The Columbus Mystery

In 1492, a small group of peaceful Lucayan natives (Arawaks) were going about their business on a little island they called Guanahani, where they and their forebears had lived for at least 500 years. Little did they know how profoundly their lives would change when they greeted three small, strange-looking ships carrying Christopher Columbus and his crew of pale, bearded, oddly costumed men. It is said that when he came ashore, Columbus knelt and prayed. Then he claimed the land for Spain and named it San Salvador.

Unfortunately, the event was not so propitious for the reportedly handsome natives. Columbus later wrote to Queen Isabella that they would make ideal captives -- perfect servants, in other words. It wasn't long before the Spanish conquistadors cleared the island, as well as most of The Bahamas, of Lucayans, sending them into slavery and early death in the mines of Hispaniola (Haiti) in order to feed the Spanish lust for New World gold.

But is the island now known as San Salvador the actual site of Columbus's landing? Columbus placed no lasting marker of his landfall on the sandy, sun-drenched island. Hence, there has been much study and discussion as to just where he actually landed.

In the 17th century, an English pirate captain, George Watling, took over the island (there was no government in charge at the time) and built a mansion on it to serve as his safe haven. The island was listed on maps for about 250 years thereafter as Watling's (or Watling) Island.

In 1926, the Bahamian legislature formally changed the name of the island to San Salvador, feeling that enough evidence had been brought forth to support the belief that this was indeed the site of Columbus's landing. Then in 1983, artifacts of European origin (beads, buckles, and metal spikes) were found here together with Arawak pottery and beads and a shard of Spanish pottery. Though the actual date of these artifacts cannot be pinned down, they are probably from 1490 to 1560. The beads and buckles fit the description of goods recorded in Columbus's log.

National Geographic published two meticulously researched articles in 1986 that set forth the belief that Samana Cay, some 105km (65 miles) southeast of the present San Salvador, was actually Guanahani, the island Columbus named San Salvador when he first landed in the New World. The question may never be resolved, and there will doubtless be years and years of controversy about it. Nevertheless, history buffs still flock here hoping to follow in the explorer's footsteps.

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