Saturday, 12 October 2013

Christopher Columbus, Rodrigo de Triana, and the discovery of the New World

On 6 September 1492, the flotilla of vessels comprising the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, under the command of Admiral Christopher Columbus, set sail from the Canary Islands, and one month later there was still no sight of land. 

With the sailors close to mutiny, on 10 October, Columbus, aboard the Santa Maria, summoned the Pinta and the Nina to draw close so that he could address their crews.

'My brave lads!' he tells them. 'Have courage! It is true that we have yet to sight land, but I am fully trained and highly skilled navigator. I know my arse from my elbow, and my infallible and precise calculations tell me that Japan - yes, Japan! - is just over the horizon. And remember: the Queen of Spain has promised a prize of 10,000 maravedis to whomsoever is first to spy our destination. So forward, my tall fellows!'

The sailors cried 'Hurrah!' and threw their caps into the air, and indeed on 12 October, at two in the morning, a sailor's cry of 'Japan ahoy!' is heard to ring through the air aboard the Pinta. The sailor was Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, also known as Rodrigo de Triana, and soon all can discern the sombre outlines of the coast in the rays of the moon.

At first light, the captain of the Pinta, Martin Alonso Pinzon, clambered aboard the Santa Maria, to claim from the admiral the Spanish Queen's prize for Rodrigo de Triana. But he was in for a surprise.
'What time was this?' questioned Columbus.
'At 2 a.m.' replied Pinzon.
'That's a pity, because I spotted it at 10 p.m. the previous night', replied Columbus.
'But that's impossible!' protested Pinzon.
'No, no, I have two witnesses!' countered Columbus. 'I could even make out the lights and smell the sushi.'
It was pointless to argue, for already it was time to manoeuvre the vessels alongside the green and lush landfall.

Naked and friendly natives came to greet the new arrivals, welcoming them with gifts of cotton and parakeets. But something was not quite right. 
'Are you quite sure that this is Japan, Chris?' Alonso asked Columbus.
'Of course it's Japan! Where else could it be? Where's my interpreter? He'll confirm it', replied the admiral.
At that moment the interpreter rushed forward.
'Well?' asked Columbus.
'I don't understand it!' said the interpreter. 'I've talked to them but they don't seem to understand a word of Japanese!'
'Oops! We must have taken a wrong turning!' said Alonso.
'Well, wherever we are', replied Columbus, 'inform them that I'm renaming their ancient land San Salvador, that they are now subjects of the King of Spain, and can they please tell me where I can get my hands on their gold.'

Communicating through gestures, the explorers believe they have learned that the gold is on an island to the south. They set sail at once, and on 28 October weigh anchor in the new land.
'At last!' announced Columbus triumphantly. 'Japan!'
In fact it was Cuba, but by this time did anyone care?

But the vexing question remains: Who was the first to discover the New World? Was it Columbus? Was it Rodrigo? Or was it a new candidate - Pedro de Lope? Posterity may never know.


  1. Columbus was searching for a new route to Indias not Japan. Yet, Columbus thought there were certain regions that were not in the map many miles from what people thought the world ended.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write this. Where did you get this information? I'd love to read the source.

    1. Many thanks for your comment. The story that Rodrigo de Triana has the rightful claim to being the first sailor in the expedition to see the Americas is on Wikipedia and other Internet sources.