Maybe It Should Really Be Called Pinzon Day

Statue of Martin Alonso Pinzon in Palos de Frontera, Spain — Source: Google Images
Statue of Martin Alonso Pinzon in Palos de Frontera, Spain — Source: Google Images

Leaving aside, for a moment, the question of whether Christopher Columbus should be honored with a celebration day at all (and for the record, I’m sympathetic to the idea of replacing it either with Indigenous Peoples’ Days or a day to honor other more worthy Italians), there is an interesting and highly significant aspect of his story that is usually left out.

In 1990, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus first crossing of the Atlantic approached, Spain built replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria with the the intention of recreating the “voyage of discovery.” The modern-day adventure was recorded in the2007 documentary, The Magnificent Voyage of Christopher Columbus , which can be still viewed in its entirely on YouTube. Early on, we are told that the “Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella’s acceptance of Columbus’s proposal was a “dream come true” for him but for the people of the small port town of Palos, “it was trouble, a burden and a punishment.” On location in Palos, Naval historian and author, Mauricio Obregon (1921–1998) tells us that the voyage of Columbus started in the Church of St. George in Palos when a royal proclamation was read which informed the people that because of “certain misdemeanors” committed by them, they were being ordered to provide the crown with two caravels fully equipped at their own expense for the Columbus expedition. Palos provided two seaworthy caravels, the common cargo ships, Nina and the Pinta. The third ship, the cumbersome, Santa Maria was chartered. The narrator then asks the question, “But who would man them? Who was [Columbus] going to get to sail them across the ocean sea?”

Replica of caravel Nina built by Spain in 1990 — Source: Google Images
Replica of caravel Nina built by Spain in 1990 — Source: Google Images
Replica of caravel Nina built by Spain in 1990 — Source: Google Images

Obregon tells us next the crews had to be recruited and that this was, “by no means easy, even though the crown had provided that criminals who signed up for the voyage would have their sentences suspended.” A total of four convicts availed themselves of that opportunity. Many citizens of Palos even made a mockery of the entire enterprise. Obregon relates:

[T]hey said how foolish to sail west in order to reach the east. And, of course the fact that Columbus was an outsider and a foreigner didn’t make matters any easier. It was at this moment that a crucial figure walked into the limelight, his name was Martin Alonso Pinzon. And in this town he is still considered to be the real hero of the discovery.

Pinzon (1441–1493) was a local seaman and merchant from one of the leading families in Palos. He would become the commander of the Pinta and according to a plaque displayed in Palos, the co-discoverer of America. At the time of Columbus, Pinzon was considered the best sailor in Palos and the town has not forgotten this. There is a school in Palos named for Pinzon and his two brothers, Vicente (1462–1514) , who captained the Nina and Francisco (1445–1502), who served as master (i.e. a rank that oversaw navigation and provisioning of the ship under direction of the captain) on the Pinta. At the time the documentary was made, there were still students at the school who could trace their ancestry back to the Pinzons. A teacher asks the class, “Why do you think Columbus stole Pinzon’s glory?” to which a student replies, “Because he was jealous of Martin Alonso Pinzon.” In Palos, they don’t celebrate Columbus Day but rather Pinzon Day.

The narrator of The Magnificent Voyage continues by telling us:

History would prove Martin Alonso Pinzon to be an excellent navigator. He would also become a controversial figure, Columbus’s nemesis, condemned to live in the Admiral’s shadow. But the importance of his aid to Columbus remains unquestioned. Only when Pinzon and his brothers joined the expedition did the rest of the crew follow.

During the voyage, Pinzón demonstrated on several occasions his gifts as an expert mariner and as a leader. When the tiller of the Pinta broke en route to the Canary Islands, it was Pinzon who managed to fix it. When, between 6 and 7 October 1492 Columbus was unable to reestablish discipline among the tired and discouraged crew of the Santa María, it was Pinzon managed to resolve the situation.

All evidence indicates that on the outward voyage, relations between Columbus and Pinzón remained positive. Once among the Caribbean islands, that began to change, however. On 21 November 1492, off the coast of Cuba, Pinzón failed to follow a direct order of Columbus to change course. Pinzon might have sailed off on his own trying to make individual discoveries and to find treasure or it might possibly have been a case of misinterpreted signals. During Pinzon’s separate travels he discovered new land, possibly Haiti.

Martin Alonso Pinzon — Source: Google Images

19th-century historian José María Asensio, blamed Pinzón’s absence for the fact that on December 25, the Santa María was wrecked on a shoal, though Pinzón’s brother Vicente a key role in rescuing its sailors and Columbus himself. Columbus, giving up on Pinzón, began sailing homeward January 4, leaving behind 38 men, all of whom died before Columbus’s return nine months later. The Niña and Pinta sighted and rejoined one another January 6, 1493 and, after a furious argument in which according to at least one witness, Pinzón objected to the 38 men being “left so far from Spain, being so few, because they could not be provided for and would be lost”, Columbus threatened to hang Pinzón. The two ships headed together back toward Spain on January 8th.

During the voyage back to Spain, Pinzón’s ship was separated from Columbus in stormy conditions, southwest of the Azores. Pinzón arrived in Baiona, Galicia on March 1, 1493. Columbus reached Lisbon on March 4; he later faced problems with the Court for having touched down in Portugal out of necessity in bad weather. Believing Columbus to be lost, Pinzon sent a letter to the King and Queen. Some have argued that he claimed the glory of the great discoveries for himself, while others defend him from the charge; the letter itself is lost. It is not clear whether his letter or Columbus’s from Lisbon reached court first, nor is it clear whether the subsequent failure to invite Pinzón to court resulted from Columbus’s primacy of position, possible accusations by Columbus against Pinzón, or simply reports of Pinzón’s illness and death.

Pinzón returned home to Palos, arriving on March 15, 1493 exhausted and suffering from a recurrent fever. He was taken from his ship in a stretcher and died soon after. It has been claimed that Pinzón’s recurring fever might have been syphilis. The theory that syphilis is of New World origin and that it was first brought back to Europe by Columbus’s crew has been longstanding but controversial. Some recent genetic evidence restores credence to the theory. Even so, even if Pinzón contracted it on the voyage, it is extremely unlikely that it was the cause of his death. Tertiary syphilis does not normally show up for 3 to 15 years.

Whatever the truth is regarding his motivations and relationship with Columbus, there is simply no question that the earth shattering impact of the “discovery” of the Americas might not have occurred, under Spanish auspices, at the particular point in time it did without Martin Alonso Pinzon.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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