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
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
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
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