Monday, October 14, 2013

The Niña, Pinta, and Santa María

Most school kids can tell you the names of the three ships Christopher Columbus sailed in when he discovered America.  Except that he didn't know he discovered America.  He believed he had landed in India or Japan or some such place.  And the reason he made this mistake was because he thought the Roman numbers he was working with were the same value as Arabic numbers.  Or else it was the other way around.  But anyway, the result was that he calculated the globe to be 70% smaller than it really was.

If your map of the world looked like this, you might discover America, too!
So Columbus set off to boldly go in a whole new direction to get to a place where many merchants and traders had been going for years to buy spices and silk.  He took a fleet of three ships, and he himself commanded the largest one, which was the Santa María.  The complete name for this ship was La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción, which means The Holy Mary of the Immaculate Conception.  But since that is a really long name, it got shortened for everyday use.

Gustav Adolf Closs, Die Schiffe des Columbus, 1892

The Santa María was a type of ship called a nao or carrack.  She had been built for use as a cargo vessel and was not really meant for exploration.  She had a single deck and three masts.  She was the slowest of the three ships in the Columbus fleet, but she sailed well during the voyage.  Still, the Admiral did not like how the Santa María handled, and he called her "a dog."  If you ask me, it's very sad that people who don't like things call them "dogs," but I am trying not to take it too personally.

1892 Replica of the Santa María
Library of Congress

The Santa María came to a bad end on Christmas Day, 1492.  The crew had been celebrating quite a bit, but Columbus ordered them to keep on sailing late into the night towards Cuba.  The sailors fell asleep, one by one, until only a cabin boy was left steering the ship.  He ran her aground off the present-day site of Cap-Haitien, Haiti.  The ship could not be repaired, so only her timbers were saved to use in building another ship later.


The other two ships in the fleet, La Niña and La Pinta, were both caravels.  These were small ships that were originally used as trading ships, warships, patrol boats, and sometimes pirate ships.  They were fast, had a shallow draft, and were easy to maneuver.  At first they were mostly used in the Mediterranean, but later they became favorites of Spanish and Portuguese explorers.  After Columbus had established routes across the Atlantic, caravels served as the models for the larger galleons.


La Pinta was the larger of the two caravels.  In Spanish, Pinta means "Painted."  Many ships had depth markings painted on their hulls, so this is probably how La Pinta got her name.  The Spanish tradition was to give each ship a saint's name and then also a nickname.  We don't know what the saint's name of La Pinta was.  She was the fastest of the three ships in the fleet, and Rodrigo de Triana, who was on that ship, was the first to sight land on October 12, 1492.  La Pinta returned home at the end of Columbus' first voyage, but no one knows that happened to her after that.

La Niña was Christopher Columbus' favorite ship of all.  Her real name was Santa Clara, but she was known by her nickname, which means "The Girl" in Spanish.  Vincente Yáñez Pinzón was the captain of La Niña on Columbus' first voyage.  Later, on an independent voyage, he discovered the Amazon River.


During the 1492 voyage, there were 24 men on La Niña.  The cargo hold was full of provisions, water, guns, and ammunition.  Also below decks were live animals such as horses, cows, pigs, and chickens.  The 4-legged animals were all suspended in slings so that their legs wouldn't get broken by the motion of the ship.  Cooking was done on deck, and the men also slept on deck because there was no space below.  Since waves often washed over the deck, it was not a very fun place sleep.

After the three ships and their crews got to the New World, they found a bunch of new fruits and vegetables to take home with them.  This helped get rid of their scurvy.  Also, they saw the natives sleeping in hammocks, and the Spaniards decided this would be a more comfy way for them to sleep on the ships.
La Niña replica under sail

La Niña made Columbus' entire first voyage and brought him back home safely.  She was part of the fleet that went on the second voyage to Hispaniola, and he chose her out of seventeen ships to be his flagship on an exploratory trip to Cuba.  In 1495, La Niña was the only ship in the West Indies to survive a hurricane, after which she took the Admiral and 120 passengers back to Spain.

In 1498, La Niña returned to Hispaniola as part of the advance guard for Columbus' third voyage.  The last record of her was in 1501, when she made a trip to the Pearl Coast as a trading vessel.  After that, nobody knows what became of her.  In all, La Niña sailed at least 25,000 miles under the command of Christopher Columbus.

La Niña replica, Corpus Christi, TX
Photo:  Rolland.franck

In 1988, a man named John Patrick Sarsfield, who was an American engineer and maritime historian, discovered a group of master shipbuilders in Bahia, Brazil, who were still using tools and techniques that dated back to the 15th century.  So he worked with these people to make the first historically accurate replica of a 15th century caravel. 

La Niña and La Pinta replicas
The builders did the actual work in Valenca, Brazil, and all they used was axes, adzes, hand saws, and chisels. The wood that went into the ship came from the local forest.  Meanwhile, a British maritime historian came up with a plan for the sails.  And when all the work was done, Mr. Sarsfield had a replica of La Niña.

La Niña replica in Chattanooga 

Later on, a replica of La Pinta was also built, and these two ships now sail around to various ports so that people can see what Columbus' ships might have looked like.  The replica of La Pinta is a little larger than its actual size.  This is so that more people at a time can come on board and look around.  There is a Facebook page for The Columbus Ships, and you can go there to see photos, plus a schedule of where the ships will be visiting.  Right now they are in Chattanooga for another week.  I wish they would come to Kansas City, but maybe the Missouri River is not deep enough for them to sail on.  In which case, maybe we had better get busy dredging it out!


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