Christopher Columbus's ships played an enormous role in his exploits because without them and the late 15th-century maritime technology that was used in their construction, the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans could have happened much later.
Built on the foundation of the Middle Age ships that were used for short trips in the calm Mediterranean waters, coastal regions of northern Spain, France, Germany, and the North Sea, the early technology of the European Renaissance finally enabled naval captains to cast their sails and venture beyond the horizon and easy-to-spot coastal navigational markers. Armed with tools such as a compass, precise sandglasses for measuring time at sunrise, midday, sunset, and midnight, and, most importantly Quadrant, a tool that can determine the exact latitude of the ship with accuracy about a degree or so, sailing in the open sea finally became possible.
With such tools, late 15th-century captains finally gained confidence in sailing for prolonged periods of time away from the coasts, and the increased need of European nations to find a stable naval passage to rich trade regions of India and China. This prompted Columbus to test his theories about the size of the Earth (which was even by then known by mathematicians and astronomers to be round) and gather funds for the brave trip into the unknown – months-long journey west across the unexplored Atlantic all the way to the shores of India and the Orient.
After several years of campaigning and preparations, he finally assembled his famous fleet comprised of just three ships and started his journey to Asia on 3 August 1492. The Spanish crown commissioned all three ships and took from the existing naval and exploratory vessels present in Spain. This caused some issues by the shipowners (Juan de la Cosa and the Pinzón brothers), who opposed the order of the Crown to donate their ships to the possibly dangerous cause, but Columbus managed to finish the journey regardless.
Owned and commanded by the Spanish navigator and cartographer Juan de la Cosa, the flagship of Columbus's first exploratory fleet was Santa Maria. Originally built in 1460 in Pontevedra, Galicia, under the name of La Gallega, it was later renamed into La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary). It was officially ranked as a medium-sized "nau" ( carrack ) and was a preferred choice for trade by merchants who wanted to carry a large complement of supplies and trade goods in a single ship. This made nau ships larger and slower than many other trade ships.
Santa Maria was the largest ship on the first voyage of Columbus across the Atlantic, with a single deck, three small masts, the weight of 108 tons and length of 19m (of which, 17 meters was accessible on the main deck). Fully loaded with supplies, it could displace the impressive 150 metric tons of water, but it lacked some speed and maneuverability that smaller ships like Pinta and Niña had. According to records, Santa Maria carried as many as six anchors.
Santa Maria is one of the most celebrated ships in our history.
As for other measures of the ship, only estimates can be provided since no official records or images of the ship were ever preserved. Santa Maria, therefore, had an estimated keel length of 12.6 meters, beam (widest point of the ship) of 5.5 meters, and draught (distance between water level and bottom of the ship) of 3.2 meters. As for sails, it had two main and three smaller side-sails.
Like many other merchant ships of that time, Santa Maria carried armaments – four 90 mm bombards (full-sized cannons) and several smaller 50 mm culebrinas cannons.
A full complement of the ship required a crew of 40 people – around 30 deck sailors, few specialized workers, and officers. On the Columbus mission, there were six officers:
In addition to them, the ship had its carpenter (Antonio de Cuéllar), physician (Juan Sanchez), goldsmith (Cristobal Caro), interpreter (Luis de Torres), two boatswains (Bartolome Garcia and Chachu) and a comptroller (Rodrigo Sanchez). The main crew consisted of 26 sailors and a Pedro de Salcedo, servant of Columbus, and ship's boy.
As it was the largest of the three ships in the Columbus fleet, Santa Maria was the most stable and slowest during the crossing of the Atlantic. What it lacked the speed and maneuverability, the Santa Maria provided in the increased cargo space and smoothness of the ride across the uncharted Atlantic waves. However, as the fleet discovered their first Caribbean islands, the Columbus became extra aware of the fact that the Santa Maria could not sail into shallower waters as easy as Pinta and Niña could. Because of that, he was extra careful whenever he was sailing near the coast of the large Hispaniola coast (modern modern-day Haiti).
Sadly, the vigilance of Christopher Columbus faltered on the Christmas night of 24 December 1492, when he retired to sleep after being awake for more than two days observing the travel of his fleet near Hispaniola. With the night being calm, the main pilot of the ship, Pedro Alonso Niño, decided to break naval rules and also go to sleep, presumably leaving the command of the ship over to Christopher Columbus' cabin boy Pedro de Salcedo. Inexperienced in steering the ship, the cabin boy failed to compensate for the presence of the strong currents, who slowly carried the ship closer to the shore and running it onto a sandbank. The disaster happened at the location of the present-day Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.
The sudden loss of Santa Maria forced Christopher Columbus to leave part of his crew behind in a small colony that sadly did not survive against the attacks of natives.
Awakened Christopher Columbus did not have much time to react. The ship was deemed to be beyond repair, and after a hastened evacuation, the ship sank as early as the following day. Columbus decided to salvage as much timber from the doomed ship as possible, using it later for the construction of his first (and failed) colony garrison named La Navidad (Christmas), located north from the modern-day commune of Limonade, Haiti.
As of today, no confirmed underwater discovery of the shipwrecked Santa Maria was ever confirmed. Some explorers claimed to have found it, but modern historians eliminated their findings on the ground of the presence of more modern ship elements. However, Museum "Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien" in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, claims to have in the possession and is displaying to any visitors one of the six anchors of Santa Maria.
Since Santa Maria was never illustrated by anyone who has seen it in its original form, and there was no official documentation about its dimensions and precise features, many modern attempts to recreate the look and form of this ship were based on the designs of the other 15th and early 16th century Spanish and Portuguese trade ships.
Here are some of the most famous replicas of Santa Maria:
The exact name of the ship Pinta was lost in time. By the tradition of Spanish sailors at the time the Columbus made its first journey across the Atlantic, the majority of the smaller vessels in the trading and fishing fleets of Spain and Portugal were not called by their full names, but by their nicknames (most often names of Saints). While La Niña's full name was recorded (Santa Clara), the actual name of Pinta never did. In the Spanish language, La Pinta can be translated as The Painted One, The Look, or The Spotted One).
Medium-sized Caravel ships like Pinta were some of the most popular and widely used trading ships for use in the Mediterranean and regions close to Atlantic coasts.
Built around 1441 as a small Caravel trading ship, the Pinta became a part of the expedition to the New World when the Spanish crown ordered several ships to fall under the command of Christopher Columbus. At the time, La Pinta was owned by Cristobal Quintero, who owned a small fleet of trading ships together with his brother from Palos. As the favor to the crown, the Quintero placed the Pinta under the command of Martin Alonso Pinzon, who remained as the captain of the ship during the entire duration of the first voyage of Columbus to the Americas.
La Pinta was a small 17 meters long Caravel trading ship, sometimes described as having the deck and sometimes as an "open vessel" with very little cargo space. It was between 60-70 tons of weight, its widest point was 5.36 meters wide, had the draught (distance between water level and bottom of the ship) of 2.31 meters, and two small mainsails. By its design, it was best suited not for the open ocean, but for the sailing in the calmer waters of Mediterranean and near Atlantic Ocean coastlines.
Even though there was a considerable risk for them when crossing the ocean, Columbus accepted them into his fleet because of their speed, maneuverability, and ability to enter shallower waters than his larger flagship Santa Maria. Before the ship attempted the journey, Columbus ordered extensive repairs that brought the ship to a much better state.
It was believed that the Pinta was operated by 26 sailors26 sailors operated the Pinta.
Pinta was the second largest ship in the original fleet, and it was extensively used as a forward spotter for the heavier and slower Santa Maria. Because of this, the honor of the first sighting of America's land was achieved by Pinta sailor Rodrigo de Triana on 12 October 1492.
Columbus preferred to use Pinta as a scout ship that sailed in front of his slower flagship.
After the sinking of Santa Maria, Columbus moved to the smallest ship Niña and eventually ordered a return trip home. During the crossing of the Atlantic, Niña and Pinta got separated by the storm, but they managed both to survive and reach the shores of Portugal and later Spain.
Pinta was also part of the large 17 ship fleet that accompanied Christopher Columbus on his 2nd journey to the New World in late 1493.
There are three modern replicas of Pinta:
The smallest of the ships on the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas was Niña. As it was a tradition in Spain and Portugal at that time, this name was only a nickname (Niña can be translated from Spanish as " little girl" or " the girl") that was given to it by its original captain. The full name of the ship was Santa Clara.
Niña was a small Caravel trading ship, popular among Spanish and Portugal traders because of its speed, maneuverability, and versatility in the calm waters of the Mediterranean and near Atlantic Ocean coastlines. During those decades, Caravels like it here were used not only as trading ships but patrol boats, warshiandn pirate ships*.
Her deck was shorter than Pinta, with just 15.24 meters in length, her beam was 4.85 meters, and can sail in waters that were deeper than 2.07 meters. Although several reports mentioned she had three masts, some noted that she had four. It was also recorded that Columbus requested retrofitting of her sails before she would start her journey over the Atlantic Ocean.
The usual crew complement of the Caravel ships of her size was 24, but during the first Columbus journey, she carried 26 and was captained by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón.
After accompanying Columbo's flagship Santa Maria and a bit larger ship Pinta on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, this small ship suddenly became the flagship of the fleet when the disaster struck, and Santa Maria ran onto a sandbank off the coast of Hispaniola. Columbo returned home on the Niña and was even so satisfied with this little, fast and maneuverable ship that he elected to bring it with him even on his second journey back to the Hispaniola where he established a first Spanish colony in the Caribbean.
Columbus chose Niña as his new flagship after Santa Maria sank near the coast of Hispaniola.
In late 1493, Niña went on an unauthorized voyage to Rome, where she was captured by the pirate corsairs and set to Sardinia. However, Niña's captain Alonso Medel and a few of his remaining crewmembers managed to free themself, take control of the ship, and escape back home to Spain.
By 1498, Niña was refurbished and prepared for the third voyage of Columbus to the New World, where she served as the advance guard. By the start of the 16th century, Niña managed to log over 25 thousand nautical miles (46 thousand kilometers) under the command of Christopher Columbus.
After Columbus fell out of the grace of the Spanish crown, Niña remained stationed in the Caribbean and operated from Santo Domingo. From there, she went on her last recorded journey – a trading voyage to the Pearl Coast on the island of Cubagua, Venezuela. The final fate of Niña is lost to history.
Same as with Santa Maria, no illustration or detailed specifications of Niña have been recorded in history. But that did not stop the creation of various versions of replicas. The most famous ones are:
After the success of the first Atlantic crossing, the Spanish crown welcomed Columbus and his crew as heroes and immediately started planning for a second, a much more ambitious fleet that would not only continue exploring the new-found lands but also establish a permanent Spanish colony.
During the second voyage to the Americas, Columbus charted much of the coasts of Hispaniola, Cuba, and Jamaica.
To achieve these tasks, Columbus got permission and funds to assemble a large fleet that included the following ships:
To crew up these 17 ships and provide a wide variety of people for the new colony, the Columbus assembled more than 1200 men (and some women), which included not only professional sailors, but also carpenters, builders, farmers, soldiers, toolmakers, shipbuilders, priests, and others.
By the time Columbus prepared ships for his third voyage to the New World, he had received two tasks that he had to accomplish. One half of his fleet was to be filled with much-needed supplies intended for the new colony settlement in Hispaniola, while another three ships will be personally commanded by him and try to discover a rumored continent that was located directly west of Central Africa.
Three ships that accompanied Columbus on the journey where he discovered South America are:
After the embarrassment at the Spanish courts, which imprisoned Columbus and his brothers briefly for his transgressions as the Governor of Santo Domingo colony, the Spanish crown decided that Columbus was still too valuable and should be allowed one more chance to find the elusive route to Asia. For the fourth (and final) voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, Christopher Columbus was given command over four ships:
All of his ships were lost to the sea. One was destroyed in the attack of the natives during a prolonged stay of Columbus in Panama, where he searched for the water passage to the rumored "another ocean in the west," while all the others were damaged by the sudden storm damaged all the others. Columbus was forced to beach them in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, where he was forced to wait for rescue for almost a year.