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Christopher Columbus discovers Cuba

Alberto Gutierrez writes about the discovery of Cuba by Columbus; "After San Salvador, Columbus discovered one key and two more islets.Then on October 27, 1492 he sighted Cuban land before dusk. For years many towns along the northern coast of Oriente Province claimed to be his landing place. It seems that today nobody cares. I remember a tall cross at Gibara commemorating the event, but actually it was Bariay, a harbor a few miles to the east, where Columbus reached the shore the following morning.He christened this land Juana, after the Infante Don Juan, a son of the Spanish monarchs Fernando and Isabel. The aborigines always called it Cuba, and eventually this name prevailed.

The Cuban aborigines were also Arawaks. The most advanced were the tainos, who lived under the constant threat of the fierce Caribs, the cannibals from the Lesser Antilles. So much for the noble savage of Rousseau! (Unfortunately, besides the Caribs, the Spanish Black Legend in Cuba was real. At the time of the discovery there were about 200,000 aborigines in Cuba. Fifty years later only a few had survived illness, some massacres and harsh treatment under the conquistadores. The importation of slaves from Africa was next. I have met many blacks in this country who rightly condemned the cruel and shameful slaveholding in the Western Hemisphere, but refused to admit that raiding parties of Arabs and quite a few black Africans provided the victims. Finally the book Roots by Alex Haley set the record straight. Likewise these Blacks condemned the white regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, but didn't say a word about Idi Amin, Macias and many other black Africans despots and assassins.)

Columbus was indeed geographically bewildered. He sent Luis de Torres, a converted Jew who knew Hebrew, Aramaic and some Arabic, with a party to find the Emperor of China.They missed the Mongol, and found instead many aborigines with some leaves they called "cohiba"or "cojiba". According to Padre Las Casas, they rolled those leaves and formed a "tabaco", a cigar they inserted in a nostril, lit the other end and inhaled the smoke. According to Oviedo and other early historiographers "tabaco" was a Y-shaped pipe the aborigines used for smoking the "cohiba". In any case, a century later the use of tobacco had spread throughout the Western World. Vueltabajo, a region of Pinar del Rio Province, produced the best tobacco in Cuba and the World. Columbus was a keen observer. He noted many details in his Journal. At Moa he discovered the Cuban pine, replaced the mizzenmast of the "Nina" and realized the strategic importance of those trees for Spain. About two centuries later, the Havana shipyard was the second most important of the Spanish Navy .The "Santisima Trinidad", the formidable flagship of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, was built there. Other loads of precious timber, contributed by Cuba as a colony, were used in Spanish buildings such as the renowned palace/monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial.

Columbus is less and less remembered for this voyage to the New World.( actually a total of four). He followed the ideal courses to navigate between the Canary Islands and Cuba at this time of the year.But I think he demonstrated better his skills returning from Hispaniola to Cintra*, not too far from Palos de Moguer, his initial point of departure. Instead he could have ended in Africa or close to Ireland and British Isles. .Columbus was an outstanding cartographer who gathered data from Iceland to the Azores before his quest. It seems that he was aware of Greenland and Leif Ericsson's Vinland, but at the same time he only knew the primitive magnetic compass, the astrolabe, the marine quadrant, Regiomontanus's Ephemeridesand Zacuto's Almanac Perpetuum. He was an extraordinary man well fitted for the quest. Before the era of satellites, I was familiar the these navegation facilities, and fully realize that his accomplishments were no little feat, regardless of the criticism he may arouse in assorted quarters. The Capitulaciones at Santa Fe, the deal he arranged with the Spanish monarchs before setting sail, proved that he was also a shrewd negotiator. However, El Almirante died poor, bitter and forsaken in Valladolid, but his inmediate relatives benefited from the Capitulaciones. Some years ago, one a his descendants, a ranking officer of the Spanish Navy,was assassinated by ETA. That is the last I heard about the Columbus family".

"Columbus is less and less remembered". Indeed, when I was a child, he was one of the great heroes of humanity, Many places claimed he was born there. My great sponsor Salvador de Madariaga (himself possibly Jewish) claimed he was a Spanish Jew, an assertion wost historians reject. Since the aforementioned fiasco of the 1992 celebrations, interest in claiming him as a native son has waned. *It is usually said that Columbus landed at Lisbon. Cintra is on the coast west of Lisbon. Since Alberto is himself a navigator with a good knowledge of Columbus, I assume Cintra is correct. **Regiomontanus (1436-1476) was a German astronomer. His Ephemerides contain the calculations he made over a period of thirty-two years. Zacuto (Abraham Zacuto ben Samuel) was a Portuguese Jew who supplied Vasco da Gama with nautical instruments. He is an obscure figure, and I was surprised that Alberto knew about him. Was he mentioned in Alberto's naval training?

Ronald Hilton - 11.04.03