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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

The Story of Columbus Pt 2: A New World- The First Voyage (1492-1493)

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

The first step of getting Columbus’ voyage off the ground was securing ships and a crew. Unfortunately, Columbus' first voyage was likely not seen as a top priority for the Spanish crown and they were in the middle of a mass deportation of Jews from Spain at that time which required many ships. So the King and Queen called in a debt that was owed them by the port town of Palos to provide two ships when the need arose. Most likely with some reluctance, two small ships (The Nina and Pinta) along with two captains (the Pinzón brothers) were chartered for the trip to pay the towns' debt.

Replica's of the Nina and Pinta

The Pinzón brothers brought along with them crews who were loyal to them. One other larger vessel (The Santa Maria) was also chartered which would act as the flagship that Columbus would captain in the small three ship exploration fleet. So Columbus prepared for his journey with respectable, though not top of the line, ships and with a crew that likely was less than enthusiastic about following this foreigner with eccentric ideas into what could be their deaths at sea. This division between “the foreigner” Columbus and the men who went with him proved to be a theme that ran through all of Columbus' journeys.

Setting Sail (Spain to Bahamas Aug-Oct 1492)

Columbus, with the three ships under his command, set sail in August 1492. They first sailed southwest through familiar seas to the Canary Islands and then turned west out into the unknown with only Columbus' theories about distance to Asia as a guide. They sailed for weeks. Columbus, likely intentionally, would underestimate their speed and distance from Spain in order to help make the men feel they were not so far from Spain as they crossed horizon after horizon, day after day.

Now, into the second month since leaving Spain, the crew began to have some serious concerns about where they were and if they were ever going to find land. Mutiny seemed likely. They had seen some signs of land so Columbus was able to convince the crew to give him just three more days. Columbus prayed hard. Then with storybook timing during the predawn of the third day, Columbus was on deck unable to sleep looking and for land. He thought he spotted a light in the distance but he wasn’t sure. He didn’t make an official call of land but did mention it to some of the people around him. A little later another sailor called in a loud voice that he saw land when he thought he saw a light in the darkness as well. Everyone was on pins and needles worried that in the darkness they may run onto rocks or a reef so Columbus ordered the ships to stop and wait the few more hours until dawn to see if it really was land.

The Island of San Salvador (Bahamas)

As the dawn light grew brighter and brighter, a long green island lay in front of Columbus and his crew. One can only imagine what Columbus was feeling that early morning. All his many years of pitching his ideas and being rejected suddenly seemed validated. In his mind he had reached some Island off the Asian mainland and all his wildest dreams about saving the world were about to come true. His premonitions that he was on a special mission from God as a “Christ-Bearer” must have solidified in his mind upon seeing that island which no one from his world even knew existed. He must have felt an immense vindication. In fact it seems that it was so immense that in later voyages, when he should have been convinced that he was not in Asia, he seemed to have a very hard time ever admitting that to himself.

A New World (San Salvador, Bahamas, Oct 1492)

Columbus, nor anyone else, had any idea what had actually just happened. He had landed in the Bahamas, on a small island now called San Salvador. After sailing around the small island to find a good landing spot on the far side, they could see naked native peoples standing on the beaches curious and awestruck by the strange craft with such huge white sails and strange looking men on them. Neither party realized that this meeting would begin a new era in world history, instead they all were curious but cautious.

Columbus and his men went to the beach and after giving thanks to God for their safety Columbus followed official state ceremony in claiming the land for Spain with natives looking on and unsure about what to make of the strange scene before them.

The actual spot of Columbus first landing (San Salvador Island, Bahamas)

With the ceremony over, both sides were curious and not exactly sure what would happen next. However, the people of Europe had been discovering far off lands for some time so they were a little more prepared for what might be a good first step. They had brought small trinkets (especially small bells) to trade. They offered some of these to the natives who were fascinated and pleased by the gifts and brought gifts themselves for the visitors. Within a short while, both sides realized that they didn’t have to fear each other. The crew and Columbus began interacting with the natives trying to communicate to learn about the local area and exchanged various goods with one another in friendly curiosity.

Columbus, with an eye toward teaching and converting the people of the world to Christianity, was immediately impressed by the natives generosity, kindness and innocence. Columbus wrote back to the queen and king letting them know that these people would make excellent Christians and vassals. He felt that they were natural Christians as they seemed to share whatever they had and appeared to be innocent and peaceful. However, he also learned quickly from the natives that not all tribes were like the peaceful people of San Salvador. He was told to beware of the dreaded Carib tribes. He and his men were told how these other tribes would raid their villages, take their women into sex slavery and then eat the babies when they were born.

Island Hopping and Initial Frustrations.

(Bahamas to Cuba to Haiti, Oct-Dec 1492)

While fascinated with the little Island, Columbus only stayed for a few days. Columbus was on a mission to find the Great Khan and the gold described my Marco Polo in order to finance a crusade to save Europe and retake Jerusalem. So when Columbus was told about much larger islands and land masses by the natives to the south and west he set sail looking for signs of the Asian mainland, especially Gold. Finding gold would further validate that they were closing in on the land of the Great Khan and would also be useful to provide concrete proof that the King and Queen had not wasted their time and money when they invested on Columbus' voyage. It would produce a quick return. As he came to the next sets of Islands he took a few natives by force onto his ship. He immediately gave them food, clothing, gifts and good treatment as well as assurance that they would be returned to their homes. These natives were told that the Spanish needed local guides and someone to help them to learn the language. Some of them later jumped ship when they got the chance probably feeling that there were not interested in the deal. However, others stayed with the ships and acted as local diplomats letting tribes they encountered know that the Spanish came in peace. (To learn more about the forced taking of local guides by Columbus click here).

Over the next couple of weeks, Columbus jumped around to a few other small islands trying to figure out exactly where he was and where he should go next. Columbus believed that he was in a set of islands not too far off the coast of mainland Asia when in reality he was in a set of islands (the Bahamas) just off the coast of an undiscovered continent (the Americas). Columbus' course took him south and west crossing from the Bahamas to the Northern Coast of Cuba. Seeing such a large landmass he began to think that he had found the Asian mainland or perhaps Japan (which Marco Polo called Cepangu). However, as he sailed from bay to bay down the coast of Northern Cuba he just kept finding native tribes and no signs of gold or Asian civilization. Columbus was concerned but also was absolutely enchanted by the exotic beauty and fertility of the islands.

Northern Cuba

The Spaniards who were accompanying him also were becoming more and more worried about a lack of gold. After all, that was why they had come on the risky voyage in the first place. As Columbus was nearing the end of the northern coast of Cuba he was shocked and dismayed as one day he looked out to see the Pinta heading off in another direction without his permission. One of the Pinzon brothers who captained the Pinta had had enough and felt that he could better find the gold on his own when one of the natives on his ship mentioned another Island rich in Gold. Columbus helplessly watched as the Pinta sailed out of site. Dismayed, Columbus in the Santa Maria and the Nina pressed on and eventually crossed from Cuba to Haiti (which they later named Hispanola). Columbus was encouraged when on Haiti they encountered tribes that seemed more advanced and they were told about gold on the Island and a mighty local Chief named Gaucanagri they should meet as he was the ruler over that general area. They set sail eastward along the northern coast of Haiti toward where Chief Guacanagri was said to be.

Shipwrecked! (Dec 1492- Jan 1493)

Columbus and his men had been gone from Spain for nearly four months by this point and had spent more than two months island hopping without finding much more than beautiful exotic landscapes and poor small local tribes. Now spirits were up as they seemed to be approaching a more significant tribal kingdom with rumors of gold. So after sailing along the Northern coast of Haiti, Columbus was pleased to find and have an introduction to Chief Guacanagri on the northern coast of Haiti. This run of better luck took a turn for the worse on Christmas Eve of 1492. The night of Christmas Eve was a calm and nearly windless night. The sailor in charge of the night watch and at the helm of Columbus flagship (the Santa Maria) was tired. Despite Columbus orders to the contrary, the experience seaman decided to go to sleep and put a young cabin boy in charge of the wheel. Columbus must have felt sheer horror as he awoke hearing and feeling the ship run aground in the darkness thousands of miles from home. It was a sailors worst nightmare! As dawn broke on Christmas morning of 1492, Columbus found himself with only his smallest ship, the Nina left to get him and his men home.

Luckily, the friendly chief Gaucanagri, who Columbus met earlier, was sympathetic. He ordered villagers to help Columbus and his men unload the ship and welcomed them into their village. Columbus was genuinely appreciative of their help. While there, Columbus and the chief became good friends. Guacanagri told Columbus about significant gold further inland and the ongoing conflicts between his people and the cannibal Carib tribes. Columbus and Gaucanagri exchanged gifts and Columbus showed him the Spanish weapons including cannons. Gaucanagri was awestruck by these weapons and when Columbus offered to help him fight off his rivals and Carib enemies the two formed not only a personal friendship but a budding political alliance. Guacanagri likely realized the Spaniards could help him expand his power if he were to pledge loyalty to them.

Despite the great hospitality, Columbus had only one ship and knew he had to get back to Spain soon. Columbus had limited room left on his one small remaining ship (the Nina). However, Columbus did not have much trouble remedying this issue. Due to the hospitality of Gaucanagri and reports of gold nearby many Spaniards wanted to stay behind. So Columbus ordered a fort be made from the remains of the grounded Santa Maria and left around 35 men with explicit orders to not take advantage or harm the natives. They called the little fort “La Navidad”. He and the others would be back in a few months with ships for further exploration, fresh supplies, and the needed people and equipment to find and extract the inland gold. As Columbus prepared to leave, many natives requested to go with Columbus to see the land and cities where these strange visitors came from. Columbus ended up taking six natives back to Spain with him.

Back to Spain (Jan- March 1493)

On Jan 6, 1493, while making final preparations to leave, it was reported that the missing Pinta had been spotted by a native further down the coast. Columbus and his crew said a quick goodbye to their shipmates who would be staying behind and left right away to catch up with the Pinta. When they did, the Pinta's captain, Alonso Pinzón, claimed to be happy to see Columbus and that the separation could not be avoided due to weather. Columbus knew this was not true but did not make a big deal of it. He was just happy he was not going to have to make the long crossing alone with only one small ship in his fleet.

Sailing along the northeastern coast of Haiti, they entered Carib territory and had the first hostile encounter between Europeans and the natives. While sailing in one of the bays they ran into a group of natives and as was customary began to trade and try and gather information about the region. These natives seemed different to Columbus and he worried they were Caribs. The natives had bows and other weapons with them. Columbus' seven men who were on shore were tense as they interacted with these armed natives unsure of their intentions. Columbus wanted to see if they could trade with them to get their bows and other weapons (likely to try and diffuse the risk).

At first the natives seems willing and traded several bows but upon realizing the Spanish were trying to disarm them the natives picked up their weapons quickly and moved against the Spanish who fought back with swords and crossbows. After seeing two of their fellow warriors wounded by Spanish weapons, the natives fled and the men on shore quickly paddled back out to the ship.

Their luck did not improve much as they sailed away from the Caribbean and began the crossing over the high seas. A storm battered the two small ships and in the chaos Columbus again found himself separated from the Pinta when the storm finally cleared. He was alone again with one ship. After almost a month sailing without any sign of land and only with Columbus' navigational skills to guide them they spotted the Azores islands and again were in familiar seas. After a brief run in with Portuguese who tried to stop him, he made it back to Spain and the Pinta arrived about the same time. Columbus was on top of the world and immediately the talk of everyone in Spain. He had gone where no one had thought possible and discovered what was believed to be a new trade route to new lands and the riches of Asia. After all the many years of selling this crazy idea he felt he had been vindicated and all of Spanish upper society began fawning over his tales of adventure in a far off exotic land! After the show and glamor of his initial return, attention turned to getting back to the men he left behind and to begin the setup of a permanent gold operating and trading settlement on the Island of Haiti (which they called Hispaniola).


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