Petroglyphs, Reef Bay Trail, St. John Virgin Islands

Did Columbus Really Land on St. Croix?

It is commonly accepted that the first battle between Europeans and Native Americans was fought between Spaniards and Caribs on the island of St. Croix. Recent archeological research, however, has raised some questions as to the identity of the natives and possibly the location of the event.

The story of the encounter goes like this:

On the morning of November 14, 1493, seventeen ships under the command of Christopher Columbus, carrying 1,500 passengers, officers and crew, dropped anchor at what historians believe was Salt River Bay, on an island that Columbus named, Santa Cruz and today is called St. Croix.

A party of thirty men went ashore in longboats to get fresh water, search for other provisions and make contact with the inhabitants, but as the Spaniards approached, the people of the small coastal village fled into the hills. Four women and four boys, captives of the natives, were left behind and taken prisoner by the Spaniards. The shore party and their prisoners were just about to return to the ships, when a canoe with four men, two women and a boy rounded the point and began to enter the bay.

The occupants of the canoe were apparently so stunned by what they saw that they saw, they stopped paddling and remained motionless for over an hour, all the while staring in amazement at the spectacle of the Spanish fleet. Then the soldiers from the landing party rowed the longboat out into the bay putting the native canoe between the longboat and the anchored fleet. Cut off from escape, the natives began shooting arrows at their pursuers.

Two Spaniards were injured in the skirmish. One of the injured later died from a wound he received when an arrow shot by one of the women passed through his shield. The battle came to an end when the longboat rammed the canoe, capsizing it, and sending its occupants into the sea. The natives were captured, except for one man who continued shooting arrows at the Spanish while swimming in the water, until he was seriously wounded and brought aboard the ship. Thought to be dead, he was thrown overboard whereupon, holding his intestines in one hand, he attempted to swim back to shore. Then the Spanish sailors who used a grappling hook to haul him back into the boat, whereupon his head was cut off with an axe.

Who were these fierce warriors? Historians have identified them as Caribs, and for good reason. On Columbus' first voyage he traveled to the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola where he encountered a peaceful indigenous people who called themselves Taino. On his second voyage he made landfall in the Lesser Antilles, islands inhabited by a warlike people who the Spanish named Caribs.

Columbus's first stop was on Dominica and from there he proceeded to Guadeloupe where a landing party discovered six Taino women who had been abducted from their home island of Puerto Rico and brought to Guadeloupe. When the Spaniards were about to return to the ship, "these women entered the boat, begging the sailors to take them to the ship. They showed by signs that the people of the island ate people and kept them as slaves." (From the journal of the second voyage.)

The strongest evidence suggesting that it was Caribs who were encountered on the island Columbus called Santa Cruz, comes from their identification by these women rescued just five days before, and who had lived among the Caribs as captive brides. Furthermore, the Taino captives brought back from the island attested to the Carib practice of ritual cannibalism. Another indication of the native's ethnicity is provided by the their use of the bow and arrow, a weapon favored by Caribs but rarely used by the Taino.

Based on these facts, historians, such as the eminent Isaac Dookhan have concluded that, "… Caribs were encountered by the Spaniards … at Salt River in St. Croix, where they had undoubtedly defeated the (Taino) and taken over their settlements there."

All well and good, but along comes the archeologists, such as the distinguished Irving Rouse. The archeologists maintain that no Carib artifacts have ever been found at Salt River and all the archeological evidence indicates that the last indigenous people to occupy St. Croix were Tainos.

There is also historical evidence that tends to support the archeological theory. In the early 1500s there was a female chief, Juana, who ruled on St. Croix. Women chiefs, or cacicas, were common in the Taino culture, but would be unheard of in the male dominated and female subjugated culture of the Caribs.

How can this be explained?

Rouse offers this theory: "Columbus and his native passengers, from whom he presumably obtained the Carib identification, may have been using that term to refer not to the specific ethnic group they had encountered in Guadeloupe but to any hostile Indians…"

Maybe, but one would think that the Taino women, having such intimate contact with Caribs, would know the difference between a Carib and a hostile Taino. Moreover, hostile or not, Tainos have never been known to practice ritual cannibalism.

Another inconsistency is found in what is purported to be the route of Columbus's second voyage, which left the port of Cadiz, Spain on September 25 with Admiral Christopher Columbus in command of a fleet of 17 ships.

On his first voyage, Columbus's fleet consisted of only three ships, the Niña, Pinta and Santa María. On Christmas Day 1492, the Santa María ran aground and sank in the vicinity of present-day Cap Haïtien. The Pinta had already departed to investigate tales of a beach laden with gold, and the Niña did not have sufficient space aboard for the entire crew of the Santa María. The result was that thirty-nine sailors were forced to remain behind.

The immediate concern of the second voyage was to rescue these men as soon as possible.

On November 3, 1493, the fleet of the second voyage sighted the island of Dominica. Not finding a suitable harbor there, they proceeded to Marie-Galante and anchored there for the night.

Early the next morning they weighed anchor and headed northwest and landed on Guadeloupe. Here they took on board several Tainos who had been abducted by the Caribs from their native island of Boriken, now called Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, a shore party got lost in the forest, delaying the fleet's departure until November 10.

Leaving Guadeloupe, the fleet resumed its northwest course naming islands as they passed but not stopping to explore. Columbus's son, Ferdinand, wrote, "the Admiral wished to know everything about these parts, but his concern to give relief to those left behind kept him on a straight course for Hispaniola."

According to accepted theory, this course took the fleet to Salt River Bay on St. Croix where the battle with the Caribs supposedly was fought. The fleet departed that evening and sailed to Virgin Gorda, whereupon they turned to the west, sailed through the northern Virgin Islands, past Vieques and along the southern coast of Puerto Rico and on to Hispaniola.

Herein lies the inconsistency. Why, if Columbus was in such a rush to rescue his men that he had left in Hispaniola, did he now change course and sail into the wind to reach Virgin Gorda?

The ship's log for Columbus's second voyage was lost. The only surviving documents written by those actually on the voyage are letters by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, the fleet surgeon, Michele de Cuneo, an Italian adventurer, and Guillermo Coma, a Spanish crewman.

These were fairly casual letters describing the voyage, not detailed documents describing the progress of the fleet. As such, the positions of the islands and their names were not recorded with thoroughness and detail and on later maps, names and places became confused.

Putting together what evidence they had available, historians surmised the route taken by the fleet. Most Columbus scholars agree that on November 3, 1493 they sighted Dominica and anchored at Marie-Galante. On November 4th they landed at Guadeloupe and stayed there until the 10th because a shore party got lost in the forest and on the night of the 13th, they hove to off the coast of an island, which they landed on the following morning.

Here there is some disagreement. The general consensus now is that this island was what is presently called St. Croix. Earlier historians thought otherwise. For instance, Edward Everett Hale, in his nineteenth century work, The life of Christopher Columbus: from his own letters and journals and other documents of his time, wrote, "They left Guadeloupe on Sunday, the tenth of November. They passed several islands, but stopped at none of them, as they were in haste to arrive at the settlement of La Navidad in Hispaniola, made on the first voyage. They did, however, make some stay at an island, which seemed well populated. This was that of San Martin."

On this island, they skirmished with Caribs and then proceeded to Virgin Gorda, heaving to off the eastern coast.

The route of the voyage and where they were on the 11th and 12th of November is not known. The letters talked about Columbus heading to the northwest and passing and naming islands as he went but stopping at none of them because he was in a rush to rescue his men that were stranded on Hispaniola after the first voyage.

The assumption was that he stayed in the lee of Nevis and St. Kitts and turned east passing Statia and Saba and then crossing to St. Croix. During this time, he named several islands not on this route at all, one of them being St. Martin, which appears on Juan La Cosa's mappamonde, dated 1500, in the position of Nevis, where it is theorized that Columbus anchored the night of November 11th. As this date coincides with the feast of St. Martin of Tours, it is very possible that what is today called Nevis was originally named St. Martin.

Perhaps Columbus took a less westerly route up the Lesser Antilles, following the island chain to its end before taking an easterly turn and crossing the Anegada Passage to the Virgin Islands, a route taken by most sailors even today. If this were the case, the island where he landed on the 14th of November might have been named Santa Cruz, (St. Croix) but might have actually been present-day St. Martin, with Nevis bearing the name San Martin.

Now if the landfall were St. Martin and not St. Croix, this would explain the battle with Caribs. St. Martin was inhabited by Caribs; St. Croix was not.

Moreover, after the battle, the fleet proceeded to Virgin Gorda and then down the Virgin Island archipelago. This turn to the east and into the wind is totally inconsistent with the rest of the route and Columbus's anxiety to reach Hispaniola, having cancelled all but the most necessary shore leaves.

But in the section of Dr. Chanca's letter describing the departure from Santa Cruz or St. Martin he wrote, "Then that day we departed from that island, where we had stayed for not more than six or seven hours, and went to another island that came into sight and was in the direction that we were headed, we arrived near the island at night. The next day in the morning we sailed by the coast. It was a big land although not continuous, made up of forty or so islands," He was undoubtedly referring to Virgin Gorda and the northern Virgin Islands.

The Virgin Islands would be "in the direction (they) were headed," if their departure point was St. Martin, but they would be conspicuously in the opposite direction if the departure island was indeed St. Croix.

Putting together the lack of concrete information, the problems inherent in a battle with Caribs on an island without Caribs, and a route that was inconsistent with the intended destination, it seems unlikely that Columbus made landfall on St. Croix on November 14th. The same evidence, however, highly supports the theory that this landfall was made on St. Martin, an island inhabited by Caribs and lying in the perfect position for a downwind crossing of the Anegada Passage directly to the Virgin Islands.

Top of Page