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Hurricanes: Science and Society
1502- Columbus' First Hurricane

During Christopher’s Columbus fourth and final voyage to the “New World”, the explorer experienced his first hurricane. He encountered the storm off the coast of Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). On June 29, 1502, Columbus stopped at Hispaniola to send letters back to Spain and potentially trade one of his slower ships, the Santiago de Palos. However, Columbus suspected that a hurricane was approaching the area. During his earlier voyages, natives warned Columbus of bad storms they called “horrible tempests”, or “huracan”. Sensing one of these storms was near, Columbus attempted to seek shelter in Santo Domingo on the southern side of Hispaniola. However, the explorer and his fleet were denied access to the port by Hispaniola’s local governor, Don Nicolas de Oravando. With access to Santo Domingo denied, Columbus, strategically moved his 4 ships to the west side of the island. Columbus then noticed that the governor was preparing to send a “treasure fleet” with gold and slaves to Spain. Columbus warned de Oravando about the pending storm and advised him to keep the fleet in port. Orvando ignored Columbus’ advice and sent the ships on their way.

As the hurricane passed on June 30, 1502, heavy rains and wind caused much of Columbus’ fleet to break anchor and all but the boat he captained were pulled out to sea. Despite these events, however, all of Columbus’ ships survived and sustained only moderate damage. Orvando’s fleet, on the other hand, did not fare as well. Shortly after his ships departed Hispanolia, the hurricane arrived. Twenty-five of de Orvando’s ships sank, 4 turned back to Hispaniola, and only 1 ship actually made it to Spain. Approximately 500 of Orvando’s men lost their lives during the hurricane.

Fast Facts:

  • Columbus was actually banned from Hispaniola after his third voyage to the island in 1498. In 1492, Columbus had been given orders to expand a Spanish colony in Hispaniola. During his first voyage there, he marked the Spanish colony by building a fort the western side of the island. In 1493, during his second voyage, Columbus arrived in Hispaniola only to find the colony in ruins. Columbus then rebuilt and refortified the settlement. In 1498, the explorer returned to Hispaniola only to find the colony again in chaos. As Columbus tried to reorganize the colony, Francisco de Bobadilla, a knight of Calatrava, Spain’s oldest chivalric order, arrived in Hispaniola. At this time, the colonists of Hispaniola had grown tired of Columbus and de Bobadilla recognized this. They contacted the King and Queen of Spain and they had Columbus brought back to Spain in chains, banning the explorer from going back to Hispaniola.
  • The only ship of de Orvando’s to make it through the hurricane and reach Spain was the Aguja. Interestingly, this ship was only carrying Columbus’s gold. The King and Queen of Spain allowed Columbus, in a postarrest settlement, to appoint an accountant to tally his gold during his final voyage. Columbus chose Alonso Sanchez de Carvajal who was an accountant as well as a sea captain. Orvando had thought that the Aguja was the most pitiful ship in the fleet, so he assigned Carvajal and the gold of Columbus to it. This plan backfired on de Orvando, as already noted, the Aguja was the only ship of de Orvando’s fleet to survive the hurricane.
  • The present-day term “hurricane” is thought to have originated from the Spanish “huracan”, which is in turn thought to come from words in use among some of the Caribbean tribes. These include “aracan”, “urican”, and “huiranvucan”, which have been translated as “Big Wind”, and similar terms. Mayan tribes oftrn referred to “Hunraken”, the God of wind, storm, and fire. The native symbol for “huracan” and our present-day symbol for “hurricane” are also very similar.


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By Tom Rubillo
Published by: The History Press 2006
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PG 24-25

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Little Brown and Company 2005
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