La Navidad: First European Settlement in the Americas

Christopher Columbus. Painting by Sebastiano del Piombo

On the night of December 24-25, 1492, Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María, ran aground off the northern coast of the island of Hispaniola and had to be abandoned. With no room for the stranded sailors, Columbus was forced to found the La Navidad (“Christmas”), first European settlement in the New World. When he returned the following year, he found that the colonists had been massacred by natives.

The Santa María Runs Aground:

Columbus had three ships with him on his first voyage to the Americas: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. They discovered unknown lands in October of 1492 and began exploring. The Pinta became separated from the other two ships. On the night of December 24, the Santa Maria became stuck on a sandbar and coral reef off the northern shore of the Island of Hispaniola and was eventually dismantled. Columbus, in his official report to the crown, claims to have been asleep at the time and blamed the wreck on a boy. He also claimed that the Santa María had been less than seaworthy all along.

39 Left Behind:

The sailors were all rescued, but there was no room for them on Columbus’ remaining ship, the Niña, a smallish caravel. He had no choice but to leave some men behind. He reached an agreement with a local chieftain, Guacanagari, with whom he had been trading, and a small fort was built out of the remains of the Santa María.

In all, 39 men were left behind, including a doctor and Luís de Torre, who spoke Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew and had been brought along as an interpreter. Diego de Araña, a cousin of Columbus’ mistress, was left in charge. Their orders were to collect gold and await Columbus’ return.

Columbus Returns:

Columbus returned to Spain and a glorious welcome.

He was given financing for a much larger second voyage which had as one of its goals to found a larger settlement on Hispaniola. His new fleet arrived at La Navidad on November 27, 1493, almost one year after it had been established. He found the settlement burned to the ground and all of the men killed. Some of their belongings were found in native homes nearby. Guacanagari blamed the massacre on raiders from other tribes, and Columbus apparently believed him.

Fate of La Navidad:

Later, Guacanagari’s brother, a chieftain in his own right, told a different story. He said that the men of La Navidad went out in search of not only gold, but women as well, and had taken to mistreating the local natives. In retaliation, Guacanagari had ordered an attack and had himself been wounded. The Europeans were wiped out and the settlement burned to the ground. The massacre may have happened around August or September of 1493.

Legacy and Importance of La Navidad:

In many ways, the settlement of La Navidad is not particularly important historically. It did not last, no one terribly important died there, and the Taíno people who burned it to the ground were subsequently themselves destroyed by disease and enslavement.

It’s more of a footnote or even a trivia question. It has not even been located: archaeologists continue to search for the exact site, believed by many to be near Bord de Mer de Limonade in present-day Haiti.

On a metaphorical level, however, La Navidad is very important, as it marks not only the first European settlement in the New World but also the first major conflict between natives and Europeans. It was an ominous sign of times to come, as the La Navidad pattern would be repeated time and time again all over the Americas, from Canada to Patagonia. Once contact was established, trade would begin, followed by some sort of unspeakable crimes (generally on the part of the Europeans) followed by wars, massacres, and slaughter. In this case, it was the encroaching Europeans who were killed: more often it would be the other way around.

Recommended reading: Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.