Monday, October 10, 2011

Oh Columbus!

In July 2011, before visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Columbus OH called COSI, my family and I decided to visit the Santa Maria Museum on the other side of the Scioto River. For about $15 the whole family could take a short tour of the full-scale replica of the Santa Maria that Christopher Columbus sailed on August 3rd, 1492 (along with the Pinta and Nina) from Palos de la Frontera, Spain with 39 men in 1492. This, of course, became the first voyage to have a lasting impact on the New World.
The replica ship was built in the 1990’s as part the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Columbus expeditions. It seemed like a good opportunity to get a hands-on idea of what it was like to live on a 15th-century sailing vessel.

Founded in 1812 the city of Columbus, is named after Christopher Columbus and was designed to be the state capital to replace Chillicothe in that role for it's more central state location and it's proximity to the confluence of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers. Prior to 1812, Columbus OH did not even exist as a settlement, it was just forest.

that's Chris back there
Walking to the ship we happened to pass by City Hall on Broad Street which has a gift from the people of Genoa Italy, a colossal statue of Christopher Columbus sculpted by artist Edoardo Alfieri in 1955.

On our tour, we learned that this Santa Maria was built on the US East Coast and it then had to be transported to Columbus in two halves by truck. It was reassembled on the West side of the Scioto River (where COSI is) and then sailed to the East side of the river where it is today. That is the extent of the voyages of this Santa Maria.

This ship, like the original, was only about 75 ft x 26 ft which seems even smaller when you are standing on it. During our 45 minute tour, as our guide described the living conditions of the men with a few livestock aboard along with the rats, filthy drinking water, bathroom considerations, etc, you could get a real sense of how cramped and filthy this ship must have been for those 2 months although history books seem to up the ante on the trip. While it was a long hard trip, they did enjoy relatively good weather most of the time per Columbus’ journal. There was a long stopover in the Canary Islands for storm damage repairs which made the actual voyage only 5 weeks. Still, it's hard to imagine 40 men living here even under the best conditions.

15th-century toilet paper
We were able to see demonstrations of the capstan to raise and lower sails and anchors, the navigation process using a compass and pegs, the rudder, (there was no stereotypical ships wheel). She also discussed how they went to the bathroom (over the side of course), how the primitive cannon worked (they were small and inaccurate and shot smooth round stones mostly), how they caught the rats on board (they trapped them in wooden boxes and drug the boxes behind the ship so they would not come into contact with them).
It was a good tour of the ship and I was pretty happy to NOT hear a single word about the myth that people then thought the world was flat. The flat earth myth so often reported by history books was invented by historian Washington Irving in 1828 who decided to add some flavor to this story to make it more exciting and romantic and have a story of sailors risking sailing over the edge of the Earth. Pure make-believe. This story appears nowhere before his time. Mariners and educated people knew the Earth was a sphere back then.

Oh Columbus!
Knowing that I am an Indian sympathizer, you are probably wondering if I will editorialize on the impact of this voyage. No, not really. Entire books have been written on Columbus that are way over the top with praise as a great explorer and some that portray him as a monster for beginning the first slave trade from the Western Hemisphere and everything in between. I suppose he was both. He did explore where no European had before but he also became a disgraced brutal dictator of these new colonies only 8 years later. Like the tour, this post is mainly about the ship and its men but I couldn't help take a cheap shot in the photo to your right.

I do feel compelled to comment on a couple of items mentioned on the tour that I feel are inaccurate.
She remarked that the "natives" Columbus encountered in what is now San Salvador Island (she didn't refer to them as Arawaks or Indians at all) "were naked and had nothing and were eager to trade". This may be true but not for the reason she implied. They were certainly impressed by the items Columbus had that they had never seen before but the Arawak were self-sufficient for thousands of years and in good health even by Columbus' observations. A Spanish writer wrote in 1518 that "these islands were full of people lacking nothing they needed" but after European contact "they were laid waste". That's a bit different than the suggestion these were stupid poor savage natives which is what was implied. If she was going to gloss over contact with the Arawak and not even mention them by name, she should just leave this simplistic Disney story out of the script completely or at least call them by their name. The book 1491 is a good read if you want to know more about pre-Columbian Indian culture.
no ladies allowed in 1492
Our tour guide also mentioned the two different sets of books with Columbus' routes and calculations. One set was correct and one that was not. She mentioned the idea that this was done to keep his men less fearful on their voyage since one set of records had a much shorter route and they might freak out if they knew the real distances they had really traveled. However, most experts agree that this may have been done to keep others from knowing the exact route, to keep it a secret from even his men so they wouldn’t spill the beans to others eager to get rich quick. It was very hard expensive work and the pay off was high, so they wanted to protect this route. 
On Christmas Day 1492 after the initial landing in the Caribbean in October, the Santa Maria ran aground on present-day Haiti. An attempt was made to repair it but the damage was too severe and the ships wood was used to build a settlement there that they named La Navidad which is modern day Môle-Saint-Nicolas, Haiti. The 39 men remained here to wait for Columbus’ return on another ship but when he returned in 1493 he had found they had all been killed at the hands of the Taíno people after a dispute with the Spanish colony. Supposedly the anchor is the only item from this ship that survived to modern times and is in the Haitian National Museum.

Overall it really was a great tour despite some slight historical inaccuracies. I would recommend it to anyone who is in the area who would like to see a great reproduction of 15th-century sailing vessel. That's not something very common anywhere in Ohio!  One recommendation...just maybe go when it's not 90+ degrees.

UPDATE 2017: I that the ship is now in storage due to various factors but mainly because of extensively needed repairs. There are no current plans to re-open.

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