La Legua

La Liga, the Spanish soccer league, is rapidly approaching a climax. No matter who wins, delirium will follow—in today’s favorite battle, no one gets killed except in South America, where referees have been shot from the stands for making the wrong (or right) decision.

But I need to speak to you about a different league, the one Columbus played in when he left for the Indies in 1492.

It’s wonderful that the Cervantes Institute made available the whole diary of the first expedition of Columbus, but unfortunately the transcription is available only in Spanish. Never mind, I find my Castillian improves after a glass of wine, and I found time over the last two weeks to build up a picture of the trip.

Although Columbus left Palos on August 3rd 1492, for me the interesting part of the journey starts at La Gomera, in the Canary Islands. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea only left there on September 8th, a Saturday, two days after the full moon, having been becalmed offshore since the 6th.

We can draw on the daily entries in the diary of Columbus to estimate his progress, and more generally to have at least a partial image of life on board. The shipboard diary provides four different kinds of information—the most important are the course followed and distance traveled.

But there is also a broad description of wildlife, including some species, such as the grajao, or tern, that are questionable, and a good deal of communion with God.

We know the admiral based his estimates for the distance to the Indies on Ptolemy, Toscanelli, and Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly; Columbus forecast a distance of 600 leagues from Europe to Cipango—a few days sailing, perhaps two weeks.

In fact, his fleet took slightly more than a month to get to the Americas, and if we add the distances in his diary, they come to one thousand and eighty-four leagues.

Leagues sailed by the flagship Santa Maria in the first journey of Columbus to the Indies.

Leagues sailed by the flagship Santa Maria in the first journey of Columbus to the Indies, in the 34 days from La Gomera to Guanahani.

So what’s in a league? Well, that’s the million dollar question. The ship’s log always refers there are four miles to the league, and Columbus is widely considered to have used the Italian sea mile, which measures 4847 feet (1477.5 m). If he had used the Portuguese or Spanish sea mile, which were equivalent to the Arab sea mile, there would have been three to the league.

According to the captain’s log, using the Italian sea mile would give a voyage of 3459 nautical miles—if we draw a line west from La Gomera to the Bahamas, the reported distance is 3238.83 nautical miles—that’s a seven percent overestimate, not bad at all.

And we need to understand that Columbus’ route was not always west, he occasionally took a heading of WNW or WSW.

In the late XVth century you could only calculate the distance along the parallel by dead reckoning, because there were no accurate shipboard timepieces for determining longitude—in that light, the admiral’s log moves from good to brilliant.

So the issue then is his knowledge of world geography, and particularly his sources. If Cipango, or Japan, was really 600 leagues from Europe, since Columbus used the shorter Italian sea mile, rather than the correct Arab one (6481 feet) then Japan would be 1915 nautical miles from Europe, and the fleet would have sighted it around the 27th of September 1492.

Even if Columbus had used the correct sea mile for his geographical calculations, meaning Japan was about 2500 nautical miles west of Europe, the Niña, the fastest of the fleet, would have fired its cannon on October 3rd.

As early as September 19th, Martin Alonzo Pinzón, whose initials ironically spell map, went racing ahead in the Pinta, convinced there was land just ahead. In another touch of irony, that was just before the fleet hit the doldrums of the Sargasso Sea—a mere thirty degrees along the parallel.

Thursday September 20th is the first diary reference to yerba, and lots of it. You can clearly see the wind drop in the picture above—for the fleet, it was unlucky thirteen.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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