Maritime History of the Great Lakes
When the Spanish Caravels Visited Toronto: Schooner Days CCCLXXXIII (383)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 4 Feb 1939
Full Text
When the Spanish Caravels Visited Toronto
Schooner Days CCCLXXXIII (383)

by C. H. J. Snider


WHO remembers when the "Columbian caravels" rode to their hempen cables in the Bay, off Island Park, their gorgeous bunting snapping in the brisk June wind?

Whoever does, has fifty under his because it was forty-six years ago this summer. But do not confuse this invasion of the Spanish Armada with their return to the foot of Yonge street in September, twenty years later, lean bent and beggared by the strumpet wind and a lifetime of barnstorming.

June 27th, 1893, was the date of the first visit. On that day, along with the late Harold Fisher, who was to become Mayor of Ottawa, and some other choice spirits of Jarvis street T.C.I., as it was then called, the future compiler of Schooner Days embarked in a hired rowboat in the shelter of the old Long Pond at the Island, breasted the chop of the bay, and joined the great flotilla of skiffs, punts, sailboats and steam launches, amid which the tiny caravels towered like cliffs.

The caravels looked like nothing the youngest schoolboy or the most ancient mariner had ever seen. Short, paunchy, high-ended, with masts spreading fanwise, crossed by long yards, they suggested the "high sea castles heaving on the weather bow," which the current literature lesson had emphasized in school. We gaped at their yards crossing the masts and the square watersails hung under the bows of two of them.

They were really little craft, not much larger than the Island ferries which brought the thronging thousands to see them. Indeed, they were smaller than the Mayflower and the Primrose, then new and designated "palace steamers," and only retired last year. The Nina, 67 feet over all, 55 feet on deck, and 48 tons measurement was just the same length as the little old Luella, which carried so many children to Hanlan's Point in half a century. The Pinta, two tons larger, was a foot shorter on the deck than the Nina but built out a foot longer over all. The flagship Santa Maria had an over-all length of 95 feet, and measured 96 tons. Columbus, we learned, had complained that she was too large for exploring purposes, and so she was; for her size and draught of water, 8 feet, and her general clumsiness made her difficult to maneuver close inshore. Compared with lake craft like the Le Moyne the "too big" flagship would only be a flea-bite; the Le Moyne, Canada's greatest lake freighter, could stow a hundred of these caravels in her hold with the hatches off.

They were painted in varying shades of dark colors, mostly brown, running to olive green in the case of the Nina. The Pinta was the darkest. The brown colors were meant to show the beeswax and turpentine with which fifteenth century ships were anointed, to preserve their sides from weather and sea wear. The numerous walings and vertical fenders built out on their sides made them seem caged in wood, or to be sitting like Mark Twain in his bones on a hot day, with his flesh off. They seemed to be wearing their skeletons outside. All this false work was picked out in yellow, or color lighter than the brown sides. The flagship was further decorated with Gothic plaster work like church architecture on the quarters, and with gay heraldic shields, the coats of arms of Ferdinand and Isabella and such noble patrons as backed the Columbus venture. The Santa Maria was painted white below the water line. They all had red hawsepipes and touches of red between the lower wales.

There was plenty of color on deck, too, and below, for the crews were in costume, supposedly correct for Spanish seamen four hundred years before, and there were wax figures in the cabins, illustrating life on ship-board in all its phases, from the Lord High Admiral to the mutineer in the brig. Up aloft lots of bunting snapped and tore in the sunshine of the windy afternoon. There was a white flag with a blue cross at the foremast and a sort of royal standard of Arragon and Castile, buff and blue, above the short maintopsail yard, and a long red and white swallow-tail streamer from the peak of the lateen yard on the mizzen. The very long lateen yards, twice as long as the masts which supported them, were grand points for displaying flags. There was also a banner with the lion and castles of Castile and Aragon combined, at the mizzen mast head, and from staffs at the break of the forecastle, and on the quarterdeck more heraldic banners fluttered. There was only one red and yellow flag of modern Spain and that was at the head of the accommodation ladder to the Santa Maria.

"Caravels" everybody called these craft, just as though we knew the differences between carracks and galleons and galeasses and dromonds. We were all very knowing in '93, for it was the end of the century, we were fin-de-siecle, and could spell it if we couldn't pronounce it, and we were wiser than all who had preceded us. This schoolboy had already struck the bell with an essay on "Arbitration versus War," which demolished and abolished Mars as effectively as Norman Angell's Great Illusion was to do twenty years afterwards.

The caravels had been built in Spain from the researches of the Carraca naval arsenal into marine history. They were a gift of the Queen of Spain to the people of the United States, to commemorate Isabella's financing of the Columbus expedition of 1492 which discovered America without ever seeing the continent. They were on their way to the World's Fair in Chicago, which, for some forgotten reason, was held four hundred and one years after the blessed event, instead of on the even four hundred, and filled our mouths with the resounding phrase, "World's Columbian Exposition."

Five years later the gift caravels were scuttled and sunk to save them from patriotic mobs, for the United States was at war with Spain over Cuba and the blown-up battleship Maine. They were afterwards raised, and gave Lincoln Park's trim lagoons a most romantic Venetian appearance, as if where the doges wed the sea with rings. They rotted in Chicago until 1915, when some showman towed them away on exhibition, headed for the Atlantic coast. It was then that they—-or two of them--revisited Toronto.

All the next-generation experts had by then been busy panning the design which the original experts used in producing these supposed replicas of the fleet in which Columbus crossed the Atlantic as far as the West Indies. They criticized their shape of hull and detail of rig as a hundred years out of date for their period.

The so-called replicas were probably more like Drake's Golden Hind or Pelican, built almost a century after the Columbus' ships, but they agreed with the pictures of vessels with which geographers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brightened their maps and they gave a good general idea of the conditions under which Columbus navigated.

The Santa Maria, the flagship, was only 71 feet long or the waterline, and measured 96 tons; about the size of such stonehookers as the Northwest, still extant, or her sisters the Newsboy, Maple Leaf, H. M. Ballou, Madeline, or Rapid City, which we counted among our larger craft in the stone trade. The Santa Maria and the Pinta were carried out forward with a deck extending beyond the stemhead and surrounded by heavy close bulwarks. This made a "fore castle" of two stories, for the deck was about five feet above the main deck. It matched the three-story after castle, which made each of the caravels much higher in the stern than in the bow and gave them an irregular saddle-backed sheer profile.

The Nina looked somewhat less lubberly than the other two, for she had a slanting stem, headed in two prongs, and with no overhanging platform. She was also lateen rigged, and in smooth water could sail within six points of the wind, with her tall triangular sails on their long yards. She had a jib, set flying on her long bowsprit. Possibly an anachronism.

As a yacht will sail within four points this was no very wonderful performance, but it was better than what the Pinta and the Santa Maria could do. They were square rigged on two of their three masts, and eight points was about their limit. In other words, when the wind came ahead the best they could accomplish would be to sidle back and forth across it. They could not make progress against it, and it is very doubtful if they could be made to tack. To get from one tack to another they had to turn around before the wind, which is called wearing. Tacking, that is, turning against the wind, was an early English invention, perfected by Mr. Fletcher of Rye, in 1539, half a century after the discovery of America, and jealously preserved as a secret, the teaching of which to foreigners was punishable by death, even in King James' day. But it is probable, from the old Norse sagas, that the Vikings who visited Beardmore, Ont., had learned how to tack their longships six hundred years before Mr. Fletcher was hatched. They had, of course, the advantage of oars.

With craft as clumsy as his it is no wonder that Columbus and his men viewed with misgiving the continuance of the east wind which wafted them toward the unknown America. If it held the only way they could get back would be by walking, for even the Nina could not make satisfactory progress against a head wind.

They showed what was said to be Columbus' own compass, on board the Santa Maria in the Bay. At this date it is difficult to recall whether it was sixteen or eight points that it had; at best, only half the number of points in a modern compass, and no degrees at all. In the Robert P. Durham last fall the wheelsmen steered within one half of one degree—-that is one 720th of the circumference of the compass—-as a matter of course. All Columbus was able to do, seemingly, was to aim at an unknown continent and trust to hit some part of it. Perhaps that is why he never found the mainland. But it is remarkable, with such clumsy ships and such poor navigation instruments, that he was able to return home and make two more voyages out to the new-found Indies, arriving in each case at his intended destination.

The replicas of the caravels gave the lie to the old story that Columbus was able to stand on deck and wash his hands in the ocean alongside. They were low amidships, but not that low. The waist deck of the Santa Maria was nearly six feet above the water and the poop deck, where Columbus held forth, was twenty feet above the sea.

So much superstructure had its uses. Like modern skyscrapers it provided space on a limited frontage. It was a tower from which the ship could be defended against mutineers, savages or other enemies. And it prevented the ship being swamped by a following sea. Under bare poles, with her heavy yards lowered to the rail, she would ride head to in a gale by the sheer force of the wind on her high quarters and stern. But she would roll and strain ferociously, and the Spanish officers who brought the caravels out—-in tow, in 1893—-suffered from sea sickness all the way across the Atlantic. Perhaps Columbus was sterner stuff.


THE NINA, PINTA, AND SANTA MARIA at anchor off Island Park, June 27th, 1893; photographs by the late John Miller, police reporter.


Renamed SHEBESHECONG, this old Bronte-built stonehooker, modernized with auxiliary engines and smart cabins at. Midland, was taken to Detroit in 1937. She is of the same general dimensions and tonnage as the Santa Maria, but the latter looked larger because she was so highly built up at the ends.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
4 Feb 1939
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Illinois, United States
    Latitude: 41.85003 Longitude: -87.65005
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.65011 Longitude: -79.3829
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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When the Spanish Caravels Visited Toronto: Schooner Days CCCLXXXIII (383)