El Niño

Palos de la Frontera is a sleepy little town in southwestern Spain, seven leagues from the border with Portugal. The India Road briefly describes the departure of Columbus from Palos, on a journey that was based on wildly inaccurate estimates of the geography of the earth.

Palos was home to the Pinzon family, and Moguer, a village a few miles northeast of Palos, was home to the Niños—between the two families, they provided a substantial number of officers to the three ships of the fleet. The towns themselves supplied ninety percent of the crew.

Pedro Niño, or to give him his full name, Pedro Alonso Niño, was the pilot of the flagship, and his brother Juan Niño was the owner and master of the Niña. It’s believed that the name of the vessel (the child, or more accurately the little girl) is derived from the family name.

Aboard the Niña was also Francisco Niño—we don’t know whether he was a third brother or if he was a son of either Juan or Pedro, since both had a child called Francisco.

A bizarre tale circulates on the internet about Pedro Niño, claiming that he was known as ‘El Negro’ (the black), and making the case for the African-American community that blacks participated in the discovery of America long before the pilgrim fathers arrived. There’s even a picture of the man on a couple of the sites—it’s an ‘artist’s impression’, and apart from anything else, the clothes are completely wrong for the period.

It’s highly unlikely that a negro family in Moguer would even exist in 1492, let alone own a ship (the Niña)—I was keen to find an image of Colón’s pilot. The museum house of Martin Alonso Pinzón, on the main street of Palos, has a few paintings on the second floor, but nothing on the Niños—even the two paintings of the Pinzón brothers are apocryphal, the fact is no one knows what they looked like.

Two miles down the road, at the confluence of the rivers Odiel and Tinto, stands the Franciscan monastery of La Rábida, where most of the first voyage was prepared. Columbus himself was a lay Franciscan, and lived with the monks in 1491-92 while waiting for financial backing for the expedition.

The monastery was built on the site of a Moorish fortress, and although it was damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the cloister is remarkable, and the building itself has been fully restored. I asked the woman at the ticket office if there were any paintings of Pedro Niño—there was one.

Pedro Alonso Niño, in a painting at the Franciscan monastery in La Rábida.

Pedro Alonso Niño, in a painting at the Franciscan monastery in La Rábida.

I explained that some U.S. sites, including Wikipedia, represented him as ‘un negro’, and watched her reaction. The lady scrutinized me for signs of advanced dementia. “En Palos o Moguer? En el siglo XV?” She shook her head with finality and smiled. “No lo creo.”

I’m afraid I don’t buy it either. In the winding alleys of Seville I found an antiquarian bookseller who stocked a copy of the Nueva Lista Documentada de los Tripulantes de Colon en 1492, by a U.S. historian, Alice Bache Gould.

The book was published in 1984, thirty-one years after Ms. Gould’s death, and collates a series of articles she wrote for the Spanish Real Academia de Historia. The story of Alice Gould may well grace these pages another day—her book is the product of decades of research in Spanish archives, and her detailed investigation of the crew of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, fills five hundred and forty-nine pages.

Never is there a mention of Pedro Alonso being black, or of his supposed nickname ‘El Negro’.

The house in Palos shows a movie of the first voyage, very biased toward the Pinzón brothers. The film makes the case that the discovery of America was largely due to Martin and Vicente, the captains of the two smaller ships. It reports that Martin sailed the Pinta to Baiona, in NW Spain, on his return, and was forbidden by Columbus to inform the Catholic Kings of the discovery of the New World.

The main street of Palos runs northeast, and as you leave town there’s a church perched on a cliff—it was here at the church of S. Jorge that the crew offered their last prayers before setting sail.

The branch of the Rio Tinto where Columbus sailed from in 1492 was the Barra de Saltes, at the NE end of Palos de la Frontera.

The branch of the Rio Tinto where Columbus sailed from in 1492 was the Barra de Saltes, at the NE end of Palos de la Frontera.

The ships were moored at the Barra de Saltes, but today the full-size replicas built to celebrate the fifth centenary of the discovery of the Indies are anchored three miles southwest at the Muelle de las Carabelas, on the Rio Tinto.

Why? Because the ria Columbus sailed from no longer exists.

The view from the church: all the ria has disappeared, replaced by a fertile valley.

The view from the church: all the Barra de Saltes has disappeared, replaced by a fertile valley.

In 1755, the great earthquake of Lisbon wreaked havoc in southern Iberia. In the region of Huelva it raised the land and altered the morphology of the low-lying rias—the port of Palos de la Frontera vanished without a trace.

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

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

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