When the sun rose on the 12th of October 1492, the sailors saw before them an island several miles long, covered with trees. The sea was calm, and the sky without a cloud, and they could distinguish figures coming from the woods and collecting on the shore to gaze at the strange vessels. The sails were furled and a boat lowered, and the Admiral, dressed gorgeously in red, took his seat in it. He was followed by Martin Pinzon and his brother, in whose hands were two banners embroidered with green crosses and a large F. and I. for Ferdinand and Isabella. Columbus himself held the royal standard of Spain.
As the boat neared the shore, they noticed that the plants were of strange growth with wonderfully coloured flowers, and that on the trees were many kinds of fruit they had never seen before. When they came into shallow water the natives ran back and watched the movements of the Spaniards from some distance in absolute quiet. As soon as Columbus had reached dry land, he fell on his knees and kissed the ground, calling out for joy, with tears in his eyes. His example was followed by his men, who then thanked God with him.
After the first few moments the Admiral rose, holding the royal flag, and very solemnly he named the island San Salvador, and took possession of it in the name of the King and Queen of Spain. The Spaniards all swore that they would obey Columbus, and, because they believed the island was near India, they saluted him as Admiral and Viceroy of the Indies. The sailors who had been the rudest and roughest of the crew fell on their knees before him, and kissed his hand, begging for forgiveness. Others embraced him and asked him to give those who had shared in his perils and hardships some part of his rich reward. In fact, they treated him as if he had been a god, rather than a man. Columbus listened to them graciously and thanked them, saying that he would forget the faults of the past in the service and goodwill of the future.
Meanwhile the Indians, as the Spaniards called them, were coming nearer. Instead of being black, with woolly hair like negroes, as Columbus had expected to find them, he saw that they were reddish-brown in colour, and of fair height, with straight, coarse hair falling on their shoulders. They wore no clothing, but were painted gaily in red, white, and black, sometimes over the whole body, sometimes on the face only, with red circles round the eyes and a black stroke down the nose. They seemed to be very timid, and when one of the sailors raised his sword they turned back, but came on again when they found that he did not intend to hurt them. Some of them carried spears of hard wood, pointed by being charred in the fire, and one or two had a piece of sharp stone or a pointed bone fastened to the end; but these were not very dangerous weapons.
As they came up to the white men they uttered cries of astonishment at their colour, at their long beards, and at their clothes. Columbus learned afterwards that they thought the strangers were gods who had come down from the skies in the great winged ships. He ordered his men to hold out to them some coloured caps and glass beads, and then some little bells. With all these they were delighted, especially with the bells, which tinkled merrily in their hands. Gradually they lost all fear, and began gently to touch the garments of the Spaniards, and to point out curious things they saw to one another. One seized a sword blade with his hand and gave a great howl of pain and surprise when he found how sharp it was.
At last Columbus returned to the ships, but the natives followed him. Some swam through the waves, others went in canoes, which had been hollowed by fire out of a tree-trunk, for they had no tools to cut planks. These canoes held as many as forty men, and were rowed with short wide paddles, rather like shovels in shape.
That day and the next, men kept coming out to the ships with tame parrots in their hands, or cotton wound in skeins, or bread made from the cassava root. In exchange they were pleased with a broken piece of china, or a rusty nail, or some beads. "In fine, they took all and gave what they had with a good will."
Columbus naming the Island of San Salvador.
Some of them wore little gold rings in their noses, and these also they were quite ready to give for the new treasures. The Admiral, however, forbade his men to give anything worthless to the Indians, and when he saw the gold he put a stop to all the bargaining, telling the sailors that this metal belonged to the King of Spain and not to them. He asked the natives where they found it, and they pointed to the south and made him understand, partly by signs, partly because he had already managed to learn a few of their words, that a large island lay there in which was found so much of the yellow metal that the king had large bowls and pots made of it. Columbus was much pleased by this news. He thought the island must be near Japan, and resolved to sail there next.
Then he asked how they got the scars and marks of wounds he saw on many of their bodies. And they told him that once or twice every year a very fierce tribe of savages came from the north in canoes, and fought with them, and killed many of them, and carried others off as slaves. They asked him to stay and protect them from these enemies. But he could not do that.
He explored the island of San Salvador thoroughly. In the middle of it was a lake, and trees grew everywhere, but it did not seem to him large enough for a settlement, nor was there much gold. As the boats rowed round the coast more natives came springing out of the woods to gaze in amazement. They lifted up their arms and fell on their knees on the shore worshipping the white men, and some swam off to the boats, calling to all their friends to come and see the men from heaven, and bring them to eat and drink. Columbus ordered that all should be treated kindly, and gave presents to many before setting them on shore.
So it seemed at first that the coming of the white strangers might bring happiness to the timid, gentle natives, and not their ruin and death, as it did. Now the Indians were sorry when, after taking in fuel and water, the ships set sail for the south, and perhaps they were a little anxious about the fortunes of their seven countrymen whom Columbus had taken with him as guides.