Spanish navigator Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (1463-1514) captained the ship Niña during Italian explorer Christopher Columbus's first expedition to the New World in 1492 and went on to participate in the exploration of Brazil, becoming that nation's first governor.
When 15th-century Genoese-born explorer Christopher Columbus embarked upon the voyage that would change the course of world history, he traveled with a crew of what he considered foreigners. Funded by the king of Spain rather than Italy, he headed what was essentially a Spanish expedition. From the helm of the flagship Santa Maria, Columbus benefited from the navigational skills of the brothers Pinzón in captaining the two remaining ships in his small squadron. Martín Alonso Pinzón, destined to become a thorn in Columbus's side during the voyage, was in charge of the Pinta while the less volatile Vicente Yáñez Pinzón captained the Niña. While Martín died, dishonored, shortly after his return from the New World, Vicente went on to distinguish himself as an explorer in his own right in subsequent years and is credited with the discovery of the Brazilian mainland and being the first European to sail up the mouth of the Amazon River.
Grew Up in Sight of the Sea
Pinzón was born in 1443 in the Spanish seaport town of Palos de Muguer. Raised in comfortable circumstances, he was one of a long line of seafarers and shipowners, and as a child he spent many hours on the sea. Hearing tales of far-off lands and the wonders—and wealth—they contained from men who, like his much older brother Martín, had explored Africa and the Mediterranean, Vicente caught the spirit of adventure that characterized the age of exploration. He also became skilled in navigation and developed into a talented captain.
The spring of 1492 found the 30-year-old Pinzón at work in the family shipbuilding trade when he was approached by his brother Martín, 20 years his senior, with a proposition. An Italian explorer named Cristóbal Colón had just been granted funding from King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella of Spain and was planning a voyage to India and the Orient by a very novel means: he planned to sail around the circumference of the earth in the opposite direction and had several rudimentary maps to guide him. Martín had already provided the Italian with much-needed additional funding; now he was helping him secure a competent crew. Would Vicente be interested?
Set Sail for China and Fabled West Indies
Vicente, of course, quickly became an enthusiastic participant in Columbus's expedition, and when the squadron of three ships set sail from Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492, he was among the estimated 120 men on board. Columbus commanded the flagship Santa Maria, while Vicente took charge of the Niña and its crew of 24. In the Pinta was Martín Alonso Pinzón, who counted among his 26 men yet another Pinzón, his first mate and youngest brother Francisco Martín Pinzón. The largest of the three ships, the cumbersome Santa Maria was a full-rigged ship that weighed in at over 100 tons and measured approximately 100 feet from stem to stern. Slow due to her size and large crew, she could cover only 150 miles per day under the best of sailing conditions. The Niña and the Pinta were caravels; smaller and lighter than the Santa Maria, they were also far more maneuverable and capable of maintaining greater speeds. The four-masted Niña was 67 feet long, her 21-foot mast the shortest in Columbus's small fleet, and her shallow draft allowed her to anchor close to shore and maneuver in less than seven feet of water. The only ship of the three to carry arms, the Niña was outfitted with ten breech-loading bombardas or swivel guns.
After weeks of sailing, land was sighted on October 11th, and the next day Columbus, the Pinzóns, and the rest of the crew set foot in the New World, believed to be India but which was later determined to be an island in the Bahamas, probably Watling's Island. Columbus and his men explored several islands in the region, including Cuba and Haiti (Hispaniola), and in front of curious groups of native Arawaks claimed each piece of land they set foot on as the property of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Cuba was named Juana in honor of the Spanish princess.
On November 21, 1492, Vicente's brother Martín rashly abandoned his squadron, a controversial move that ultimately destroyed his reputation and which left the Niña and Santa Maria anchored off the coast of San Salvador. A month later, on December 24, the Santa Maria ran aground on a coral reef two miles off the Haitian coast, where it quickly capsized and filled with water. With the Pinta's whereabouts unknown—Martín by then had done some exploring on his own and was anchored much further up the coast of Haiti—Vicente Pinzón prudently refused to allow the 39 crewmembers of the damaged ship to come aboard the Niña and thereby compromise her seaworthiness. Columbus became captain of the Niña and ordered that planks be salvaged from the first known shipwreck in the New World and a shelter be constructed on shore for those crewmen now without shelter. Leaving these men well-provisioned at this new fort, named La Navidad, he ordered that the Niña set sail for home. In the nick of time Martín returned with the Pinta, arriving on January 6, and ten days later the squadron set sail for Spain. After a difficult voyage the Niña made a safer return, and on March 15, 1493, Columbus was received by Ferdinand and Isabella with great pomp and ceremony. Vicente Pinzón was also recognized for performing his duty as captain of his craft, although Martín was disgraced and died, probably of syphilis, shortly after reaching Spain.
Discovered Brazil and the Amazon River
Although loyal to Columbus as his commanding officer throughout the course of the voyage, Vicente Pinzón resented what he considered to be the captain's unfair treatment of his brother. He continued to maintain, as did many others, that Martín Alonso Pinzón was due equal credit for the discovery of the New World. After several attempts to embark on a second voyage westward were canceled by bad weather, Pinzón joined mapmaker Juan de la Costa in obtaining the concession needed from the Spanish crown to make a second trip to Cuba in the spring of 1499. It is reported that on this voyage the two men circumnavigated Cuba, thereby negating Columbus's contention that Cuba was part of a large mainland rather than an island. Upon his return to Spain, Pinzón sought the backing of a wealthy patron and in December 1499 was outfitted and ready to set sail again from Palos as captain of his brother's former ship, the trusty Pinta. Under Pinzón was a squadron of four caravels, including the flagship Pinta manned by a crew of 75, all of whom signed on with the promise of a share of any riches found. The squadron sailed to the Caribbean and arrived without incident within four weeks. Reaching the coast of Brazil and landing at Cabo Santa Maria de la Consolacion, near what is now Pernambuco, on January 26, 1500, Pinzón and his crew followed the Brazilian coast northward, eventually reaching the mouth of the Orinoco river in what would eventually become Venezuela. During this part of his voyage he became the first European to enter the Amazon, which he mistook for the Ganges of India due to the inaccuracy of his map. Encountering groups of native Arawaks, Pinzón accomplished what his late brother had wished to do on Columbus's first voyage: he acquired a great quantity of gold, as well as emeralds and pearls, through trades. By July, with his four ships fully laden, Pinzón and his men decided to turn northward and begin their return trip to Spain. During a stop off the coast of Haiti he encountered Columbus, now on his third voyage, whose efforts to colonize the area were proving problematic due to the animosity developing between the Arawaks and the European interlopers. In late July of 1500 Pinzón's good luck finally ran out, as the Pinta was lost, caught in a hurricane while anchored near the Turks and Caicos Islands. She sank, fully loaded with gold and jewels, along with another ship, the Frailia. Suffering the loss of many men and now with only two somewhat battered ships remaining, Pinzón limped back to Palos, arriving there in October. Two years later, during a subsequent voyage, he made an effort to salvage the cargo of the two vessels lost on this expedition, but no record remains regarding the success or failure of this attempt. Instead, he reported of success in trade, as he anchored in the Gulf of Paria and traded with the native tribes for gold and other valuables. Turning southeast toward the South American continent, Pinzón made the return trip to Spain via Santo Domingo where in July of 1504 he encountered a distraught Columbus, now on what would be the Italian's final voyage.
Received Numerous Honors from Spanish Crown
On April 24, 1505, in honor of his success on behalf of Spain, Pinzón was appointed governor of Brazil by Ferdinand and Isabella. Despite this honor, no record survives of the navigator actually taking over his duties. Instead, Pinzón continued to return to the sea. In a voyage of discovery begun in 1506 he traced Columbus's route through Central America, this time due to the urging of the Spanish king who was eager to find new trade routes to the Orient. Two years later, in 1508 he was jointly commissioned with Juan de Solis to set sail for South America. Jointly in command of the Isabeleta and the larger Magdalena, their movements at sea would be the will of de Solis, while Pinzón had command on land. The two men's search for an interoceanic strait through South America proved fruitless and they returned within the year, each blaming the other for the lack of success. This trip would be Pinzón's final voyage. He died several years later, in 1514, at his family's home in Palos, at the age of fifty one. Remembered as one of the most skillful navigators of his age, he remained respected by both his crew and his king, thereby restoring honor to the family name.
Several years after his death, Pinzón's renown prompted Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain Charles V (1500-1558) to honor him by presenting the Pinzón family with their own coat of arms. The name Pinzón remained well known in the New World, as sons of Vicente and his brothers served as navigators for later Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English governments. Some Pinzóns acquired sizeable land grants in Spanish-controlled Cuba, Texas, Mexico, and Florida, and one branch was known to have settled the Commonwealth of Virginia after migrating from Spain to England during the 16th century.
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Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, Columbus, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Frye, John, Los otros: Columbus and the Three Who Made His Enterprise of the Indies Succeed, E. Mellen Press, 1992.
Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Taviani, Paolo Emilio, Columbus: The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages, translated by Luciano F. Farina and Marc A. Beckwith, Orion, 1991.