Goodbye Columbus, hello Samana Cay.
Nearly 500 years after his historic voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus's accepted point of arrival has shifted. The explorer first landed on the narrow, 9-mile-long island of Samana Cay in the Bahamas, according to a report presented at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., last week. The island is 65 miles southeast of San Salvador, known as Watling Island prior to 1926, which many history books peg as the place where Columbus first dropped anchor.
The five-year study was directed by Joseph Judge, senior associate editor of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine. He commissioned a new translation of a summary of Columbus's lost log written by a 16th-century priest. The voyage was then replotted by Luis Marden, a former NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC editor and transatlantic sailor, and his wife, mathematician Ethel Marden, taking into account the the effects of current and leeway, a ship's sideways slip due to wind. Other investigators have not used these crucial factors in their calculations, says Judge. The Mardens also based their work, which included a computerized retracing of the Atlantic crossing, on the recently discovered length of the sea league used to chart nautical distance in Columbus's time. The course plotted with these data ends up at a point about 10 miles east-northeast if Samana Cay.
Further analysis bolstered the Mardens' estimate. The 16th-century abstract of Columbus's log gives the general directions and distances he traveled after the initial landing to four other islands before going on to Cuba. One location in these Bahamian travels was pinned down with certainty; a computer program ran the course backward from that point, ending up at Samana Cay.
Earlier this year, Judge and several co-workers, including archaeologists Charles Hoffman and Nancy Hoffman of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, confirmed that Samana Cay was inhabited, at least seasonally, at the time of Columbus's arrival. The group uncovered 10 archaeological sites, along with pottery and other artifacts.
At least eight other islands in the Bahamas have been proposed as the site of Columbus's initial landing. Samana Cay was first proposed in 1882 by Gustavus Fox, who had been Abraham Lincoln's assistant secretary of the Navy. Other scholars, however, dismissed his argument. In 1942, Harvard University historial Samuel Eliot Morison asserted that Columbus arrived at Watling Island, or San Salvador, a view that researchers began to challenge several years ago.
The argument over when Columbus landed has not been conclusively settled, but Judge says he is "98 percent sure" that Samana Cay is the answer. "Perhaps infallible proof will come only with discovery of the original Columbus log and chart," he adds.