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The First Columbus Landfall

Making the case for Grand Turk.

By Ben Stubenberg

Just where did Christopher Columbus make first landfall during his epic voyage across the Atlantic in 1492 to what we now call the Americas? As many as ten islands vie for that distinction in the Lucayan Archipelago that encompasses the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands.

Columbus’s three ships La Nina, La Pinta and the flagship Santa Maria.

The competing theories drawn from shards of evidence more than 500 years old are worthy of a who-done-it detective novel. Indeed, the varying accounts of where Columbus really stepped ashore have ignited academic battles as fierce as any. The stakes are high because the first voyage of Columbus connected the continents and their peoples separated for thousands of years, arguably the most consequential event in human history.
Columbus, of course, was not the first visitor from across the Atlantic. The Viking Norsemen sailing to Greenland and Newfoundland in the year 1000 can claim that credit. And other visitors—African, Basque and Breton sailors—likely made voyages across the Atlantic before Columbus that went unrecorded.
But the expedition that Columbus launched profoundly changed the world forever in a way that the others did not. His happenstance landing on that low, flat, “bean shaped” island surrounded by reefs, beaches and “the most beautiful waters” in the pre-dawn hours of October 12 decidedly ushered in a new age.
The discovery triggered a tidal wave of immigrant conquerors seeking quick riches, and set in motion the enslavement, murder and near extermination of the native peoples. Expanding colonies fostered the emergence of powerful new empires and the fall of others. A new order took hold that sharpened divisions between overlords and the subjugated, culminating in the massive and monstrous slave trade from Africa that underpinned the creation of vast new fortunes. Indeed, the wealth generated from Caribbean plantations worked by slaves provided a critical concentration of capital in Europe that financed the Industrial Revolution and made possible modern society.
Pinpointing where Columbus landed matters because it goes to the heart of historical inquiry: How did it happen? Not asking this question would deny the inquisitiveness that defines our humanity. After all, the landfall unleashed forces that made us who we are today, particularly so for those of us living in the West Indies—named, of course, for the woefully wrong assumption by Columbus that he arrived in the Orient, then referred to as “The Indies.”

Original error
Two centuries earlier, Marco Polo pioneered an eastward overland route from Turkey to the fabled kingdoms of Cathay and Cipango (now known as China and Japan) that generated substantial wealth for traders in silk and spice. But in 1453, the gateway city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the Ottomans, making such treks far more dangerous and near impossible. Maritime explorers had considerable incentive to find a sea route to the Orient to resume the lucrative trade. While the Portuguese made good progress going south, hugging the coast of Africa before heading east, Columbus proposed heading west—not knowing, of course, that another hemisphere lay in between.
He and other educated people of his day understood the spherical form of the planet based largely on theories developed by the ancient Greek philosopher/geographers. Many of them got surprisingly close to the actual size we know today. But some of the ancients, notably Ptolemy building on the works of Marinus of Tyre, believed the earth to be about 3/4 of its true size.
Columbus bought into the smaller, inaccurate model, but compounded the error by applying the shorter “Italian” mile, instead of the longer “Arab” mile, to the maps ancient geographers used for measuring the size of the earth. The Italian mile equated to .74 mile (1.24 km) in today’s measurement standards. An Arab mile equaled about 1.1 miles (1.9 km), representing a significant 35% difference. Based on this mistake, Columbus estimated the distance to the Orient from the Canary Islands (the westernmost islands in the Atlantic and logical jumping-off point) to be only 3,000 Italian miles (2,300 miles/3,700 km). At an average speed of six knots with favorable winds, an Atlantic crossing to the Indies looked to be a reasonable, if still risky, proposition. Had Columbus used the longer Arab mile and applied it to a larger sphere, he would have calculated a much longer distance for the voyage—and a far more daunting challenge.

Setting sail
Portuguese and Spanish mariners, along with others including Columbus (originally from the Republic of Genoa, now part of modern Italy), had already sailed well into the Atlantic. In the course of exploration, the Iberian sailors discovered and settled the Azores, Madeira, and Canary Islands and developed a significant body of knowledge and confidence in their maritime capabilities. Improved ship construction, particularly the development of triangular “lateen” sailing rigs for caravels that greatly improved handling in headwinds, also bolstered the prospect of longer voyages.
Armed with the gifts of persistence, charm and persuasion, Columbus over time managed to convince Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to finance most of the expedition’s cost. Having driven the Moors out of Spain earlier in 1492 and consolidated their kingdoms, the monarchs had their own incentive to gain an advantage over their more advanced Portuguese neighbors and other rivals. (Ironically, the Portuguese king turned down Columbus when he approached him earlier.) Columbus quickly brought in other investors and secured and outfitted three ships: The small, nimble caravels La Niña and La Pinta and the older, larger, slower “carrack” or “nao” flagship Santa Maria.
On August 3, 1492 the ships departed from the Spanish port city of Palos to the Canary Islands. After a stop in Gomera Island to repair the Pinta’s rudder and take on provisions, Columbus set sail on September 6. His course took him within sight of the western-most Canary Island of El Hierro, at which point he caught the prevailing westerly winds and steered due west into the vast blue unknown using compass dead reckoning.
After 36 days of sailing, Rodrigo de Triana, a sailor aboard La Pinta, shouted out in the early morning hours, “¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!,” (Land! Land!). La Pinta set off a canon charge, a pre-arranged signal when land was sighted. To hold their positions until daylight and avoid hitting rocks or reef, the ships steered their bows into the wind and replaced the main sails with smaller fore and aft “treo” sails. The rising sun behind them a few hours later confirmed a long island lying on a north–south axis with high bluffs clearly visible with many other small islands around. But where?

Tim Ainley and Josiah Marvel put the theory to the test in November 2014.

Chief proponent
Scholars most often cite San Salvador (until 1926 known as Watling Island) in the eastern middle section of the Bahamas as the most likely location for the Columbus landfall. National Geographic magazine, also a player, has long promoted nearby Samana Cay, which lies 72 miles (120 km) south–southeast. However, many uncertainties remain and evidence for the first landings in those islands is far from conclusive.
Enter historian Josiah Marvel, longtime visitor to Provo and part-time resident of Salt Cay. He has become the most ardent and leading advocate for Grand Turk as the most likely landing. (See Times of the Islands, Fall 1992.) A septuagenarian originally from New York, Mr. Marvel suffers no fools. With his professorial bearing, he looks and acts like a man on a mission to correct a momentous historical mistake.
Mr. Marvel has poured the better part of his adult life into making the case for Grand Turk as the true first landfall. He has done his homework with uncommon verve, spending years locating and translating original documents from the time of Columbus in the libraries of Seville and other parts of Spain. And he has stood fast in defending his theory in the face of unmerciful academic onslaught. His efforts yielded a comprehensive, fascinating and convincing assessment of the 1492 voyage titled, Columbus’s Grand Turk Landing.
Leaving no stone unturned, Mr. Marvel meticulously lays out a mountain of evidence with forceful, logical arguments that draw on Columbus’s logbook, Diario*, the recordings of his contemporaries, and academic work through the centuries. He compares descriptions of landfall features of Grand Turk and other islands, discusses observations made of native peoples encountered, and delves into cartographic depictions and medieval systems of measurement. But the impact of magnetic variation on the westerly heading forms the strongest and most compelling argument supporting the Grand Turk landfall.

Magnetic variation
The earth’s magnetic field causes a compass needle to point to a location called the magnetic north pole (in the northern hemisphere), thus enabling mariners to navigate and hold a course in an ocean when there are no landmarks. However, magnetic north and true geographical north differ. The angle between the true north and magnetic north is known as magnetic variation (or declination) that must be accounted for, especially when traveling great distances, to ensure accurate navigation.
Only in one instance do magnetic north and true north line up. We call this today the agonic line (literally “line of no angle”). The agonic line migrates slowly and erratically over centuries to different locations depending in large part on the movement of electrically charged convection currents within the earth’s molten metallic core.
Mariners in Columbus’s time had some awareness of variation between true north, located using the polar North Star, and where the compass pointed. But that variation was small when sailing through the Mediterranean Sea and off the coast of West Africa and consistently to the east. Compass makers calibrated accordingly. In other words, little to worry about.
After Columbus set sail from Spain to the Canary Islands, he noted that the compass and true north aligned when cross-checked with the polar North Star. Unknown to him, he was crossing the agonic line in the middle of the North Atlantic. Therefore, when Columbus set a course of due west at El Hierro island, the compass needle continued to point close to true north in near alignment with the agonic line. This meant an initially close to accurate westerly course.
As Columbus sailed further west—away from the agonic line— he and the pilots noticed that the compass north began to vary from the polar North Star. In particular, they observed a westerly variation not seen before because all of their sailing experience had been east of the agonic line. This strange inconsistency created considerable distress among the crew, as it called into question the accuracy of their navigation.
Columbus managed to calm the fears temporarily by asserting that the polar North Star had “moved,” and therefore the westerly compass heading was accurate. An uncorroborated story alleges that Columbus secretly turned the compass card so the needle would not appear to deviate as much from the North Star when the pilots cross-checked.
The reassurance did not last as the sailors became increasingly skeptical that land would be found before supplies of food and water ran out. Around day 33 of the voyage, the captain of La Pinta, Martín Alonzo Pinzón, and other officers gave Columbus an ultimatum: If they did not find land in three days, they would turn around and return to Spain. Two days later at 2 AM on October 12, just before the deadline, de Triana saw “a white head of sand” in the sea ahead and raised his eyes to see land. Mr. Marvel submits that de Triana saw the sandy bottom in the moonlight that uniquely fits the waters 7 miles (11 km) off Grand Turk, the approximate location of the ships. The island sighting restored confidence and forestalled the threatened mutiny. (Incidentally, Columbus disputed de Triana’s sighting as being the first because he claimed to have sighted a “light,” indicating land, four hours earlier, thus denying de Triana a substantial reward).
Although something was clearly amiss in the navigation of that first voyage, just how much magnetic variation played took five centuries to begin to resolve. Past locations (as well as future positions) of the agonic line arbitrarily shift and are not easily determined, as the movement leaves no record in the same way that, say, geological formations or fossils do. So, until recently, no basis existed to infer the role of magnetic variation beyond speculation.
An 1899 study by Dutch geophysicist William van Bemmelen, drawing from several previous studies, concluded that magnetic variation had little impact on Columbus’s westerly course. Using that analysis, a dead reckoning westerly course from El Hierro would in fact be a straight shot to San Salvador (or Samana Cay), thus initially giving credence to one of those islands being the first landfall. Columbus too recorded the same latitude from El Hierro to the landfall island, even though variation was clearly detected.
The 1899 study that downplayed the role of magnetic variation during the voyage went unchallenged for almost a century, as Mr. Marvel points out. Not until 1989—and the advent of more powerful computers—did a study by Dr. Phillip L. Richardson and Roger A. Goldsmith at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution re-examine the impact of magnetic variation on the Columbus voyage. Published in 1992—the 500th anniversary of the Columbus landing—the study ran a numerical computer simulation from data supplied by Mr. Marvel showing a significant variation of 1 compass point or 11.25 degrees West. This variation, according to Dr. Richardson and Mr. Goldsmith, as well as Mr. Marvel, indicates that while they were sailing west, they were veering imperceptibly southward.
The authors corroborated their finding with six previously unconsidered accounts by mariners who arrived in the Americas shortly after Columbus and reported noticeable variation between compass and true north. When we apply the shorter Italian mile used by Columbus (also expressed as “leagues” equaling 4 Italian miles or 2.67 nautical miles) and correlate that with the influence of magnetic variation, the terminus for the voyage fits closely with Grand Turk—not the more northerly and westerly locations of San Salvador/Watling or Samana Cay. As the Woods Hole study summarizes, “The evidence to date implies that Grand Turk is a reasonable choice for the first landfall based on the transatlantic voyage.”

This painting by Haitian artist Burnes shows the Indians present on many Islands of the Turks & Caicos in 1492.

The landing
We can only imagine the excitement of the sailors as they awaited the daylight that October morning that would fully reveal the dark silhouette of an island. Descriptions from the Diario and other accounts of what they saw offer more valuable clues that strengthen the case for Grand Turk.
In Historia General, an extensive account of the first voyage in 1547, Columbus contemporary Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo wrote that on the morning of October 12, several cays were seen with the landfall island (called by its Lucayan** Indian name Guanahani) laying to the north. This comports with the many cays south of Grand Turk that would have been easily visible: Salt Cay, Cotton Cay, Pinzón Cay, Pear Cay, Long Cay, Round Cay and Gibbs Cay. More revealing, Mr. Marvel points out, Oviedo goes on to state, “And he (Columbus) arrived at them (the islets), especially that of Guanahani, and stayed between it and another which is called Caicos.” The unique reference to “Caicos” in proximity to the landfall island strongly suggests the island of South Caicos, which is only 21 miles (35 km) from Grand Turk.
Sailing north and circling around the landfall island, Columbus records that he found a cut in the reef on the protected northwest side and a sandy bottom for anchorage. This conforms to Grand Turk topography and anchoring requirements at the time. Specifically, ships used rope (not chain) anchor lines, so sailors avoided sharp rocks and coral that could sever the lines.
Columbus promptly went ashore, took “possession” of the island in the name of the Spanish king and queen, and named it San Salvador (Holy Saviour). At about the same time, he encountered Indians, most likely Lucayan, a branch of the larger Taino Indian peoples who lived in what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He described the natives as peaceful, athletic, handsome, without religion (but convertible to Christianity) and naked as the day they were born.
The following day on October 13, Columbus described a laguna, which can be interpreted as a large pond, in the middle of the island. North Creek in the northern half of Grand Turk matches that observation nicely. Such a pond, Mr. Marvel states, would be visible from the deck of a ship like the Santa Maria anchored off the northwest shore of Grand Turk. Also on the second day, Columbus set out in a rowing boat to explore the coast. On the southeastern part of the island, he came upon an excellent anchorage protected by a long reef, which he described with flourish in the Diario, “And in between it (the reef and the shore) remains deep and a port for as many ships as there are in all of Christiandom.” The Hawks Nest area on the southeast end of Grand Turk bears a remarkable similarity. Indeed, 300 years later, the British Navy in 1799 also noted that this same reef-protected bay would make a fine anchorage for ships.
While some of the descriptions apply to the island of San Salvador and Samana Cay, all of them apply to Grand Turk, thus strengthening the case for Grand Turk.
Convinced that the islands were not far from his real destinations of Cipango and Cathay, Columbus tried hard to glean information from the Lucayans. They, of course, spoke a language incomprehensible to him and had no clue what he was talking about. Columbus did see that the natives had some small pieces of gold that suggested there had to be more not far away. To gain their cooperation, Columbus showered them with trinket gifts of beads and tiny bells. The natives indicated to Columbus that a large land lay to the south where much gold could be found. After all, Columbus launched the voyage in a quest for riches and power, not exploration for its own sake.
Although some scholars had long floated Grand Turk as a possible landfall island candidate, most rejected it. First, because of the absence of magnetic variation as a significant factor, which has now been established. And second, because no evidence of an Indian settlement on Grand Turk could be found, an essential factor since no one disputes the encounter with Indians on the landfall island. In 1989, archeologist Dr. Bill Keegan did find evidence of Indian settlements on Grand Turk, but concluded the Indians had abandoned them well before the Columbus arrival, thus once again seeming to eliminate Grand Turk as a landfall candidate.
However, further subsequent archeological surveys indicate a sizable Indian presence on many other islands of the Turk & Caicos very close to 1492 (Times of the Islands, Winter 2005). In particular, an archeological survey in 2015 on Cotton Cay, just 6 miles (10 km) south of Grand Turk, found artifacts that were radiocarbon dated to between the years 1405 and 1445. Radiocarbon dates that close to 1492 makes it reasonable to infer that a larger island like Grand Turk also had a population of Indians who could have greeted Columbus at the time of his arrival, even if specific evidence for that has yet to be found. Archeological work is ongoing.

Following Columbus
In 2014, longtime Providenciales mariner Captain Tim Ainley organized a sailing expedition with Sy Marvel, Captain Dave Calvert, photographer/videographer Jon Nickson and others to retrace the second leg and third leg of the Columbus voyage. Named “Following Columbus” (Times of the Islands, Winter 2014), the expedition departed from Grand Turk and followed the reefs from South Caicos north along East Caicos and Middle Caicos before rounding North Caicos to Pine Cay. In Pine Cay, the modern-day mariners noted a wide cut in the reef and confirmed a sandy bottom good for anchoring late 15th century ships, all of which corresponds closely to Columbus’s descriptions. From Pine Cay, Mr. Marvel points out, Columbus said he saw hills to the west, which comports with Blue Hills on Providenciales.
As Columbus sailed from what is likely Pine Cay, he and his crew spied a lone native in a dugout canoe and brought him on board the ship. Columbus noted that the native had with him trinkets he had given the Indians on the landfall island. This meant that the Indian had been in Grand Turk when they landed there and, remarkably, paddled some 70 miles (112 km). The canoeist indicated where he was headed, which Columbus followed, with the Indian on board, on an east-to-west course.
The “Following Columbus” expedition sailed that same route that led to Mayaguana island (now part of the Bahamas). Called Fernadina by Columbus, it lies 39 miles (62 km) west–northwest of Providenciales. Again, the narrative given by Columbus matches. While sailing the southern coast of this island, Columbus reported anchoring off a large harbour too shallow for his ships to enter, though deep enough for his row boats. The “Following Columbus” captains identified this as Abraham’s Bay, thus providing yet another indicator that Columbus’s journey took him here rather than the more northerly Bahamian islands.
“Following Columbus” launched two more expeditions, including one that retraced Columbus’s purported route from San Salvador/Watling to see if it accorded from a mariner’s perspective. It did not. The islands west of San Salvador/Watling and Samana Cay lack good anchorages and bear little resemblance to the Columbus account in the Diario.

Off the coast of Haiti
We know that Columbus reached the eastern end of Cuba, thanks in part to Lucayan Indians he had lured on to the ship as guides. From Cuba, he turned around and headed east again, where he came across the lush, mountainous coast of what is now northern Haiti on the island he named Hispañola. Here, Columbus encountered well populated Taino Indian settlements and befriended a major chief of the region, Cacique Guancanagari. During the early morning hours of December 25, while the Santa Maria sailed slowly along the coast in calm waters, the pilot on watch apparently grew tired and gave the tiller to a 14 year-old boy so he could take a nap. A short time later, a sudden shudder awakened the crew. The Santa Maria had run smack into a reef or sandbar.
At daybreak, Taino Indians arrived in canoes to help get the ship loose, but to no avail. Luckily, La Niña was sailing within sight and approached, but did not have enough room onboard to take everyone from the now shipwrecked Santa Maria. So, Columbus asked for volunteers to stay behind. Forty men quickly agreed, and Columbus promised to return to pick them up the following year. He ordered planks torn from the ship to build a crude fort called La Navidad (Christmas) for the stay-behinds to live in. Archeologists have since located the site not far from what is now the city of Cap-Haitien. (Note: Columbus did return the following year in 1493 to pick up the men, but the Tainos had apparently killed them. We do not know the circumstances, but once-good relations that Columbus had with the natives soured severely after that.)
The Haiti visit provides strong support for the Grand Turk landfall theory. Before departing the coast of Haiti for the journey back to Spain in January 1493, Columbus estimated the latitude position to be 26 degrees north (using the latitude designations of his time). Three months earlier, he had recorded the landfall island’s latitude to the north at 27 1/2 degrees, a 1.5 degree difference. That difference equated to 90 nautical miles (103 miles/165 km), almost the same distance between Grand Turk and the closest point to northern Hispañola near the Haiti/Dominican Republic border. By contrast, San Salvador/Watling Island lies three times farther north based on the 1.5 degree latitude difference. Samana Cay lies only slightly closer, but still 2.5 times farther north, thus making those islands unlikely landfalls.

Final thoughts
De Triana’s cry, “¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!,” echoes through the centuries as it did on that early moonlit morning 525 years ago. Debate continues on where the three small ships “hove to” into the wind to await daylight for the landfall that promised the crew’s survival and accolades for discovering a westerly route to the Orient.
The weight of evidence, thanks to dedicated scholarship and voyage re-creations, surely now leans heavily toward Grand Turk/Guanahani. More probable than anywhere, two vastly different worlds first met here in this string of island reefs the Tainos/Lucayans called “Caicu,” and dramatically changed our collective destinies forever. We can with confidence look out over Grace Bay, or Mudjin Harbour, or the Columbus Passage, and imagine seeing two small caravels trailed by a slower ship sailing across with big red crosses on billowing sails and pennants fluttering in the wind.
After Columbus returned from his epic voyage, unimpressed noblemen at a dinner party claimed anyone could have done it by just sailing west. Columbus supposedly threw out his own challenge. He took an egg and asked the sneering noblemen to stand the egg upright on its tip without any external support. They tried over and over but could not do it. Columbus then grabbed the egg and cracked the large end into the table so that it stood on its own shell. “There!” he is alleged to have said. “Any one of you could have done it, but I did it.”
No one doubts Columbus’s courage, vision and extraordinary talent as a mariner whose actions dramatically altered the course of history. Nonetheless, in my opinion, we cannot allow him to escape complicity in the enslavement and near extermination of Indian peoples. The first voyage was peaceful enough—if you exclude the kidnapping of the Indians through trickery and taking them back to Spain where most of them died. But the second voyage in 1493 commenced with vengeance against the Indians, in part because he found dead the 40 crew members left behind at La Navidad in Northern Haiti.
Some contend that Columbus’s involvement in the ever-expanding gruesome exploitation and killing of Indians conformed with the violent and brutal “tenor of the times.” After all, the Spanish Inquisition had just gotten started and went on for almost 350 years. Slavery among the well-to-do in the Mediterranean was not unusual in the circles Columbus ran in. But that lets Columbus and those who came later off the hook too easily because the “tenor of the times” was more complicated and hardly uniform.
In fact, contemporaries of Columbus did object. Spanish friar and social reformer Bartolomé de las Casas, in particular, documented the atrocities perpetrated against Indians and made the case for intervention to stop it. Even after the first voyage when Columbus proposed to Queen Isabella that Indians be made slaves, the queen asked that the Indies be slave-free, though she later changed her mind. Thus, well-placed people of conscience, a minority to be sure, called attention to the burgeoning cruelty being inflicted on native peoples and condemned it. Columbus did not, though most certainly aware of the countervailing viewpoints. Indians too practiced a form of enslavement and perpetrated their own atrocities against one another. But even if “both sides did it,” one still has to be accountable, especially when Columbus and those who followed arrived as an invading force with the power to prevail.
In the end, Columbus must be given his due as one of the world’s greatest maritime explorers—but his achievements cannot be divorced from his crimes against humanity and therefore should not be celebrated.

* Columbus’s original Diario has been lost to time, but transcribed copies still exist. While detailed, they will always leave open the question of accuracy.

** The term Lucayan is the Anglicization of the Spanish version Lucayos, that in turn was derived from the original Taino word Lukku-Cairi, meaning “people of the islands.”

Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for Turks & Caicos Islands history. An avid ocean man, he is the co-founder of the sports and adventure tour company Caicu Naniki and the annual Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim. Ben can be reached at ben@caicunaniki.com.



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