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Petroglyphs Reef Bay Trail St. John Virgin Islands

La Navidad

On the night of December 24, 1492, the 85-ft. sailing vessel, Santa Maria, commanded and owned by Juan de la Cosa and carrying aboard the admiral himself, Don Cristobol Colón (Christopher Columbus), struck a reef in Cap Hatien Bay. A ground sea and a rising tide pushed the ship hard up on the reef.

Accompanying the Santa Maria that Christmas Eve night was the 70-ft. caravel Niña, captained by Vicente Yañez Pinzón. Martín Alanzo Pinzón, the master of the third ship in Columbus' fleet, the 75-ft. caravel Pinta, had temporarily departed from the other vessels on the eleventh of November to investigate tales of a beach laden with gold.

All attempts to get the Santa Maria off the reef by the crews of both ships, along with the aid of friendly Taino natives, were in vain.

The Niña did not have sufficient space aboard for the entire crew of the Santa Maria. Therefore the grounded ship was dismantled plank by plank and a fort was constructed ashore and stocked with supplies in order to house thirty-nine men who were to remain behind.

The fort was named La Navidad because the wreck had occurred on Christmas Eve. Diego de Arana, the brother of Columbus' mistress was given command of the garrison. His instructions were to search for gold and to establish good relations with the Taino natives. Columbus continued on his voyage of exploration vowing to return as soon as possible.

The King and Queen of Spain were pleased enough with the results of Columbus' first voyage to finance a larger and more grandiose second expedition and on September 25, 1493 Columbus left Spain with seventeen ships, abundant supplies and a vast array of armaments. The officers and crew numbered over 1500 men, but no women were aboard. Included in the crew were twenty-six clergymen, a ship's doctor and a mapmaker. Columbus' instructions were to establish gold mines, install settlers, develop trade with the Tainos, and convert them to Christianity.

The fleet made landfall on an Island called Charis or Waitikubuli by its Carib inhabitants on Sunday November 3, 1493. The word for Sunday in Spanish is Domingo, which led Columbus to rename the island, Dominica. Due to a lack of a good anchorage, no one went ashore and the island was not explored.

The fleet sailed north with the immediate goal of reaching Hispaniola and making contact with the men left behind at La Navidad. When they reached the island now called Guadeloupe, the crew sighted people and dwellings on shore. The ships were anchored and a landing party was sent to investigate. The natives ran away into the hills.

A later shore party, attempting to explore the interior of the island, got lost in the woods. Search parties were organized, but without success. The men returned on their own after six days. The delay, however, had the result of allowing Columbus time for further investigation of the island.

According to Ferdinand Colón, Columbus' son, who had access to the now lost journal of the second voyage, "a large fragment of a ship with iron fittings" was found. Could this have come from the Santa Maria, which had wrecked hundreds of miles away downwind of Guadeloupe and if so, how did it get there?

Christopher Columbus wrote the following passage in his famous letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela of Spain regarding the settlement of La Navidad. The letter seems to give the impression that the Santa Maria was not wrecked at all and that the settlement was not established out of pure necessity, but by choice:

"I especially took possession of a certain large town, in a very convenient location, and adapted to all kinds of gain and commerce, to which we give the name of our Lord of the Nativity. And I commanded a fort to be built there forthwith, which must be completed by this time, in which I left many men as seemed necessary, with all kinds of arms, and plenty of food for more than a year. Likewise one caravel, and for the construction of others men skilled in this trade and in other professions; and also the extraordinary good will and friendship of the king of this island toward us (Guacanagarí). For those people are very amiable and kind, to such a degree that the said king gloried in calling me his brother. And if they should change their minds, and should wish to hurt those who remained in the fort, they would not be able, because they lack weapons, they go naked, and are too cowardly. For that reason those who hold the said fort are at least able to resist easily this whole island, without any imminent danger to themselves …"

Notwithstanding these claims, when Columbus returned to the settlement on the 27th of November 1493, the thirty-nine men left behind from the first voyage were dead. Their mutilated bodies appeared to be about three months old. The fort had been burned to the ground.

In order to find out what had happened, Columbus sent word requesting that Guacanagarí come to La Navidad. A messenger returned with the news that Guacanagarí was recovering from an injury and could not travel. The following day the admiral himself set out for the cacique's village. Accompanying him were a contingent of soldiers, Dr. Chanca, the fleet physician and twelve priests.

Upon arriving in the village they found Guacanagarí lying in his hammock. His leg was bandaged. The cacique explained that the Spanish had taken as many as five women apiece and had begun to fight amongst themselves. There had been several murders precipitated by jealousy.

Spanish marauders in search of women and gold entered the rather remote territory of Maguana in the interior of the island that was ruled by the cacique, Caonabo, reported to be a Carib.

Caonabo captured the interlopers and put them to death. According to Guacanagarí, Caonabo then launched an attack against the remaining men at La Navidad. With discipline and order broken down, the fort was left unguarded. All were killed in the surprise pre-dawn attack. Guacanagarí went on to explain that he had been wounded when he came to the aid of the Christians.

Columbus had Dr. Chanca examine Guacanagarí's leg. The bandage was removed and the doctor could find no evidence of an injury. Father Boil, the leader of the clergymen, believed that Guacanagarí was lying and called for his capture and arrest. The admiral, however, chose to believe Guacanagarí. They exchanged presents and Columbus returned to the fleet.

The crewmen on Columbus' first voyage had come from the lowest echelons of Spanish society. They were certainly abusive and haughty and were not above taking the Taino's women and stealing their food. Guacanagarí, therefore would have had the greatest motivation for the killings. He may even have had a rivalry with Caonabo and planned to use the power of the Europeans against him.

On the other hand Guacanagarí had always showed himself to be a friend of the admiral despite the arrogant behavior of his men. Caonabo, who was a powerful and respected warrior and a great leader, would have been far less likely to tolerate these abuses. Furthermore, when the Spanish later captured Caonabo, he is said to have admitted that he personally killed twenty of the men at La Navidad.

Another theory is that the fort was destroyed in a Carib raid. This would explain the ship's fragment found in Guadeloupe. Guacanagarí's characterization of Caonabo as a Carib (which he most probably was not) could possibly fit in with this theory. Although what actually happened at La Navidad will undoubtedly remain a mystery, the destruction of the fort was used as a pretext for later reprisals against Caonabo.

By Gerald Singer
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