Seeking Columbus in San Salvador, Bahamas
by Lee Foster
As we meditate beyond the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s accidental encounter with the New World, consider following me to the historical spot where he first came ashore–San Salvador in the Bahamas.
The island, a special place to visit of itself, became a fitting venue at which to ponder the Columbus legacy in the 1992 Quincentennial year.
When I made this pilgrimage, I first went to Nassau, the Bahamian capital. From Nassau the inter-island airline, Bahamasair, flies out to San Salvador.
Until 1992, only about 2,500 of the annual 3.3 million visitors to the Bahamas went to tiny San Salvador. Almost all of these visitors were divers who appreciate the clear water and abundant sea life. However, in the special Columbus year and beyond, the number of San Salvador visitors shot up quickly. Club Med built a new resort on the island, which increased the opportunities to stay there.
One of the ironies of my Columbus pilgrimage occurred enroute, in Nassau. In the harbor rested a replica of Columbus’s ship, the SANTA MARIA. The irony is that the sponsors of the ship were Japanese. The ship had sailed from Spain to the Bahamas and would then head for Kobe, Japan. The lettering of the name on the ship was in Japanese. Such is the global village interest in the Columbus legacy today. Columbus had originally hoped to reach the Orient, where Japan, then called Cipango, was on his itinerary list.
The most distinctive aspect of this precise, Japanese replica of the SANTA MARIA to today’s general observer is its small size. It’s difficult to imagine how a crew of sailors, plus food and water for an extended ocean crossing, could be stowed on this small ship. The SANTA MARIA was also larger than either of his other two ships, the NINA and the PINTA.
SAN SALVADOR TODAY
On October 12, 1492, the Genoan explorer reported in his log that he had sighted what he believed to be the Indies, but which hindsight must clarify was one of history’s grandest accidents. Most careful scholars, such as Drs. Donald and Kathy Gerace, believe this event was at San Salvador in the Bahamas. The Geraces lead the archaeological work on San Salvador and manage a science institute called the Bahamian Field Station.
The definitive evidence for San Salvador as the landing site came in 1983 when artifacts found there paralleled three trade items that Columbus reported he had given to the natives. Spanish green-and-amber glass beads, D-shaped belt buckles, and a coin known to have been minted between 1454-1479 were discovered. Other evidence included small, dumbbell-shaped metal pins that the Spanish used as cufflinks. The site is at a large tamarind tree on Long Bay, inland from Landfall Park.
Clever archaeological detective work at the site also uncovered much about the Lucayans. They were skilled traders who moved between the islands in dugout canoes and brought in polishing rocks from a distance to fashion their shell artifacts. They delighted in shell pendants, worshipped stone demigods, and were led by a cacique, or leader, who had several wives. At the death of the cacique, his favorite wife was buried alive with him. The Lucayans ate cassava roots, which they grated, then squeezed dry to remove the poisonous cyanide juice, and finally cooked on hot rocks into a bread-like staple. They also grew corn and beans.
Columbus named this 7-by-12-mile island at the east end of the 700-island Bahamas archipelago after the Holy Savior. It is reported that his thanks to the Holy Savior was his first exclamation when stepping ashore.
A nine-foot-high whitewashed cross at Landfall Park marks the spot where Columbus presumably landed. The cross, as a symbol of Columbus’s heritage, alerts a traveler to the profound Christian religiosity that informs all aspects of Bahamian life. The Landfall Park includes a ring of flags from the 32 countries forming the Organization of American States, plus a monument to the Japanese foundation that recreated the Columbus voyage, and a white dove monument of peace dedicated to youth. There is also a sculpture recalling the Mexico Olympics of 1968. San Salvador was where the Olympic torch came ashore in the New World.
The island has changed dramatically since 1492. The tall forests of mahogany and lignum vitae trees, reported by Columbus to range up to 90 feet high, were logged or burned by Loyalist colonizers in the 18th century, who sought to clear the land to grow cotton and other crops. Loyalists were British sympathizers who left the U.S. at the time of the Revolution and set up their cotton plantations here. Many of the 500 island residents, almost all of whom survive by subsistence farming, share a few surnames, such as Fernanda, Williams, and Storr. An attempt will be made in the near future to recreate a small portion of the primeval forest. The colorful Bahamian parrots that Columbus remarked upon are now extinct on this island, but conservationists hope to reintroduce them. Columbus reported that the parrots were so numerous that they darkened the sky when they swarmed from the trees.
The gorgeous pearl-white sand beaches that Columbus noted remain the same. These beaches were the first feature that he reported came into view. Divers enjoy the clear water, plentiful coral, abundant fish and shellfish, numerous shipwrecks, and intriguing underwater caves around the island. Until the new Club Med, the only lodging is a small establishment called the Riding Rock Inn, managed by Colin Tozer.
A web of mixed fresh-and-saltwater lakes covers the interior of the island. The best vantage point from which to see these lakes is the top of the Dixon Hill Lighthouse, at the north end of the island. Lighthouse keepers Henry Sawyer and Joyce Hanna are happy to let visitors climb the 83 steps to the top so as to see the countryside. The kerosene-lamp lighthouse, from 1887, remains a manual operation and continues to warn modern ships of the island’s presence.
The small airstrip on the island allows visitors to come and go on the thrice-weekly Bahamasair flights.
A small museum has been created at the former island jail. If proper security can be arranged, the Columbus-era and Lucayan artifacts found on San Salvador will be presented here. Otherwise, they will be housed in a new National Museum planned for Nassau.
Cockburn Town, where the mail boat from Nassau lands once a week, amounts to a small cluster of houses.
To get around, a visitor can take a taxi, aided by one of the local guides, such as Bert Deveaux. Travelers meet a few of the island characters, such as Jake Jones, an 80-year-old entrepreneur, who has run the gas station, grocery store, and restaurant.
By the end of 1992, it is projected, a re-created Lucayan Indian village will be a visitor attraction. The Lucayans called the island Guanahani. Columbus wrote of the Lucayans, “I could not get over the fact of how gentle these people are.” He surmised that Spain could convert them “to our faith more by love than by force.”
WRESTLING WITH THE COLUMBUS LEGACY
Going to San Salvador forces a traveler to ponder the legacy of Columbus, both the achievements and errors of the centuries.
It’s correct, of course, that he didn’t “discover” the New World in a narrow sense. It was already discovered by the people who were living there. There were also earlier voyagers, such as the Vikings, who touched on it. But only Columbus set in motion the profound interaction of Old World, New World, and Africa that affected the future decisively.
If it hadn’t been Columbus, it probably would have been someone else rather soon. Forces in European history made the grand accident of hemispheric discovery inevitable. The craving for cloves and silk, Islam’s threat to the profitability of the spice trade, the rise of merchant city economies in Italy, and the union of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella were factors.
The complexities of the discovery then begin to unfold for anyone considering the Columbus legacy. Columbus’s actions did set in place the historical opportunity for the American experiment in democracy and liberty, one of the great achievements of history, but his fellow Spaniards were also brutally destructive of the local Lucayan Indians. Historians estimate that the 40,000 Lucayan Indians of the Bahamas were all dead within 30 years after the encounter with Columbus. The Geraces believe that the Lucayans of San Salvador died mainly in the pearl-diving operations that the Spanish set up off the Venezuelan coast. The San Salvador Lucayans were known to be excellent swimmers and divers. Other Bahamian Lucayans died of slavery abuses or disease in Spanish gold-mining ventures in Cuba and other Caribbean islands.
The dark side of the Columbus legacy is that he introduced European-style slavery, genocide, and exploitation of nature into the New World. The New World was not entirely pristine concerning these matters, of course, as any student of Mexican or Peruvian history can attest. The inadvertent introduction of disease, especially smallpox, decimated large New World populations.
The full effect of the discovery included many positive aspects, affecting the Old World as well as the New World.
The discovery stimulated the European imagination, contributing much to the creativity of the Renaissance.
It brought the potato to Ireland, whose modern history can hardly be imagined without the potato.
Where would Italian cooking be without the tomato or the pepper, both New World gifts?
New World beans and corn also improved the nutrition of Europeans.
What a different picture we would have of the Plains Indians of the U.S. without their horses, which were originally escapees from Spanish expeditions.
Though millions of New World residents died of disease brought in by Europeans, those who survived benefited from medical advances that greatly increase life expectancy.
It is possible to step back from the mixed content of Columbus’s legacy and celebrate his urge to discover, pondering what we can discover in each other in our complex and multicultural world.
It is also possible to celebrate the desire in all of us to achieve, when thinking of Columbus. He can be saluted as the son of a wool weaver who had entrepreneurial drive. Columbus transcended humble origins in Genoa with the means available–navigation. Sea trade was his opportunity to wealth, glory, and a title. He would discover a sea route to the Orient.
And finally, the personal courage we all seek in ourselves was evident in Columbus. Finding the Orient was not a sure bet. The odds of death by thirst, starvation, or mutiny were much greater.
Celebrating Columbus’s anniversary each October 12 is bound to be as uneasy a day for Americans as the Fourth of July has become since the Vietnam War era. The anniversary must recognize a legacy as complex as life itself, warts and all.
A visit to San Salvador can provide some new, tactile references for the discussion.
SAN SALVADOR, THE BAHAMAS: IF YOU GO
The tourism information source for the Bahamas is the Bahamas Tourist Office, located on the east and west coasts. Write either the New York or Los Angeles offices as follows: New York (150 East 52nd Street, 28th Floor North, New York, NY 10022, 212/758-2777) or Los Angeles (3450 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 208, Los Angeles, CA 90010, 213/385-0033), www.interknowledge.com/bahamas.
The Riding Rock Inn, the one place to stay on the island until the Club Med facility was built, has a U.S. address: Out Island Service Company, 750 S. W. 34th St., Suite 206, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33315, 800/272-1492 or 305/359-8353. Riding Rock organizes charter flights from Fort Lauderdale for week-long stays, emphasizing diving.
Copyright © 2013 Lee Foster, Foster Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.
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