Monday, October 13, 2014


A Columbus Day Revisit                       

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 From the Book "PROTOCOLS" (c) 2012 by American Admiralty Books

WHEN COLUMBUS MET GUACANAGARI  The Perils Of First Contact, A Case Study

 The first landfall of Columbus in the New World is a subject of considerable academic debate. Wherever the landing actually took place, Columbus called the island "San Salvador". For many years historians generally believed this to be an island known as "Wattling Island"in the Bahamas which later was renamed "San Salvador". At least nine other islands have been seriously examined as possibilities. The most often discussed seems to be Samana Cay. There has been debate over the issue for years and strong cases have been made for other islands as the first landfall of Columbus. Some of the most scholarly debate in terms of forensic navigation have been carried in the pages of the Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS and NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. However, the where of the first landfall of Columbus is not as important for an examination of the lessons of the first contact.

 The first lesson to be derived from the first voyage of Columbus is the definition of "first contact". The operative definition of "first contact "is a matter of gravest concern. Is it the first contact between emissaries of an alien culture and the first inhabitants met? Or is "first contact" the first meeting between the emissaries and the first officials of the culture visited. The first contact between Columbus and native Americans made little impression on the culture of San Salvador, an apparent rural back water  but provided Columbus with some vital intelligence. His next contact with a real Chief of numerous villages, a "Chief" named  Guacanagari, would set the course for European /Native American relations for centuries. There is a high probability when exploring unknown areas that actual first contact will be unplanned. Let us examine the first days of Columbus in the New World and ask our selves what there is to learn from the Columbus experience if initial contact in our own explorations will be with non official persons. Let us also look for lessons for that first contact with officials;  what we might learn that would allow us to be better prepared in the event of an encounter with another civilization in outer space.

 Columbus became convinced that he was near land on October 11, 1492. Land birds were seen from his ships and a carved wooden object had been recovered from the sea. However by sundown nothing else had been seen. At 2200 (10 PM) Columbus and crewman Pedro Guttierrez and Rodrigo Sanchez saw a light to the Southwest. The Pinta set course for the light. At 0200 (2 AM) October 12, 1492 crewman Rudrigo de Triana sighted land. Columbus fell to his knees in gratitude to God. To quell a potential mutiny Columbus had agreed to sail westward for only three days more on October 10, 1492. As dawn broke Columbus and his men saw a small green Island. A small boat was  launched and the crew with Columbus embarked pulled for shore. While still offshore Columbus observed a group of people come out of the forest. First contact was about to happen. The people came down to the beach and stood looking at the approaching boat. Columbus dressed in his finest for the occasion buckled on his sword and armor when he saw the people on the beach. The sailors were also armed.

 When the boat landed Columbus and the sailors disembarked. The people from the forest stood a little distance off while Columbus unfurled the Spanish flag and proclaimed himself viceroy of the island he named "San Salvador". The people from the forest continued to stand a little ways off. Gripping , but not brandishing his sword, Columbus approached. The people proved friendly and curious. They accepted a few trinkets with apparent pleasure and ran off. The crew set out exploring the island. The next day the islanders returned in great numbers. Columbus noticed that some of the natives wore ornaments of gold. Communicating mostly through sign language Columbus discovered that the source of the gold was a large island nearby to the south east. Columbus set sail for the south east where he found another island and more friendly inhabitants, some with gold ornaments. Once again Columbus wast told the gold producing island was elsewhere.  Again Columbus set sail. Columbus island hopped for two weeks in the Bahamas meeting people on each island and eventually ended up off the coast of the island that we now call Cuba.

 On November 21, 1492 a strong wind separated the PINTA from the SANTA MARIA and the NINA. THE SANTA MARIA and the NINA headed east and arrived off the island of Hispaniola. Here Columbus met the first real native "official" since landing on "San Salvador", a local chief named Guacanagari. Columbus was impressed with Guacanagari who arrived with flourishes and the entourage Columbus thought worthy of a minor Oriental prince; but displayed a friendly , outgoing nature, apparently tempered with great humility. Guacanagari, a chief of the peaceful Tainos in turn was impressed with Columbus. Guacanagari feared the cannibalistic Caribs, Columbus looked like a potentially powerful ally. In turn Columbus would shortly be in need of Guacangari's assistance.

 On Christmas day 1492 the SANTA MARIA fetched aground on a reef. The ship did not sink but could not be re-floated. She was so badly damaged that it was clear that the SANTA MARIA would never return to Spain. Now Columbus really needed Guacanagari. Guacanagari provided men to help offload the  SANTA MARIA" and strip her of useful fittings. The NINA was too small to carry both crews back to Spain. Columbus would have to leave some of the men with Guacanagari.Columbus had grown to trust Guacanagari and Guacanagari had apparently developed a genuine interest in and apparent affection for the Europeans.

 There can be little doubt that the civilized behavior,apparent command of resources, obvious authority, and the gift of a mask made partially of gold by Guacanagari helped convince Columbus that he was on the outskirts of the Orient. It would be to Guacanagari that Columbus would entrust nearly a third of his crew, and to Guacanagari that Columbus would return on his second voyage. The crew must have also been impressed with the Tianos people, Guacanagari, and the climate and terrain of the Bahamas because many crewmen volunteered, even begged to remain. Thirty nine were chosen from an abundance of volunteers. Diego de Arana , the Master at Arms was left in command. With the help of the Tianos the crew built a fort from the remains of the ship and stored it with provisions and weapons. Since the ship wreck had occurred on Christmas Columbus called the fort "la Navidad". After a farewell banquet with Guacanagari Columbus departed for Spain during the first week of the new year 1493.

 Shortly after the start of the return voyage the Nina sighted the Pinta. They would separate again in a storm before reaching Spain. The story of Columbus's return voyage from his first visit to the New World, the rivalry between Columbus and the Captain of the PINTA , the intrigue at court after the return of the NINA and  PINTA could fill a book. But these details detract from the examination of the events surrounding Columbus and Guacanagari. Consequently we will leave the details of the return voyage and organization of the second voyage back to Guacanagari's island to others and cut to the return of Columbus to "La Navidad".

 The sovereigns of Spain authorized a second voyage and issued formal instructions. These formal instructions included a call for the conversion of the natives to Christianity but stipulated that the natives be treated "well and honorably". Communications would be facilitated on this second voyage by the presence of former captive "Indians" who had been baptized, learned Spanish, and could act as interpreters. This second expedition would consist of seventeen vessels and 1,200 to 1500 men. On September 25, 1493 Columbus left the port of Cadiz to great fanfare for a return in force to La Navidad. Before reaching La Navidad Columbus landed on an island he called Guadeloupe. This turned out to be the home island of the free ranging and raiding cannibal Caribs so feared by Guacanagari. No violence ensued because most of the warriors were gone on a raiding party off island. The remaining Caribs, mostly women, old men and a few captives explained this mostly by hand gestures. The Europeans took twelve young women and two boys who had been captives of the Caribs with them as they departed the island.

 After leaving Guadeloupe the fleet sailed along the south coast of Puerto Rico to the north shore of Hispaniola. Columbus looked forward to seeing La Navidad and the progress he hoped had been made there in the interval since his departure. He looked forward to seeing Guacanagari who he was certain would impress his fellow adventurers. But when they anchored off the island, there was no answer to their salute. Indeed there was little sign of life. Shore parties found bodies near the remains of the fort which had been burned. Shore parties found bodies near the remains of the fort which had been burned,the first were badly decomposed and could not be identified. Two however were bearded and surely European,  What would come to be known as America , had lost its first European colony. Guacanagari sent regrets to Columbus by envoy blaming the massacre on the Caribs. Guacanagari claimed that he had tried to defend the Spaniards and was wounded as a result. Columbus and several men went to visit Guacangari but noticed that he bore no scars. Little by little Columbus learned the truth.  The men he left behind had behaved badly, lusting after gold and taking "Indian" women. The Tianos defended and avenged themselves. The first European settlement in the New World came to a bitter end as a bloody massacre. The trust between the Tianos and the Europeans was broken. Though immediate relations between the new landing party and Guacanagari's Tianos were cordial on the surface, storm clouds were gathering.

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