thinking about great seafaring cities, landlocked Columbus in the middle of Ohio
does not come to mind. Hundreds of miles, even from the Great Lakes, much
less the salty waters of an ocean, Columbus lies on the dry farming plains of
central Ohio. Yet its very name conjures up images of one of the most
famous mariners that ever sailed the oceans. Granted, Columbus in not
totally void of water. The mighty Scioto River twists and turns through the
downtown area. So it was not a complete shock to find, as I passed over
the Broad Street Bridge, that there was a 15th century sailing ship bobbing in
the river below. My elementary history classes taught me that it was most
probably one of only three ships.
The story of this little boat, bobbing ever so gently on a ribbon of water below me, started several centuries ago in Genoa Italy, with the birth of Christopher Columbus in 1457, for which the town was named after. By then Europe was enjoying a long time trading relationship with India and China. The route had always been long and treacherous but with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, the land route was all but cut off. The oceans became the vital link between the two worlds. The heads of Europe longed for a shorter route to India. Columbus' plan to go east by traveling west, contrary to some popular beliefs was generally thought sound by most of his fellow mariners. Up to this point in time two beliefs prevented any ship from trying to sail west. 1: There was a fairly accurate estimate of the size of the earth and 2: there was a misconception that there was no land mass west of Europe before reaching Japan. The ships of the day were incapable of carrying enough food and water to make the trip. Columbus used incorrect mathematics to determine the distance around the Earth resulting in an estimate of the distance to Japan which was much shorter than it actually was. Columbus had quite a bit of trouble selling his idea to the heads of state as his error in math was usually pointed out by the Royal experts. However, desperate times cause desperate decisions and Portugal was just coming out of an expensive war and needed fresh money. The Royal family agreed to lend Columbus 3 ships for a year, and if he failed to find Japan, he was to return. The largest and slowest of these ships was the Santa Marie, for which the exact replica floated below me.
The epic voyage began in August of 1492. Of the 90 some men to make the travel, 40 of them were on the Santa Marie. At a mere 98 feet in length, that was a man for every 2 and 3/4 feet of linear space. It would take approximately 70 days to find America including a month in the Canary Islands for refitting. Landing on a Caribbean Island, Columbus thought he had found India and commonly referred to the natives as Indians. A name that is still used today. Unfortunately the Santa Marie was destined to never leave the Caribbean. On Christmas Day in the year 1492, she ran aground on the island of Espanola (Haiti). The ship was cannibalized to build a Fort on that Island. Thirty Nine men, equaling the crew, were left behind when Columbus set sail on his return voyage. His arrival in the Americas so changed life in that part of the world that it is often used to mark the time such as pre-Columbian for things that happened before his arrival. We took a long ramp from the street to the ship. For a few dollars we went aboard and met our guide for the day. He was propped up on a safety rail to the stairs that went down into the hold. As he explained, one might think that the crew of the ship was picked from the finest seaman available. Not so, in actuality, they were the dregs, criminal and deadbeats who had nothing else to lose. Many thought they would not be returning and some did not. It is believed that the Santa Marie was an armed ship. She most probably carried up to 4 "Lombard" cannons. It was a fairly cheap hand forged weapon, made up of a barrel, a chamber, and a wood frame. The barrel was created either by forging iron bars into a tube or hammering iron sheets into a tube. Iron rings were placed around the barrel to keep it from splitting. Even so, the gun fired only stone cannonballs which traveled about 3 football fields. The barrel was open at both ends. The chamber which carried the charge was removed, loaded and wedged back against the back end of the barrel where it was held in place with braces. A wire was then heated red hot in coals. This wire was inserted into the chamber through a small hole and discharged the powder. This was one of the crudest of early firearms. On the main deck, toward the bow stood the cook stove. It was a small self-contained iron box which was the only source of cooking which again was only done when weather permitted. The crew would receive only one hot meal a day, which most likely was bean soup. The remaining meals, eaten cold, consisted of biscuits, dried fruit and salt or dried meat. A small amount of livestock might have been included in the stores but there was most likely no food for them as they would be eaten first. There were many other things on board that were interesting. It is hard to imagine the tough times these mariners faced, the fears and trepidations of a yet uncharted ocean. It must have been quite an adventure.
*** THE END ***