The First Voyage
On August 3rd 1492 ,Columbus left Palos, Spain with three ships. Martin Alonzo Pinzon captained The Niña, a lateen-rigged caravel. The Pinta, a square-rigged caravel was captained by Pinzon's brother, Vicente Yanez. The Santa Maria, a nao, was Columbus' flagship. The nao was large and had a round hull compared to the lightly built caravels with narrow hulls. The Santa Maria was slow and unwieldy during the long ocean voyage.
About 40 men including Columbus sailed on the Santa María. Between 20 and 30 were on the Pinta and Niña each. Historical figures disagree on the exact number of men recruited, estimates range from 90 to 120 men on board the three ships, but only 87 names are known. Father las Casas and Fernando put the figure at 90, but the truth may never be known. Most were Spanish, the largest number coming from around Palos; there was one Portuguese, one Genoese other than Columbus, one Venetian, and one Calabrian. The crew was comprised largely of experienced seamen, and there were a few government officials. But there were no priests, no soldiers and no settlers; this was a voyage of exploration and discovery.
Columbus leaving Palos,Spain
Columbus' ships covered approximately 150 miles a day. His seafaring instincts were extraordinary. His crews used a compass for direction and a chip log (a knotted line with a wooden weight attached at the end) to measure speed. A sailor counted how many knots were let off the reel in the time allotted. Multiplying the average rate of a ship's speed by a fixed amount of time gave a rough estimate of the distance traveled. Columbus, however, relied on dead reckoning, meaning he used his experience, intuition, observations, and guesswork to determine his ships' positions)
After a month of smooth sailing, the crews became anxious that they had not yet reached the islands Columbus had led them to expect. There was no full-fledged mutiny, but only the authority of the Pinzon brothers enabled Columbus to calm the crews' loudly expressed doubts. Then, signs of approaching land began to appear, such as coastal seaweed on the surface of the water and land-based birds flying overhead.
In light of the monumental importance of Columbus' journey, it is worthwhile to pause for a moment and consider Columbus' actions. The fundamental difference between Columbus' voyage in 1492 and those of Bartolomeu Diaz and Vasco da Gama is that the Portuguese explorers had knowledge that the areas they were traveling to existed; there was a history of contact, however nebulous and sporadic, between Europe and Africa or Europe and Asia. But when Columbus walked onshore in the Bahamas, he encountered the beginnings of a continent that Europe had no idea existed. There were no nautical folk tales or rumours of a landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, nor was there a history of vague contact between the populations of these two continents. Quite simply, the Americas were not supposed to be there.
Before noon on October 12, the ships landed on an island in the Caribbean Sea, in what are now called the West Indies. Columbus named the island San Salvador (Spanish for Holy Saviour). He later learned that inhabitants of the area called the island Guanahani. However, historians are not sure which island this is. In 1926, Watling Island in the Bahamas was officially renamed San Salvador Island because Columbus scholars considered it the most likely landing site. Additional landings made during the next few weeks included the islands of Cuba, which Columbus named Juana, in honor of a Spanish princess, and La Isla Española, later corrupted to Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), all believed by Columbus to be in Asian waters.
Columbus believed he had arrived at an island of the East Indies, near Japan or China. Because of this belief, he called the islanders Indians. People realized within 30 years that Columbus had not reached the Indies, but the name Indian continued to be used.