Christopher Columbus and the North Star
The sun and stars are the oldest clocks in the world, for those who know how to use them, and for sailors they are maps in the sky.
Columbus found the Caribbean (while looking for Japan) and navigating by the sun and stars. With no land in sight what else can you see at sea? He didn’t know how big the world was, and he didn’t know America existed.
The voyage began on Friday August 3rd, 1492, when they set out from the bar of the Saltes at 8:00 A.M.
On August 6 the rudder of the Pinta jumped out of position and was repaired on August 7. In the log of the Santa Maria on August 6 there is a tiny hint of sabotage towards the rudder, but no accusation is actually made. Certain members of the crew feared the unknown and didn’t wish to go there.
Ships log, the Santa Maria:
Friday September 21 -
They saw a whale, a sign that they were near to land, for whales always remain near land.
Tuesday September 25 -
The Admiral according to his custom told the men they had gone 13 leagues for he was afraid they would consider the voyage too long. Thus throughout the voyage he kept two reckonings. One false. The other true.
The captain had a conversation with Martin Alonzo Pinzon, captain of the Pinta. – as it seems, (on the map) were drawn certain islands (Japan) supposed to be in that sea. Martin Alonzo said that they must be somewhere near them. The Admiral replied that he was of the same opinion…
At sunset Martin Alonzo went up into the poop of his ship and called most joyfully to the Admiral claiming a present, since he had sighted land. Columbus fell to his knees to give thanks to God. The entire crew of the Nina climbed the mast and rigging to confirm it.
On Tuesday September 26 they discovered the land was a cloud.
Sunday September 30, 1492 -
At night fall the stars which are called the “little dipper” are near the arm on the West, and at dawn they are in a line below the arm to the North East. So that they appear to move only three lines, which is nine hours, and this is the same every night.
The tail of the “little dipper”, which was called the “little bear” by the Phoenicians, is the home of the North Star. It’s the only star that doesn’t move in the sky. Columbus Navigated by the North Star and used sunset and dawn, and the position of the dipper in relation to the horizon, as reference points for the time of day.
THE STAR THAT DOESN’T MOVE
When you stand on the eastern shores of Japan, early in the morning, and look across the waves of the Pacific Ocean you face the sunrise. Across the sea is Canada. You’re moving in the direction of the rotation of the Earth. If you stood there all day and night you would see the moon and the stars rise, pass over head, then set on the horizon behind you like the sun.
It’s not obvious that the stars move because they move slowly and there is always another to take the spot they held a moment ago. They move at the same speed as the sun – the speed of the earth rotating once every 24 hours.
But, whether you stand in Cairo, Beijing or Boston , the North star stands still.
Lets leave Japan and take a little trip to the North pole to look at it directly. Imagine standing on the top of the world, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, on a sheet of ice a meter thick. There is one sunrise and one sunset each year. In the winter the night begins in October and the sun rises again in March. So if you want to see the stars winter is the time to visit.
Stand as straight as a pine tree and you become like the North Pole. When you look straight ahead you see a constellation of stars in front of you. Maybe you see Aquarius. Behind you is Leo. On your right is Scorpio, on your left is the bull. As you stand there rotating with the earth you spin to the left (east) and the earth takes you on a visual journey of the sky. In twelve hours, without turning your head or body, you’ll be facing the lion and the constellation of water, Aquarius, will be behind you.
Look straight up and you see that the North star hasn’t moved. It’s always directly above your head like the star on top of a Christmas tree. This is Polaris.
If you stand on the equator, and look north, you see the same thing. The north star doesn’t move, but all the other stars in the sky do. The fact that it’s always in the same place is the reason it can be used as a marker to measure other locations – on earth for example in the middle of the sea.
Okay that’s enough snow and ice, the temperature is somewhere between minus 50 and minus 80 plus a wind chill. So let’s go back to warm waters. Jump onto your sled and take the dogs across the ice sheets and board the ship which brought you to the north pole. Every direction is south so that’s where we’re going. Soon the ship is in the deep sea and you see waves on every horizon. Where on earth are you? A sailor, who sees the sea on every horizon, can look at the North Star and know where he is by using a sextant and a watch.
Trivia Question: If it’s noon in Moscow what time is it at the North Pole?
On Monday October 1st Columbus reported to the crew that they had traveled 584 leagues. But the actual number by his reckoning was 707. They were traveling about 240 kilometers a day. Through out the voyage Columbus gave shorter distances because he didn’t want the crew to know the ocean was that big.
Saturday October 6 -
That night Martin Alonzo said it would be well to sail west by southwest, and the Admiral (Columbus) thought that he had the island of Cipangu (Japan) in mind and saw that if they missed it, they would not so easily come to the mainland the best thing would be to go there first and to the island afterwards.
Wednesday October 10 –
The men complained the voyage was too long (as expected). Columbus said, there was no use complaining because we had reached the Indies and must sail on until with the help of our Lord he discovered land.
Thursday October 11 –
Two hours after midnight land appeared some two leagues away. They reached the small island of the Lucayos, called in the Indian language Guanahani. Immediately some naked people appeared and the Admiral went ashore.
In terms of distance Columbus knew how far he traveled, what he didn’t know was the size of the earth. He thought he was in India and apparently the inhabitants were Indians. “I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion.”
His first landing was in the Bahamas, which became, among other things, the home to another famous sailor of no apparent religion, an Englishman named Edward Teach – he tied slow burning fuses to his beard when boarding other boats, so that smoke poured from his fearsome head, which earned him the name Blackbeard.
During the voyage, the Santa Maria, with a crew of 40, ran aground in Haiti. Columbus used the wreckage of the ship to build Fuerte de la Navidad (Christmas Fort) and he left 39 men there. He was number 40 and he went back home to Spain with the other two ships, 50 crew, and a handful of abducted natives (the Taino). When he returned in 1493 his men were dead and Christmas Fort was burned.
As punishment Columbus demanded that every Taino over the age of 14 made payments of gold or cotton of a fixed amount and those that didn’t had their hands cut off. Because, apparently, one of the parties involved had no religion.
In his four voyages to America, he visited South and Central America and the Caribbean Islands. He stopped at Cuba several times but never went to North America even though Florida is only 90 miles north of Cuba – less than a day by sea.
If you wonder what it would look like to stand on the North Pole and look up at the north star watch the star trails over Hawaii at NASA.
For more on Columbus read the daily Log from the Santa Maria in the book The Four Voyages, written by the admiral of the fleet, Christopher Columbus.