when the Pinta, which was always far ahead, owing to her superior sailing, made the signal of seeing land, which was first discovered by Rodrigo de Triana at about two leagues from the ship. But the thirty crowns a year were afterward granted to the admiral, who had seen the light in the midst of darkness, a type of the spiritual light which he was the happy means of spreading in these dark regions of error. Being now so near land, all the ships lay to, everyone thinking it long till daylight, that they might enjoy the sight they had so long and anxiously desired.

When daylight appeared, the newly discovered land was perceived to consist of a flat island fifteen leagues in length, without any hills, all covered with trees, and having a great lake in the middle. The island was inhabited by great abundance of people, who ran down to the shore filled with wonder and admiration at the sight of the ships, which they conceived to be some unknown animals. The Christians were not less curious to know what kind of people they had fallen in with, and the curiosity on both sides was soon satisfied, as the ships soon came to anchor. The admiral went on shore with his boat well armed, and having the royal standard of Castile and Leon displayed, accompanied by the commanders of the other two vessels, each in his own boat, carrying the particular colors which had been allotted for the enterprise, which were white with a green cross and the letter F on one side, and on the other the names of Ferdinand and Isabella crowned.

The whole company kneeled on the shore and kissed the ground for joy, returning God thanks for the great mercy they had experienced during their long voyage through seas hitherto unpassed, and their now happy discovery of an unknown land. The admiral then stood up, and took formal possession in the usual words for their Catholic majesties of this island, to which he gave the name of San Salvador. All the Christians present admitted Columbus to the authority and dignity of admiral and viceroy, pursuant to the commission which he had received to that effect, and all made oath to obey him as the legitimate representative of their Catholic majesties, with such expressions of joy and acknowledgment as became their mighty success; and they all implored his forgiveness of the many affronts he had received from them through their fears and want of confidence. Numbers of the Indians or natives of the island were present at these ceremonies; and, perceiving them to be peaceable, quiet, and simple people, the admiral distributed several presents among them. To some he gave red caps, and to others strings of glass beads, which they hung about their necks, and various other things of small value, which they valued as if they had been jewels of high price.

After the ceremonies, the admiral went off in his boat, and the Indians followed him even to the ships, some by swimming and others in their canoes, carrying parrots, clews of spun cotton yarn, javelins, and other such trifling articles, to barter for glass beads, bells, and other things of small value. Like people in the original simplicity of nature, they were all naked, and even a woman who was among them was entirely destitute of clothing. Most of them were young, seemingly not above thirty years of age, of a good stature, with very thick black lank hair, mostly cut short above their ears, though some had it down to their shoulders, tied up with a string about their head like women’s tresses. Their countenances were mild and agreeable and their features good; but their foreheads were too high, which gave them rather a wild appearance. They were of a middle stature, plump, and well shaped, but of an olive complexion, like the inhabitants of the Canaries, or sunburnt peasants. Some were painted with black, others with white, and others again with red; in some the whole body was painted, in others only the face, and some only the nose and eyes. They had no weapons like those of Europe, neither had they any knowledge of such; for when our people showed them a naked sword, they ignorantly grasped it by the edge. Neither had they any knowledge of iron, as their javelins were merely constructed of wood, having their points hardened in the fire, and armed with a piece of fishbone. Some of them had scars of wounds on different parts, and, being asked by signs how these had been got, they answered by signs that people from other islands came to take them away, and that they had been wounded in their own defence. They seemed ingenious and of a voluble tongue, as they readily repeated such words as they once heard. There was no kind of animals among them excepting parrots, which they carried to barter with the Christians among the articles already mentioned, and in this trade they continued on board the ships till night, when they all returned to the shore.

In the morning of the next day, being October 13th, many of the natives returned on board the ships in their boats or canoes, which were all of one piece hollowed like a tray from the trunk of a tree; some of these were so large as to contain forty or forty-five men, while others were so small as only to hold one person, with many intermediate sizes between these extremes. These they worked along with paddles formed like a baker’s peel or the implement which is used in dressing hemp. These oars or paddles were not fixed by pins to the sides of the canoes like ours, but were dipped into the water and pulled backward as if digging. Their canoes are so light and artfully constructed that if overset they soon turn them right again by swimming; and they empty out the water by throwing them from side to side like a weaver’s shuttle, and when half emptied they ladle out the rest with dried calabashes cut in two, which they carry for that purpose.

This second day the natives, as said before, brought various articles to barter for such small things as they could procure in exchange. Jewels or metals of any kind were not seen among them, except some small plates of gold which hung from their nostrils; and on being questioned from whence they procured the gold, they answered by signs that they had it from the south, where there was a king who possessed abundance of pieces and vessels of gold; and they made our people to understand that there were many other islands and large countries to the south and southwest. They were very covetous to get possession of anything which belonged to the Christians, and being themselves very poor, with nothing of value to give in exchange, as soon as they got on board, if they could lay hold of anything which struck their fancy, though it were only a piece of a broken glazed earthen dish or porringer, they leaped with it into the sea and swam on shore with their prize. If they brought anything on board they would barter it for anything whatever belonging to our people, even for a piece of broken glass; insomuch that some gave sixteen large clews of well-spun cotton yarn, weighing twenty-five pounds, for three small pieces of Portuguese brass coin not worth a farthing. Their liberality in dealing did not proceed from their putting any great value on the things themselves which they received from our people in return, but because they valued them as belonging to the Christians, whom they believed certainly to have come down from heaven, and they therefore earnestly desired to have something from them as a memorial. In this manner all this day was spent, and the islanders, as before, went all on shore at night.

1In the other editions this part of the sentence reads, "concerning the islands of India beyond the Ganges, recently discovered."

2The name of Isabella (Helisabet) is also omitted in the title of one of Plannck’s editions; it is found in the two other Roman editions.

3The correct form is Gabriel Sanchez.

4April 29th.

5A mistake of the Latin translator. Columbus sailed from Palos, August 3, 1492; on September 8th he left the Canaries, and on October 11th, or thirty-three days later, he reached the Bahamas.

6In Spanish, San Salvador, one of the Bahama Islands. It has been variously identified with Grand Turk, Cat, Watling, Mariguana, Samana, and Acklin Islands. Watling’s Island seems to have much in its favor.

7Perhaps Crooked Island, or, according to others, North Caico.

8Identified by some with Long Island, by others with Little Inagua.

9Identified variously with Fortune Island and Great Inagua.

10The island of Cuba.


12Hispaniola, or Hayti.

13 From Catalonia by the sea-coast to Fontarabia in Biscay.

14Identified with Dominica.

15Supposed to be Martinique.

16March 14, 1493.

17The name given by Marco Polo to an island or islands supposed to be the modern Japan, for outlying portions of which Columbus mistook the West Indies.


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Chicago: Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Columbus, "Columbus Discovers America," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed February 23, 2024,

MLA: Columbus, Christopher, and Ferdinand Columbus. "Columbus Discovers America." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 23 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Columbus, C, Columbus, F, 'Columbus Discovers America' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 23 February 2024, from