Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations


Category: Christopher Columbus




At first the voyage was the kind sailors dream about. The trade winds blew steady and fresh behind them. The sea was blue and calm.

The men played their instruments, sang sailors’ songs or simply enjoyed the view. Columbus wrote in his journal, “The weather was like April in Andalusia, the only thing wanting was to hear the nightingale.”

He was happy. His feeling of loneliness had passed. Nothing encourages a sailor as much as being on the sea in a good wind. Now he felt truly at home.

Every time of day on board ship was marked by a ceremony, for sailors everywhere are men of habit. The Spaniards especially loved ceremonies and they had built up many of them for seamen to follow.

Most of these customs were religious ones, for Spanish seamen were very religious. There were no priests aboard, but the sailors knew all the religious services that were used on ships at sea. Although many seamen could lead a service as well as a priest, it was the custom for the young boys to lead the crew in the singing of hymns.

The day and its habits were ruled by the clock and Columbus loved the custom on Spanish ships of singing a hymn every half-hour by the clock. The clock of that time was the hourglass, or “ampolleta” The sand in the upper bottle took exactly one half-hour to run into the lower glass. Then, when it had run out, the ampolleta was turned upside-down to measure out the next half-hour. Every ship carried several ampolletas which were carefully guarded. They were very expensive and hard to get, for the best ones were made in Venice by the famous glass blowers of that city.

It was the job of the youngest boy on duty to turn the ampolleta every half-hour. Woe to him if he forgot! To show that he did not forget, he sang a religious hymn loudly each time he turned the glass, so that all could hear. Each different turn of the glass had its own special hymn, and the boys of the watch had to memorize each one thoroughly.

The men worked in shifts, or “watches”, usually four hours each — eight turns of the ampolleta.

As Columbus lay on his bunk after a sleepless night, he knew it was daybreak by the sound of a singing boy.

Then he could hear the voices of the men on the watch.

The day was beginning.

The men washed the decks hauling sea water up with buckets.

Hastily the men of the new morning watch walked to the forecastle and ate their breakfast. One by one, still chewing their breakfast, they replaced the tired men of the night watch, who lay down on the deck to sleep.

Then Cplumbus’s servant appeared with his master’s breakfast. He put it in the toldiila and then went back again to bring water for his master — a bucket of sea water for washing and a cup of fresh water for drinking.

After breakfast the big sail was brought down to be mended.

By eleven o’clock it was time for the only hot meal of the day. The men ate from a big wooden bowl, the officers of the ship ate separately.

After the hot meal, the men and officers who were off duty slept for a short time, waking in time for prayer at noon. All aboard took part in this service which Columbus loved to lead.

Then men went back to their work of mending sail and rope.

At three o’clock the working day was over. The men rested. Some began washing, sewing and mending their own clothing. Others simply lay in the late afternoon sun and watched the clouds. Some slept before the coming night watch.

Soon the sun came down closer to the horizon and silence came over the ship. The men gathered at the bow, silently looking towards the west, where the sun was a golden ball. There, under the setting sun, something awaited them — a mysterious land where the houses were roofed with gold as bright as the sun itself.

The first stars appeared. Just before the first night watch went on duty, a boy’s voice called the men to their evening prayers.

When the service was over, the men went to find sleeping places for the long night. All was quiet soon. The men I whispered among themselves or slept or simply lay on their backs looking at the stars.

The ship sailed on through the darkening night.

At the entrance to his toldilla Christopher Columbus stood listening. The sea whispered to him like a hushed giant. The ship creaked, the wind sang through the rigging. Somewhere below — a sailor dreaming of sea monsters, perhaps – cried out in his sleep. Black night enveloped the “Santa Maria”. Columbus turned and went inside. He lit the lamp on his table, sat down and began to write in his journal.

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