Niña (1492) – Scale Model Ship
by Abordage – Museum Quality
History of La Nina
One of the three ships in Christopher Columbus's first voyage of discovery that would take him to the Caribbean islands, Niña was a caravela latina—that is, lateen rigged on three masts, the largest sail and foremost sail being set nearly amidships. Owned by Juan Niño de Moguer and officially named Santa Clara, she is known to history as Niña because it was Spanish custom to give ships the feminine form of the owner's surname. Requisitioned by Columbus in satisfaction of a fine owed by the citizens of Los Palos to Ferdinand and Isabella, Niña was put under command of Captain Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, whose brother Martín Alonso was master of Pinta. Niña sailed from Palos in company with Santa María and Pinta on August 3, 1492. The latter experienced rudder trouble, so the other two ships sailed as far as the island of Gomera to wait for their consort. When she did not arrive, they sailed back to Las Palmas. There, Pinzón took advantage of the delay (it had taken Pinta two weeks to make port) to alter Niña's rig from that of a caravela latina to a caravela redonda. With her new rig, she retained her lateen mizzen, set a square sail on her mainmast (the old foremast), and set a square foresail on a new mast stepped near the bow. This made her much better suited to running before the trade winds that would carry her across the Atlantic, and she became Columbus's fastest ship, as well as his favorite.
Resuming the voyage on September 6, the ships met favorable winds for the first two weeks of the voyage, followed by several days of adverse winds and calms between September 20 and 30. On the 25th, Pinzón claimed to have sighted land, though the ships were barely halfway across the Atlantic. By the second week of October, there was increasing evidence that land was near—flocks of migrating birds and flotsam in the form of a piece of carved wood and tree branches. Land was finally sighted at about 0200 on October 12, and they landed later that morning. Though it is not absolutely certain what the island was, it was definitely located in what is now the Bahamas, probably San Salvador or Samana Cay; the Taino inhabitants called it Guanahaní.
Convinced that he was very near Cipango or Cathay (Japan or China), whose gold was the chief object of his voyage, Columbus led his three ships through the Bahamas and south to Cuba, the northeast coast of which he explored for about six weeks. On November 22, Pinta departed from the other two ships to explore Great Inagua Island. Vicente Yáñez remained with Columbus, and a few days later, at Puerto Cayo Moa, Niña received a new mizzen mast. The two ships crossed the Windward Channel to Hispaniola on December 6, sailed along its northwest coast, and skirted the south coast of Tortuga. Early Christmas morning Santa María grounded on a coral reef. After salvaging what they could from the ship, it was clear that her forty crew could not possibly embark in Niña for the return voyage, so a fort was erected from Santa Mariá's timbers and thirty-nine men volunteered to stay.
Columbus transferred his flag to Niña and proceeded east along the coast on January 4, 1493. Two days later, he was making his way to open water when a lookout saw Pinta in the distance. Putting about, the ships rendezvoused at Isle Cabra. On January 8, they began working their way down the coast, getting as far as Cape Samana in what is now the Dominican Republic. Abandoning plans to visit additional islands of which he had heard from various Arawaks—ten of whom he had picked up along the way either to serve as interpreters, for conversion to Christianity, or as certain proof that he had visited a distant land—on January 16 he turned the ships for Spain.
The first month was smooth sailing, but on February 12, Niña and Pinta were separated in a three-day storm (the first of the voyage) near the Azores, which belonged to Portugal. Although they were in sight of Santa Maria Island on the 15th, it took them three more days to reach the island, which had no secure anchorage. There, while offering penitential prayers for their deliverance from the storm in a chapel at Anjos, half the crew were arrested on suspicion of having plundered Portuguese possessions on the Guinea Coast. Columbus had received his early seafaring education from Portuguese mariners and his wife was Portuguese, and within a few days he had won his crew's release and they sailed again on February 21. Five days out they were overcome by another storm, possibly of hurricane force, which lasted five days. On the night of March 3, they were perilously close to land, which turned out to be just down the coast from the Tagus River. The next morning they sailed into Lisbon. While there, Columbus was summoned to the court of Dom João, the Portuguese king who had declined his request for sponsorship for his planned voyage as early as 1484-85. When Dom João heard Columbus's account of his voyage, complete with presentations by the Caribbean natives, he was more than a little chagrined to realize what he had lost in not sponsoring the Genoese captain himself.
Lisbon was only a two-day sail from Los Palos, and Niña nosed into the Rio Tinto on March 15, only hours before Pinta—thirty-two weeks from port to port. Within three weeks, he had exchanged correspondence with Ferdinand and Isabella, then holding court 700 miles away at Barcelona, receiving from them confirmation that he was now Admiral of the Ocean Sea. This was among the honors he had been promised, as well as support for a second voyage, preparation for which got under way almost immediately.
Niña was too small to sail as Columbus's flagship, which honor was reserved for a new Santa María, nicknamed Mariagalante. The new fleet consisted of seventeen ships and more than 1,200 sailors, colonists, and other supernumeraries. Sailing from Cadiz on September 25, the fleet called again at the Canaries, remaining there for about a week before leaving sometime between October 7 and 10. The voyage over was uneventful, and on Sunday, November 3, they made their first landfall, at Dominica. For the next three weeks, they sailed north along the Leeward Islands, giving names that endure today to many of the islands. On November 23, they were back on the north coast of Hispaniola where they learned that the entire thirty-nine-man garrison left at Navidad had been killed. On January 2, 1494, Columbus and his ships decided to establish a base at Isabela, Hispaniola, to be near the gold at Cibao, in the interior.
On April 24, Columbus chose the caravels Niña (of which he now owned half), San Juan, and Cardera for an exploring expedition. This took them first to the southeast coast of Cuba (including Guantánamo Bay and Santiago), then across to northern Jamaica, back to Cuba as far as Bahia Cortez, and then again along the southern shores of Jamaica and Hispaniola. The ships returned to Isabela on September 24, after an absence of four months. Columbus remained at the ill-managed colony for another eighteen months, during which he worked to establish a trade in Taino slaves. On March 10, 1496, Niña and Santa Cruz sailed for Spain, embarking between them about 255 people. (Santa Cruz had been built at Hispaniola after a hurricane in June 1495 destroyed all Columbus's remaining ships save Niña.) A month later they were still in the Caribbean, calling at Guadeloupe in April, where they attempted to reprovision in the face of hostile Caribs. On April 20, 1496, they weighed anchor again, but it was not until June 11 that they fetched up again in the Bay of Cadiz.
Traffic between Spain and the Caribbean was not confined only to Columbus's fleets, and several ships had arrived at Hispaniola while Columbus was there and before his return. While Columbus made preparations for his third voyage to the New World, Niña's Captain Alonso Medel decided to do some trading to Rome on the side, only to be captured by Sardinian pirates. The ship was recaptured by her crew, and returned to Cadiz in time to sail from Sanlúcar on January 23, 1498, under Captain Pedro Francés, shortly before Columbus's main fleet sailed on his third voyage. Her subsequent career in the Caribbean is not known, and the last written record of her is in 1501.