From the time you learned to walk and talk, chances are good you were told that Columbus discovered America in 1492. In the United States we have even set aside each Oct. 12th as the day each year we observe and celebrate the explorer's great adventures.
In reality however, Columbus may have been one of the last to discover America. New evidence tends to indicate that several other cultures made the trip across the seas, both the Atlantic and the Pacific, long before Columbus was even born. For instance, there is a carved rock inscription in the New Mexico desert near Los Lunas that scolars now believe may be inscribed with ancient Greek or Samaritan writing, dating back 1,000-2,000 years.
And scholars tell us that Norsemen may have visited and even populated Canada and the U.S. northeast long before Columbus made his famous voyage. At L'anse aux Meadows in New Foundland, for example, a Viking community has been unearthed giving credence to the claim that Leif Erikson discovered the North American mainland sometime in the 9th century.
In Chiapas, in southern Mexico, grand pyramids at Comalcalco believed to be constructed by the Maya or Olmec cultures of Mesoamerica were built using baked tiles similar to those used in early southern European cities around the 8th-10th century. On the reverse, or hidden side of the bricks, were inscriptions of Romaneque origin believed to placed there by the stone masons who built the city.
Most everyone agrees, while Chris Columbus may not have been the first to cross the Atlantic in search of discovery, he does remain the most celebrated of Old World explorers.
A visit to the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, whether for Columbus Day or anytime of year, will provide you an up close and personal experience as you climb aboard two life-size replicas of the Columbus Fleet, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Built by the Spanish government in 1991 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' sailing, the ships visited 22 ports in Europe before crews sailed them across the Atlantic, where they toured 18 American ports, including Boston and Miami. When they got to Corpus Christi, nearly 110,000 people — more than anywhere else — eagerly turned out to welcome them.
There is a great and somewhat tragic story unfolding about the ships and their sister vessel, the Niña, once harbored in downtown Corpus Christi and currently undergoing an expensive bottom job. In 1993 the Columbus Fleet Association, a nonprofit group of community leaders in Corpus Christi, won a 50-year lease agreement with Spain to exhibit the ships. To protect the vessels from rough waves, they were moored at a cargo dock in the Port of Corpus Christi, the sixth busiest port in the country.
But in 1994 an empty barge broke free and crashed into the Pinta and the Santa Maria causing nearly $1.5 million in damage. The Corpus Christi city council subsequently voted to build a plaza outside the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, where tourists could watch while the boats were repaired in dry dock. But according to a report in the Austin American Statesman, the repairs were costly, and the ships began to suffer as controversy surrounding them heated up.
Part of the problem is the huge price tag for maintaining the wooden vessels. But in spite of needed repairs, the Santa Maria and Pinta remain on exhibit at the museum where visitors can actually climb aboard and view the interior of the ships.
The museum reports the ships are their number one draw, saying school students from across Texas flock to the exhibit every year to get a real feel for history. And to mark this Columbus Day observance, the museum is presenting "Columbus Days" Oct. 3-14 where school groups and visitors are greeted aboard the vessels by costumed tour guides who portray actual Columbus crew members. Guided tours are every hour on the half hour, beginning at 10:30 am, Tuesday - Saturday and at 12:30 pm on Sunday. The final tour of the day is at 4:30 pm.
Born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451 to a weaver, young Columbus first went to sea at the age of fourteen. Shipwrecked near the Portuguese coast in 1476, he made his way to great port City of Lisbon, where his younger brother, Bartholomew was an expert chart maker. As a young man, he settled in Portugal and married a woman of noble background, Dona Felipa, who died soon after his son, Diego, was born (c.1480). In 1485, Columbus and his young son Diego moved to Spain.
Like most learned men of his time, Columbus knew the world was round and shared the theory that a ship could eventually reach the Far East from the opposite direction. Mapmakers had no knowledge of North and South America or the Pacific Ocean. They did accept Marco Polo's erroneous location for Japan--2,400 km (1,500 mi) east of China -- and Ptolemy's underestimation of the circumference of the Earth and overestimation of the size of the Eurasian landmass. Columbus believed that Japan was about 4,800 km (3,000 mi) to the west of Portugal --a distance that could be sailed in existing vessels. Engaged as a sugar buyer in the Portuguese islands off the west coast of Africa by a Genoese mercantile firm, he met pilots and navigators who believed in the existence of islands farther west.
Thus Columbus was but one among many who believed one could reach land by sailing west. His uniqueness lay rather in the persistence of his dream and his determination to realize this “Enterprise of the Indies,” as he called his plan.
Only 90 men made the first voyage of discovery from Palos Spain. The ships were quite tiny by modern standards -- no longer than a tennis court, and less than 30 feet wide. The Santa Maria had 40 men aboard, the Pinta, 26, and the Nina, 24. The Nina was captained by Martin Alonzo Pinzon. The Pinta, a was captained by Pinzon's brother, Vicente Yanez. Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, was a large nao with a round hull compared to the lightly built caravels with narrow hulls. The Santa Maria was slow and unwieldy during the long ocean voyage.
Early on the morning of October 12th land was indeed sighted, and a landing party arrived on an island in the Bahamas and named it San Salvador. It had been thirty-three days since the three ships had left the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Africa. The natives must have been surprised to hear that their island now belonged to Spain. Over the next few weeks landings were also made on Cuba, named Juana by Columbus, and Española, now known as Hispaniola and shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Martin Pinzon was unwilling to acknowledge Columbus' authority during the famous voyage. On 21 November, 1492, he deserted Columbus off Cuba, hoping to be the first to discover the imaginary golden island of Osabeque. He was the first to discover Haiti (Hispaniola), and the river where he landed (now the Porto Caballo) was long called after him the River of Martin Alonso. He carried off four men and two girls, intending to steal them as slaves, but was compelled to restore them to their homes by Columbus, whom he rejoined on the coast of Haiti on January 6, 1493.
Columbus' ships covered approximately 150 miles a day. His seafaring instincts were extraordinary. Columbus, relied on "dead reckoning," which used not only navigational instruments but also experience, intuition, observations, and guesswork to determine his ships' positions.