Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

Author: Washington Irving  | Date: 1492

The Discovery by Columbus

It was early in the morning of Friday, the 3d of August, 1492, that Columbus set sail from the bar of Saltes, a small island formed by the rivers Odiel and Tinto, in front of Palos, steering for the Canary Islands, from whence he intended to strike due west. As a guide by which to sail, he had the conjectural map or chart sent him by Paolo Toscanelli, of Florence. In this it is supposed the coasts of Europe and Africa, from the south of Ireland to the end of Guinea, were delineated as immediately opposite to the extremity of Asia, while the great island of Cipango, described by Marco Polo, lay between them, 1,500 miles from the Asiatic coast. At this island Columbus expected first to arrive….

On losing sight of this trace of land, the hearts of the crews failed them, for they seemed to have taken leave of the world. Behind them was everything dear to the heart of man—country, family, friends, life itself; before them everything was chaos, mystery, and peril. In the perturbation of the moment they despaired of ever more seeing their homes. Many of the rugged seamen shed tears, and some broke into loud lamentations. Columbus tried in every way to soothe their distress, describing the splendid countries to which he expected to conduct them, promising them land, riches, and everything that could arouse their cupidity or inflame their imaginations; nor were these promises made for purposes of deception, for he certainly believed he should realize them all.

He now gave orders to the commanders of the other vessels, in case they should be separated by any accident, to continue directly westward; but that, after sailing 700 leagues, they should lay by from midnight until daylight, as at about that distance he confidently expected to find land. Foreseeing that the vague terrors already awakened among the seamen would increase with the space which intervened between them and their homes, he commenced a stratagem which he continued throughout the voyage. This was to keep two reckonings, one private, in which the true way of the ship was noted, and which he retained in secret for his own government; the other public, for general inspection, in which a number of leagues was daily subtracted from the sailing of the ships so as to keep the crews in ignorance of the real distance they had advanced….

On the 13th of September, in the evening, Columbus, for the first time, noticed the variation of the needle, a phenomenon which had never before been remarked. He at first made no mention of it, lest his people should be alarmed; but it soon attracted the attention of the pilots, andfilled them with consternation. It seemed as if the very laws of nature were changing as they advanced, and that they were entering another world, subject to unknown influences. They apprehended that the compass was about to lose its mysterious virtues, and, without this guide, what was to become of them in a vast and trackless ocean? Columbus tasked his science and ingenuity for reasons with which to allay their terrors. He told them that the direction of the needle was not to the polar star, but to some fixt and invisible point. The variation, therefore, was not caused by any fallacy in the compass, but by the movement of the north star itself, which, like the other heavenly bodies, had its changes and revolutions, and every day described a circle round the pole. The high opinion they entertained of Columbus as a profound astronomer gave weight to his theory, and their alarm subsided.

They had now arrived within the influence of the trade-wind, which, following the sun, blows steadily from east to west between the tropics, and sweeps over a few adjoining degrees of the ocean. With this propitious breeze directly aft, they were wafted gently but speedily over a tranquil sea, so that for many days they did not shift a sail. Columbus in his journal perpetually recurs to the bland and temperate serenity of the weather, and compares the pure and balmy mornings to those of April in Andalusia, observing that the song of the nightingale was alone wanting to complete the illusion….

They now began to see large patches of herbs and weeds, all drifting from the west. Somewere such as grow about rocks or in rivers, and as green as if recently washed from the land. On one of the patches was a live crab. They saw also a white tropical bird, of a kind which never sleeps upon the sea; and tunny-fish played about the ships. Columbus now supposed himself arrived in the weedy sea described by Aristotle, into which certain ships of Cadiz had been driven by an impetuous east wind.

As he advanced, there were various other signs that gave great animation to the crews; many birds were seen flying from the west; there was a cloudiness in the north, such as often hangs over land; and at sunset the imagination of the seamen, aided by their desires, would shape those clouds into distant islands. Every one was eager to be the first to behold and announce the wished-for shore; for the sovereigns had promised a pension of thirty crowns to whomsoever should first discover land. Columbus sounded occasionally with a line of 200 fathoms, but found no bottom. Martin Alonzo Pinzon, as well as others of his officers and many of the seamen, were often solicitous for Columbus to alter his course and steer in the direction of these favorable signs; but he persevered in steering to the westward, trusting that by keeping in one steady direction, he should reach the coast of India, even if he should miss the intervening islands, and might then seek them on his return….

The situation of Columbus was daily becoming more and more critical. The impatience of the seamen arose to absolute mutiny. They gathered together in the retired parts of the ships, at first in little knots of two and three, which graduallyincreased and became formidable, joining in murmurs and menaces against the admiral. They exclaimed against him as an ambitious desperado who, in a mad fantasy, had determined to do something extravagant to render himself notorious. What obligation bound them to persist, or when were the terms of their agreement to be considered as fulfilled? They had already penetrated into seas untraversed by a sail, and where man had never before adventured. Were they to sail on until they perished, or until all return with their frail ships became impossible? Who would blame them should they consult their safety and return? The admiral was a foreigner, a man without friends or influence. His scheme had been condemned by the learned as idle and visionary, and discountenanced by people of all ranks. There was, therefore, no party on his side, but rather a large number who would be gratified by his failure.

Such are some of the reasonings by which these men prepared themselves for open rebellion. Some even proposed, as an effectual mode, of silencing all after complaints of the admiral, that they should throw him into the sea, and give out that he had fallen overboard while contemplating the stars and signs of the heavens, with his astronomical instruments.

Columbus was not ignorant of these secret cabals, but he kept a serene and steady countenance, soothing some with gentle words, stimulating the pride or the avarice of others, and openly menacing the most refractory with punishment. New hopes diverted them for a time. On the 25th of September Martin Pinzon mountedon the stern of his vessel and shouted, "Land! land! Senor, I claim the reward!" There was, indeed, such an appearance of land in the southwest that Columbus threw himself upon his knees and returned thanks to God, and all the crews joined in chanting Gloria in Excelsis. The ships altered their course and stood all night to the southwest, but the morning light put an end to all their hopes as to a dream; the fancied land proved to be nothing but an evening cloud, and had vanished in the night….

He was now at open defiance with his crew, and his situation would have been desperate, but, fortunately, the manifestations of land on the following day were such as no longer to admit of doubt. A green fish, such as keeps about rocks, swam by the ships; and a branch of thorn, with berries on it, floated by; they picked up, also, a reed, a small board, and, above all, a staff artificially carved. All gloom and murmuring was now at an end, and throughout the day each one was on the watch for the long-sought land.

They continued on their course until two in the morning, when a gun from the Pinto gave the joyful signal of land. It was first discovered by a mariner named Rodriguez Bermejo, resident of Triana, a suburb of Seville, but native of Alcala de la Guadaira; but the reward was afterward adjudged to the admiral, for having previously perceived the light. The land was now clearly seen about two leagues distant, whereupon they took in sail, and laid to, waiting impatiently for the dawn….

When the day dawned, Columbus saw before him a level and beautiful island, several leaguesin extent, of great freshness and verdure, and covered with trees like a continual orchard. Tho everything appeared in the wild luxuriance of untamed nature, yet the island was evidently populous, for the inhabitants were seen issuing from the woods, and running from all parts to the shore. They were all perfectly naked, and, from their attitudes and gestures, appeared lost in astonishment at the sight of the ships. Columbus made a signal to cast anchor, and to man the boats. He entered his own boat richly attired in scarlet, and bearing the royal standard. Martin Alonzo Pinzon, and Vicente Yanez, the brother, likewise put off in their boats, each bearing the banner of the enterprise, emblazoned with a green cross, having on each side the letters F and Y, surmounted by crowns, the Spanish initials of the Castilian monarchs, Fernando and Ysabel.

As they approached the shores they were delighted by the beauty and grandeur of the forests; the variety of unknown fruits on the trees which overhung the shores; the purity and suavity of the atmosphere, and the crystal transparency of the seas which bathe these islands. On landing, Columbus threw himself upon his knees, kissed the earth, and returned thanks to God with tears of joy. His example was followed by his companions, whose breasts, indeed, were full to overflowing. Columbus, then rising, drew his sword, displayed the royal standard, and took possession, in the names of the Castilian sovereigns, giving the island the name of San Salvador. He then called upon all present to take the oath of obedience to him, as admiral and viceroy, and representative of the sovereigns.

His followers now burst forth into the most extravagant transports. They thronged around him, some embracing him, others kissing his hands. Those who had been most mutinous and turbulent during the voyage were not most devoted and enthusiastic. Some begged favors of him, as of a man who had already wealth and honors in his gift. Many abject spirits, who had outraged him by their insolence, now crouched at his feet, begging his forgiveness, and offering, for the future, the blindest obedience to his commands.


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Chicago: Washington Irving, "The Discovery by Columbus (Irving)," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.23-30 Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: Irving, Washington. "The Discovery by Columbus (Irving)." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.23-30, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Irving, W, 'The Discovery by Columbus (Irving)' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.23-30. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from