CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS ||| Ch.XII. THE FIRST TRIALCategory: Christopher Columbus
THE FIRST TRIAL
It was Columbus’s plan to sail for Canary Islands, partly conquered by Spain, and then west from there. He was not going to repeat the mistakes of the Portuguese, who had always started their journeys from the Azores, much farther north, where they had met strong opposing winds. Columbus expected to find much more favourable winds to the south. Besides, the Canary Islands were at the same latitude as Cipango, which Columbus hoped to reach. How far was it to Cipango? Columbus assured his sailors that it was a distance of only 750 leagues. (A league was nearly three and a half statute miles.) That would mean a journey of not over three weeks. He was so certain of this that he promised them he would turn the ships homeward if they did not reach land after 750 leagues.
The waters off the African coast were rough, and it was hard to keep the three ships of the fleet together. The little “Nina”, with her lateen sails, went ahead so often that she had to shorten sail to reduce speed. Columbus saw that this would be a problem. When the wind was athwart, the “Nina” was fast. But when the course was changed to westward with the wind behind, to sail the “Nina” was very difficult. She was not so fast as the two other ships with the square sails. So Columbus decided to change her sails at the Canary Islands.
The “Santa Maria” was the poorest sailer of the fleet. She was slow and clumsy. The “Pinta” and “Nina” could run circles round her and Columbus could see the Pinzon brothers’ grins as they sailed quickly past him contrary to orders.
Three days after the fleet left Palos the “Pinta” gave a distress signal. Columbus approached her as close as he dared in the rough sea. He rowed over and boarded the vessel. Martin Pinzon met him at the rail. His face was black with anger. He explained to Columbus that the ship’s rudder had been damaged and now hung useless.
“It was that Cristobal Quintero and his brother Juan,” said Pinzon. “I’m sure it’s sabotage. Cristobal’s angry because we took his ship and because I appointed my brother Francisco as n: ster instead of him.”
Columbus looked into Pinzon’s eyes, but he couldn’t understand anything. Only three days out and there was trouble already!
“You have only your suspicions/’ he told Captain Pinzon, “and you must be silent about this. Let’s try to fix the rudder and continue our voyage. We can’t turn back now.”
With temporary repairs, the “Pinta” was able to sail further with the fleet. A few days later the three ships reached the island of Grand Canary. It took a month of hard work to repair the ships. The “Pinta’s” rudder was fixed. The “Nina’s” big triangular sails were cut up and sewn into square sails. Fresh supplies of food, water casks and firewood were loaded aboard. Columbus watched every operation very carefully. Everything had to be perfect. By the first week in September, the fleet was ready to sail again.
The pilot of a caravel just arrived from Ferro Island took Columbus aside the day before the fleet sailed and warned him of danger. He had seen three Portuguese warships cruising near Ferro. King John of Portugal might have heard about the enterprise and perhaps was trying to stop it.73
Columbus thanked the pilot, but he did not let the news delay his sailing. Too much time had been wasted already. In the early morning of September 6 his ships sailed westward.
Look-outs watched carefully for the Portuguese vessels as they passed the islands of Gomera and Tenerife. The men crossed themselves as the Tenerife volcano threw flames to the sky. Was this a bad omen?
The fleet sailed round the windward side of Ferro and saw nothing of the Portuguese on the lee side of the island. By evening of September 9 all trace of land had disappeared astern. Ahead was the open sea. The ships had left behind them the last outpost of the Old World.