I was shocked to learn that La Santa Maria de la Immaculada Conception, a carrack better known as the Santa Maria, (or La Capitana (The Flagship) as Columbus referred to her) ran aground in the early morning hours of Christmas 1492. Did you know that? I can’t remember one teacher giving me that little tidbit of information in grade school. All these years I believed that Christopher Columbus returned to Spain in triumph on the Santa Maria, followed closely by the Nina, and the Pinta. I realize this may not be unknown to everyone, but for whatever reason, I never knew the Santa Maria was at the bottom of the Caribbean. I don’t remember anyone telling me that. Turns out it was only the two smaller caravels, La Nina (The Girl) and La Pinta (The Painted) that returned to Spain and almost didn’t make it.
This is why the startling discovery, all over the news the last few days, of the sunken Santa Maria, was such a surprise to me. A 500 year old mystery possibly laid to rest by archeologist, Barry Clifford, who believes that he has found her.
Now listen, a couple of things bother me about this “find.” One, the wreck, a carrack…There’s that word again. A carrack is a three or four mast sailing vessel of the 15th century. Developed by the Portuguese, and then used by the Spaniards, to explore the world. It was an ocean-going vessel that was large enough to be stable in heavy seas, and carry enough provisions for a long voyage… that is 17.7m or 58 feet long, and is stuck on a reef a mere 10-15 feet under water. Why hasn’t someone found this shipwreck before? This sounds like a perfect “tourist dive” to me. I mean, they knew the exact location where the ship ran aground. They kept good records back then, and it seems to me anyway, that would make it pretty easy to find. Not to mention, it’s ten or so feet below the surface. You can probably see it from the deck of a boat.
The Santa Maria was run aground by a young ship’s boy, a cabin boy who was steering the ship because everyone else on board had fallen asleep. They had passed out one by one because they were all three sheets to the wind from celebrating the holiday and hadn’t slept in days. The young ship’s boy ran the Santa Maria aground off the coast of Hispaniola, the island now known as Haiti. Reports from the later investigation indicated that the ship ran aground on a sandbar so quietly that it didn’t wake anyone on the ship.
That young cabin boy had to be Pedro de Terreros. He is the only cabin boy listed on the well-known 39 man crew of the Santa Maria, which, of course, included Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus). The Captain-General whom had to be asleep very close to the tiller when the incident happened.
Did Columbus really think the ship was beyond repair though? It was almost as if he wanted the ship to remain. The ship was barely damaged, and not much of an attempt was made to free it from the sandbar, although it was listing dangerously to one side. He ordered the crew to remove the timbers and deck to build a fort for the crew members that now had no way to get home. He later fired cannon balls into the hull to be sure that it couldn’t be used by those left behind to possibly rig a sail and leave the new settlement of La Navidad, and that’s how it ended up at the bottom of the sea. Not to worry, the natives were friendly and he promised he would be back. The real truth is he wanted someone near the gold they had discovered on the island. Thirty-nine men, and possibly the cabin boy, remained behind never to be seen again.
The second thing that sounds a bit fishy to me about this startling discovery, as reported by CNN, is Barry actually found the ship in 2003. There was a cannon at the wreck that was apparently mistaken for a younger version, and it wasn’t until, let’s see, 11 years later, that Barry wakes up from a dream believing that the cannon he had seen was from the Santa Maria. Okay. Funny thing is the cannon has been “looted” so there is no proof that it was even there. But the dream, I dunno. According to the story, Barry researched the type of cannons used on the Santa Maria two years prior and that’s why it came to him in that dream. He realized that he had already found the Santa Maria. I wonder who has the cannon and if they know what they have.
And what’s actually down there if Columbus ordered the timbers to be stripped from the ship to build the fort, La Navidad. Apparently there are some stones that are common to the area of Spain where the ship was built. Okay. Stones?
Here’s something that I’ll bet most of you didn’t know. Remember that fear of the world being flat and that they would sail off the edge? Yeah. It was a widely known and held belief by the 1490s that the earth was a sphere. The primitive navigation of the time used the stars and the curvature of the earth to get around. No one was afraid of falling off the earth. What they didn’t know was how big a sphere they were on. Columbus calculated that India was closer than it actually was, which means he couldn’t have reached it by sailing west without another continent being in the way. They wouldn’t have fallen off the earth, but they would have died when the food and water supplies ran out. It was this inaccurate belief in the circumference of the earth that kept King John II of Portugal from funding his expedition.
Why didn’t any one of my teachers ever mention that Columbus had brothers? Two of them were with him in 1492. In fact he appears to have had three brothers and a sister. He left a brother and a sister behind in Italy, and the other two brothers, Batholomew and Diego, went with him on most of his adventures. It is said that he rarely talked about his mother and father because he was not proud of his meager origins, a middle-class family of weavers from Genoa.
Columbus wasn’t actually the first to see land either. It was first sighted at 2 am October 12, 1492, by a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana aboard La Pinta. Columbus would later claim that he had been the first to see land because he earned a reward in his contract for doing so. He had a pretty good deal actually, mostly because Ferdinand and Isabella didn’t really expect to ever see him again. If he claimed any new islands or mainland for the Crown he would earn hefty rewards. He would be given the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and be appointed Viceroy and Governor of all newly colonized lands. And, most extraordinarily, he would get 10% of all revenues from the new lands in perpetuity.
During his first journey, Columbus discovered San Salvador which he believed to be Japan, and Cuba that he thought was China, and Haiti where he found gold. When he returned home in 1493 he stopped off in Portugal first to visit with King John II. This is fascinating because he claimed it was a storm that brought him to Lisbon, yet he had a secret meeting with the King and stayed a week before sailing for Spain. He received a hero’s welcome and brought several indigenous people for display, gold that he had found, tobacco which was previously unknown in Spain, the pineapple, turkey and, interestingly enough, the hammock.
He returned on his second voyage with an armada of 17 ships. Interesting what the discovery of a new world filled with gold, tobacco and pineapples can get you. When he reached La Navidad, there was no one there. This is more of a 500 hundred year old mystery than the wreck of the Santa Maria off the northern coast of Haiti.
Columbus made four voyages to the New World, but he did not reach the mainland of South America until his third voyage in 1498. And it wasn’t until 1521 that Magellan sailed the Pacific and reached Southeast Asia, proving Columbus’ vision of sailing west to the East Indies.
Here’s another myth-buster for you. Remember how all the crew members were criminals who were given amnesty if they sailed with Columbus. Although it is true that the Crown offered the amnesty, only four men took the offer. All the other seamen were experienced and from the surrounding ports who were each paid well for the voyage.
And about that romantic tale of how Queen Isabella used a necklace as collateral for a loan, not true. The voyage was financed by seven noble Genovese bankers from Seville.
While on vacation in Corpus Christi, we got the opportunity to view the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta. The city of Corpus Christi received the New World-era replicas in 1993 as a gift from Spain to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus Day. They were dry-docked at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.
We walked down into the hold of the Santa Maria and were immediately amazed by how small it was and it is the largest of the three ships. I wondered how that many men could survive in this small space for months at a time. You couldn’t really stand fully upright in most of the hold. It would have been stocked with supplies and even live animals for food (no refrigeration). It was stifling hot down there and I couldn’t wait to get back up on deck.
So we’ll find out if the shipwreck reported this week is the Santa Maria at some point. The guy with the cannon will find out if he has a priceless artifact. You found out that the Santa Maria was sunk intentionally by its captain-general, and Isabella didn’t pawn her necklace. You also discovered that everyone was drunk, maybe even the cabin boy, on the night of the accident, and you now know his name. You know Columbus had brothers, was ashamed of his father, and is responsible for tobacco smoking in Europe. Oh, and that hammock in the back yard, worth the whole trip. WTF.