We know Christopher Columbus left Spain on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. His intention was to colonize those islands which he had seen on his first exploratory voyage in 1492. We also know he made his presence known on several of the Caribbean Islands during those two voyages, but it wasn’t until his fourth visit to the region that he actually touched down on mainland Central America.
What most armchair historical students are not aware of, is the small fort of La Navidad Columbus established towards the end of his first voyage. In August of 1492, Columbus departed from Spain on the Santa Maria with two smaller vessels in tow (the Pinta and the Santa Clara). In the dead of night on October 12th a lookout on the Pinta spotted land far off in the distance.
The island was what we now know as belonging to The Bahamas, but Columbus and his crew would learn much from the natives living there. He reported the men’s bodies appeared to have numerous of scars, and through a series of gestures and drawings the natives were able to tell the Europeans what happened. A mainland tribe had come to the island and attempted to capture people as slaves, but the men defended themselves and received many injuries.
Later that same month, Columbus took his ships on further exploration of the islands. The largest ship in their fleet, the Santa Maria ran aground just off the coast of what is now Cuba, near Haiti. The natives living there gave permission for a party of 39 men to stay on the island. Columbus instructed the men to use timber from the Santa Maria to build a settlement in preparation for colonization. It was now December of 1492 and Columbus intended to make one last exploratory stop in the Caribbean, so he left his crew members promising to return in a year with supplies.
Columbus went on to the southern end of the island of Hispaniola, arriving in January of 1493. After kidnapping several natives to bring back to Spain, he and his remaining two ships headed for the Atlantic. When Columbus arrived home and spoke of his travels in ‘new’ lands, everyone took interest. In September of 1493 Columbus set out on his second voyage, loaded down with 17 ships, 1200 colonizers, priests, farmers, and soldiers. In November he made a stop at the island of Hispaniola to check up on and deliver aid to La Navidad, but all he found were ashes and corpses.
For hundreds of years adventurers and archaeologists have searched for the ill-fated settlement. The records of Columbus are not clear on exactly where the La Navidad was, but many have looked in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Columbian archaeology wishes to definitively answer the question: what really happened to those 39 men?
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