Columbus and the Brothers Pinzon

The Untold Story of America’s Other Discoverers

For centuries Christopher Columbus was credited with “discovering” the New World. Then came evidence that other Europeans had preceded him. Vikings, for example, crossed the North Atlantic five hundred years earlier. Sailors from Ireland, Wales, France, and North Africa had also crossed the ocean. Columbus is still honored and often dishonored as the discoverer, but evidence shows that a Spanish mariner by the name of Martin Alonso Pinzon, who actually sailed with Columbus in 1492, had been in the Americas before the voyage. Three times he and his brothers would fail to gain the recognition they deserved for both crossing the Atlantic and discovering South America.

Born around 1441, Martin Alonso Pinzon was a prominent man in his hometown of Palos, Spain. Descended from people who made their living on the sea, he was an able pilot, shipbuilder, ship owner, and trader who sailed extensively before ever meeting Columbus.

In 1488 Martin joined an expedition with Jean Cousin of Dieppe, France. He served as pilot, a title for those who steer the ship to its destination. The pair were coasting Africa when they learned just how powerful Atlantic currents could be. Once past Cape Verde, ships are pushed away from Africa by the Canaries Current (named after the islands). Pinzon and Cousins found themselves swept to the southwest and across the Atlantic and eventually carried to what would later be named Brazil. They entered the Amazon River but planted no colony—their only goal: to get home.

The adventure, or misadventure, is mentioned in at least three older works: Leon Gudrin’s Navigateurs Français, Charles Estancelin’s Navigateurs Normands and in a work by an M. Gaffarel, who wrote on the French in the New World. According to the French authors, Cousin and Pinzon did not get along. Jean Cousin was the captain and Pinzon, as pilot, was his subordinate, but he had a history of refusing to be obedient to anyone. Cousin, however, stopped short of calling Pinzon mutinous. According to Francis Parkman (Pioneers of France in the New World), Pinzon’s conduct led to his dismissal from Cousin’s employ.

Despite being the first European on record to reach Brazil, the mariner from Palos got no credit for reaching America before Columbus, nor did his captain.

That fact, however, did not stop Pinzon from seeking a name for himself. He had heard about the planned Columbus voyage. One tale has it that King Ferdinand ordered Pinzon to help outfit the Columbus expedition and demanded that the entire port of Palos contribute to the voyage. Most of the merchants and sailors of Spanish Palos, though, had no confidence in the Genoese Italian captain and refused to contribute. King Ferdinand then put the burden on the most respected captain of the city, Martin Pinzon.

There is no record of any agreement between the two rivals, but it is known that Pinzon dismissed the men that Columbus had hired. He also rejected the ships provided by Columbus. Pinzon, however, contributed half of the funds that King Ferdinand had committed to the voyage and proceeded to hire his own ships and crews.

Many of the contributions of Columbus to the voyage are well known. He was already a seaman with considerable experience and resources. He had sailed north to Ireland where bodies of dark-skinned people had been known to wash up on shore. He had sailed even further north to Iceland where Norse voyages to the Americas were known to sailors and sea captains, and he had sailed off the coast of Africa to Madeira where he lived with his wife Filipa Perestrello. Filipa’s father, a member of a reconstituted Templar order, the Knights of Christ, had discovered the small chain of islands. The gift of Perestrello’s charts served, no doubt, to convince Columbus of lands to the west. He also had a connection in Florence. The physician Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, a celebrated student of geography, corresponded with Columbus on the travels of Italians to China. Pinzon, though, had his own resources.


Secrets of the Vatican Library

In the spring of 1492, Pinzon hurried to Rome, ostensibly to deliver a cargo of sardines, but that was just a cover story. His real aim was to find someone who could help him gain entrée to the Vatican Library. Through various secret channels leading back to Rodrigo Borgia, he succeeded in accessing the library. (Martin’s son, Arias Perez Pinzon, would later say the link was a “friend” who worked in the library.)

The Pope, at the time, was Alexander VI. Born Rodrigo Borja (Latinized, to ‘Borgia’) he became one of the most controversial Popes. Accused of adultery, he yet had no problem publicly acknowledging his children. He was suspected of incest, bribery, and murder as well. Originally from Valencia, Spain, the Borgias may have known the Pinzon family.

The Vatican Library, even today, is legendary and said to hold many secret treasures. Some maps held there were also preserved in Istanbul. The connection between the famous Piri Reis map and the map of Columbus is often debated. Piri Reis, it was said, drew his map based on what Columbus reported, but since Columbus went no further than the Orinoco, and since Reis depicted features further south, it is argued that he must have had another source.

Vatican records are often uncatalogued, but in 1891, Dr. Luka Jelic de Spalato, a researcher, uncovered communications, which included a Papal Bull of Alexander VI containing instructions to appoint a bishop in Greenland. The records thus showed that the Pope was not only aware of the western lands but that the route was considered to be unimpeded. What other papers could yet be found?

Supposedly, the Vatican Library document shown to Pinzon asserted that in the time of King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba sailed westward in the Atlantic, visiting lands more beautiful than Africa and Europe. While this may sound fanciful, hearings conducted in Seville in 1515 produced several witnesses affirming the Vatican/Pinzon connection. Moreover, there is evidence of African voyages which, intentionally or otherwise—crossed the Atlantic. Frank Joseph’s The Lost Treasure of King Juba tells of one intentional voyage. Historians question the massive Olmec heads with Black African appearance found in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Evidence of Egyptian visits to the New World, specifically South America, also exists. Notably the center of projection on the map of Piri Reis is Syene in Egypt, implying at least one prior Egyptian voyage. What might be considered further evidence is that Columbus, who named numerous islands for Christian saints or symbols, made one exception, naming the island of Saba for the Queen of Sheba.


The Columbus Expedition

The Columbus expedition left Spain with three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The Pinta was in the command of Martin Alonso Pinzon and would lead the small expedition for most of the way. His brother Vincente Yanez Pinzon, twenty years younger, commanded the Nina. The brothers shared a notable lack of the famous piety displayed by Columbus. ‘Pinta’ meant “painted one,” or “puta,” a prostitute. ‘Nina’ was the Spanish word for little girl and shared the same implication. The original name of the flagship had a similar double meaning before Columbus changed it to ‘Santa Maria.’

The story of the voyage includes a near-mutiny resulting from sailing so long with no sign of land. On September 22 Columbus sent a chart to Martin who studied it for three days. Conflicting reports suggest that Columbus complained that all had turned against him, but Martin, it is said, saved the day, finally urging the crew: “Adelant! Adelante!” meaning “Forward.” The ancient motto of Palos was, “Trust in God and hammer on.” Later, it was the lookout on the Pinta, Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, who gave out the cry, “Tierra,” meaning “land.”

When Pinzon joined Columbus, he was between 46 and 50 years old, an advanced age for a mariner. Publicly he supported the Italian explorer; privately he had greater ambitions than playing second fiddle to a Genoese intruder. Even though he had reached the New World before his voyage with Columbus, he was a small fish among explorers, except, of course, in Palos. After all, neither he nor Jean Cousin had gotten any credit for his prior experience.

The Columbus expedition was his second chance for recognition. The argument can be made that without the direction of the Pinzon brothers, the group might not have reached land when it did. Indeed, but for Pinzon’s help, support and courage, Columbus might have failed. In November—possibly because he still wanted to make a name for himself—Pinzon refused the orders of Columbus and abandoned the expedition, allegedly to find gold. He traveled to Cuba, but Columbus suspected he was planning to sail home first and claim victory for himself.

The bad blood between the two men was made obvious by the fact that Columbus named 60 places, but when he learned that Pinzon had, apparently, named a river for himself, he renamed it Rio de Gracia.

While Martin Pinzon helped Columbus avoid mutiny, Vincente Pinzon went even further and saved his life. On Christmas day the Santa Maria wrecked on a shoal; and if it were not for Vincente, who had stayed with Columbus, the outcome might have been much worse. Indeed, the Pinta and its crew ultimately saved the Santa Maria, along with Columbus and his crew.

Columbus had been exhausted by the visits of the natives, which at one point, numbered 2,000. With this in mind he headed out to sea. There was a light breeze and he wanted to get some sleep. An experienced seaman was given the job of steering the ship, but he too was tired, and turned the tiller over to a boy of 14. The voyage that had taken so long to be approved by the king, and had been funded by so many, was now in serious jeopardy, coming almost to an end on a perfectly calm night. The ship ran aground. Beneath were three coral reefs. Juan de la Cosa, master and owner of the ship, took the longboat and sailed for the Nina to get help. To save his cargo, Columbus was forced to rely on help from the Indians.

The admiral, who admitted weeping for two days, then blamed the disaster on the men of Palos. With the wood of the Santa Maria, he built a tiny fort. Columbus then took over the Pinta and, leaving nearly forty men behind, set sail for home. Two days later the Nina and the Pinta reunited. Pinzon was angry that Columbus had stranded his men. Many he had known for years and some were relatives. In response, Columbus threatened to hang him.

On March 15, 1493 the Nina reentered the harbor at Palos, which it had left in August of 1492. The Pinta was close behind. Martin Pinzon, now seriously ill, was no longer a threat. He returned to his home in Palos and died within a few days. The most likely cause was syphilis, possibly incurred long before the journey.

The Pinzon family rallied and, except for younger brother Vincente, refused to take part in Columbus’ second voyage. The family believed the credit Columbus received should have been given to Martin. Instead, he was once again seen as just another crewmember.

In June 6, 1499, however, Vincente would sign an agreement to lead his own expedition, for which he was promised 80% of the discoveries. With four ships and 75 men, he set sail for Brazil, possibly following the same route Martin had used on his pre-Columbian voyage with Jean Cousin. In the final days of 1499, Vincente Yanez Pinzon first saw what would be called Brazil. He explored the coast to the Amazon River and also reached Venezuela. Unfortunately, though, he would not be recognized for his discovery. A Papal decree known as the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed by the Borgia Pope, unintentionally gave Brazil to Portugal.

Months later Pedro Alvares Cabral, who had landed there on April 22, 1500, claimed the entire region. He also was a member of the Order of Christ, and possibly his high status overshadowed the voyage of Vincente Pinzon. Cabral named the land ‘The Island of the True Cross’ while the King of Portugal called it the land of the Holy Cross. The name Brazil was not used until 1511, possibly in reference to “brasa” meaning glowing coal, which described the dark red wood prized by the Portuguese.

In any case, it was the third voyage of discovery by a member of the Pinzon clan where no recognition was received. Opinions of Columbus in Spain went from bad to worse, and he would be derided there for a hundred years. He died in 1506, not alone or destitute, but suffering from Reiter’s syndrome caused by acute dysentery. For the Pinzon family it was an opportunity and they sued for a stake in the profits of the New World.

Martin’s son, Arias Perez Pinzon, would claim that it was his father, armed with maps from the Vatican, who showed Columbus the way. The suits began in 1508 and lasted until 1536. They were known collectively as the pleitos colombinos. Witnesses testified of the Pinzon family’s importance in Palos. Others testified that it was Martin, not Columbus who should have gotten the credit. In 1524 a new prosecutor annulled all parts of the suit that the family of Columbus had won and, using surviving witnesses to the first voyage, he demonstrated the discovery was achieved because of Pinzon. Arbitration confirmed the title of Admiral of the Indies for Columbus and designated regular payments to his heirs. The Pinzon family was given some credit. In 1519 King Charles I gave them and their descendants a coat of arms that depicted three caravels with the red Templar crosses as well as two natives on an island.

In Palos today, a statue is dedicated to Martin Pinzon and another to the Pinzon brothers as the men who discovered America. Five hundred years after their adventures, the brothers received the recognition that they craved—with an appearance on Spanish postage stamps.

By Steven Sora