Christopher Columbus' Diary: The First Voyage

Christopher Columbus embarked on the first of three voyages to the "New World" with three ships — the Niña, Pinta and Santa María — on August 3, 1492. On October 12th, Columbus and his crew arrived on the island known today as San Salvador. He kept a logbook in which he faked some entries to soothe a mutinous crew, and a private diary in which he described the journey that shaped the subsequent history of the western hemisphere. Upon his return to Spain, Columbus presented these records to Queen Isabella I of Castile. She had the diary copied and retained the original, then gave the copy to Columbus before his second voyage. The whereabouts of the original Spanish text remain a mystery — its location has not been known since 1504. Here are 14 words selected from the historic text.

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. meridian
    an imaginary great circle on the surface of the earth
    August 5.—Took the meridian observation at midday; wind northerly with a great swell. Ship's company in good spirits: but the doctor says we have started on a wild goose chase.
  2. allowance
    an amount granted, as during a given period
    August 10.—The situation of the men from the very fatiguing work made most minute precautions necessary. Double allowance of Manzanilla served round to-day.
  3. scoff
    laugh at with contempt and derision
    September 9.—The doctor, who has always scoffed at the idea of the sea serpent, which, he said, was a travellers' tale (adding, sarcastically, and, I think, very inconsiderately, "like the western passage to China"), was silent all the evening.
  4. serpent
    limbless scaly elongate reptile; some are venomous
    September 9.—Officers and ship's company in decidedly less good spirits since the foggy weather began. Sea serpent incident also caused a good deal of disappointment, the men being convinced we had reached the coast of China, although I had repeatedly explained that we could not possibly make that land for some time yet.
  5. arbitrary
    based on or subject to individual discretion or preference
    September 12.—This faking has been an easy task, since the log, being only a mean taken every hour and consequently liable to error from the variations in the force of the wind during the intervals, from which an arbitrary correction is made by the officer of the watch; as this allowance must from its nature be inaccurate, it is very easy to make it more inaccurate still, now, that is to say, that I have squared Roderigo.
  6. mutiny
    open rebellion against constituted authority
    September 12.—Ship's company distressingly sulky. If matters continue like this it will end in a mutiny.
  7. axis
    a straight line through a body or figure
    September 13.—Have made a startling and disagreeable discovery. There is something wrong or odd about the compass. The axis of the needle no longer coincides with the geographical meridian it occupies—but makes an angle. This matter must be investigated.
  8. plumb
    exactly vertical
    September 17.—Roderigo has constructed an instrument, hanging by a universal joint on a triangular stand, adjusted so as to hang in a plane perpendicular to the horizon, by means of a plumb line, which is suspended on a pin above a divided circle.
  9. vagary
    an unexpected and inexplicable change in something
    September 17.—The ship's company discovered at dawn to-day the vagaries of the compass. Situation alarming. They at once said we must go home.
  10. disgracefully
    in a dishonorable manner or to a dishonorable degree
    September 26.—Steered W. No sign of anything. Wish we had never left Spain. The Alguazil disgracefully drunk again last night, and rude in his cups.
  11. respite
    a relief from harm or discomfort
    October 10.—Mutiny. Ship's company refuse to go on. Insist on returning to Spain. If I refuse they threaten to kill me; but I fear they will kill me if I consent. Otherwise the matter would be simple. Have asked for three days' respite.
  12. sanguine
    confidently optimistic and cheerful
    October 11.—He said at dinner yesterday that we might come home by the Nile, as we should certainly encounter its source in China. Want of taste. It is only too plain that both officers and ship's company are growing sceptical as to the practical results of our voyage. Wish the King and Queen of Spain had been a little less sanguine. We shall indeed look very foolish if we come back having accomplished nothing.
  13. starboard
    located on the right side of a ship or aircraft
    October 11.—Saw a light on starboard bow, but am not quite certain that it wasn't a star.
  14. hoist
    October 12.— Hoisted Spanish flag; took possession of the country, which seems to be India, and not China, after all. Call it West India or Hispaniola. Natives talk in a drawling sing-song, chew tobacco and gum, and drink Manzanilla and Vermouth mixed, icing the drink.

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