Columbus' first voyage: names of the ships

No Santa Maria for 79 years

Columbus wrote a report about the first voyage (DIARIO). The original is lost. Copies were at the disposal of Bartolomé de Las Casas und Fernando Colon (Original and copies are lost). Both compiled the text and quoted verbatim. No Santa Maria. The ships are called Pinta, Niña and nao (nave)… Nao = type of ship with Columbus on board. Columbus Xmas 1492: Las aguas llevaron la nao sobre uno des aquellos bancos. Historiens aquainted with Columbus: Pietro Martyr - PRIME DECADIS: … grandiois navis incidens aperitur & perstat. Andrès Bernaldes - HISTORIA: … perdieron el navio mayor. For 43 years after the first voyage appeared no name in books or known manuscripts. Then Gonzales F. Oviedo in his HISTORA printed 1535: La una y mayor dellas llamada la gallega. The name of the bigger one was la gallega. For 79 years we have only nao, navis, navio, la gallega for the ship and no Santa Maria.

First appearence

Around 1535 Fernando Colon (second son of Columbus) used the DIARIO to write a book about his father. Fernando's manuscript was not printed in Spain. His heirs sold it to an Italian publisher. (It got lost). The HISTORIE was printed in Italy in 1571. Translated by Alfonso Ulloa. The relation of the voyage is a compilation of the DIARIO. Thoroughly we read nave for nao in Fernando's source. In a preface to the compilation we read: La capitana, nella qualle il monte, si chiamo Santa Maria.

How reliable?

Thus the name Santa Maria is introduced in just one sentence, but it is not used in the following relation of the voyage. That makes no sense at all. It also doesn't fit to Fernando's sources. His most reliable source for him should have been the DIARIO, because his father was on board. Fernando also had an official document at his disposal. PLEITOS DE COLON 1512-1540, Colons versus Crown. Hearings. Participants of the first voyage testify. Names given to protocol: Nina, Pinta, nao. Fernando also owned Oviedo' s HISTORIA. (He refers to it.) So he knew, that Oviedo had the name la gallega for the ship. The HISTORIA was considered as standard work in Spain - where Fernando intended to publish his book. His creditability was at stake. Bad idea to contradict Oviedo without any reference. But there was no risk for the translator Ulloa to insert a name. There also is evidence that he did. Las Casas used Fernando's manuscript for his HISTORIA. The passage again in Fernando's HISTORIE: La capitana, nella qualle il monte, si chiamo Santa Maria. Same passage, Las Casas: En la tercera, que era la nao, algo mayor que todas, quiso ir el, y así aquélla era la capitana.

Las Casas: On … the nao …he would go, so it was the capitana.
Ulloa: The capitana, on which he went, was called Santa Maria.

Why Santa Maria?

Ulloa used no sources except the manuscript. Therein he found the name for the next capitana of Columbus: Mariagalante. Or he knew, that Sancta Maria was a common name for Spanish ships. Registered ship's names recorded in England after 1480: Sancta Maria of San Sebastian, Sancta Maria of Bilbao, Sancta Maria of Fuentarabia. So Santa Maria might have been the result of reasoning. But not the result of investigation.

Oviedo reliable

Ulloa had no access to the archives of the Spanish Crown. (Neither had Fernando, because the relations between the Colons and the Crown were hostile). All relevant documents were kept in the CONSEJO DE INDIAS since 1516 (now ARCHIVO GENERAL DE INDIAS in Sevilla). The nao had been chartered by the Crown. The contract must contain the name as a trading vessel. It was not found, ergo it got lost like many others. The learned historian Oviedo had access to the archive. He may have found evidence for la gallega around 1530. He used the name permanently in his relation of the voyage. Destras tres caravelas era capitana la gallega, de que iba la persona de colom, delas otras dos, la una se llamba la pinta, de que iba por capitan martin alonso pinçón; y la otra se dezia la niña, e iba por capitán della francisco vicente yáñez. Oviedo is obviously convinced, that his source (which was not the DIARIO) was reliable. Same situation for us: Oviedo is the most reliable source, wherein the ship is called by a name. So we have to accept until disapproved: The name of the trading vessel chartered for the voyage was la gallega.

Second appearance

La gallega was accepted for around 300 years. For instance De Bry, AMERICAE 1590: … welches Gallega geheissen - which was called Gallega. Then in 1828 appeared Washington Irving's HISTORY: One of the three, called Santa Maria … Mr. Irving did not discuss his source, which was of course Fernando's HISTORIE. Santa Maria fitted well to Mr. Irving's idea, that Columbus sailed on a higher mission. The holy name became sacrosanct for generations of following biographers and translators of Las Casas' version of the DIARIO. They use it without discussion, reference, remarks or footnotes concerning the origin of the name. Such myths arise.

Official name

Columbus was the commander and so it was his decision, under which name the ship should sail to discover unknown lands. From his writings we know, that Columbus felt himself on a holy mission. Why use a name connected with banal trade? May be, he had no special motive. However, he decided to use the name of the type of the ship in his report to the Crown. Ergo the official name for the expedition was nao.

Cristóbal Colón, LIBRO DE LA PRIMERA NAVEGACION, Manuel Alavar, 1984.

Gonzales Fernández de Oviedo, HISTORIA GENERAL Y NATURAL DE LAS INDIAS, Edición de Juan Perez de Tudela Bueso, Madrid, 1959.


LE HISTORIE DELLA VITA E DIE FATTI DI CHRISTOFORO COLOMBO, per D. Fernando Colombo suo figlio, a cura di Rinaldo Caddeo, Milano.

De Bry, AMERICAE, 1494, (Diterich von Bry). Reprint by Verlag Konrad Köbel, München.

SELECT DOCUMENTS ILLUSTRATING THE FOUR VOYAGES OF COLUMBUS, translated and edited by Cecil Jane, London 1930.
(Andrés Bernáldez).

DE LOS PLEITOS DE COLÓN, Cesáreo Fernández Duro, Madrid, 1892.

Peter Martyr von Anghiera, ACHT DECADEN ÜBER DIE NEUE WELT, Hans Klingelhöfer, Übers., Darmstadt 1972.

Santa Maria replica
La Gallega