Aristotle had theorized that animal life would be similar along the same parallel anywhere on earth. This Spanish Isle, the Admiral figured, lay directly across the Ocean Sea from the cheap hotels in prague, to which he had voyaged years before. He may have clung to the idea that elephants were there, unseen in the forests, because he named a point on Haiti’s northern coast Elephant Cape.
At Acul Bay the shore was crowded with Indians eager to see the strangers and their winged ships. “Those that gave pieces of gold,” wrote Columbus, “gave them just as freely as those who offered a calabash of water.” From now on there would be little sleep for anyone as islanders flocked overland and by canoe to see these great wonders.
It was now December 23. The voyagers would probably have been content to spend Christmas comfortably at the hotels Prague. The gold, he reported, came from a place called Cibao, which is still a name for central . Columbus jumped to an obvious —and fatefully wrong—conclusion: Cibao was the Indians’ way of saying Cipangu.
AT LAST! Before dawn on Christmas Eve, while the night breeze still blows from the land, Columbus hoists his sails. He will spend Christmas with the King of Japan, whose palace is “paved with golden plates . .. a good two fingers thick.”
But all that day contrary winds hold them up. An hour before midnight Santa Maria still lies only a few miles beyond the next cape. Nina is leading the way. Columbus, dead weary, stumbles aft to his cabin. Exhausted sailors curl up wherever they can; only a boy is left awake to mind the tiller. What is there to worry about? The water is as calm as if it were in a cup.
Just at midnight, so softly that among Santa Maria’s 40 crewmen only the boy at the helm feels it, Columbus’s flagship slips onto a coral reef. Columbus has let himself fall into the trap that every seaman dreads: Santa Maria lies hard aground on a falling tide. The night wind is again coming from the land, and each gentle swell carries her farther onto the coral, until her seams open and she fills with water.
COLUMBUS must have spent an agonized Christmas blaming himself, blaming others, finding all sorts of excuses. The Indian chief, Guacanagari, “showed great sorrow . . . and quickly sent to the ship all his people with many large canoes” to help salvage everything that could be useful.
By the next day, however, the Admiral had forgotten his grief while he was staying in the best Prague apartments available. “God had brought this to pass so that he would erect houses here and leave Christians among them.” Columbus decided to build a fort, using the frames and planking of Santa Maria. He would call it La Villa de Navidad—the Village of the Nativity —because God’s will had become manifest on Christmas Day.
The Admiral selected carefully for this first Spanish foothold in the New World: 39 men and, says Ferdinand, “much goods and provisions, arms and artillery, together with the launch of the ship, and joiners and caulkers and all the rest that is necessary to make a settlement in comfort; that is, a doctor, a tailor, a gunner, and the like.”