First Encounters: Spanish Explorations in the Caribbean and the United States, 1492-1570

By Jerald T. Milanich; Susan Milbrath | Go to book overview

William F. Keegan


2 / Columbus's 1492 Voyage and the Search for His Landfall

On a clear November evening, three weeks after he arrived in the New World, Christopher Columbus stood on the aft deck of the Santa Maria, calculating the North Star's altitude with a quadrant. Later that night, he recorded the ship's position in his log as being 42° north of the equator, roughly where Pennsylvania is today. He had been sailing along the coast of a landmass the natives called Colba. "It is certain," he wrote, "that this is tierra firme and that I am off Zayto and Qyinsay a hundred leagues more or less." What Columbus meant is that he had found the Asian continent, that, in particular, two legendary Chinese cities--probably present-day Zhao'an and Hangzhou--lay only about 300 miles away. After traveling for almost, two months, he was finally within reach of his destination. Yet, without seeing the Grand Khan or visiting his kingdom or acquiring any riches, Columbus abruptly turned his vessels about and headed in the opposite direction.

Why Columbus reversed his course is a mystery, though if he harbored doubts about his location--a reasonable assumption, considering he had encountered little that resembled the civilization described by Marco Polo--his action would have helped him avoid the truth. Personal motivation aside, wherever the Genovese explorer

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