Christopher Columbus’ Santa María

Who sailed on the voyage?

When Christopher Columbus proposed the expedition to the East Indies to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Crown was to provide everything the expedition needed. The three ships, the Santa María, Niña, and Piñta, were to sail from Palos, Spain. The crew would be pulled from Palos and surrounding towns: Moguer, Huelva, Lepe, Cadiz, Seville, Cordova, Jerez, and Puerto Santa Maria. The crew also included a few men who stayed aboard the Santa María; they were from the north country of Basque and Galicia.

Columbus had a difficult time hiring sailors. Many of the seasoned mariners looked questionably at the Italian Admiral and the duration of his proposed trip. A few old timers vouched for the voyage, as did the Pinzón brothers, Martín Alonso Pinzón (Captain of the Niña) and Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (Captain of the Piñta), who recruited relatives, friends, and former employees. The expedition carried a few families such as the Niños, Quinteros, and Pinzóns. Historians have also debated that since no one wanted to sail with Columbus, crewmembers were mostly prisoners given a reprieve. The Crown offered accused men the opportunity to put their litigation on hold while they went to sea. Four known criminals took the offer and all four were awaiting a death sentence. (A death sentence could be handed down if you stole bread or livestock.) One of the criminals, Bartolomé de Torres, was in prison. His friends, Alonso Clavijo, Juan de Moguer, and Pedro Y Zquierdo, broke into the prison, helped Torres escape and set sail on Columbus’ expedition. Ironically enough, all four men went on successive voyages with Columbus.

What did they wear?

When the crew signed on, they came aboard with only the clothes they owned. They were not given a special uniform for the expedition. Most sailors wore calf length pants, which today are called slops. They had a shirt, maybe a waistcoat or a jacket. Two disguising pieces of clothing that Spanish sailors wore were a hooded smock and a “gorro”— a red, woolen stocking-hat. Because leather-soled shoes would slip easily on a wet deck or spar, most sailors went barefoot on-board ship and saved shoes for land.
During the voyage the crew tried to keep themselves and their clothes clean using salt water. The dirt was removed, but the salt stayed in the clothing.

Where did they sleep?

The Santa María, Niña, and Piñta were all built with a small cabin called a “toldilla” on the stern deck for the captain and other officers; this is where Columbus spent most of his time. The crew, on the other hand, had to sleep anywhere they could find that was dry and out of the sun. Many would sleep in the forecastle. Since the ships only had one deck, the hold below would be full of supplies, bulge water from the ship (they all leaked a little), emptied pots from their toilet, and rats. Below deck was a place you would not like to be for very long. After arriving in America and seeing the natives use hammocks, the sailors quickly adopted their use aboard ship.

What did they eat?

In a letter to the King and Queen, Columbus had very specific orders for the food of the expedition. The standard food aboard a Spanish long-distance voyage was wine, olive oil, sea biscuit, and salted meat. Columbus requested from the Crown: good (not stale) sea biscuit, salted flour (for making bread aboard ship), wheat flour, wine, salt meat (usually salted beef), olive oil, vinegar, cheese, dried chickpeas, dried lentils, dried beans, salt fish (usually anchovies and sardines), fishing tackle, (fish for fishing while aboard), honey, rice, almonds, and raisins.

The olive oil was used for cooking things like chickpeas, lentils, beans, and salted meat. The bread they cooked onboard was usually “baked” in the hot coals of the fire pit. One of the sailors cooked a meal in the fire pit, which was the one hot meal served every day at 11 am. The meal would be served in a large wooden trencher and the crew may have had small wooden bowls for their portion. The sailors would use the knives they carried for work (for cutting rope and sail cloth) to cut or pick-up large pieces of food. Otherwise they did not have any forks or spoons. The primary drink was wine and next, water. Both were kept in barrels onboard. The water quickly went stagnate, so wine with alcohol kept better for longer. So the crews drank the wine first and then drank the water as a last resort. There was no coffee or tea to add to the water. At the end of the day, the firebox was extinguished for the night, since fire on a ship is extremely dangerous.

What were some jobs aboard ship?

A merchant vessel in 1492 sailing for the East Indies had specific jobs for all onboard. There was a hierarchy in which Christopher Columbus was at the top, in charge of the total expedition, and the Santa María, as the flagship, took the lead in navigation, direction, and speed. After Columbus, onboard the Santa María, were the sailors and other men who would import goods when it came time to trade in the Indies. They were:
Juan de la Cosa- Master (Captain) - in charge of the sailing of the vessel and the crew
Peralonso Pinzón- Pilot - in charge of navigation
Luis de Terres- Interpreter - on the voyage because he knew Hebrew and Arabic so could hopefully translate and negotiate during trading
Diego de Herana- Marshal of the Fleet - kept the discipline aboard ship and in the fleet
Rodrigo de Escobedo - Secretary of the Fleet - kept the accounts of the expedition. Would make a full report to the King and Queen when they returned to Spain.
Rodrigo Sànchez de Segovia - Comptroller - kept the accounts of the expeditors of the fleet (since it was totally funded by the Crown), kept a record of items traded with the native populations and the items received. He would make a full account to the King and Queen, including their share of the spoils.
Pedro Gutiérrez- Gentle Volunteer - actually a butler from the King’s court, a sort of gentleman adventurer who will be a common presence in future voyages of exploration.
Juan Sánchez- Ship’s Surgeon - a surgeon in that period was not really a doctor, as we know them today. A surgeon knew how to give some types of medicines for particular symptoms, but he generally was trained in how to amputate limbs and remove bullets after a battle.

Other crew included:

Boatswain - the most experienced sailor onboard who had the men carry out the pilot’s or master’s orders. Also had responsibilities that included: stowing the supplies, keeping the ship’s supplies dry, keeping the rope and sails in good order, keep the bilge pump working and clear of debris, and the general business of the ship
Steward - in charge of the ship’s food stores, water and wine, keeping the firewood dry, trimming the lamps’ wicks, and watching over the ship’s boys
Carpenter - kept the wooden ship in repair, replacing rotten wood, fixing broken spars, etc.
Copper - kept the barrels that held the food and drink from leaking and made new barrels as needed for new supplies
Caulker - primary job was to repair leaks in the ship’s caulking between the wood planks
Silversmith - brought along as an assayer for precious stones, silver, and gold
Able Seamen (Marineros) - the average sailor with some experience at sea
Ordinary Seamen (Grumetes) - Sailors with little experience and ship’s boys. The lowest on the ship’s hierarchy.

Since this was a peaceful expedition to a known area, there were no men-at-arms, known as marines today.

An average day aboard the Santa María had the crew split into two shifts or watches called the “Cuartos” and “Guardias.” The master, de la Cosa, had the starboard watch and the pilot, Pinzón, had the larboard (port) watch. The men did everything according to their watch. They worked, slept, and ate with the same men. The only time the crews came together were during emergencies or foul weather. Columbus organized the watches the night they left Spain: 3 am, 7 am, 11 am, 3 pm, 7 pm, and 11 pm. Between 5 pm and 7 pm was called the dogwatch; this allowed the two different watches to change so that the same watch would not have to work every night. A ship’s boy would be in charge of turning the ship’s glass, shaped like a modern hourglass or egg timer, every 30 minutes. The Santa María did not have a ship’s bell as you see in later years. The boy who turned the glass would sing out a prayer letting the crew know what time it was. The 7 am watch would get up and have a cold breakfast. It most likely included a biscuit, some cheese, and some salted fish. They would also roll up any bedding they might have had and stowed it. A sailor was posted on the bow as a lookout and one was in the round-top on the main mast. They were looking for signs of land. The pilot or the master used a slate to write down compass direction and ship’s speed, which was recorded in the logbook and then wiped off the slate by a grumete sailor for the new watch. Because the crew was all Roman Catholic, prayer was an important part of the daily routine. When the watch came on they said a set prayer. Every time the ship’s boy turned the sand glass, he said a specific prayer. A prayer was said before the hot meal, and prayers and songs were sung at day’s end. The sailors would have all the prayers and songs memorized since most of them could not read or write. Columbus wrote in his journal one song sung at sunset, “Salve Regina.”

Each watch was responsible for the entire workings of the ship while they were on duty. These responsibilities included:

Keeping the decks clean and clear of debris
Raising, lowering, and setting the sails
Using the line (ropes) to tighten or loosen the sails as needed
Scrubbing the deck and rails of the ship
Maintaining the ropes, sails, and other things deemed important by the officer of the watch

The sailors sang songs while they were winding up the anchor, hoisting a yard, or manning the pump. The rhythm of the song helped everyone work together better and faster.

When their watch was over the sailors had close to four hours of free time. Many would sleep. They would have a cold meal or spend time telling stories and tales to each other. They would use the fishing tackle to fish off the side of the ship. Fresh fish would always be a welcome change for the afternoon. The watch would sing together and if someone had brought a flute or a drum, they would dance.

What was their pay?

The crew of the Santa María was paid the standard wage for a merchant ship on a yearlong voyage. Since the King and Queen of Spain were sponsoring the expedition, the crews were paid in gold. The standard currency in 1492 was the maravedí, which was a gold coin. The Spanish changed their coinage in 1497. One historian has put the 1,000 maravedí in gold worth about $6.95 before 1934, when the United States stopped using the gold standard. Master and Pilot were paid 2,000 maravedís a month.

Marineros (Able seamen) were paid 1,000 maravedís a month. Grumetes (Ordinary seamen and boys) were paid 666 maravedís a month. Columbus’ pay included a percentage of the spoils of the voyage.

Did they get sick?

There is no real documentation on specific illnesses the crew had on board the Santa María. When the Santa María left port, members of her crew could have had colds, the flu, and even small pox. With the close quarters of the ship, other crewmen would quickly catch the illnesses. Most would have survived. The one disease that would have manifested itself while at sea was scurvy. Scurvy was the common illness on long sea voyages. It occurs when there is a lack of vitamin C in the diet. This causes the blood vessels to break down, and the person begins to bleed around the gums, eyes, and ears. It will eventually cause death if not treated. Treatment is as simple as ingesting something with vitamin C. Dried and salted food and few fruits and vegetables were the mainstay of the sailor’s diet. Fresh fruit and vegetables were taken and eaten until they rotted or ran out. Once sailors started to show signs of the disease, there was little for the surgeon to do to relieve any of the symptoms and the sailor usually died. No one knew what caused scurvy, but eventually they understood that foods such as sauerkraut, lemon and lime juice, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables were the only way to cure the disease. It was not until 1932 that scientists figured out what caused the disease. If any of Columbus’ crew had scurvy when they arrived in the Caribbean, it would have quickly subsided by eating the fruits from the islands.

What type of punishments did they have?

On board a merchant ship, the master had total control of the ship. The men had to follow his orders even if they did not agree with them. If a sailor did not do his work in a timely fashion, did not do it properly, or made mutinous comments, he was punished. Punishment usually consisted of flogging or whipping with a rope. The boatswain usually administered the punishment, in front of the whole crew. The number of flogs depended on the master and the crime. Stealing extra rations was a major offense and many punishments had as many as 99 hits. The tool used was usually a rope that had been modified with smaller lines with a knot in the end. In later times it was referred to as a “cat-of-nine-tails.” The knots at the end would cause cuts in the skin of the back and many times it took weeks to heal. On the Santa María, Columbus had little discipline problems until October 10, 1492.

The crewmembers of the Santa María from Basque and Galicia formed a tight group onboard the ship. These men began to worry that they had sailed too far out into the ocean to turn back and return home safely. These men also did not like or trust Columbus because he was an Italian sailing on a Spanish ship. When the crew brought their concerns and the fact that they wanted to turn back to Columbus, Columbus was said to have pointed out that when they reached the Indies, they would be rich. He also told them that there was no way they were turning back. He did promise that if they had not sighted land after three days, they would turn back. The men agreed and on the third day, land was sighted.

The Pinzón brothers, who commanded the Niña and the Piñta, also did not like Columbus because he was Italian. So when the expedition returned, they started mentioning to friends and family that they were the ones who quelled the mutiny. In a lawsuit brought by the brothers and their family, which lasted from 1514 to 1536, there was a completely different story than the one Columbus told. The Pinzóns said that Columbus lost his confidence in the expedition, was scared of his men, and wanted to turn back. But the Pinzón brothers claimed they boarded the Santa María on October 10, 1492. One version of this visit was that the Pinzóns convinced Columbus to continue sailing and if land were not sighted in three days, they would turn back. Another former sailor on the expedition testified that the Pinzóns wanted to turn back and Columbus told them if they had not sighted land the next day, they could cut off his head and return home.

Historians have hotly debated who was right and who was telling a story to promote themselves. Some historians follow only the Pinzón court case, some only Columbus’ accounts. A few modern historians have tried to take an investigative look at the evidence and put modern investigative techniques to use. One item they looked at was the meeting. Based on the logbooks from the three ships, the wind speed and direction would have kept them from lowering the small boats the Pinzóns would have used to get to the Santa María. They sailed 171 miles on October 10th, too fast for a small rowboat to keep up with. But on October 9th, they sailed 58 miles, much slower, and more conducive to lowering a boat for a meeting. Historians also question the testimonies during the court case. These men testified fifteen or more years after the actual incident. Historians also feel the Pinzón family members on board the expedition and the family at home began discussing the brothers’ role in the mutiny. Maybe hearing these stories changed the memories of the crew..? The Pinzón family was powerful in Palos; would anyone testify against them? Were these men coached by lawyers on what to say? The debate will probably never be solved for the Columbus or Pinzón supporters. You need to decide for yourself.