The Nina, Pinta and flagship Santa Maria were the three vessels that made up the small fleet Christopher Columbus took on his first voyage across the Atlantic to the New World. They were relatively small ships: the Santa Maria was a medium-sized carrack (a three or four-masted vessel) around 36 metres (117 feet) long with a burden of 100 or so tons, while both the Nina and the Pinta were caravels (a more lightweight ship) of around half that size. All survived the voyage from Spain to what is modern-day Haiti but, despite being the largest of the trio, the Santa Maria never made the journey back. The ships were secondhand at best and, though carracks were built for extended sailing, the fleet was never designed for such intrepid exploration.
Santa Maria and its two sister ships left on 3 August 1492 and headed south of the Canary Islands. The idea was to take advantage of the north-east trade winds off Africa, then use the westerlies that prevail across the Azores on the way back. It was an inspirational piece of navigational prowess that paid off, even if it took many weeks longer than anticipated to reach what Columbus thought was the other side of the world and the country of Cipango (Japan) on 28 October; it was in fact Cuba. After a night of celebration, the Santa Maria ran aground near what’s now the city of Cap-Haitien on Haiti. It was damaged beyond repair and Columbus ordered it to be stripped then used to build the new settlement of Villa de la Navidad, while the Nina and Pinta began the voyage home to Spain.
New World treasures
The first voyage of Christopher Columbus was funded partly by the Spanish crown and Sevillian bankers, with only a fraction of the total investment that went into the second expedition. It’s estimated that he would have needed a minimum of 1.14 million maravedi’s -the medieval Iberian currency – to secure ships, supplies and fund crew salaries. Needless to say, that was a huge sum of money, although not as much as Columbus would have liked for an expedition of his lofty ambitions.
He returned to Spain minus the flagship of his small fleet and many of his original crew on 15 March 1493, long overdue and having stopped in Portugal due to a storm, which also raised suspicions over his loyalty. However, the parrots, captured natives plus cargo brimming with plundered gold and spices were more than enough to convince the crown that not only was he not a traitor, but a much bigger second expedition was needed as soon as possible.
The crew of the entire fleet consisted mostly of experienced seamen from Andaluci’a, a southern region of Spain, as well as from Galicia in the north. A few of the crew members were convicted criminals too; they were offered amnesty by the crown if they signed up to what, at the time, was considered a perilous voyage.
The Santa Maria’s roll-call is very well known. As the flagship of the fleet, Christopher Columbus was its captain, Spanish navigator and cartographer Juan de la Cosa was its owner and Diego de Arana was the master-at-arms.
De Arana was left behind at the new settlement of La Navidad as governor, where Haitian natives later killed him. Academics, craftsmen, a physician and even a painter also made up the roster. Finally, Pedro de Terreros – one of the cabin boys – was left steering the Santa Maria while the rest of the crew celebrated on the fateful night it ran onto a reef off Haiti.