Taken For Granted: A sailor, his ship, his legacy

The sleek, 130-foot yacht dwarfed the wooden replica tied up alongside.

Five hundred years of maritime progress was on display. During a brief stay in Frankfort Harbor, the Niña drew the curious to this small northern Michigan town, providing a unique opportunity to step back in time and envision the daring of those who braved the open ocean in such apparently unseaworthy craft.

At 67 feet long, the Niña was constructed in 1991 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the new world. No power tools were used, only hand tools. Paintings, coins, contracts and journals were the source of the replica’s design. Written ship construction plans were forbidden in 15th century Spain as a matter of state secrecy.

Departing Spain in 1492, Columbus could not anticipate the impact his voyage would have on the world at large and the native societies he encountered. The Spanish caravel design was equipped with 15th century nautical innovations: A stern rudder-tiller allowed the ships to sail close to the wind, an extra mast and square-rigged and lateen sails enabled it to sail into the wind.

Crude compasses and an astrolabe, a precursor of the sextant, assisted in determining latitude. Longitude was a guessing game, so navigators used sightings of the North Star to sail as close as possible to a specific line of latitude.

With favorable winds and an ideal sea, the ships could make 11 knots. A crew of 20 men was accompanied by chickens, pigs and horses.

Five to seven sailors crew the Niña replica. A 130 -horsepower motor, required by the U.S. Coast Guard, is the only semblance of livestock aboard. A 19th-century compass and display of the American flag while underway also are required.

This floating museum annually sails up the Eastern seaboard through the St. Lawrence Seaway, into the Great Lakes, then down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. The ship has visited 500 different ports.

We were taught to view Columbus as heroic, with no mention of the unfortunate consequences of his discoveries. Columbus’ struggle to refute the Flat Earth Theory was part of the story. In fact, most educated 15th century Europeans believed Earth was round.

Columbus believed it to be pear-shaped. Textbooks claimed that Columbus was worshipped for his discoveries. In fact, he struggled the rest of his life to gain support for future voyages and to justify the importance of his explorations.

In 1500, he was returned to Spain in chains after failing to control a revolt in Hispaniola. He died embittered and frustrated that his efforts went largely unrecognized.

It is difficult to accept the revisionist historical view that now portrays Columbus as a genocidal murderer. His four voyages undoubtedly exported deadly European diseases to North America. But Columbus and his men were among the first to reach the new world and given the state of medical knowledge, cannot be blamed for the biological effects of their interactions on the native population, or for the impact of the thousands of adventurers who followed.

Ultimately, native American populations were wiped out on a scale never before experienced in human history. The age of discovery, colonization and conquest was the brutal product of ambitious kings.

But the exchange between Europe and the Americas was not all bad. New crops, such as potatoes, were imported to Europe. These nutritious foods could be grown in farming areas where other crops would not survive and probably saved millions from starvation.

As value systems change, our view of historical events and individuals evolve. Each generation takes its turn researching and reinterpreting the past. In the case of Columbus, there is general agreement even among his most ardent detractors that his vision, courage and seamanship skills were exemplary for his age.

The working replica of the Niña serves to educate us regarding the challenges he faced. It is a testament to his strengths, not the unanticipated consequences he set in motion.

PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at tfgranted@gmail.com.

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