The Santa Maria

     "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," so begins the poem teaching history, and it goes on to say, "He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain."

     The three ships were the Santa Maria, the Niña, and the Pinta. The Santa Maria (Holy Mary), the flagship of Columbus, was originally called La Gallega, (pertaining to one from Galicia), but had an even longer name, La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción). The Niña was originally named Santa Clara but having belonged to the Niño family was given the name feminine form of the name. There is something to be seen, especially in the flagship's name and the unfolding events it was part of.

     The parents of Columbus, Domenico Colombo and his wife Susanna Fontanarossa, baptized him Cristoforo (Christopher) in Genoa. Samuel Eliot Morison, called "one of America's most distinguished historians," in his life of Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and says it's likely Columbus didn't remember the exact day his birth, "since boys and girls in Catholic countries celebrated the feast day of their patron saint rather than their own birthday." This would've made his baptismal day more significant, and may've bode for what the future would hold.

     Morison points out that children in medieval times knew the story of St. Christopher, recounting it in his book. There was this "hulk" of a pagan who went in search of Christ. A holy hermit suggested that since he was strong and tall, he build an abode near a river that had a perilous crossing, where he could help travelers cross over the water. It had no bridge over it. This would be pleasing to Our Lord who might then show Himself to Christopher.

     So Christopher built a cabin, and using a tree trunk as a staff, he "carried wayfarers across on his broad shoulders." One night as he was sleeping he heard a Child's voice: "Christopher, come and set me across." He did so but found that as he waded through the river, the child became heavier; it took all he had to struggle to the farther side, where he told the Child, "thy burden burden waxed so great that had I borne upon my back the whole world, it could have weighed no more than thou." In response the Child said, "Marvel not, Christopher, for thou hast borne on thy back the whole world and Him who created it. I am the Christ whom thou servest in doing good."

     Morison said Christopher "conceived it his destiny to carry the divine word of that Holy Child across the mighty ocean to countries steeped in heathen darkness." This is lent credibility by the Greek origin of his name, meaning "bearing Christ." It's from Χριστοφορος (Christophoros) deriving from Χριστος (Christos) and φερω (phero) meaning to bear or carry. Early Christians used it with the idea of carrying Him in their hearts.

     Into his manhood, after considerable difficulties, Columbus assembled his little fleet on the Rio Tinto (Red River) at Palos de Frontera, Spain. At dawn on August 3, 1492, they weighed anchor and sailed downstream, where they awaited a favoring wind. At 8 o'clock it arose, and filling their sails, they put out to sea on their epic voyage to find a shorter route to the Indies. Three days out the rudder of the Pinta broke, but they managed to fix it with rope until they got to the Canary Islands, where they repaired it and took aboard provisions. After leaving the Canaries, Columbus set a westward course with fair wind.

His men were troubled that they wouldn't be able to "beat back" against the east wind and threatened mutiny. If true, there's an account that on October 10th, they agreed to turn back if they found no land. On the night of the 11th Columbus thought he saw a light before moonrise,"like a wax candle rising an falling," but what he saw was brief. But early the following morning, at 2 o'clock on October 12th, the lookout on the Pinta saw on the horizon like a white cliff, then another and a dark line connecting them. "Tierra, tierra," he called out. Land had been sighted in that moonlit night. Verified, a lombard cannon fired a signal, and the Pinta shortened sail and awaited the approach of the Santa Maria. It was one of the present-day Bahamas islands, which Columbus took possession of for Spain, naming it San Salvador, for the Holy Savior. It largely reflects the story of salvation, as it is through Mary that the Savior comes over the horizon of the world, that great event of humanity! Christopher Columbus who is huge in history, tread the deep waters bringing Christ to the New World. True to his name, he was a Christ-bearer.

     What makes this even more interesting, is what happened later in this first voyage of his. The Historian Morison tells of the incident. It was yet December 24th, 1492, and though forbidden by Columbus to do so, a sleepy helmsman had turned over the tiller to a sailor called a gromet whose duty was to turn the hourglass called the ampolleta.

     Just as the grains of sand of the ampolleta ran out, indicating the beginning of Christmas Day, the Santa Maria slid gently onto a coral reef. The boy "gave tongue," Columbus awoke and was first on deck. While he was trying to float the ship free, the vessel was driven higher and yet higher on the reef by "the long swells that came in from seaward." While the Santa Maria had grounded bow on, Morison wrote, "her stern swung around so that she lay athwart the sea, each surge lifted her up and let her down with a thump on the rock, and coral rock can punch holes in a wooden ship faster than any other kind." Columbus tried to lighten her by having the mainmast cut away. The seams opened and water was filling the hull. Columbus saw he could do no more and ferried his men to the Niña, standing by till daylight.

     While Columbus hadn't planned settlement, he ordered the building a tower and fortress ashore, calling it La Navidad (Christmas), using planks and timber from the stricken flagship. Some crew members would remain when Columbus returned to Europe.

     Santa Maria had come to the New World to stay. And the title la Inmaculada Concepción in her fuller name, the Immaculate Conception, would become the Patroness of our country, the land we also know as America.

                                                     ―  John Riedell   


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