All EOS blogs All Spain blogs  Start your own blog Start your own blog 

Spanish history in art and literature

A blog the history of Spain for ex-pats and others.

A Zen Garden for Christmas
Friday, December 24, 2021


In my pueblo there is always building work going on somewhere. People are always changing and improving their houses, so I was not surprised to see a pile of sand at the bottom of my neighbour’s garden with a shovel stuck in it. A dead giveaway that building work was going on. What did surprise me was the person standing next to the shovel. Many things go together well: cheese and wine, bacon and eggs, fish and chips. Others clash: red and green, oil and water, Loveless and a shovel.

The pueblo had many, shall we say, exotic characters. Very few were Spanish; they had all been normalised very early in their lives by the very conservative natives. The Brits, however, had no obvious constraints to their behaviour. In this respect, Loveless and Geordie were a couple who stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Nobody knew what their relationship was, but like Batman and Robin, even though they were accepted by most, you knew something was not just quite right.  

I mentioned that Loveless was standing in close proximity to the shovel, but his body language was screaming that it was nothing to do with him. When he saw me he stepped away from the heap of sand as though it was a pile of warm elephant droppings. Just then, Geordie’s voice screeched from the other side of the garden wall.

“Hurry up and fetch some more cement.” Lovelace’s face dropped. I put on a big smile.

“Hi Loveless, how are things going?” I enquired.

The expression on Lovelace’s face took on a new depth of despair. Imagine one of Napoleon's captains retreating from the gates of Moscow in midwinter. The frozen bodies of his fallen troops piled at the side of the road with Russian snipers and artillery adding to their terrible misery. If you had cheerfully asked the captain, how things were going, the expression that you would have seen would not have been too far from the one Loveless was wearing.

“OK,” he said, with a voice like dropped lead.

Just then, Geordie came through the garden gate with a face like thunder.

“I said mix some more,” he snarled.

“Hi Geordie,” I said.

“What do you want?” he hissed.

“Just passing,” I explained. “What are you up to?”

Geordie drew himself up to his full height so that he could look down his nose at me and haughtily explained.

“I have been commissioned to create a Zen Garden by Pauline.”

I have to confess I was taken aback by this revelation. In Andalusia there is a distinct rarity of Zen Gardens. Meditation and spiritual development are not high on the agenda of the average Andaluz farmer. Knowing Pauline well, I began to have a shadow of doubt about validity of this Zen Garden. It’s usually not a good idea to probe too much into Geordie’s world. It can quickly become very confusing. However I could not resist this particular probe.

“What exactly is a Zen Garden,” I asked.

“It is a secluded space where the inter-dimensional forces of the universe are channelled and controlled. The benign power that flows through everything is focused by the structure of a Zen Garden, bringing good luck and health to the people who inhabit the house. You must arrange certain stones with their relative power-vortices so that the flow of positive energy is pure. You have to say the correct prayers and incantations with each phase of the construction. I have studied the subject exhaustively and have been trained by masters of the art.” he explained.

“Wow! Very impressive,” I answered. “Where did you train to be a Zen Master? I always thought that you were from South Shields.”

“He downloaded it from the internet,” blurted Loveless. “That’s where he gets all his stuff from. He pays 10€ a month for them to send him this crap.”

“Mix some more cement!” Geordie barked, giving Loveless a scathing glare.

“May I take a look?” I probed a little deeper.

“Of course,” Geordie was warming to his new role as teacher of oriental wisdom and bringer of enlightenment. “This first wall is a step down to the rest of the garden. It will be on two levels symbolizing the Yin and Yang of the universe, where each positive force is balanced by a negative force, thus bringing equilibrium to all things.”

We stood at the side of a narrow trench which he had excavated with a gardeners trowel. Geordie had been patting in cement with his hands as a foundation.

“Why not use wooden shutters and just pour concrete in? That’s what everybody else does,” I ventured. Geordie looked at me as though I had just farted.

“Because you would violate the energy field generated by my hands and prayers,” he coldly informed me.

“I see,” I lied.

I decided that I had probed enough for one day and suggested that I would call in from time to time and see how the work progressed. I made my excuses, left the garden of eternal bliss, and stepped into the real world. As I passed I called hasta luago to Loveless, but he did not look up from his mixing. On the way to the shops I was wondering if Zen Gardens had gargoyles, because Loveless’ face would have been a perfect model for one.

Three days later I walked past the bottom of Pauline’s garden and looked over the wall. Pauline and Geordie were bending over the wall dividing Yin from Yang and talking seriously. I foolishly called out.

“How’s the Zen Garden coming along?”

Both heads snapped up and looked at me with very strange, strained expressions. Realizing that I may have put my foot in it I smiled and made an excuse.

“Must go and catch the shops before they close. Byee.”

I returned by the same route a half hour later and cheekily peeped over the wall to see what had happened. As I did so, I saw Pauline alone. She had seen my head pop up and she waved me into the garden.

“What’s all this about a Zen garden?” she demanded.

“Well, Geordie said you had commissioned him to build a Zen garden,” I explained.

“Zen bloody garden my arse! I told him to build a wall so I could have two levels of reasonably flat garden. Just look at this,” she snarled.

I followed her into the garden of tranquillity fearing that the some of the inter-dimensional forces might not be quite in balance. I was not wrong.

“Look what he has done. So far I have paid that idiot 300€ for this.”

The wall was a roughly vertical pile of bricks, which began at the steps and meandered across the garden like a drunk’s footsteps. It followed the contours of the ground beneath it exactly, showing no need for any form of horizontal linearity or vertical order. Before it got to the far wall, it fell over and lay comatose on its side having given up all hope of being a wall, and was content to sleep it off till another day. I felt sorry for Pauline having to pay for this disaster.

“I will come along in the morning and straighten it out Pauline,” I said. “It won’t take long.”

The next morning I brought a few tools and began scraping cement off the bricks. In actual fact there had been no need to rush because there was not enough cement in the sand for it to be called mortar; it would never have set anyway. That was when Geordie arrived with Loveless.

I slipped out of the garden to mix some real cement whilst a conversation developed within the Zen Garden between Pauline and Geordie. Moments later I returned with a full bucket, and as I laid anew the cleaned bricks from Geordie’s attempt at bricklaying, I listened to the conversation.

“You must understand that this work is labour intensive and the hours I spend are for your ultimate benefit,” Geordie said. “I can’t rush in case I make a mistake and waste your time and money.”

“I would hate to see one of your mistakes if this is an example of you getting it right. The whole bloody wall is a mistake. Hiring you was a mistake,” Pauline’s voice was becoming more strident. “Look at it. It’s just a pile of rubbish that I have paid 300€ for!” Geordie had walled himself into a corner, and for a moment, his eyes showed his panic, but then his true nature asserted itself.  

“The wall was not like this when I left it yesterday … there must have been an earthquake in the night!”

For a few seconds there was a silence you could cut with a trowel. I spread my feet in anticipation of the aftershock, and watched its rapid approach on Pauline’s face.

“You idiot! Do you think I am going to believe that!” she pointed at me. “Do as he says and don’t open your mouth again.”

I unravelled my line-band and pinned it to one end of the wall with a heavy stone. I did the same to the other end, but only after moment of thought. I already had the hand patted prayer laden foundations, but they were aligned to universal forces, whereas my line-band only showed the shortest distance between two points. Finding a mean was difficult because there was no obvious general direction. In the end I chose the line of least work. The wall would not be at right angles to the rest of the garden, but it would be straight. Whilst I was doing this Pauline had seen my use of the line-band and asked Geordie why he had not used one.

“Oh I have one.” Geordie glibly answered, unaware that he had just put his foot on a mine.

“Well why the bloody hell didn’t you use it!” Pauline shouted at the top of her voice. Geordie recognised defeat and was silent. At this point, I revealed my other secret weapon; a spirit level. Pauline fell on Geordie like a ton of bricks.

“Why didn’t you use a level?” she snapped. “In three day’s work I have never seen you use a level.”

“Yes I did,” blurted Geordie. “I used my bottle of water!”

“How can you use a bottle of water as a level?” Pauline barked. My ears came up too. This was a new one on me.

“The bottle of water has a bubble in it. Lay it on the wall on its side and you have a level.” Pauline gasped at this revelation. I did too.

“Then why is your wall not level? Pauline asked quietly.”

“Well it was a warm day, so we drank all the water in the bottle,” Loveless explained before Geordie could invent an answer.

Pauline was speechless with anger. She turned and stormed into the house.

“Maybe you should have taken more notice of the spirit level than the spirit guide Geordie.” I added. “Why don’t you help Loveless mix some cement.”

I had to turn away. Laughing out loud would not have helped the situation. Geordie strutted down the path, and left the garden of tranquillity.

I had the feeling that in future years Pauline would be far from tranquil in her garden when she thought of how much she had paid for this little wall. After a couple of hours, I had restored some semblance of linearity to the wall and was filling in the hollows where its original course had followed a power vortex instead of a piece of string. Pauline had by now calmed down. She came and looked at the new wall.

“I can cement render it tomorrow if you wish.” I told Pauline.

“No thank you. I am going to get a Spanish builder to finish everything off. But thanks for helping me.” Geordie’s face dropped.  

“I can finish the work now,” he offered.

Pauline walked up to Geordie and stood inches from his face.

“In two hours he has done correctly what took you three days to do wrong. Get out of my garden and don’t ever set foot in it again,” she hissed.

I gathered up my tools whilst Geordie told Loveless to pick up his. We left the Zen Garden and went our separate ways. Call me evil, but I could not resist calling over my shoulder to the master of unseen forces and his acolyte.

“See you later Geordie, and watch out for earthquakes on the way home pet.”

Like 0        Published at 1:07 PM   Comments (0)

The Journey home
Friday, December 17, 2021

By the 31st of December Columbus had decided that he should load provisions and water aboard the Niña. He was still receiving promises of more gold from the Cacique, and he would have liked to explore more down the coast to find the source of the metal, but he wrote that he was wary of another accident that could make the Niña incapable of the return journey. He had met cordially with several native Caciques and had received gold as gifts, and he urged the men who were to remain behind at fort Navidad to obtain as much gold as they could for their return from Spain. It was during one of these meetings that a native from further along the coast to the east reported having seen the Pinta. This news added another dimension to Columbus' worries.  There were now two expeditions; the one that he led, and the one led by Pinzón.

In order to give the natives a show of force, he took the king and some of his advisors out in the Niña and fired one of the lombards at the hull of the Santa Maria. They were suitably impressed when the ball went straight through the ship and a good way beyond. He writes that he hoped that the natives would see that his men were friends and would defend them in case of attack from a nearby tribe called the Caribs, who the natives feared.

He began to organise the provisions for those who were to remain.  Most were volunteers. Along this coast Columbus’ small flotilla had seen nothing but good nature and friendship from the natives. He left Diego de Arana, a native of Cordoba and Pedro Gutierrez, "repostero de estrado" of the King and Rodrigo de Escovedo, a native of Segovia. He gave them all the powers which he had received from the sovereigns in Castile. The officials supplied by Isabel, the escribano and alguacil also elected to stay. He left them seeds for sowing and a ship's carpenter and calker, a good gunner “who knows a great deal about engines” and a cooper and a physician and a tailor, and all, he says, are seamen.  He left them biscuit sufficient for a year and wine and much artillery and the ship's boat in order that they, as they were most of them sailors, could go to discover the mine of gold when they should see that the time was favourable.

Columbus left 39 men behind at La Villa de Navidad on the 22nd January 1493.  He had no alternative to leaving good crewman behind whilst he was obliged to sail with people that he did not trust.

He first had to navigate seas to the east of Española (Haiti) which were full of reefs and sandbanks, and Columbus carefully picked his way through them. He sent a sailor to climb the rigging around the main mast and watch the sea ahead for dangers. It was in the afternoon of the 6th that the lookout called that he had seen the Pinta ahead. With nowhere safe to anchor, the two ships returned to the coast at a place they had called Monte Christi.

When they finally met Martin Alonso Pinzon, the captain of the Pinta, he was full of apologies saying that he was forced by circumstances beyond his control to leave the other ships behind. The natives on his ship had led him on a wild-goose-chase from island to island looking for gold. Columbus wrote that he believed none of it, and another account says:

“(they) had not obeyed and did not obey his commands, but rather had done and said many unmerited things in opposition to him, and as Martin Alonso had left him from November 21st to January 6th without cause or reason but from disobedience: and all this the Admiral had suffered in silence, in order to finish his voyage successfully” The account continues, “he decided to return with the greatest possible haste and not stop longer.”

On the 9th, whilst they were anchored in the mouth of a river at Monte Christi, Columbus ordered the ships to sail upriver to fill the water butts on both ships with fresh water for the voyage home. While they were filling the water butts, his sailors were amazed to see that the sand of the river was full of grains of gold. When they brought the barrels aboard they found that the gaps between the staves and the hoops were full of gold dust. He had found the source of the gold just 20 leagues from La Villa de Navidad, but the crews both ships now knew where it was, and the stakes in this great gamble had just got higher. Columbus writes:

 “That he would not take the said sand which contained so much gold, since their Highnesses had it all in their possession and at the door of their village of La Navidad; but that he wished to come at full speed to bring them the news, and to rid himself of the bad company which he had, and that he had always said they were a disobedient people.”

Around 12th January, they left the coast behind and struck out across the Atlantic. The two ships stayed in formation for four weeks making poor headway, but on 13th February ran into a storm. For three hours the two ships tried to hold their easterly course, but finally they had to turn and run west before the force of the gale. During the night, the ships became separated and the Niña spent the rest of the next day going west. The Niña was not handling well in the storm because the ballast of the ship was wrong, and Columbus ordered the crew to fill the empty drinking-water and provision barrels in the hold with sea water to try and stabilise the ship.

At the height of the storm Columbus called the crew to prayer and he ordered as many dried peas as there were crewmen to be brought from the provisions. He marked one with a knife and put them all in a hat. They drew lots four times and he made the crew vow that if they survived the voyage whoever picked the marked peas would make the pilgrimages to four different shrines in Spain and that the first land they would all go in procession in their shirts to pray under the invocation of Our Lady. In secret, he wrote a declaraion about all that he had discovered and wrapped it in a wax cloth with a letter asking whoever found it to return it to the King and Queen of España so that: “The Sovereigns might have information about his voyage.” He ordered that a barrel be brought to his cabin and he sealed the parcel within and threw it overboard.

On the morning of the 15th February the skies brightened from the west and they saw an island on the horizon. It took them all day to reach it, but they could find no harbour and so they dropped anchor on the lee side of the island.  In the night the anchor was torn away, and the Niña had to beat about to hold position. The following morning they dropped a second anchor and sent the small boat ashore where his sailors learned it was the island of Santa Maria, one of the islands of the Azores. That evening, Juan de Castaneda, the governor of the island, sent men to the beach with fowls and fresh bread. Castaneda apologised for not coming himself, but that in the morning he would bring more refreshments. In thanks for their deliverance from the storm, Columbus allowed half the crew to go ashore and fulfil the vows they made. They asked the islanders there to send a priest to say mass for them in a small hermitage further along the coast.

Columbus had forgotten that the King of Portugal had put a price on his head before the voyage, but now they had returned safely after discovering a New World, there was a bigger price offered for their capture and the safe delivery of the knowledge they carried in their heads; and the Azores were Portuguese territory.

Whilst the crew prayed they were surrounded by armed villagers. Columbus waited for them to return, then fearing the worst, he sailed around the coast to where he could see the hermitage. The governor of the island was there with armed soldiers and he was rowed out to the Niña in the small boat. Columbus tried to entice them aboard, but the governor was too wily to be captured. Even with half of them held on the island, the Niña still had had sufficient crew to continue her return voyage to Spain. He held up the letters from Isabel and Ferdinand and promised retribution against Portugal from España unless his men were returned. The governor yelled that he did not recognise the kingdom of España; he was duty bound to follow the orders of the King of Portugal.

Columbus realised that he was wasting his time, and since the wind was against him he ordered that running repairs be made to the ship which was taking on water. He had already lost one anchor and was not about to lose any more either to sabotage or storm. The weather was worsening and he set sail for the nearby island of San Miguel, but the seas became so rough that he was forced to return to Santa Maria.  On the 22nd they anchored in the lee of the island and a messenger asked if Columbus would allow two priests and an escribano (notary) aboard to examine his papers of authority. They were allowed aboard and given every respect as they studied the letters signed by Isabel and Ferdinand. Finally, after conferring in whispers, they told Columbus that his men would be returned. Columbus had successfully called the governor's bluff, and his men rowed out to take their place on the Niña once more.

Picture; Alan Pearson,

On Sunday 24th February the wind eased and came around to a direction which would take the Niña back to Spain.  Columbus immediately put on all sail and left the Azores behind. All went well for three days before what could have been a tornado battered the tiny ship and split her sails. By March 4th the storm still had not abated, but the dawn brought the sight of land and many of his sailors recognised the Rock of Cintra to the north of the port of Lisbon. At the mouth of the river Tagus was the small village of Cascaes, and the villagers had watched the Niña’s approach through the storm and had gone to the church and prayed for the safe return of this tiny vessel. Their prayers were answered, and Columbus docked his ship at Rastelo within the bay of Lisbon, where he learned that 25 ships had been lost in the storm, and many more had been tied-up in Lisbon waiting for the storm to pass. There was no news at all of the Pinta.

But the storm was not over for Columbus. He was still in hostile Portugal, and the flagship of the Portuguese navy was also tied up in Rastelo waiting for the storm to pass. Columbus noted that; “She was better furnished with artillery and arms than any ship he ever saw.” On March 5th her captain and financial patron, Bartholomew Diaz, sent an armed party to the Niña to demand that Columbus come to his ship and give an account of himself. Columbus wisely refused. The reply came back that he could send the master of the Niña in his stead. Columbus again refused. No member of his crew would leave his ship to be held hostage.

Realising that he was on a knife edge, where any aggression would result in a war with España, Diaz asked to see the letters of free passage given by Isabel and Ferdinand. Columbus agreed, and after reading the letters he sent his captain, Alvaro Dama, who arrived, “In great state with kettle-drums and trumpets and pipes” and put himself and his crew at the disposal of the admiral. All of Lisbon had heard of the discovery and wanted to see Columbus and the natives of the Indies, and for the next three days they were inundated with visitors and dignitaries. He was invited to visit the King of Portugal who was at the valley of Paraiso, nine leagues from Lisbon and he was entertained and recieved “many honours and favours”.

Finally, at 8 o'clock on March 13th Columbus raised the anchors and set sail to return to España. Two days later at sunrise he was off the sandbar at Saltes, Huelva, and when the tide turned at mid-day, he sailed upriver and tied up the Niña at the same dock that she had left on August 3rd  the year before.

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 honour had already been given to Columbus. Pinzón died a few days later.



Like 0        Published at 9:41 AM   Comments (0)

The Christmas day disaster.
Friday, December 10, 2021

By the 25th according to his log, Columbus had not slept for 48 hours. The coast here was full of sandbanks or rocks, and to approach the shore was dangerous. This is where there is some controversy over what is recorded in the log. The Captain of the Santa Maria was Juan de la Cosa, but throughout the exploration of the islands and accounts of meeting the natives, Juan de la Cosa is never mentioned. As captain, de la Cosa would not have to stand watches, he had capable crewman who understood the complexities of sailing his boat. There was a hierarchy of trusted and proven friends which had been built up over a number of years. It was essential that a seagoing ship should have men who could be trusted to sail the ship safely whilst others slept. So why was Columbus having to stay awake?

Both ships were in a bay that Columbus had explored the previous Sunday from the rowing boat that was stored on deck and used to go ashore. There was an open passage that extended from deep water to the beach, but bounded on both sides by sandbanks and reefs. There was no wind, and the sea state was described as in a "porringer”, (bowl) or calm. According to what was written in the log, at eleven o’clock in the evening the admiral went to his bunk to sleep, leaving a sailor at the helm. The rest of the crew also were sleeping when the sailor on watch handed the helm to the cabin boy and went to his own bunk.

Let me show you what the helm of the Santa Maria looked like.

This is not the wheel with handles and ropes that turned the rudder in bigger ships. The rudder of the Santa Maria probably weighed well over a hundred kilos and was operated by a ten foot tiller.  It was operated from two decks below the stern forecastle, where the captain had an unrestricted view of the ship and its surroundings. Between the two decks was the captain’s cabin. To steer the ship required at least two people, one on the stern forecastle who could see where they were going, and the other, two decks below to push the rudder in the required direction. To imagine that a ten-year-old boy could control the ship alone, even in a dead calm, is folly. But at night, when there are no lookouts, is criminal. Something was badly wrong. Where was the chain of command? Where were the leading officers who had spent years at sea and knew the rules and risks.

The poor cabin boy raises the alarm as the ship gently runs aground on a sandbank. In the near distance is the sound of breaking waves on a reef or shore. Columbus feels the change in the motion of the ship and immediately wakes from his sleep and runs up to the forecastle to take command. Columbus’ log then says that the master of the watch came out, and Columbus orders him to launch the rowing boat and take an anchor and cast it at a distance from the stern of the Maria. The anchor line would then be put around the capstan and the crew could wind the Maria off the sandbank.

Who “the master of the watch” was is not clear, but it has to be Juan de la Cosa.

Columbus does not mention him by name in his logs, but other later accounts say that a blazing row developed on what to do next. De la Cosa would be pretty upset that his ship had been allowed to run aground, but seemingly he insists that they must abandon ship and go to the Niña, which was “half a league to windward”. Columbus accuses him of treason and desertion in the face of danger, serious charges for which others have received the death penalty. Judging by the language in the log you would expect some sort of court martial or attempted court martial at home afterward, but no such thing is recorded, and Juan de la Cosa is never mentioned by name.  Nevertheless, the boat is launched, but the men in the boat led by the “master” rowed to the Niña.

The captain of the Niña rightly refused to allow them aboard and ordered them to return to the Maria. All this must have taken a couple of hours, meanwhile the tide was falling, and the pressure on the Maria’s hull was focused on one point, and the hull timbers were bending. If the caulking between the hull planks gave way, the sea would flood in. Columbus ordered that the mast be cut down and all excess weight be thrown overboard to lighten the ship and re-float her.  There was no terrible storm, just the inexorable retreat of the ocean, and finally, the hull planks gave way between the ribs, and the sea filled the hold of the Santa Maria. Columbus could not save his flagship; it was too far from the shore for the crew to swim, and so they were ferried to the Niña in the rowing boat. The Niña spent the rest of the night using whatever wind there was to stay away from shallow water. At dawn, the small boat set out for the shore with Diego de Arana, of Cordoba, Alguacil of the fleet, and Pedro Gutierrez, "repostero" of the Royal House, to find the Cacique who had invited Columbus to bring his ships to his harbour the previous Saturday.

When the Spanish dignitaries explained what had happened to the Cacique he wept. Within an hour he had organised the people of the village to take “many large canoes” and help Columbus unload the Maria and salvage whatever they could. In his log Columbus says that they unloaded the Maria with great assiduity and ensured that whatever was unloaded and carried to the shore was done so without pilfering. The Cacique set aside several houses in which to store any valuables and placed guards around them at night. The whole village was openly distraught at the plight of the Spanish. Columbus is moved enough to write in the notes that he intends to show Queen Isabel and King Fernando that:

“They are an affectionate people and free from avarice and agreeable in everything, and I certify to your Highnesses that in all the world I do not believe there is a better people or a better country: they love their neighbours as themselves and they have the softest and gentlest speech in the world and are always laughing. They go naked, men and women, as their mothers gave them birth. But your Highnesses may believe that they have very good customs among themselves and the King maintains a most wonderful state, and everything takes place in such an appropriate and well-ordered manner that it is a pleasure to see it all.”

Natives began to arrive in their canoes from further up the coast bringing gold, which they were more than willing to trade for hawk’s bells. The Cacique invited Columbus to eat with him, and he writes that he was very impressed with the king’s table manners and cleanliness, and that after eating they rubbed their hands with certain leaves to clean them. Columbus gave the king a shirt and gloves which impressed him so much that he wore them continuously, and after the meal Columbus gave a display of a Turkish bow and arrow that he had ordered brought form the Niña. The natives had no knowledge of the weapon, and were impressed with the iron arrowhead. Columbus was quick to note that they had never seen iron or copper before, and the steel of their swords was a source of constant amazement. 

Painting: Alan Pearson.

It was obvious to all that they could not all go back to Spain on the Niña, and Columbus ordered that the Maria be cut up to build a stockade near the native village where he can store the weapons and cannons so that they don’t fall into the hands of the natives. Half the crew of the Santa Maria dismembered their ship and floated all the timber to the beach. They left the hull where it was, but everything else was brought ashore where the other half of the crew were building the stockade which Columbus named Fort Navidad. He writes: “And it is quite true that many of the people who are here have begged me that I would give them permission to remain. Now I have ordered a tower and fortress constructed and all in a very good manner and a large cellar.”

But in in his private log, Columbus bleakly writes:

“Had it not been for the treachery of the Master and of the people, who were all or most of them from his country, in not wishing to cast the anchor at the stern to draw the ship off as the Admiral ordered them to do, that the ship would have been saved.” He continues, “And the taking of such a ship he says was due to the people of Palos, who did not fulfil what the King and Queen had promised him, that is that he should he given ships suitable for that journey, and they did not do it.”

He discharges his culpability in the loss of the Santa Maria with the words “of all there was in the ship not a leather strap was lost, nor a board nor a nail, because the ship remained as sound as when she started except that she was chopped and split some in order to take out the butts and all the merchandise.”

But the real problem was still there in the form of a crew that constantly disobeyed his orders, and a little later in his diary he fumes: “I will not suffer the deeds of evil-disposed persons, with little worth, who, without respect for him to whom they owe their positions, presume to set up their own wills with little ceremony.”

Much of the cargo that he wanted to take back to Castile had been loaded onto the Niña, and now he had to choose who was to be left behind. The only blessing that Columbus could count on was the generosity of the natives in helping him deal with the loss of his flagship. They had promised to “cover him in gold” before his departure.

But gold is the colour of greed and treachery. Facing him now was the very frightening prospect of crossing the Atlantic with a mutinous crew who knew where the New World and its gold was, could speak its language and did not need this jumped-up “Admiral of the Ocean” to take all the glory.

Like 1        Published at 10:55 AM   Comments (0)

Too good to be true
Friday, December 3, 2021

With the Pinta gone gold hunting alone, Columbus had to spend a frustrating two days at anchor whilst the wind was against them. The wind finally came round to a more favourable direction, and after sailing down the coast of Cuba, Columbus crossed the Windward Passage to the island now known as of Hispaniola. For the Santa Maria the passage was slow, but Vicente Yáñez Pinzón on the Niña was making good speed and went ahead to look for a safe harbour before night fell.  Vicente showed a light so that Columbus could follow, but the admiral was unsure and decided to wait until daylight before he entered the harbour.

 Map; XavierPastor

On 6 December the Santa Maria anchored in what turned out to be an excellent natural harbour which he named Puerto Maria. There were several smaller neighbouring islands, and that night on an island to the east, which he had named Tortuga, he saw campfires and the next day columns of smoke. The natives with him said that they called this larger island Bohio. There were no signs of natives here and so he decided to sail further along the coast, and over the next couple of days the crews on both ships caught some of the abundant fish to supplement their meagre rations.   

He called the new island Española, and though the natives had fled, there was plenty of evidence of their existence. During the night they had seen fires and the sharp eyed among the crew had seen what looked like watch towers on high points of the island. The natives were still elusive, but the crews caught glimpses of them as they abandoned their canoes on the beach and fled into the forests.

During the 10th and 11th the skies were grey and the wind blew from the north-east, causing the small ships to drag their anchors. With no more exploring by sea possible, Columbus ordered six well-armed men to go ashore and see if they could make contact with the natives. They returned with descriptions of wide tracks, but just a few wooden huts. The natives on his ships were becoming more insistent that they wanted to be returned home and set free. They told Columbus that these islands were inhabited by cannibals because when they captured people they were never seen again. Columbus took this to mean that a superior powerful empire had been conducting slaving raids on these peaceful, hapless people. This empire could only be the Great Khan of China.

His mind was now focused on finding the source of the gold that he had seen the natives use for trinkets. Gold had been his promise to Isabel and Ferdinand, and no amount of spices would make up for the lack of it.

The wind was still holding them at anchor on the 12th and Columbus once again ordered armed men ashore to try to find indigenous natives, but this time he sent some of his captured natives with them. His men planted a wooden cross on the rocky shore and struck off inland. Before long they found a village, but the natives fled and only one young, beautiful, girl was left behind. Columbus’ natives talked to her and brought her back to the ship where she was given clothes and food and sat with the other native women, who convinced her that the Spaniards were not bad people. Columbus allowed her to return to the shore and sent three men with her. They returned after midnight saying that they had travelled several leagues inland and were afraid to accompany her any further. The next morning he sent nine more armed men and a native to follow the route taken by the girl.

The found a wide valley which had been cultivated and a village of possibly three thousand people, but totally deserted. After calling to them their native managed to persuade some to come out of hiding. After more calming words, and seeing that the Spanish were not hostile, the natives flooded back to the village. Columbus writes that many of the natives were shaking with fear as they returned to their houses. Once it was clear that the Spaniards meant no harm they showered them with presents. Despite all the shows of friendliness, the Spaniards saw no gold ornaments or jewellery.

The two ships crossed to the island of Tortuga, but the contrary wind kept them from landing. They saw houses, but the natives there, too, had fled, and so they returned to Española. Over the next few days they made several trips to Tortuga with little success and were forced to return to Española where they had made friendly contact with the natives. On the 16th they came across a native alone in a canoe crossing the straits in heavy weather and took him and his canoe aboard. They landed him on Española close to a village and allowed him to paddle ashore.

Picture; Alan Pearson.

Within hours around 500 natives had filled the beach, and they paddled out to the anchored ships in their canoes. They brought no gifts, but the Spanish crewmen noted that they had gold piercings in their ears and noses. Columbus ordered that the natives were to be treated honourably and not exploited for their gold jewellery. Shortly afterwards, their king appeared on the beach, a young man of about twenty years, who was surrounded by councillors and advisors. One of Columbus’ natives spoke with him and explained that the Spaniards had come from heaven and were in search of gold.

He told the king that they were going to the island of Beneque where they had been led to believe there was much gold. The king wished them well and offered his help, but Columbus later wrote that when he told him that he served a higher king and queen in Spain, the king was under the impression that they were in heaven and not of this world. Columbus thought it best not to press this point. He writes later that the natives were so naïve and placid that they would be easy to subjugate and convert to Christianity, which was one of Isabel’s conditions for funding the voyage.

Now all he needed was the gold.

Some of his crewman were becoming fluent in the native language, and he sent them to trade with the Indians for their gold. They met with a man called Cacique, whom they took to be of some standing in the area. He was offered glass beads for a piece of beaten gold as large as a hand, and when they had agreed the deal, the Spaniards asked if he had any more gold. Cacique told them that he would return the next day with more of the metal. But the next day, instead of gold, Cacique brought 40 men, and put on a show of his displeasure. Columbus made signs to placate Cacique and finally the men that he had brought climbed into their canoe and left. After this strange turn of events Columbus felt that there was no more gold to be had on Española or Tortuga and decided to press on to Beneque. He had been told that the island was four days’ journey by canoe, which he estimated to be 30 or 40 leagues, a distance that his ships could cover in a single day with favourable winds.

However, the next day the wind was not very favourable at all, and either dropped or was against them. The ships were anchored some distance from the beach, and Columbus was still hoping that Cacique would bring more gold. He had sent some men inland to scout, and he was eating in the forecastle when they returned. The brought with them the king, who was carried on a litter and accompanied by around 200 villagers. The king came aboard, and when he saw that Columbus was eating, he promptly sat at the table with him and the Admiral offered him some of his food. Many of the villagers scrambled over the side and swarmed over the decks marvelling at the strange ship and its crew, who were becoming alarmed. When the king saw this, he ordered them all ashore again except for two older advisors who sat at the king’s feet. Columbus ordered food to be brought for them all. The king left just before nightfall and was carried in his litter up the beach into the forest.

Over the next few days, wind permitting, they sailed along the coast and wherever they stopped they were greeted by natives, who after initial trepidation, offered them food and gifts. There was little gold to trade, but whenever they could trade it for trinkets they did, and some of Columbus’ men were getting greedy. He ordered them to always give the natives good payment for their gold, after all, they were only giving them worthless trinkets. Word of the Spaniards love of gold had spread before them as they moved from bay to bay along the coast, and the natives came from further afield in their canoes and followed the ships.  By now they had realised that the name Cacique meant king or dignitary, and was a title. By 24 December Columbus had been invited to meet other Caciques further along the coast, always with the promise of gold. Apart from the disappearance of the Pinta, things were going extremely well.


Like 0        Published at 10:00 AM   Comments (2)

Making friends, and enemies.
Friday, November 26, 2021

While Columbus was planting the symbolic flag of Castile and Aragon in the sand and giving his speech, the natives had come out of the forest and onto the beach to see what these strange men were doing. Totally naked, but wearing rings, bracelets, anklets and necklaces they surrounded the solemn group of Spaniards.  Columbus’ crews watched them warily, but were not concerned; none of the natives were armed, and they were. However, the crew and visiting dignitaries noted that some of the baubles that the natives were wearing were made from gold. With the formalities over, Columbus ordered the distribution of brightly coloured caps and beads to the natives, which in his own words were “Of slight value, but in which they took great pleasure.”

 One of two flags used by Colunbus to claim the islands for Isabel and Ferdinand.

Columbus described the natives in his log. “They were very well built with very handsome bodies, and very good faces. Their hair was almost as coarse as horses' tails and short, and they wear it over the eyebrows, except a small quantity behind, which they wear long and never cut. Some paint themselves blackish, and they are of the colour of the inhabitants of the Canaries, neither black nor white, and some paint themselves white, some red, some whatever colour they find: and some paint their faces, some all the body, some only the eyes, and some only the nose. They do not carry arms nor know what they are, because I showed them swords and they took them by the edge and ignorantly cut themselves. They have no iron: their spears are sticks without iron, and some of them have a fish's tooth at the end and others have other things.”

Using sign language and a few learned words, Columbus ascertained that the natives called the island Guanahan, which was probably one of the Plana Cays islands in the Bahamas. He was still of the opinion that he had landed on islands to the east of Cipango, (Portuguese for Japan) and he noted this in his log. Convinced that he must continue sailing westwards to find China, (The log showed later amendments replacing Japan with Cathay, or China.) he began questioning the natives about nearby islands.  He especially wanted to know the source of the gold in their jewellery. With a number of native guides on board he took his small fleet further westwards and called at other islands giving each of them names in honour of Spain. (Santa Maria de la Concepción, Fernandina, and Isabela.) The three ships finally landed at Bariay Bay, Cuba on October 28. Columbus named the island Juana and began exploring the coastline.

Each time the three ships passed a settlement, the natives paddled their canoes out to greet the newcomers to invite them to see their villages. Columbus wrote that they were friendly and helpful and lived in a pyramidal tribal structure with village chiefs who acted as arbiter for disputes. By 5th November Columbus’ men had collected samples of spices which would fetch a good price in European markets. Columbus was pleased with the spices, but he had had never forgotten that it was his promise of gold that had persuaded Isabel and Ferdinand to support him, and he questioned the natives relentlessly about the source of their gold jewellery. He was told that the gold came from a nearby island called Babeque.

On the 6th, they were invited to a feast in a mountain village of 50 houses, which Columbus estimated had a population of 1000. As the Spaniards learned more of the language, they realised that the natives thought the Spanish were from heaven. They were shown around the village and invited into the houses, where they noted that the wooden furniture was often elaborately carved in the shape of animals, but with eyes and ears fashioned in gold.

It was here that the Spanish were invited to smoke tobacco for the first time, and they packed a sample the aromatic leaves in with the large amount of spices they had collected. They knew that the spices were expensive in Spain, and would be of interest to the traders. The tobacco leaves were an afterthought because they had no obvious value. (Of course, tobacco spread throughout Europe and Asia and gave pleasure to millions, but in hindsight, probably brought early death to millions.)

The Hold of the Santa Maria. Museo Maritim Barcelona.

What immediately caught the attention of the sailors were the hammocks that the natives slept in. For the natives, the hammocks were essential because they raised the sleeper off the ground where insects and poisonous snakes were a constant danger. For the sailors who slept in tiered bunks they were a revelation. To be rolled out of the top bunk in heavy weather often meant broken bones, but here was a bed that swung with the movement of the ship and left the occupant undisturbed. Even during relatively calm weather, anybody who has tried to sleep in a wooden bunk on a ship that rolls and pitches will testify that it is misery.  Trading was brisk in hammocks, and when the three ships returned to Spain, many of the crew would spend their rest-time sleeping soundly in their hammocks. This astoundingly simple idea spread throughout every navy, and was probably the only thing from Columbus’ voyage that would benefit sailors everywhere who were about to face much longer voyages of trade and exploration.

Above: The gun deck of the Santa Maria where many of the sialors would have slept. Museo Maritim Barcelona.

By 1590, hammocks had been almost universally adopted for use in sailing ships; the Royal Navy formally adopted the sling hammock in 1597 when it ordered three hundred bolts of canvas for "hanging cabbons or beddes”. Aboard ship, hammocks were regularly employed for sailors sleeping on the gun decks of warships, where limited space prevented the installation of permanent bunks.

Columbus gave orders to encourage some of the natives to come on board his ships with the intention of using them as guides to help navigate amongst the islands, but with a longer term plan to take some of them back to Spain to show the king and queen. With natives on each ship, the little fleet sailed north-east along the coast of Cuba. Columbus was still convinced that he was off the Chinese mainland and was determined to present himself to the Great Kahn in Cathay. The wind was against the fleet and they made little headway before returning to a river that the admiral had called Rio de Mares. By now many of the natives were becoming wary of the Spaniards’ motives in keeping them aboard their ships. He sent parties ashore, but the natives of the villages had abandoned their villages and fled, and he ordered his men not to take anything and leave the villages untouched.

Finally, a canoe with six youths approached the Santa Maria and five of them came aboard. Columbus immediately ordered them to be restrained. He sent men out to search for natives, and they returned with seven captured women and three children. Later on that evening, the father of the children and husband of one of the women came to ask to be reunited with his family and Columbus kept them all together. In his log he writes that he was pleased that the natives had decided to stay and that he would present them to the king and queen, but it had become clear to the natives that they were prisoners not guests. Finally, Columbus decided that he had enough spices to tempt the European traders, and gave orders to prepare for the voyage to Babeque to find the source of the gold.

The captain of the Pinta, Martin Alonso Pinzón, had fallen out with Columbus on several occasions before and during the voyage, and now he had natives aboard who told him that they could take him to the island of Babeque and show him where the gold was mined. They must have told Pinzón much more than they told Columbus, because Pinzón secretly hatched his plan to go gold hunting alone.

On 21 November, as the fleet prepared to sail to Babeque, Pinzón had a blazing row with Columbus, and when the ships left the coast of Cuba, the Pinta, being the fastest ship in the fleet, pulled away into the lead. The log shows that the ships made several course changes in open water before the Santa Maria and Niña returned to the coast of Cuba whilst the Pinta went off alone. Columbus was furious, but adverse winds kept the remainder of his fleet at anchor off the coast of Cuba. The lure of fame and fortune was beginning to erode the discipline of the small fleet, and it was only going to get worse as the voyage continued.

Log extracts show the confused courses plotted just before the Pinta left the other two ships. Map: Keith Pickering.

After Martin Alonzo Pinzón pressed on with his own search for gold in the Pinta and leave the other ships behind, Columbus changed course to the south-east. The Santa Maria and Niña held this course through the night, but in the morning they discovered that they had made little progress. The wind and adverse currents had been against them. Columbus rightly guessed that Pinzón in the Pinta had also made little progress, so he ordered that the next night he would show a light so that Pinzón could return. Whether Pinzón never saw the beacon or chose to ignore it is not known, but the next morning with the wind against him, and with no sign of the Pinta, Columbus ordered his ships to turn back to the coast. When they landed, the Indians fled and would make no contact. His men found cultivated fields and a canoe made from a single tree that was easily capable of crossing between the islands, but not a single native was to be found.

With the wind against them, the two ships dropped anchor and sheltered in the mouth of a river. Everybody was impressed with the variety of trees and grasses, many of which they recognised as the same as in Spain, but on every foray inland, the natives eluded them. The natives that he had on board as guides were pleading to be allowed to be returned to their homes and families and they warned Columbus that the natives on this new coast were dangerous, and that he should not try to deal with them. But Columbus had not come this far to be deterred by unarmed savages. From what he had seen so far, they were the most docile and friendly of people, once you gained their trust. He had yet to see the natives carrying any kind of weapon that would be a threat to musket, sword and cannon.


Like 2        Published at 10:32 AM   Comments (3)

A sea of lies
Friday, November 19, 2021

Even though he had made huge navigational mistakes and entirely missed the significance of Viking legends, Columbus did get one thing right.  Traders who had plied sea routes in the open Atlantic were aware of the wind patterns of that ocean. From the Canaries, the prevailing winds are easterlies. These winds would quickly take the Columbus fleet far out into the Atlantic. But the terrifying thought for crews on Columbus’ little boats was that on the return voyage the wind would be against them.

The only way for his ships to sail against a prevailing wind was by tacking, which involved arduous zig-zagging and changing the set of the sails at the end of every leg. Modern yachts are fore-and-aft rigged, and can sail to within 45 degrees of a headwind, but square rigged sailing boats could only achieve a fraction of this. The boats that he had were all square rigged. He had changed the Lateen rigged sails of the Niña to square rigged because he had a good idea that he would not need to tack so much, and square rigged boats would make better speed with a following wind. Columbus’ secret weapon was that he knew that if he navigated to the North Atlantic, where the prevailing winds were from the west, they would carry him home to Northern Spain. Only a decade later, when crossing the Atlantic became commonplace, these circulatory winds would be known as the trade winds. But when Columbus sailed they were relatively unknown. 

Columbus’ fleet made good progress, and after four weeks of sailing were beginning to enter truly unknown waters now, and the worst fear for any mariner is to come upon shallow water or a rocky shore in the night or in a storm.  Some of the crew were beginning to question the wisdom of letting the prevailing wind drive them into hazardous waters. Mutiny, never far from the crew’s minds, was beginning to show itself.

Columbus had kept two charts from the beginning of the voyage; one to show the crew, and one showing their real position. After each day’s progress he noted the distance covered in the real log but wrote a lesser distance in the log for the crew to see. He did not want them to see how far from home they really were. Columbus made a display of taking readings with his quadrant and was happy to reassure the crew by explaining his navigation. He of course had a magnetic compass, although during the voyage, Columbus noted a magnetic deviation of 11.25 degrees west; the first time that this phenomena had been seen. Sighting the Pole Star through the quadrant would give his latitude above the equator. This was important. He did not want to stray too far south and miss China, which was at the same latitude as his starting point of the Canary Islands. He could stray north, which would bring him to Japan at the same latitude as mainland Spain. Staying between these two parallels was essential.

Map of Columbus' course taken from his logs. Map from The Ships of Christopher Columbus by Xavier Pastor.

He had kept a log of speed by dropping a wooden float on a rope which had knots tied in it at measured distances. By counting the knots reeled out as the float passed a mark on the ship’s stern they knew their approximate speed. Last of all, the job of the cabin boy was to turn the hourglass in the Captain’s cabin and note the hours in the log. With these four pieces of information Columbus could navigate by what is now called “dead reckoning,” and he was first among sailors of the time to keep a complete record of all his calculations. It’s from these logs we can chart his progress today. On this first voyage westbound, Columbus stuck to his (magnetic) westward course for weeks at a time, and only departed from it three times; once because of contrary winds, and twice to chase false signs of land southwest.

Celestial navigation was just being developed by the Portuguese, and Columbus tried his hand at tracking his position using sightings of the stars. On his first voyage he made at least five separate attempts to measure his latitude using celestial methods. Not one of these attempts was successful, sometimes because of bad luck, and sometimes because of Columbus’ own ignorance of celestial navigation.

By the first of October, Columbus records that his “pilot”, who could only be Juan de la Cosa, had begun to question his records of the distance covered. After a rainstorm that lasted most of the day Columbus was challenged about his log entries. Remember that Juan was an accomplished cartographer and navigator, and was watching everything that Columbus did. Juan claimed that the fleet had covered more distance than the admiral was recording. He was right; Columbus made a show of displaying his charts showing that the fleet had covered 584 (2016 miles.) leagues since leaving the Canaries, but his own secret log records 707 leagues (2440 miles).

Nevertheless, the crews on all three ships were unhappy, afraid, and ready to mutiny. The mood lightened considerably when after 29 days out of sight of land, on October 7, 1492, the sailors spotted “immense flocks of birds" and Columbus changed course to follow their flight. Several of the birds were trapped by the crew who determined that they were land birds. (Probably American golden plovers) The following day brought more unrest from the crews and the admiral was forced to placate them with promises of fabulous wealth to come. On 11 October, Columbus changed the fleet’s course to due west, and pressed on through the night, believing land was soon to be found.

Queen Isabel had promised the prize of an annuity of 10,000 maravedís to whoever should be first to see land, and La Pinta, being the fastest boat of the three, forged ahead hoping to collect the reward. At two in the morning, a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana (also known as Juan Rodríguez Bermejo) yelled that he had sighted land. La Pinta’s captain, Martín Alonso Pinzón, verified the land sighting and alerted Columbus by firing a lombard. (A small cannon.)

Meanwhile, on the Santa Maria, Columbus’ log shows that four hours earlier, at 10pm the previous evening, the Admiral had seen a light "like a little wax candle rising and falling" and called Pedro Gutierrez Groom, who had served in the court of King Ferdinand, to confirm the sighting. He also asked Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia, whom the King and Queen sent with the fleet as Inspector, to verify what they had seen. Their opinions differed, so Columbus called the crew together to say the Salve and ordered a special watch to look for land from stern forecastle. When the call came from La Pinta a few hours later, Columbus ordered the furling of sails and the fleet stood off until daylight.

Landfall map by Keith Pickering.

(Modern sailors have tested Columbus’ claim by taking a boat to the position where he noted that he saw the light, whilst others lit a fire on the highest point of Plana Cays, the modern name of the island. True enough, the fire could be seen in the night, but it still does not prove that Columbus did not fiddle the log. However, you have to remember that Columbus’ son had possession of his father’s logs long after his death, and he may have removed or added parts. For instance, there is hardly any mention of Juan de la Cosa, the man closest to Columbus during the voyage, and the rightful captain of the Santa Maria. It is only after the voyage the captain’s true significance was revealed.

On the morning of Friday October 12, the three ships cautiously approached the shore. The lookouts saw natives on the beach and in the forest along the shore, and Columbus ordered that the men who could use them be issued with swords and firearms.

Columbus had a speech prepared for the respected witnesses supplied by the Queen and King of Hispania who were on hand to record the event. The captains of the Pinta and Niña, Alonso Pinzon and Vincente Yafiez boarded the dory carrying the royal banner, a green cross on white background with the letters F and Y surmounted by the crown of each kingdom in the upper quarters of the standard. They were accompanied by Rodrigo Descoredo, Notary of all the Fleet, and Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia with a handful of armed soldiers.


A woodcut of the landing by Theodor de Brey.

Once upon the sand, Columbus fell to his knees and thanked God for a safe arrival and a successful voyage. When he had regained his composure, he called the witnesses to him and gave his carefully prepared speech in which he claimed to all that he was taking possession of these islands in the name of the king and queen. The witnesses solemnly gave their testimony and duly recorded it in their own personal diaries to show the king and queen upon their return to Spain. All the years of planning and doubt had vanished when he stood upon the sand of that island. He had earned his title of Admiral of the Oceans, but in reality his troubles were just beginning. Not least of which were the dozens of naked savages who had silently walked from the surrounding jungle and now surrounded them.


Like 1        Published at 8:23 AM   Comments (1)

The suicide voyage
Friday, November 12, 2021

In early May 1492, Columbus, a newly appointed admiral in the Royal Spanish Navy, showed up at the port of Palos under orders to conduct an expedition westward looking for a route to the Indies. He had with him letters of introduction signed by Queen Isabel of Castile which instructed the port authorities to impress a squadron of three caravels with supplies and crews who thereafter would serve in the navy at regular seaman’s pay. Two of the caravels were to be selected by the port authorities, but the flagship and its captain were to be selected by Columbus.

The sailors of Palos knew about Columbus’ insane mission and wanted none of it. The orders given to Columbus by Queen Isabel stated that he should be given “every assistance” to organise his ships and crews. Isabel even set a time limit upon how long it should take. She allowed the authorities ten days to comply. Ten weeks after he arrived, Columbus was still not ready to sail. He did not have time or money to browse the nearby ports to select ships, and was obliged to accept whatever they gave him. Eventually, the port authorities impressed the Niña and the Pinta, quite small caravels with a single deck each.


Photo Niña: Museo Maritim,  Barcelona. Shown here before her lateen rigged sails were changed to square rig.

It was customary in those days to name your ship after a saint, and the Niña was actually called the Santa Clara; Niña was a pun on the name of the owner, Juan Niño de Moguer. On Columbus' first expedition, the Niña carried a crew of 26 and was captained by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón.

Photo:  Pinta,  Museo Maritim,  Barcelona.

Martín Alonso Pinzón, brother of Vicente, captained the Pinta, and both were respected and well known captains from Moguer in Andalucia. Columbus now had to choose a flagship for his little fleet and find a captain willing to command it. This simple task would not be easy. The crews of all the ships were officially volunteers, but none of them wanted to sail on this voyage, and they showed it with non-cooperation and complaints before they had even left port. Their problem was that Columbus reported to the queen, and in effect had absolute power over all.

Exploration in the late 15th century was in the hands of a small class of veteran mariners who knew each other and shared information on navigation and were constantly updating their charts. Mariners who found new islands or ports made their own hand-drawn charts called portolan charts. Whenever a mariner returned from a voyage, he checked in at the office of the chief navigator, who would be a captain or other officer, to add his portolan charts and see what was new on the Mappa Mundi, the world chart that was constantly being updated by professional cartographers. One such office was in Puerto Santa Maria near Cádiz, and it was overseen by Juan de la Cosa.

It was while Columbus was looking around for a ship and a captain for his perilous voyage that he met Juan de la Cosa, who was visiting Palos at the time. Juan had his own ship, a nao called the Santa Maria, which was not exactly what Columbus was looking for, being slower and broader on the beam than the other two ships, but it came with a captain with impeccable credentials. The origins of Juan de la Cosa are obscure and confusing. It seems that he was originally from Galicia, and the high proportion of Galicians in the crew of the Santa Maria would support this, but in later correspondence with the crown over payment for his crew and the loss of the Santa Maria, he is recorded as a vecino of Santa Maria del Puerto, which is not the same El Puerto Santa Maria across the bay from Cádiz.

Photo Santa Maria.  This is the 1927 replica near Huelva as reconstructed by Guillén. Photo: The Manuel Ripoll collection.

Columbus wasted no time in recruiting Juan and his ship. His expertise as a captain was beyond question, but it was his navigation and map-making skills that set him apart from other captains. If new lands were discovered he would need Juan’s skills to record them as evidence to present to the queen.  As an admiral, Columbus would not actually do any sailing. The protocol, which went back to Roman times, was that the admiral commanded the fleet, but individual captains were in command of their own ships. The relationship between Columbus and Juan de la Cosa became strained from the start because Columbus constantly interfered with Cosa’s orders, and this would lead to problems later on. Finally, with his ships loaded, Columbus left Palos de la Frontera on 2 August 1492 and sailed down the Rio Odiel on the ebb tide to the Saltes sandbar. They anchored there for the night, and at 8 o’clock the following morning, with a favourable tide behind them, they set course for the Canary Islands.

The passage to the Canaries took six days, and by before they reached the coast of Africa the Pinta required jury-rigged repairs to her rudder. In his voyage notes, Columbus wrote that he suspected sabotage by its owners, Gomes Rascon and Cristo hal Quintero, who were unhappy that their boat had been requisitioned against their wishes. These two had already been stirring up trouble in Palos before the fleet had left. However, the admiral had every confidence in the Pinta’s captain Martin Alonso Pinzón whom he spoke of as “a brave and intelligent person.” Nevertheless, as the short voyage progressed, the hull of the Pinta began to leak and Columbus had serious doubts as to whether the boat was capable of an Atlantic crossing.

It became clear that they would have to stop at the Canaries and either make lasting repairs or hire another boat. They sailed to Gran Canaria and the port of Las Palmas, where the Pinta left the other two ships and docked at the small port of Gando which had facilities to repair the Pinta’s rudder. Meanwhile, the Santa Maria and Niña continued on to Gomera where Columbus ordered the conversion of the Niña’s lateen rigged sails to square sails which would be better for open-ocean travel. Both ships then returned to Gran Canaria to join the Pinta, whose rudder had now been repaired and her hull caulked.

 Drawings courtesy of Xavier Pastor from his book The Ships of Christopher Columbus.

The united fleet sailed the 90 miles to Gomera, where they docked and took aboard final provisions for the voyage. It was whilst he was in the harbour at Gomera that a caravel arrived from Hierro bringing the news that three Portuguese caravels were patrolling the islands looking for Columbus' fleet. Because he had heard that Isabel had funded his voyage, the jealous and avaricious King of Portugal had ordered their capture, no doubt to offer Columbus a different contract of employment, or incarceration.. With no time to waste, before sunrise on the morning of 6 September, all the crews heard Mass together, and as the sun was rising, they left Gomera going west. To add to Columbus’ disquiet, the wind immediately dropped, and the fleet was becalmed in sight of Gomera and began drifting towards Tenerife on the current. It must have been an unnerving afternoon, because Mt. Teide had been erupting pretty much constantly during their stay, and there was nothing that they could do to halt their drift towards the volcano. At three in the morning of the 8th, the wind freshened from the northeast and brought with it a heavy sea, and the little fleet finally began to make slow headway to the west.

The first and subsequent voyages of Columbus are considered as, to quote a much later adventurer, “a giant leap for mankind.”  There have been several events to celebrate the voyage. The first was in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of the first crossing.

A full-size replica of the Santa Maria was built by La Carraca shipyards in Cádiz under the direction of a Commission presided over by Captain Cesáreo Fernández-Duro. There were no plans of the original Santa Maria, and the builders only had Columbus’ notes to work from, but the Santa Maria was a nao, which was a very common type of vessel in use at the time.

The plan was to sail her to the World Trade Fair at Chicago, and when finished, she was towed to Palos de Moguer and symbolically left port on 3 August (The same date that Columbus sailed on.) escorted by two lines of warships from different nations.  Unfortunately, it was found that there were errors in her design that would make an Atlantic crossing dangerous, and she was towed back to Cadiz for alterations. Finally, on 10 February 1893, she set sail for the Canaries, where she stopped at several ports before leaving Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the 22nd bound for America. She reached San Juan de Puerto Rico on the 30 March after thirty-six days of sailing. (One day less than Columbus took.) From there she sailed to New York, Quebec, Montreal, Charlotte and Toronto, finally reaching Chicago on 17 July 1893.

It was 1927 before another attempt was made to construct a replica of the Santa Maria. During the intervening years since the first one had been constructed, Julio Guillén, a Lieutenant in the Spanish Navy, had published a book named La Carabela Santa Maria. He had researched the old records and proposed that the Santa Maria had been a carabela de armada and not a nao. The 1892 replica had been a hybrid of the two different types of vessel and whilst each type had proven to be seaworthy, mixing the two types of design had caused problems. The construction of a new replica was begun in the Echevarrieta shipyard in Cádiz. The new Santa Maria was exhibited at the Exposicion Iberoamericana de Seville in 1927 and was later anchored off the monastery of la Rabida in Huelva. Sadly, in 1945 she was being towed from Valencia to Cartagena for repairs when she sank. Guillén was later to become Director of the Naval Museum in Madrid and a member of the Academia de la Historia, during which time he wrote several books on naval history.

The most bizarre episode concerning Columbus’ voyage began when José Martinez Hidalgo y Terán, a Commander in the Spanish Navy, and Director of the Museo Maritim de Barcelona for 20 years, asserted that the Santa Maria was a nao, and his meticulous research led to the construction of another replica to be exhibited at the New York World Fair of 1964/5. She was built by the Astilleros Cardona, and when completed, was loaded onto the German freighter Niedenfield in Barcelona.  The Niedenfield took her to Mench’s Boulevard, Flushing, where the 80 ton ship was loaded onto a road transporter and driven the three miles to the exhibition site.  This involved the transporter with its 90 ft. long load passing through the Queens District of New York. Escorted by a flotilla of police cars and with technicians taking down telephone wires and cutting back trees along the route, the Santa Maria was finally lowered into Meadow Lake, where she was moored for the exhibition.

Lastly, in 1992 construction began of replicas of all three ships which then sailed together along the route that Columbus took. They are now displayed in the Muelle de las Carabelas (Wharf of the Caravels) in Huelva. (Another place that I am going to visit post Covid.)  

Like 1        Published at 10:05 AM   Comments (4)

The big mistake
Friday, October 29, 2021

Columbus was 41 when he was granted the funding to find a route to the orient, though he had spent about ten years touting his theory to every monarch and financial backer in Europe. He was experienced in sailing and navigation and was a member of a small group of sailors who had explored the oceans. He was born in 1451 in Genoa, and initially spoke a dialect of Ligurian as his first language, though he never used it in any of his later documents or letters. His father was Domenico Colombo, a wool weaver, who worked both in Genoa and Savona and his mother was Susanna Fontanarossa. He had three brothers: Bartolomeo, Giovanni and Giacomo, as well as a sister named Bianchinetta.

In 1470, the Columbus family moved to Savona, on the coast to the west of Genoa, where his father took over a tavern.  The same year, Christopher, aged 17, sailed on a Genoese ship hired in the service of René of Anjou to support his attempt to conquer the Kingdom of Naples. Three years later, he began his training as business agent for the important Centurione, Di Negro and Spinola families of Genoa, and in May 1476  young Columbus took part in an armed convoy sent by Genoa to carry valuable cargo to northern Europe. He probably docked in Bristol, England, and Galway, Ireland. He boasted in his diaries much later that he visited Iceland in 1477, but what is known for sure is that he arrived in Lisbon that same year to join his brother Bartolomeo who worked in a cartography office. 

It was in Lisbon that he set up home and married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, daughter of the governor of Porto Santo. Two years later, his first son, Diego Columbus, was born.  Christopher was not an academic, yet he learned to read and write in Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian. His reading covered books about astronomy, geography and history and included an impressive list of authors:  most of the scientific writings and maps of Claudius Ptolemy, Pliny’s Natural History, Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly’s Imago Mundi, Pope Pius II’s Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum, The travels of Marco Polo, and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. We know this because his books were preserved and handed down and we can read the copious notes that Columbus wrote in the margins.

Columbus' notes in the book by Marco Polo.

This was a difficult time for traders like Columbus. The Mongol Turks had allowed the free passage of trade goods overland via the Silk Road for centuries, but when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, the land route to Asia was closed to Christian traders, and Portuguese navigators tried to find a sea route to Asia.


As early as 1470 the Florentine astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli suggested to King Afonso V of Portugal that sailing west across the Atlantic would be a quicker way to reach the Spice Islands, Cathay (Cina), and Cipangu (Japan) than the route around Africa, but King Afonso rejected his idea.

Columbus and his brother learned of this and made some enquiries which led to Toscanelli sending the Columbus brothers a map in 1481 showing that a westward route to Asia was possible. In the meantime, however, the king encouraged mariners to find another route to Asia by going south, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and passing into the Indian Ocean. In 1488, this is exactly what another navigator, Bartolomeu Dias, did. This took the wind out of the Columbus boys’ sails.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Columbus was employed as a trader, and he was obliged to spend months away at sea. Much of Portugal’s trade was with Africa, and he traded along the Guinea Coast from the trading station of Elmina. Sometime before 1484 he called at Porto Santo in the Madeira Islands where he learned that his wife had died, and that he must return home to take care of his son. With his wife’s estate settled, Columbus and his son left for Córdoba, a  centre for many of the Genoese traders and the city where Isabel and Ferdinand has set up their campaign headquarters for the war against the Caliphate of Granada. It was here that he met a 20-year old orphan named Beatriz Enríquez de Arana and took her as his mistress in 1487. The next year, Beatriz gave birth to a son by Columbus, whom they called Fernando, after the King of Aragon.

When King Afonso of Portugal turned down Columbus’ offer to find a new route to Asia across the Atlantic Ocean he had consulted some of the best cartographers and sailors of the time, who in turn had studied maps made by the best thinkers and most learned men of antiquity.  

Around 250 BC Eratosthenes had calculated the diameter of the earth with his famous experiment measuring the shadow of a pole of a given length in two different places. He obtained a figure of 252,000 stadia, or 24,662 miles. (actual 24,902 miles.)  Five hundred years later, Ptolemy, the author of the Almagest star chart, and giant amongst the philosopher/scientists of antiquity, had drawn a map of the known world. He estimated that the entire Eurasian continent from Portugal to the Chinese coast spanned 180 degrees of longitude. This map had been part of a three volume encyclopaedia on geography which had been translated from Greek into Arabic sometime in the ninth century. The books disappeared in time, but the map was copied by Byzantine monks and published in 1295. The map had been widely reproduced in 1486 and was available to European mariners, whose voyages were filling in the blank spaces around the edges. The most important aspect about the chart was that, as with star charts, he had drawn in meridians which were the first attempt at using latitude and longitude. (Ptolemy was the chief librarian at the library of Alexandria and had access to written information going back centuries.)

Ptolomy's Mapa del Mundo: photo: Francesco di Antonio del Chierico. 

If Eratosthene’s circumference for the earth is divided by 360, this will give the length of one degree of longitude at the equator. According to Ptolemy, the whole Eurasian continent spanned 180 degrees, that left another 180 degrees of empty ocean unaccounted for. This means that the distance from Portugal to China going west was 12,331 miles (half of the circumference). This would have been the combined equatorial spans of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans added together. These were the figures supplied by King Afonso’s advisors. No ship of that time was capable of a voyage of that distance without making landfall to replenish essential supplies.

However, Columbus started his calculations with a mistake of the first magnitude. Over the centuries, the circumference of the earth and Ptolemy’s map had been translated from Greek stadia into Arabic miles. Columbus assumed that they were using Roman miles, which are 20% shorter that the Arabic miles. This meant that Columbus’ world was 20% smaller than it really is. His second error was using Marinus of Tyre’s estimate that the longitudinal span of Eurasia was 225 degrees, which would have the effect of reducing the Pacific/Atlanic Ocean by 2,520 miles, and he followed this error up by taking Marco Polo’s estimate that Japan lay 1,500 miles from the coast of China reducing the distance from Portugal to Japan to 9,500 miles. If he sailed from the Canaries, he would reduce that distance by a further 500 miles. Columbus was also influenced by Toscanelli’s claim that there were inhabited islands even farther to the east than Japan, including the mythical Antillia.

Toscanelli's map of the Atlantic Ocean.

The final figure of 9,000 miles is daunting enough, but Columbus had presented his estimate of the distance from the Canaries to Japan as 5,300 miles when he was asking for funding. This is why nobody took him seriously. We know now that the real distance from Africa to Japan is more like 14,000 miles, and it is clear that Columbus and his crews would have disappeared without trace.

The only thing that saved them was something that nobody in the world suspected; just over 3,500 miles west of the Canaries was a huge hourglass shaped continent that stretched almost from pole to pole.

Leif Ericson stepping ashore in America painted by Hans Dahl.

Actually, there were some people who knew that there was a landmass not too far out in the Atlantic. Five-hundred years earlier, the Vikings had extensively sailed in the North Atlantic. The only two known mentions of the new lands are found in the work of Adam of Bremen c. 1075 and in the Book of Icelanders compiled c. 1122 by Ari the Wise. Leif Ericson was a Norse explorer from Iceland, and according to the sagas of Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at a place called Vinland, which is usually interpreted as being coastal North America. There is still speculation that the settlement made by Leif and his crew corresponds to the remains of a Norse settlement found in Newfoundland, Canada, called L'Anse aux Meadows and which was occupied around the year 1000. The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, both thought to have been written around 1200, contain different accounts of the voyages to Vinland.

One story that is neither proven nor denied is that whilst Columbus was returning for his visit to Iceland in 1477 his ship stopped at Galway, and while they were there, he saw a man and a woman who had been found in an open boat in the Atlantic and picked up. Columbus wrote in his notes that they were of a “most unusual appearance.” Columbus must have added this to already stretched-to-the-limit theory about a westerly passage to the orient.

Columbus had travelled to Iceland, where the sagas and history of Lief Ericson were known. Had he learned of his travels and discoveries, he might have tried a more northerly route where there were plenty of stopping off places and sheltered harbours along the way. It might have helped him with his next big problem; finding a crew and captains who were willing to go with him on a suicidal voyage.





Like 2        Published at 10:15 AM   Comments (0)

A new beginning, but the same old greed.
Friday, October 15, 2021

The beginning of Spain as a country and not an affiliation of kingdoms occurred on on19 October 1469 when Isabel married Ferdinand at the Palacio de los Vivero in Valladolid. The wedding united Castile, León and Aragon to form the basis for one state, which became the nascent country called after its ancient name of Hispania, later changed to España. The united kingdoms still continued to govern themselves as separate entities, but the seeds had been sown for something greater. However, the stability of Hispania was far from secure.

In May 1475, King Alfonso of Portugal and his army crossed into Spain and advanced to Plasencia. Here he married Juana, the only other contender for the Crown of Castile besides Isabel, and started a war to claim the Castilian crown. The war raged back and forth for almost a year until 1 March 1476, when the Battle of Toro took place, a battle in which both sides claimed victory, but neither won.

The armies fought each other to a standstill, but the outcome was indecisive and King Alfonso was forced to retreat and regroup his forces. Ferdinand showed his genius by sending messengers out to all the cities of Castile and the kingdoms nearby, that he had crushed the Portuguese in a great military victory. Overnight, support for Juana collapsed.

To avoid further bloodshed and a war they could not afford, Isabel and Fernando granted King Alfonso of Portugal the exclusive right of navigation and commerce in all of the Atlantic Ocean south of the Canary Islands, which meant that Hispania was practically blocked out of the Atlantic and deprived of the gold of Guinea. Since the time of the Phoenicians, roughly a third of the gold coinage in use around the Mediterranean had been minted from the gold produced by these mines.

The treaty of Alcáçovas, as it came to be known, created unrest among Andalucia’s nobles, who feared that they had bought peace at too high a price and had restricted their expansion into the Atlantic. The Kingdom of Portugal authorized a series of voyages down the coast of Africa encouraged by Pope Alexander VI in a 4 May 1493 papal decree, Inter caetera, which supported the treaty on the proviso that both Spain and Portugal promised to convert any indigenous people that they found to Christianity. This contract turned out to be just between Spain, Portugal and the pope, because the rest of Europe ignored it completely. However, the deeply pious Isabel saw the expansion of Spain’s sovereignty inextricably paired with the evangelization of non-Christian peoples.

Law and order had broken down within Castile and Aragon, and Isabel and Ferdinand created a militia whose sole purpose was to police their kingdoms and eliminate the robber bands that plagued traders. She gradually gained more control of the economy, and stability returned, but a cancer was growing in the form of hatred and intolerance for those who were not Christians. Posters began to appear depicting Jews as necromancers with dark and evil rituals. In 1478, while Ferdinand and Isabella were still consolidating their kingdom, they made formal application to the Pope for a tribunal of the Inquisition in Castile, to investigate these and other suspicions.

Isabel and Fernando had run up huge debts fighting for the crown. The Church did not lend money, it just collected it, and the only people who had been untouched by the costly Christian wars were the non-Christians who lived within their lands. They were not obliged to fund armies or fight, but they had profited well from the costly wars. They were predominantly Jews and Moors, who had served as doctors, builders, metalworkers, joiners and accountants. Here was a source of badly needed money for the crown. Most tempting of all for a bankrupt country, and the cause of much jealousy and hatred, was the Islamic Caliphate of Granada with its rich farmlands. Isabel set herself on a quest to rid Hispania of the Moors forever.

She embarked upon a ten-year-long war of sieges, defending Christian held castles and towns, and mounting skirmishes and ambushes in mountain defiles.  It was a war that required the skills of a military engineer and a guerrilla fighter in equal measure. Every spring she mounted a new offensive against the Caliphate and gained more ground. Fernández de Gonzalo Córdoba became one of Isabel’s leading generals during the final years of the reconquest. Gonzalo had fought for Isabella against Portugal under Alonso de Cárdenas, the grand master of the Order of Santiago, and in the final battle that secured Isabel’s crown in 1479 he gained the praise of Cárdenas. Gonzalo Córdoba had other talents that placed him at the forefront of the Reconquista.  He spoke the language of the Berbers fluently and was a one-time friend of Boabdil, the Caliph of Granada. At the end of the campaign, it was he who was chosen to lead the surrender negotiations. Gonzalo Córdoba would go on to be an innovative leader of the newly reformed Spanish army.

 Gonzalo Córdoba

Caliph Boabdil was overshadowed by his mother, Ayxa, who was a tyrant.  She constantly intervened during the surrender negotiations, but she won him the right not to have to hand over the keys to the city to the Christians. The Moors were allowed to leave on their own accord and their caravan wound up to the mountain pass where they begin to descend towards the Mediterranean Sea. According to legend, it was here that Boabdil stopped to have one last look at his lost lands. Today it is marked by a small sign which says, Puerto del Suspiro del Moro. “The Pass of the Moor’s Sigh.” According to Washington Irving, the American writer, this is where Boabdil wept, and his callous mother berated him with the words “You do well to weep like a woman over what you could not defend as a man.” Irving did not invent the story; all the names and legends were there when he rode through in the 1820’s. The road up to the pass from Granada was called La Cuesta de Las Lagrimas, The slope of Tears.


Painting of Boabdil leaving Granada by Alfred Dehodencq

Isabel and Ferdinand watched the Moors leave before entering the city and raising their flag. During the surrender negotiations the year before, Isabel and Ferdinand had agreed to guarantee the Moors religious freedom under the Treaty of Granada. Nevertheless, Ferdinand burned over ten thousand Arabic manuscripts in a religious purge of the city.

During the previous year, when the king and queen were negotiating the surrender, a man who had been courting favour with them for the last five years had been invited to share in their triumph. Christopher Columbus had petitioned King John II of Portugal seven years earlier to fund a voyage to the west across the Atlantic to reach China. His terms were a little unreasonable; if successful, he would be awarded the title of “Admiral of the Ocean,” appointed governor of all the lands he discovered, and paid ten per-cent of their revenue. The King refused. He had made the same plea to King Henry VII of England and received the same answer. He tried Genoa and Venice to no avail, and now he was making the same offer to Isabel and Ferdinand. Advisors to the King and Queen decided that his ideas were too far-fetched and his guess at the distances involved fell woefully short. However, to stop him taking his ideas elsewhere, they gave him an allowance of 1200 Maravedís, and a letter granting him free lodgings and food wherever he went.

 Christopher Columbus

In the spring before Granada fell, he was summoned to a final meeting with the King and Queen in Santa Fe, where Isabel and Ferdinand had their camp, and after a terse exchange, they refused the money he wanted. Columbus went away dejected, but he had made friends in court, and one of them was Luis de Santángel, a converso who was royal treasurer. Santángel convinced Isabel that other navigators and nations, especially the Portuguese, were discovering new lands which, for a small investment, could bring huge rewards. Isabel would have to fund the initial start-up and hope that other financers would share some of the costs. Castile and Isabel were so poor after the costly war against the Grenadans that she offered all her jewellery as collateral. In the legal double-talk of the time the promise of Isabella to pay was, in fact, a promise that she would later create an obligation for her subjects to pay; her jewels were never at risk.

Columbus had not gone four miles before he was called back to see the queen. He was to receive 10% of all portable valuables that he acquired from the voyage and would be granted the title of admiral. The real funding for the enterprise eventually came from a syndicate of seven noble Genovese bankers resident in Seville, with added funds supplied by Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici. (Lorenzo was a fellow-student of Amerigo Vespucci who would become a friend and later an employee. Vespucci would send most of his famous letters on the New World to Lorenzo.)  Because all the backers lived in Seville, all the accounting and recording of the voyage was kept in Seville, and the gold that eventually flowed back to Spain from the Americas was stored in the Torre del Oro in the docks.

Isabel was flushed with pride at her victory over the Moors, and the Church applauded her, but her finances were stretched after ten years of war. Columbus was a fool and would probably get himself and all his crew killed on his insane voyage. She did not give him a second thought, and instead looked to the assets that she had in Spain. She was already in negotiations with the king of England to marry her youngest daughter, Catherine, to the next-in-line for the English throne, Arthur. The trade deals were by far the largest part of the arranged marriage that poor 3-year-old Catherine was now bound into. However, there was a source of much needed revenue that was on her doorstep and easy to collect.

The anti-Semitic fervour had reached a peak now, and the Jews in Hispania were the lowest social group. The Mudéjar were treated better and had more rights than the Jewish population, but the Jews had more money; and money was what Isabel needed most. Just ten weeks after the fall of Granada, Isabel issued the Alhambra decree. It seems to have been all Isabel’s idea, and the theory is that her confessor had changed from the tolerant Hernado de Talavara, to the fanatical Francisco Jiménez de Cisternos.

The whole of the Christian world was balanced upon a pivot called Queen Isabel, and her decisions now were to point Hispania on the road to becoming a world superpower.



Like 3        Published at 12:33 PM   Comments (0)

The rebels with a just cause
Friday, October 1, 2021

After the Dos de Mayo uprising whatever was left of the Spanish army scattered and hid in towns that were loyal to the crown. Slowly, and in secrecy, they contacted their comrades and sought refuge in the north of Spain, where the French presence was sparse. As with the Islamic invasion, the Picos de Europa provided a sanctuary for the dispossessed. Portugal was occupied by the French, but their friends, the British, had not forgotten them. The Portuguese royal family in exile in Brazil designated British generals to lead their loyal troops against Bonaparte’s troops, and a British force landed in Portugal under the command of 39  years-old General Arthur Wellesley.

In the first battle of what was to become known as the Peninsular War, Wellesley defeated a French division at the battle of Rolica on 17 August 1808. Four days later, he defeated a larger French force led by Major general Jean Andoche Junot at a town called Vimeiro near Lisbon. The French lost 2,000 men and 13 cannon, and the battle marked the beginning of the end for the French occupation of Portugal.

As with all his campaigns, Napoleon had planned meticulously for any event that could spoil them. Knowing that he was going to take over Spain after he had been invited in by Godoy, he forced the Spanish king to donate troops to fight in Europe with the Imperial French army. His idea was to dilute the Spanish army so that they would not be a problem when he seized control in Spain.

In March 1807, the Spanish Division of the North, comprised of 14 battalions of foot-soldiers and five regiments of cavalry, marched through France to assist in the Franco-Danish invasion of Sweden. They were commanded by Pedro Caro, 3rd Marquis of la Romana and were incorporated in a multinational force of Danish Germans and Italians led by Marshal Guillaume Brune. La Romana and his troops took part in the Siege of Stralsund in August 1807, but in the spring of 1808 they were led into Denmark to be part of a 30,000 strong army defending the coast.

This is exactly where Bonaparte wanted them when he installed his brother on the Spanish throne.  The Spanish troops were watched very carefully by their French and Danish overlords, but when news of the Dos de Mayo uprising reached them, La Romana let it be known that he was going to fight the French. The Spanish troops had been deliberately spread out so that they could not easily assemble as a fighting unit.

But la Romana had already been approached in secret by the British, who offered to transport him and all the Spanish troops under his command back to Spain. With British help, La Romana embarked 9,000 of his troops onto captured Danish ships and sailed into the North Sea, where they were met by the Royal Navy. A few weeks later, they landed at Santander and were incorporated in the war against the French. Only one cavalry regiment and two infantry regiments failed to escape. The Spanish army was re-grouping, and they were happy to ally themselves with the Portuguese and British to force the French off their soil.

The Spanish armed forces were still no match for Napoleon’s Grand Armée, but the hope given by the re-capture of Portugal by British and Portuguese was enough to spur on Spanish civilians to fight the French. There is no better example of the ferocity of the Spanish spirit than the story of Juan Martin Díez, who was known by his nickname, or mote, as El Empecinado (From the verb to be persistent, empecinarse). He was born the son a farmer in Castrillo de Duero, Valladolid in1775, and the family house is still there today.

Díez was a rebel as a teenager, and his appetite for warfare led him to fight in the Rosellón campaign of the War of the Pyrenees, where he was baptised in the art of war. He must have calmed down after seeing the brutality of war, because in 1796 he married a girl in the town of Fuentecén, Burgos, and he and his young wife farmed the land peacefully for 12 years. But then French troops began to occupy the city and, according to the legend, one of the French troops raped one of the local girls. The rebel in Díez resurfaced, and he slipped out one night, found the rapist alone, and killed him. After the Dos de Mayo uprising Díez could not continue his life as a farmer, and the rebel had found his cause.

Díez organised local men into a makeshift army, even recruiting members of his own family. He lived on the main supply route for French troops defending the Portuguese border, and he began a series of attacks on the frequent wagon trains that passed through Burgos. As his reputation spread, more resistance fighters joined his ragged army, and the disruption to French supplies became a major problem for the French. They could not hope to win a stand-up fight with trained soldiers, but Díez’s hit-and-run tactics meant that French troops who could be defending against the ever-stronger British forces had to be diverted to protect their convoys. With the Spanish army’s ranks bolstered by new recruits, it began to make bolder stands against the French, but in the early stages of the war for independence, they were no match for the elite and battle hardened French troops led by experienced and clever generals.

Díez and his followers took part in some of these conventional battles, but each time they fought, the Spanish were routed. After the Spanish lost two battles in the area of Valladolid, the Cabezón de Pisuerga bridge and the Medina de Rioseco, Díez became convinced that fighting the French on their own terms was a serious mistake.

Díez began to train his army of guerrillas into small well-armed groups which could quickly move overland and strike anywhere. He was met with immediate success. After a number of lightning surgical strikes, notably Aranda de Duero, Sepúlveda and Pedraza, he and his groups disappeared into the countryside carrying away vital arms, ammunition and the gold coin needed to pay the French troops. They disrupted the French lines of communication which robbed the French of vital intelligence. Díez and his irregular army became the scourge of the Duero valley.

 Juan Martin Díez

He was promoted to the rank of cavalry captain in the Spanish army in1809, and he expanded his attacks to cities along the edge of the Sierras de Ávila. The French occupied areas of Gredos, Ávila, Salamanca, and the provinces of Cuenca and Guadalajara came under constant harassment from Díez’s marauders. His raids often gave the Spanish army more information on French strengths and dispositions than the French commanders had. For the French, he became the most hated and feared leader in the Spanish army, but to the Spanish people, he was a hero. This was the real threat that Díez posed to Napoleon, who was trying to hold down several occupied countries. When they saw how Spain was resisting and defeating French forces they were quick to copy Spanish tactics.     

Bonaparte ordered one of his generals, Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo, to “pursue exclusively” Díez and his guerrillas. After several failed attempts to capture the guerrilla leader, Hugo arrested Díez's mother and other members of his family. Díez ordered the public execution of 100 French prisoners of war and promised more unless his family were released. Hugo, fearing loss of morale in his own forces by this action, backed down and released his family. Meanwhile, whilst Díez and the other Spanish resistance groups across Spain were creating havoc, General Wellesley was taking on the French in conventional battles and gaining ground. By 1813, Spanish guerrillas were tying down over 75% of the French occupying army, making Wellesley’s task that much easier.

The highest point of Díez’s career came at the defence of Alcalá de Henares, the old seat of the Catholic kings of Castille near to Madrid. On May 22, 1813 on the Zulema Bridge over the Rio Henares, Díez and his army defeated a French force twice their size. Of course, the rest of the story goes to the British forces led by Wellesley, who drove back and pursued Bonaparte’s army out of Spain and into France, finally defeating him at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

When Fernando VII returned to power as king of Spain in 1813 he approved the construction of a commemorative pyramid to Díez in Alcalá, but Fernando turned out to be a weak and fickle king. He hated the liberal constitution that the 1812 Cadiz Cortes Generales (General Courts, or Pepa) represented and repealed all its laws and ideals, reinstating himself as absolute monarch. From 1814 until his death in 1833, he suppressed the liberal press by throwing the writers and editors into prison. However, a popular liberal led revolt in 1820 forced Fernando to re-adopt the Pepa’s constitution. With the defeat of Napoleon, many of the kingdoms in Europe were seeing their royal families fighting to re-establish themselves, and the liberal ideals that the Spanish had approved in Cádiz represented a threat to them.

Fernando lobbied the other monarchs of Europe to support him, and he joined the Holy Alliance formed by Russia, Prussia, Austria and France. In France, the ultra-royalists pressured Louis XVIII to intervene in Spain to restore absolutism, and Ferdinand was complicit in the ultimate betrayal of the Spanish people by allowing the French to invade Spain once more. The liberal governing of Spain had lasted just three years, but in 1823 a French army once more crossed the Pyrenees.

By now Díez had returned to a quiet life, but upon hearing that the French were returning, he fled to Portugal. The king promptly ordered the destruction of the pyramid in Díez’s honour for the victory at Alcalá, deriding it as a symbol of a “liberal”. Díez asked the king for permission to return his homeland without the threat of imprisonment, and the king agreed.

As soon as he returned he was arrested and transported to Nava de Roa, Burgos, where the mayor displayed him in an iron cage. Leopoldo O'Donnell, one of the remaining liberal leaders heard of his imprisonment and pleaded to have his case heard in a tribunal, which would probably have granted his release, but the magistrate had already ordered his execution. Díez was hanged as a criminal on August 20, 1825 in the central plaza of the village, and the legend goes that he managed to snatch the sword of the official who accompanied him to the gallows in a last defiant gesture.

The people of Alcalá raised another monument to El Empecinado in 1879 and this monument survives to this day.


The monument to Díez in Alcalá 

As you have probably guessed by now I am and avid reader of history. Up until recently I wrote reviews for the Historical Novel Society, and one of the books that I reviewed was a translation of Trafalgar and the Battle of Salamanca written by Benito Perez Galdós. These two stories are a part of the Episodios Nacionales, a series comprising 46 historical novels depicting the War of Independence. Galdós was born in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, in 1843, and he died in Madrid in 1920 aged 76. His father fought in the War of Indepenence and Benito first learned about the war from his father. His attention to detail and accuracy in his novels is illustrated by his research for the battle of Trafalgar, the first of his Episodios Nacionales novels published in 1873. He went to stay at Santander to write the novel, but he had only a history book for reference. One of his friends told him that there was an 83 year-old survivor of the battle living nearby, and Galdós went to talk to the old man every day. He had served on the Spanish flagship, Santisima Trinidad, as a cabin boy, and the wealth of information that the old man gave him enabled him to re-create him as Gabriel Araceli, the main character in several of his novels.

 Cover painting by Joaquín Sorolla.


Like 0        Published at 9:55 AM   Comments (2)

Spam post or Abuse? Please let us know

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse you are agreeing to our use of cookies. More information here. x