Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations


Category: Christopher Columbus



The first ship furnished by the people of Palos was the little “Nina”. She was chartered for the trip from her owner Juan Nino.

She was a sturdy little vessel called a caravel, carefully built, a speedy sailer — the product of honest and wise workmen.

The “Nina” was a small, one-decked vessel with lateen sails on three masts.

How big was the “Nina”? The records say that she was sixty tons. However, in those days that kind of measuring did not mean weight. The nautical ton of Columbus’s time was actually a “tun”, which is a cask of wine. Casks of wine were the most usual cargoes of the Spanish ships along the coast. So, to calculate the size of the “Nina”, we have to picture a vessel which could carry sixty “tuns” of wine.

We can guess that “Nina” was about twenty-one metres long from front to rear. At her widest point she was about seven metres. Her depth in the water was about two metres.

Like all other caravels, the “Nina” had only one deck. Everything under this deck was called the hold. A raised platform like a balcony near the stern was called the quarter­deck and it was reserved for the captain and chief officers. A small hut, called by the Spaniards a “toldilla”, was erected on the quarter-deck as the captain’s cabin.

As you see, there was not very much room, and certainly very little comfort, for the twenty-two men who sailed the “Nina” to the New World.

The “Pinta” was only a little larger than the “Nina”. Like the “Nina”, she was a well-constructed vessel built by the craftsmen of Palos. She was like the “Nina” except that she had square sails instead of lateen.

The third ship was the “Santa Maria”. She was a carrack with square sails built in the province of Galicia. The “Santa Maria” was bigger than a caravel, she sat much too deeply in the water and could not be used for exploration near shore. So Columbus was afraid that it would be dangerous to try to sail her over unknown reefs.

Carracks were not built for speed sailing. They were made to hold cargo. Because of their shape they were slow, and they rolled and pitched uncomfortably.

Nobody knows exactly what the “Santa Maria” looked like or how big she was. There are indications, however, that she was more than one hundred tons large. She was about twenty-three metres long, which was not as big as most carracks. But she j was the biggest of the three ships of Columbus’s fleet, and for that reason he made her the flagship. The toldilla on the “Santa Maria” was larger than those on the other ships and thus more suited for Admiral Christopher Columbus.

The fifteenth-century shipbuilders did not think about human comforts. Except for the captain’s toldilla, there were no private cabins for anyone. The crew and passengers simply lay down on deck to sleep wherever they could find a place. A few tarpaulins made the only protection against rain in bad weather, but most sailors could sleep in the rain and snow and wind.

Some sailors crept into the hold on stormy nights to sleep on the stones which were carried as ballast.

The stone ballast was important not only to weigh down the bottom of the ship so that she would not roll so much, but also as a kind of ammuni­tion. Some sailors usually carried a few of these stones in their pockets and used them to kill a sea-bird. The birds were a welcome change in the daily diet of salt meat, fish and biscuits.

Because there was no regular cook, the sailor had to cook the bird himself over an open firebox, lined with sand and screened from the wind by a wooden back.

Firewood was precious, and the sailor had to be careful to use only a little bit of it.

The life of a sailor in Columbus’s time was not easy. Work aboard ship was very hard and it demanded skill and train­ing. The able seaman had to know how to cook, how to mend rope and sail, how to climb the rigging and manage sails in a storm, how to steer the ship.

Although each ship usually carried a master carpenter, the able seaman had to know how to build a ship, if necessary.

The sailor needed skill as much as he needed muscle when his turn cartie to steer the ship. Steering demanded a particular kind of “sea-sense”, especially because the helmsman usually worked “blind”. Columbus’s helmsmen stood at great oak tillers and pushed these back and forth to move the heavy rudder. The steering wheel had not yet been invented. The helmsmen had to know how to keep the ship on her course, because very often he could see nothing. Over his head was the quarter-deck, shutting out his view of the sky and sails.

It was the job of an officer, who stood on the quarter-deck to shout di­rections down to the helms­man.

The seaman had to know how to shoot, for guns were carried aboard Columbus’s little fleet. Each ship carried a few iron “lombards”. There were several “falconets” as well. The sailors also had to use small arms such as crossbows and muskets.

The “Nina”, “Pinta” and “Santa Maria” were a pret­ty sight in Palos harbour, on August 2, 1492. Their many colourful pennants and banners flew high in the breeze. Over the “Santa Maria’s” masthead waved the special banner that Columbus had designed for the voyage. It was a snow-white banner with a great green cross on it. Above each arm of the cross was a gold crown. Over one crown was the queen’s initial and over the other crown stood “F” for King Ferdinand.

But on the next day the banners would be hauled down and carefully packed away. No ship ever sailed with banners flying — these were only for display in port. On the open sea banners would soon be torn to pieces. And these gay banners would be needed for the busy wealthy ports of the Indies that surely lay on the other side of the Ocean Sea.

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