Grand Turk And Salt Cay Islands Online Travel Guide

Where Did Christopher Columbus Land On His First Voyage In 1492?
If Only He Had Carved His Name on a Rock or Something

Within the ranked list of the world's most intriguing unsolved mysteries, somewhere between Stonehenge's raison d'être and whatever became of D. B. Cooper, lies the site of Columbus's first landfall in the Americas. Most people learn from their earliest days that in fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but where did he first set foot? We know Columbus called this island San Salvador, but what specific geographic entity does it represent in today's world? Many islands claim their place in history as the original location Columbus came to in the New World including the island called San Salvador today (originally known as Watling Island), the Plana Cays, both in the Bahamas, Grand Turk and others.

By all accounts, Columbus lived up to his reputation as a masterful navigator and earned the distinction of the first sea captain (that we know of) who kept detailed logs and charts for his voyages. In Columbus's case, no one knows what became of the logs of his second, third, and fourth voyages of discovery. But from (alas, not directly from) the log of his first voyage across the Atlantic, we know that early on the night of October 11-12, 1492, he and his men caught site of a light, which they took to be a camp- or bonfire on an island. Later that night, at about two a.m., sailor Rodrigo de Triana sighted another nearby island, so the ships lowered sail and waited until the morning for a safe landing. Once it was light enough to land, Columbus and several of his crew, whom he named in his log, stepped ashore on a small island called Guanahaní by the native Lucayan people. Columbus renamed the island San Salvador and claimed it for the king and queen of Spain. We know that this island is in or near the Bahamas, the chain of islands in the Atlantic that run from Bimini and Grand Bahama Island off the east coast of southern Florida in a generally southeast direction to the Turks and Caicos Islands about 120 miles north of Hispaniola, current day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

In subsequent days and weeks, he sailed past some other small islands, the northeast coast of Cuba, and the northern coast of Hispaniola, where his largest ship, the Santa Maria, ran aground and was wrecked. Columbus took voluminous notes on the islands' geography, their distances and positions relative to each other, and their inhabitants. On January 16, 1493, he left Hispaniola—leaving 39 of his men behind, none of whom survived to see Columbus when he returned on November 22, 1493—and began sailing east, reaching Lisbon, Portugal on March 4, and his home port of Palos, Spain on March 15. Seven or eight of the 10 to 25 Lucayan and Carib captives he took with him survived the eastward voyage.

So if we know so much detail about this most famous and portentous of Columbus's voyages, how could the site of his first landfall have been forgotten?

As alluded to above, no one knows the fate of the first voyage's log, written in Columbus's own hand. On returning to Spain, he presented the original log to Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen, who had a copy produced which they then gave to Columbus. This copy remained in Columbus's family until at least the middle of the 16th century, after which time no trace of it has ever surfaced.

What we do have is a document called the Diario, written by Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566), a Spanish colonist in Hispaniola who later became a Dominican friar and a historian of the Spanish conquests. In about 1550, he gained access to a copy of Columbus's log and map of the first voyage, and proceeded to extract and abstract from the log, creating the Diario. He also wrote A History of the Indies, which chronicled the terrible cruelty that the Spanish inflicted on enslaved Indians and Africans, advocating strenuously against not only the cruelty but the institution of slavery as well. Such compassionate, not to say Christian, ideas were anathema to the Spanish sovereigns and conquistadors, and las Casas's reputation fell so precipitously that his works languished for more than 200 years. Then, in 1795, a Spanish naval officer and historian named (Martín) Fernández de Navarette (y Ximénez de Tejada) discovered a copy las Casas's Diario, which he then had published in 1825. The Diario is thus the foundational document for all speculation regarding Columbus's first landfall.

No oral tradition of the first landfall exists among the descendents of Guanahaní's 15th century inhabitants, because no such descendents exist. In the early 16th century, disease and the Spanish market for slave labor on Hispaniola quickly depopulated the Bahama Islands, effectively eradicating the aboriginal Lucayans. Records from 1520 show that when the Spanish rounded up all the natives they could find in the entire archipelago, they captured only 11 unfortunate survivors. After that, about 130 years passed before any human settlement returned to the Bahamas, at which time they became notorious as bases for various pirate bands.

The Diario precisely describes the route Columbus took across the Atlantic, thanks to Columbus's meticulous practice of taking his position every day by dead (from "ded" or deduced) reckoning. The only instruments required by dead reckoning are a compass, and some means of measuring the ship's speed through the water. (Celestial navigation was in its infancy in the late 15th century. At one point Columbus attempted to determine his position using an astrolabe, but bad weather discouraged him and he never used it again. It also describes in tantalizing detail Columbus's route through the Bahamas and along the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola. Theorists who wish to reconcile a candidate island for the first landfall to the Diario must account for the status of the earth's magnetic field in Columbus's time, the actual distance represented by Columbus's basic unit of length (the league, the precise measure of which remains in doubt), and Columbus's description of his route through the Bahamas after the first landfall.

During Navarette's lifetime, interest in Columbus grew enormously. In 1792, to honor the 300th anniversary of the landfall, New York and Baltimore celebrated festivities, and the first published theory regarding Columbus's first landfall came in 1825, the same year as Navarette published las Casas's Diario. The Brazilian historian Antonio Varnhagen authored that theory, speculating that the island in the southern Bahamas now known as Mayaguana (the only island in the Bahamas to retain a Lucayan name) was the Guanahaní henceforth known, until it was forgotten, as Columbus's San Salvador. Subsequent researchers have given Varnhagen's theory short shrift, citing, among other problems, that Columbus reported seeing "many" islands from small San Salvador, while Mayaguana is a relatively large and isolated island amongst the many so called Bahamas Out Islands.

The first attempt to plot the course described in the Diario onto modern nautical charts came in 1880, when Charles A. Schott of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey traced it. Schott estimated the magnetic declination of 1492, and computed the Columbus's position each day, assuming Columbus's speed and direction data were correct. Schott also assumed that the "league" Columbus referred to was the Portuguese Maritime League, a distance of about 3.2 nautical miles. This assumption, however, caused Schott's track to end west of the Bahamas, so he arbitrarily deducted 11 percent from his calculations to prevent his mathematical Columbus from making first landfall on Cuba. After applying the 11 percent fudge factor, Schott's final position was near Mayaguana Island. Acknowledging his speculative value for the 1492 magnetic declination, however, he concluded that any island from Samana Cay to Grand Turk could have been Columbus's San Salvador.

Schott's research remained obscure, and in 1940, U.S. Navy lieutenant John McElroy (appeared to) unknowingly repeated it, right down to the fudge factor. One difference between the two efforts, though, was that McElroy made his magnetic corrections based on an isogonic chart produced in 1899 by Dutch geophysicist and meteorologist Willem van Bemmelen. Van Bemmelen based his charts on his extensive study of old sailing ship records, a study that went back as far as such records existed. That is, to Columbus. It so happened that van Bemmelen used the Diario as one of his primary sources, and took it as an article of faith that Columbus made his first landfall at an island then known as Watling Island, a small island in the Bahamas about as far to the northwest from Samana Cay as Samana Cay is from Mayaguana. By this route of unintended circular reasoning, Schott's track ended at Watling Island, which, incidentally had been renamed San Salvador 15 years earlier in an effort by modern time residents to bolster the claim that their island was indeed the San Salvador of Columbus's 1492 journey.

Prior to 1925, the island now known as Cat Island, about 40 miles to the west of Watling, was known as San Salvador, apparently in the belief that Columbus made his first landfall there. But Columbus's description of San Salvador matches Watling better than Cat, so in 1925 the British authorities transferred the name to the hitherto Watling, eponymous of John (also known as George) Watling, a 17th century pirate who maintained a camp or village there for his headquarters. According to legend, Watling would never plunder, or allow his buccaneers to play cards or otherwise gamble on the Sabbath. For such religious proclivities, he earned the nickname, the "Pious Pirate".

Solidifying Watling's claim to fame was a Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 1942, Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morison. Morison threw his lot in with the Watling crowd, based in part on his experiences while sailing through the Bahamas. Baby boomers learned in grade school that Watling and San Salvador were one in the same, and the island's worthies have taken that belief to the bank. It is now a destination for those who long to imagine that they are literally following in Columbus's footsteps. Compared to the fantastic array of shopping, golf, and dining attractions offered on other islands of the Bahamas, Watling Island offered its tourists little more than the opportunity to say, "I was here." While Watling lives only by its new name of San Salvador today, it's tourist draw still originates primarily with the claim of being the true Columbus landing spot and the modern addition of a Club Med.

Eventually, however, Watling Island's claim appeared to be built upon sand. In the 1980s, the National Geographic Society embarked on an effort to establish Samana Cay, an island somewhat smaller than Watling (a size within the range of the one Columbus described, that is) that lies about half way between Mayaguana Island and Watling, as site of the first landfall. As head of the National Geographic effort, Luis Marden retraced the track using van Bemmelen's isogons, and again deployed a fudge factor to account for distance overruns. What Marden added to the stew was an accounting for tides and leeway, the two main causes of lateral motion in a ship under sail at sea. Not surprisingly, Marden's virtual Columbus landed at Samana Cay.

The controversy picking up steam, close readers of Marden's account in National Geographic found unsatisfactorily explained inconsistencies. In 1987, two of them from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Roger A. Goldsmith and Philip L. Richardson, noticed that, for the first half of the voyage, Marden applied prevailing current factors, which push the track to the south. But for the second half of the voyage he excused himself from applying such factors—which he claimed would have no effect on the track. This, Goldsmith and Richardson said, amounted to hand-waving. The currents in the western North Atlantic actually flow somewhat to the north of west. They found more evidence of bias in Marden's estimates of leeway for the entire voyage, which pushed the track steadily south. Goldsmith and Richardson then retraced the track, applying accurate factors for current drift and leeway. They also used van Bemmelen's isogons, and a fudge factor for distance discrepancies, and plotted their Columbus back to the vicinity of Watling.

Another small island—Conception Island, which is about 30 miles west of Watling Island—attracted the attention of Lieutenant R. T. Gould of the Royal Navy in 1943. Gould had trouble with the Watling theory, particularly in regard to the light seen before midnight on October 11, 1492. If the first landfall was on Watling, there was no island to the east from which a fire could have been visible. If the tracks leading to Watling were accurate, Watling would have to be the island on which the fire was burning, and Conception would have been the site of the landfall. This theory attracted little attention until the 1980s, when geologist Steven Mitchell of Cal State Bakersfield was working on the island. In 1991, he published his theory, the other strong points of which include Columbus's report of a large pond on the island and the presence of a surrounding reef.

In 1992, Goldsmith and Richardson returned to the field, thanks to funding provided by the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands. In this simulation, they identified the distance of Columbus's league as the Geometric League of 2.67 nautical miles, which obviated the use of a distance fudge factor. In addition, they used isogons derived from Columbus's log of the return voyage back to Spain. Interestingly, these adjustments resulted in a shorter and more southerly track, ending on the money, as it were, between Grand Turk and East Caicos Island.

As of this writing, there are strong arguments for at least five islands other than Watling being the site of Columbus's first landfall. They are Conception, Grand Turk, Mayaguana, Samana Cay, and Plana Cays. The Plana Cays theory seems to be the sleeper in this mystery, although some of the most important documentary evidence for it has been available all along. The oldest map known of the West Indies, the so-called Map of Juan de la Cosa, identifies an island in the Bahamas as Guanahaní. The cartographer de la Cosa was the owner and captain of the Santa Maria, and sailed with Columbus on his first three voyages to the Indies. The parchment map resides in the Naval Museum in Madrid, Spain. On the map, Guanahaní is small, multiple island, comprised of at least two islets that lie on an east-west axis. The map also shows Guanahaní as north of Cape Mola on Hispaniola. The Plana Cays match these descriptions. De la Cosa's Guanahaní and the Plana Cays also match Columbus's verbal description of San Salvador. Perhaps it is not as picturesque as Watling, or as rich as the Turks and Caicos, and so never acquired a popular following.

Amateur and academic students of the controversy have delicious morsels to chew on—long lost books, ancient maps, pirate legends, clandestine agendas—and vested interests to contend against. There are enough clues out there, with enough ambiguity about them, to keep the pot boiling for a long time yet. It seems unlikely that this mystery will ever have a solution.

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