When I first opened the Libro de Armadas in Seville, in Spain's Archive of the Indies, its contents were daunting: more than 400 pages of accounts, ration lists, and shipping information written in an early and difficult script. I put the bundle of documents aside but was compelled to return and read it in detail; it contained information on fleets sent from Spain to the New World during the period 1495- 1500, soon after Christopher Columbus's second voyage.
Two-thirds through the Libro. I found a receipt by Pedro Francés, master of a caravel (a small sailing ship). It described how, in preparation for a voyage to Hispaniola in 1498, he had received the vessel along with its sails, rigging, tackle, and other equipment. The name of the caravel was given as the Niña, also known as Santa Clara. Suddenly, the question blazed: could this be Christopher Columbus's favorite ship, the historic Niña? Did this document refer to the staunch little caravel that brought the Admiral of the Ocean Sea safely home from his momentous sea voyage in 1492?
Were there other documents in the Libro that could tell us how the Niña looked? There has been much conjecture about the appearance of Columbus's vessels, and several markedly different sailing models of the Niña have been built over the years. Francés's inven-