The First Voyage of Columbus



Map of Palos


Christopher Columbus departed on his first voyage from the port of Palos (near Huelva) in southern Spain, on August 3, 1492, in command of three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. His crew mostly came from surrounding towns such as Lepe and Moguer.


Map of Canary Is.


Columbus called first at the Canary Islands, the westernmost Spanish possessions. He was delayed there for four weeks by calm winds and the need for repair and refit. Columbus left the island of Gomera on September 6, 1492, but calms again left him within sight of the western island of Hierro until September 8.

Columbus had expected the voyage to take four weeks, but that deadline came and went without sighting land. The crews of his ships became restless and some argued that a return to Spain was in order. On October 10, Columbus struck a deal with his men: if no land was found in the next three days, they would turn back for Spain. At two hours past midnight on October 12, land was sighted by Rodrigo de Triana (also known as Juan Rodriguez), a sailor aboard the Pinta.

Columbus went ashore the next morning at an island he called San Salvador, which the natives called Guanahani. The identity of his landfall island is in dispute, but it was most likely one of the Plana Cays in the Bahamas. At Guanahani, Columbus met and traded with the Native Americans of the Lucayan tribe. He also kidnapped several of the natives to act as guides before leaving two days later. He stopped at three other islands in the Bahamas over the next two weeks, which he named Santa Maria de la Concepción, Fernandina, and Isabela. These are most likely the Crooked-Acklins group, Long Island, and Fortune Island, respectively. His final stop in the Bahamas was at the Ragged Islands, which he called the Islas de Arena (Sand Islands). Following the directions of his native guides, he arrived at Bariay Bay, Cuba on October 28.

The inter-island track of Columbus's first voyage, in red. Modern placenames are in black bold. Columbus's placenames are in blue italic.

Columbus spent fruitless weeks in Cuba searching for gold, or for the Chinese civilization he had read about from Marco Polo. He reached as far west as Cayo Cruz on October 31 before north winds and increasing frustration caused a change of plan. His kidnapped Native American guides had indicated that gold was to be found on another island to the east, so Columbus reversed course. While sailing north of Cuba on November 22, Martín Alonso Pinzón, captain of the Pinta, left the other two ships without permission and sailed on his own in search of an island called "Babeque" or "Baneque", where he had been told by his native guides that there was much gold. Columbus continued his exploration of Cuba with the remaining two ships, rounding the eastern end and reaching as far as Punta Guayacanes before he arrived at Hispaniola on December 5.

On Christmas Eve, the flagship Santa Maria grounded on a reef near Cap Haitien and sank the next day. Columbus used the remains of the ship to build a fort on shore, which he named La Navidad (Christmas). But the tiny Niña could not hold all of the remaining crew, so Columbus was forced to leave about 40 men behind to await his return from Spain. He departed from La Navidad in the Niña on January 2, 1493.

Now down to just one ship, Columbus continued eastward along the coast of Hispaniola, and was surprised when he came upon the Pinta on January 6. Columbus's anger at Pinzón was eased by his relief at having another ship for his return to Spain, and by the fact that Pinzón had finally found the long-sought gold nuggets in the bed of a local river.

The two ships departed Hispaniola from Samana Bay (in the modern Dominican Republic) on January 16, but were again separated by a fierce storm in the North Atlantic on February 14; Columbus and Pinzón each believed that the other had perished. Columbus sighted the island of Santa Maria in the Azores the next day. After a run-in with the local governor, he arrived at Lisbon on March 4, and finally made it back to his home port of Palos on March 15, 1493.

Meanwhile, Pinzón and the Pinta had missed the Azores and arrived at the port of Bayona in northern Spain. After a stop to repair the damaged ship, the Pinta limped into Palos just hours after the Niña. Pinzón had expected to be proclaimed a hero, but the honor had already been given to Columbus. Pinzón died a few days later.

A summary of Columbus's log of the voyage can be found here.

The transatlantic track of Columbus's first voyage, drawn on an isogonic chart showing compass declination during 1492-93 according to the CALS3K magnetic model of Korte & Constable 2003. Negative numbers indicate westerly declination in degrees, while positive numbers are easterly. CALS3K is the only magnetic model that has been shown to correctly replicate both of Columbus's first two voyages. See the transatlantic track page for details.


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