From the log:
Sunday, Sept. 16: That day and night they steered their course west, making 39 leagues ... The Admiral says that on that day and ever afterwards, they met with very temperate breezes. He says that the weather was like April in Andalusia. Here they began to see many tufts of grass which were very green and appeared to have been quite recently torn from the land ...
Wednesday, Sept. 19: This day, at 10 o'clock, a booby came to the ship, and in the afternoon another arrived, these birds not generally going more than 20 leagues from the land ...
Tuesday, Sept. 25: At sunset Martin Alonso went up on the poop of his ship and with much joy called to the Admiral, claiming the reward as he had sighted land ... Those of the Ninåa all went up on the mast and into the rigging and declared that it was land ... What had been said to be land was only clouds ...
Wednesday, Oct. 10: Here the people could endure no longer. They complained of the length of the voyage. But the Admiral cheered them up ...
Thursday, Oct. 11: Those of the caravel Pinta saw a cane and a pole, and they took up another small pole which appeared to have been worked with iron ... As the caravel Pinta was a better sailor and went ahead of the Admiral, she found the land and made the signals ordered by the Admiral. The land was first seen by a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana ...
Triana, a mariner from Seville, was the lookout that night, standing on the Pinta's forecastle, and around 2 a.m. on the 12th he thought he saw a white sand cliff shining in the moonlight. Then he spotted another cliff close to it. And a low, dark strip of land between. "Tierra!" he shouted. "Tierra!"
He didn't know what he was getting into.
In the first place, Adm. Christopher Columbus thought he had discovered the east coast of China. He even had a letter of introduction to the Great Khan. In the second place, all sorts of people were to claim that Columbus hadn't discovered it at all but had been beaten to it by Vikings, Etruscans, Poles, Libyans, Pelasgians, Phoenicians, Japanese or a bunch of lost fishermen from Bristol, England.
He didn't even get to name it after himself. It was named for some banker from Florence.
But Columbus hasn't done so badly. At least 468 towns and natural features across this land are now named for him. And today he has his very own personalized day.
And even as we celebrate it, wheels are turning to get us ready for the really big one, the 500th anniversary of this most important geographical discovery in human history, Oct. 12, 1992.
A 44-page brochure by the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission, sent by President Reagan to Congress just last week, outlines a pyrotechnic display of public honors that makes the Statue of Liberty extravaganza look like your cat's birthday party. A scholarship program, a Museum of the Americas, the Chicago-Seville World's Fair of 1992, an international floral show in Columbus, Ohio, maritime festivals and a regatta of tall ships to enter New York Harbor July 4, 1992 -- the procession of grand events marches clear into 1993 and beyond. After all, Columbus made not one but four trips to America and back, the last in 1504.
In 1988 the opera "Cristobal Colon" will premiere in New York. In 1990 Baltimore, which boasts America's oldest Columbus monument, will celebrate the centennial of its Columbus Day parade, the longest running anywhere. The year after that the District of Columbia, named after himself, has its bicentennial.
Already the ubiquitous Smithsonian has had a quincentenary forum titled "After Columbus," thoroughly scooping them all.
Not to mind, there is still plenty to talk about. "Important facts about Columbus' life are shrouded in uncertainty," the jubilee commission states. "The commission will not endorse any of the competing theories about exactly where he landed, for example, or who his ancestors may have been."
People have been arguing about the landfall, the spit of sand that the discoverer called San Salvador, for centuries. But which island was it? The site was first identified as Watling Island in 1793. Then Grand Turk was proposed. In 1828 Washington Irving came out for Cat Island, and others favored Mayaguana, Samana or Atwood Cay. At least nine different Bahamian islands are in the running.
A year ago the National Geographic joined the fight with an elaborate study, a new translation of Columbus' journal (actually a gloss by one Bartolomeo de las Casas, taken directly from the now-lost original) and a computer reenactment of the voyage. The trail led to uninhabited Samana Cay, 65 miles southeast of Watling.
Faced with the problem that Columbus' island was definitely populated (... It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything. They go as naked as when their mothers bore them ... They are very well made, with very handsome bodies and very good countenances ... ), the Geographic sent in archeologists who found that Indians had indeed once lived on the nine-mile-long island. The theory has converted some scholars, but not all, of course.
As for the claims that someone else discovered America, they are rather beside the point, like those pre-Wright brothers fliers. The point being, this is the one that took.
But the encyclopedias say Norsemen colonized Iceland in 860 and Greenland in 986, in which year one Bjarne Herjulfson hung a left at Greenland and made a strange landfall, probably Labrador. And in 1002 Leif Ericson followed that route farther south to what he called "Vinland," perhaps Newfoundland.
Other Norsemen visited the new continent, found hostile natives they named "Skraelings" and came back.
In 1965 Yale published a "Vinland map" dating from 1440 that featured an "Island of Vinland" sketched into the western Atlantic. By 1974 the island was pronounced a forgery.
For almost a century now, people have been finding stones carved with ancient runes as deep into America as Minnesota. One was dated 1362. The verdict isn't in on these discoveries, but scholars are skeptical.
Meanwhile, it seems almost everyone discovered America. A marine archeologist named Robert Marx says the Phoenicians crossed to South America and left a carving that said, "We Phoenicians from Tyre sailing around Africa on a voyage which has taken us two years, have come to this strange land."
One wonders how they knew it was called Africa.
As for the Etruscans, some Italian scientists claim evidence that those ur-Romans emigrated to Guiana before 1100 B.C. Evidence in these cases usually means similar markings on pottery, similar religious practices and customs.
And legends. Don't forget legends. Wasn't it the Mayans who had one about a tall bearded white man landing on their coast before time began?
It is also possible that the first tourists came to our west coast from Asia. The Russians mention Nicholas Lynn, an English explorer who may have entered Hudson's Bay in 1360. The Poles talk about Jan of Kolno, a navigator serving the Norwegians, who sailed down past Labrador as far as Delaware in 1476.
There's no end to it. In 1970 President Nixon commemorated Columbus Day Oct. 12 and Leif Ericson Day Oct. 9, avoiding the issue.
As the quincentenary closes in, the age-old dispute over where Columbus is buried has become urgent. The man died May 20, 1505, in Valladolid, but his son moved the bones to Seville, according to biographer Samuel Eliot Morison. Later the remains, by now in a small lead casket, were moved to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic so as to be in the New World. In 1795, when Spain ceded that island to France, the bones were moved to Havana, then back to Seville. Some ashes were shipped to Genoa, too.
But were they the right remains? Morison says a lead casket with Columbus' name on it was found in Santo Domingo in 1877. From there, it gets complicated.
None of these controversies is likely to be settled in time for the big celebration. Scholars need controversy, and remember, the commission is calling for a Columbus Scholars program.
Even if you could bring him back to argue his case, he wouldn't be much help. There he would be, shouting in the Rose Garden: "I still say it was China ...