The Deception of Christopher Columbus and his Secret Captain’s Log
Christopher Columbus may be among the most important (if controversial) historical figures to ever live. The legacy of his voyage had resounding impacts that reverberated all the way around the globe and continue to be felt to this today. But few know that he had at least one real secret: he kept both a real and a “fake” captain’s log during his first legendary voyage.
We all remember the tall tale about everyone in Columbus’s day believing the world was flat, but that clever Columbus figured out it was round and in 1492 he sailed the ocean blue to go “discover” the “New World” (now we now there were as many people in the Americas as there were living in Europe at that time). With all the modern focus on dispelling those myths, the little secret of the fake captain’s log has been frequently overlooked. But before you cue Nicholas Cage to come ziplining in from the rafters to go find it, it is interesting to know the people he kept this fake log for were not his competitors in exploration, or the liege financing his journey, but his very own crew!
The "Columbus map," drawn in circa 1490 by Christopher Columbus in Lisbon. (Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus / Public domain)
An Agitated Crew and False Hope: The Fake Captain’s Log
One possible reason for this, the same one that made it so difficult for Christopher to find funding in the first place, was that his math was wrong! He was using calculations that vastly underrepresented the size of the planet and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as vastly over-estimating the size of Asia.
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Advisors to multiple monarchs had already tried to tell him of his mistake and prevented their employer from providing him funds. They didn’t know of the existence of the Americas, but the best guess at the time was that of a nearly endless ocean (think Atlantic and Pacific combined) where a ship would simply sail until it ran out of supplies and the crew perished of starvation. The Spanish crown even allowed for anyone in prison or facing the death penalty to sail with Columbus, which accounted for 4 of his 90 sailors.
Though Columbus's epic 1492 voyage involved a fake captain's log to improve crew morale, this captain's log is real. A replica of Admiral Nelson's Grand Turk logbook with charts. (JoJan / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Curious Case of the Fake Log Book
The voyage had set off from the Canary Islands on September 6th, so by early October the voyage was weeks overdue for seeing land and everyone was beginning to get nervous. It was at this time that Columbus began journaling his fake captain’s log and sharing it with the crew.
The log was nearly identical to his real one with one exception. He purposely wrote down smaller distances traveled than the ship had actually gone to fool his crew into thinking they were actually much closer to their homes than they were. This way crew members could be reassured that if they had to turn around, they would have no problem getting home safely.
Mission Accomplished, A Relieved Crew
The fake captain’s log ruse worked for Columbus for a while. In the first few weeks of October, they began spotting floating vegetation which they took for a sign that land must be getting very close, but as the days continued to go by his crew continued to become more restless. On October 11th Columbus told his crew that if they did not spot land in two days, they would turn around. The next day land was sighted.
Columbus was lucky his crew did not discover his deception. Mutinies were incredibly common during the Age of Exploration and often left former captains dead or marooned. Henry Hudson, left in a dinghy adrift in his namesake Hudson Bay ship is a famous example.
Replicas of Niña, Pinta and Santa María sailed from Spain to the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. (E. Benjamin Andrews / Public domain)
Columbus’s Other Deception: Who Saw Land First?
The illegitimate logbook is just one of several deceptions done by Columbus during the voyage. One of the most famous and sad deceptions of this epic voyage was stealing the first-land-sighted reward from a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana. The king had promised a rich annual pension as reward for whoever was the first to spot land, and when Rodrigo let loose with shouts of “Tierra! Tierra!” (“Land! Land!”) from the crow’s nest of the ship, sneaky Christopher claimed he had seen land the night before and claimed the reward for himself. Poor Rodrigo never got over the incident and committed suicide several years later after returning to Spain.
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In comparison to Columbus’ many crimes, using a fake logbook to trick his crew into continuing to sail may seem a minor one. However, it clearly reveals the flawed character of the famous explorer we have been taught to revere.
Many Columbus apologists claim he cannot be solely blamed for things like his treatment of the natives, as maybe he was just a product of his time and any other European would’ve acted in the same savage way.
However, when you consider how he manipulated his crew, it becomes much harder to defend him. The fact that he stole fame and fortune from the crew member who actually saw the New World first is probably the most defining deception of all!
Top image: The landing of Columbus at the Island of Guanahaní, West Indies by John Vanderlyn, which was a success because the fake captain’s log kept the crew’s confidence up and prevented a mutiny. Source: John Vanderlyn / Public domain
By Brendan Beatty
Clark, James C, 1991. Columbus’ Crew: Volunteerism Wasn’t A Factor In Their Recruitment. Available at: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1991-12-01-9111280258-story.html
Commonplace Facts Staff Writer. 2022. Christopher Columbus and the Phony Logs. Accessible at: https://commonplacefacts.com/2020/01/15/christopher-columbus-and-the-phony-logs/
EyeWitness to History Staff Writer. 2004. Christopher Columbus Discovers America, 1492. Accessible at: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/columbus.htm#:~:text=In%20order%20to%20mollify%20his,had%20traveled%20from%20their%20homeland