515th Anniversary of Columbus’ hurricane encounter

Columbus encounters the Taino Indians.
(University of Florida Smathers Library Special collections)

On June 30, 1502, during his fourth voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus and his fleet sought shelter from a hurricane.  While his fleet survived, a Spanish treasure fleet heading for home fared far worse.

During his previous voyages to the Caribbean, Columbus had learned of the terrible storms that frequented the area.  The local Taino tribes related tales of these storms, certain signs of their approach, and their attribution of them to the anger of their god Hurakan.  On his second voyage, in 1494, he had a run-in with such a storm while south of Cuba.  It taught him the value of reading the signs in sea and sky of these approaching ‘huracan’ storms.

Don Nicolàs de Ovando y Càceres

On June 29, 1502, Columbus’s fleet of four ships arrived at the Santo Domingo colony on Hispañola’s southern shore to send dispatches back to Spain and carry out trade.  Columbus noticed signs of an approaching ‘huracan’ storm and asked permission to anchor in the harbor to ride out the tempest.  However, the colony’s governor, Don Nicolàs de Ovando y Càceres, forbade him the use of the harbor.  Don de Ovando was busy preparing a fleet of thirty ships to return to Spain bearing treasure and slaves and couldn’t be bothered with fanciful storm stories from his rival.  Columbus warned the governor not to release the fleet until after the storm had passed.  He then sailed his ships to the western side of the island to seek shelter from the impending fury.

The ‘huracan’ struck the next day.  At the height of the storm, three of Columbus’ ships broke their anchor lines and were driven before the winds.  But they survived the storm and were able to reunite after its passage.  But Don de Ovando had not heeded Columbus’s advice and let the treasure fleet sail.  They were caught by the storm at sea, with 25 ships lost, 4 badly damaged and returned to Santo Domingo, and only one surviving and sailing on to Spain.  Over 500 Spanish sailors and an unknown number of slaves were drowned in the whirlwind.  The sole ship to make it to Spain was the Aguja, the one carrying Columbus’ share of the treasure.

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