We The Italians | IT and US: 1492. Diary of the first trip

IT and US: 1492. Diary of the first trip

IT and US: 1492. Diary of the first trip

  • WTI Magazine #156 Oct 22, 2022
  • 373

Let's start by saying that there were not three of them. The caravels, I mean. This is an enduring myth that has entered powerfully into the imagination. Three like the Wise Men, like the Musketeers, like the oranges of the fairy tale. Wanting to be precise, two caravels and a nao: a large trading ship. But it matters little: myth is built on simplification.

For the past couple of centuries, the caravel has become a symbol of the voyage of discovery. Or, rather, of a particular discovery: that of America. Which, however, for some time now, has definitely changed its sign. Periodically, every Columbus Day, the statues of the man who of those caravels can be considered the most skillful maneuverer, Christopher Columbus, are vandalized, torn apart, thrown to the ground.

Everyone is free to think as they wish, although I intimately consider the concentration of violence on a simulacrum nothing more than a way of not addressing the problems. Certainly, the attention developed around the (alleged) faults of the navigator has distracted attention from the journey made by those caravels. An epochal journey. Not so much for the result achieved - we know well how the American continent had previously been touched by Nordic navies - but for its ability to strike consciences, as well as to start that process of "Europeanization" - or, if you like, of Westernization and Christianization - of the globe pursued for centuries to come. Often tragically.

These are well-known pages, on which there is a vast literature, whose main effect has been to obnubilate the desire, legitimate, to retrace the Admiral's course. This book, “1492. Diario del primo viaggio”, focuses on the journey itself, telling the story of the most famous voyage in history, comparable in horizon-opening capacity only to the one made to the moon a few centuries later. And this, thanks to the pages of the Giornale di bordo written by Columbus, of which we do not possess the original but a copy, paying attention to the technical aspects of navigation and life on board.

Early in the morning on August 3, 1492, Christopher set sail from the bar of Saltés, near Palos, not far from the Convento de la Rábida, at which he had been staying for a long time. He had two caravels: the Pinta and the Santa Clara, nicknamed Niña because of its patron, Juan Niño, and a large "nao," the Gallega, renamed Santa María, owned by the Basque Juan de la Cosa - author of a famous planisphere, drawn up in 1500 -, financed, in part, by some Genoese and Florentine bankers from Seville.

It was a voyage fraught with dangers. The three vessels, hoisting a green cross on a white field with the initials of Fernando and Isabella at the ends, surmounted by crowns, proceeded to the Canary Islands. The breaking of the Pinta's rudder on August 6 and 7 was interpreted as an ominous sign. The Admiral decided to continue and await her arrival in Las Palmas. Since this had not yet arrived on August 10, he opted to reach Gomera, the smallest island in the archipelago, with the intention of chartering an additional caravel. The stop lasted longer than expected, with no ship appearing on the horizon. On August 21 he returned to Las Palmas, where the reunion took place. After a week of work, the rudder was repaired. Before setting sail again, Columbus had the Niña's lateen sails replaced with square sails so as to make the most of the winds. Replenished with provisions, therefore, on September 6, the fleet sailed westward.

Navigation, maintained between parallels 26 and 30, north of the line of the Tropic of Cancer, proceeded placidly, thanks to the aid of the trade winds, whose steady regime was, no doubt, known to the Admiral. These were new and unfamiliar routes, capable of causing consternation among the men, fearful that they would not be able to return. Thus he reported, on September  22 and 23, "this headwind was of great use to me, for my men were much troubled, for they thought that in these seas no winds were blowing to return to Spain."

Since the sea was calm and smooth, the crew murmured that since there were never heavy seas there, there would never be suitable winds to return to Spain. But later the sea became very big and windless, which amazed them.

The crossing of the Sargasso Sea, in the almost total absence of wind, proved difficult, alarming the crew to no small degree. It is Columbus who recalls how, from the beginning of the month, he had decided to tell the men the falsehood, declaring by default the number of miles sailed, so as to reassure them.

Thus, for example, on September 9: he traveled 15 leagues that day, and resolved to count less than that, so that if the journey proved long the crew would not be frightened or lose heart. In the night, he traveled 120 miles, at 10 miles per hour, or 30 leagues. The sailors were steering badly, deviating on the northwest quarter and also on the half quarter, and therefore the Admiral reprimanded them many times.

The passage of birds and the finding of floating branches seemed to indicate the proximity of land. Indeed, Christopher became convinced that he was passing islands: the same ones that the charts - one of which is reported aboard the flagship on September 25 - say existed opposite Cipango (Japan).

On the same day he believed for the first time that he saw land; something that would happen again on October 7. On the 10th, Christopher himself had the impression of seeing fires. It was the Andalusian Juan Rodríguez Bermejo, at 2 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 12, who caught sight of land from the crow's nest of the Pinta, although the admiral later took care to make the crew swear that he himself was responsible for the sighting. The men landed on an island christened by Christopher “San Salvador” - corresponding, perhaps, to present-day Watling, in the Bahamas -, which the natives - the Tainos - called Guanahaní. The actual exploration, therefore, could begin.

Having resumed the sea, he touched the coast of Cuba on October 28, arriving in Haiti on December 6. To the navigator's eyes, many wonders were being revealed: different cultures, a wild and lush nature, unknown products of the earth, from yam to corn, from pineapple to tobacco. And then, of course, gold, worn around the necks of the natives, toward which general interest went concentrating.

The expedition, at any rate, encountered serious difficulties. Passing Cape Haiti, on December 25, the Santa María ran aground off the bow due to the negligence of the boatswain and owner of the ship itself, Juan de la Cosa, who, given the becalmed weather, had left the helm to a deckhand. The captain's timber was used to build a fort, La Navidad, where Christopher would leave thirty-nine men, all of whom were slaughtered by the natives over the next few months.

The two surviving caravels, reunited on the evening of January 5, resumed sea on the 16th, three hours earlier in the day, after being hauled ashore and undergoing repairs. On the return voyage, the Admiral faced two violent storms, which threatened to sink the Niña, on which he was embarked, which was poorly ballasted given the consumption of provisions. On Feruary 13, because of the rough seas, ours decided to continue dry of sail. At night, the wind increased, driving away the two caravels, who would never meet again. The second storm caught the Niña off the Portuguese coast. A gust of wind tore all the sails, leaving the wood at the mercy of the waves. A very dangerous situation, this one, given the proximity of the coast.

To remedy the situation, Columbus proceeded by attempting to take the wind by the side, taking on water but managing to channel himself toward the Tagus estuary, where it was possible to find shelter. It was March 4, 1493. Before leaving for the court of Castile, the navigator sent letters to quickly spread the news of the discovery of new islands across the ocean, evidently overlooking Cipango. The Duke of Medinaceli wrote about it on March 19; on the 22nd, it was mentioned in Cordoba; between the 25th and 31st, the news was recorded in the account book of a Florentine artisan; then, it was encountered in Milan, Ferrara, Venice, Siena, and, of course, Genoa, where ambassadors Francesco Marchese and Giovanni Antonio Grimaldi arrived.

By the end of the year, the navigator's letter will be published in Barcelona due to the interest of the Spanish royals, eager to communicate their rights to the world. Translated into Latin, it will help revolutionize the European imagination, opening up unusual prospects for expansion. The "discovery," with all its contradictions, will begin to shape the collective imagination.

For a long time, Christopher will not sense its significance. Only toward the end of his own life will he admit that he did not arrive in Cipango but that he had stumbled upon a "Nuevo Mundo." His, at any rate, was a revolutionary discovery. At dawn on October 12, the world was no longer the same.


This gift Prof. Antonio Musarra gave to We the Italians is a small excerpt from his book "1492. Diario del primo viaggio” (1492.Diary  of the First Journey), published (only in Italian for now) by Laterza and available for purchase here.