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The deception of Christopher Columbus and his secret captain’s log

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Christopher Columbus is perhaps one of the most important (although controversial) historical figures to have ever lived. The legacy of his journey had resounding repercussions that reverberated around the world and continue to be felt to this day. But few know that he had at least one real secret: he kept both a real and a “fake” logbook during his legendary first voyage.

We all remember the great story that everyone in the time of Christopher Columbus believed the world was flat, but this clever Christopher Columbus figured out it was round and in 1492 he sailed the ocean blue to go “discover” the “New World” (now there were now as many people in the Americas as there were in Europe at that time). With all the modern attention to dispelling these myths, the little secret of the fake captain’s journal has often been overlooked. But before you ask Nicholas Cage to zipline from the rafters to find him, it’s worth knowing that the people he kept this fake diary for weren’t his exploration competitors, or the fundraising liege. his journey, but his own crew!

The “Columbus map”, drawn around 1490 by Christopher Columbus in Lisbon. (Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus / Public domain )

A Restless Crew and False Hope: The Fake Captain’s Diary

The crew of Columbus wasn’t concerned about sailing off Earth, but for a much more understandable reason: they doubted the voyage would be successful.

One possible reason for this, the same one that made it so difficult for Christopher to find funding in the first place, was that his calculations were wrong! It used calculations that grossly underrepresented the size of the planet and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as vastly overestimated the size of Asia.

Advisors to several monarchs had already tried to tell him of his mistake and blocked their employer from providing him with funds. They didn’t know the Americas existed, but the best guess at the time was of an almost endless ocean (think Atlantic and Pacific combined) where a ship would simply sail until it runs out of supplies and the crew starve to death. The Spanish crown even allowed anyone in prison or facing the death penalty to sail with Columbus, who represented 4 of its 90 sailors.

As the weeks of the voyage progressed and the crew grew increasingly restless, Columbus needed a way to calm them down to avoid a possible mutiny: enter the captain’s fake logbook.

Although Columbus' epic voyage of 1492 involved a fake captain's log to improve crew morale, this log is real.  A replica of Admiral Nelson's Grand Turk logbook with maps.  (JoJan / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although Columbus’ epic voyage of 1492 involved a fake captain’s log to improve crew morale, this log is real. A replica of Admiral Nelson’s Grand Turk logbook with maps. (JoJan / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The strange case of the fake logbook

The trip had departed from the Canary Islands on September 6, so by early October the trip was weeks late to see land and everyone was starting to get nervous. It was around this time that Columbus began recording his fake logbook and sharing it with the crew.

The log was nearly identical to his with one exception. He deliberately noted smaller distances traveled than the ship had actually traveled to trick his crew into thinking they were actually much closer to their homes than they were. This way, crew members could be reassured that if they were to turn back, they would have no problem getting home safely.

Mission accomplished, a relieved crew

The Fake Captain’s Log trick worked for Columbus for a while. During the first weeks of October, they began to spot floating vegetation which they took as a sign that land must be approaching, but as the days went by, his crew continued to grow more restless. On October 11, Columbus told his crew that if they did not spot land in two days, they would turn back. The next day, land was sighted.

Columbus was lucky that his crew did not discover his deception. Mutinies were incredibly common in the Age of Exploration and often left former captains dead or abandoned. Henry Hudson, left in a canoe adrift in his namesake ship in Hudson’s Bay is a famous example.

Replicas of Niña, Pinta and Santa María sailed from Spain to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. (E. Benjamin Andrews/Public Domain)

Replicas of Niña, Pinta and Santa María sailed from Spain to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. (E. Benjamin Andrews / Public domain )

Columbus’ other deception: Who saw the land first?

The illegitimate logbook is just one of the many deceptions committed by Christopher Columbus during the voyage. One of the most famous and saddest disappointments of this epic voyage was stealing the First Land Sighting reward from a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana. The king had promised a rich annual pension as a reward for whoever would be the first to spot the land, and when Rodrigo let go, shouting “Tierra!” Land!” (“Land! Land!”) From the ship’s crow’s nest, the sneaky Christopher claimed he had seen it land the night before and claimed the reward for himself. Poor Rodrigo never recovered from the incident and committed suicide several years later after returning to Spain.

Compared to Columbus’s many crimes, using a fake ship’s log to entice his crew to keep sailing might seem minor. However, it clearly reveals the flawed character of the famous explorer we have been taught to revere.

Many Columbus apologists argue that he cannot be solely blamed for things like his treatment of the natives, as he may have been just a product of his time and any other European would have acted the same way. same wild way.

However, when you consider how he manipulated his crew, it becomes much harder to defend him. The fact that he stole the fame and fortune of the crew member who first saw the New World is probably the most defining deception of all!

Top image: The landing of Columbus on the island of Guanahaní, West Indies, by John Vanderlyn, which was successful because the fake captain’s logbook maintained the confidence of the crew and prevented a mutiny. Credit: John Vanderlyn / Public domain

By Brendan Beatty

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