1492: Christopher Columbus, UFOs, & the Bermuda Triangle

Several TV specials released between 2010-2012 about the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs tell stories of how Christopher Columbus encountered strange events that closely resemble modern reports of these bizarre phenomena. But did he?

        The most common claims made in these programs, articles, and books are: 1) Columbus and his men saw a bright, disc shaped object rise out of the ocean and fly into the sky, 2) They also, on a different occasion, saw what they interpreted as stars spinning in the sky above them... now assumed to be a historic UFO sighting, and 3) They also saw what was described as a candle-light floating up and down out at sea where there could not be a fire. Surprisingly, these events are indeed based on occurences in Columbus' log, but have been interpreted in highly questionable ways as I will demonstrate... but first, a brief moment to talk about the "log" itself.

        The original log of Christopher Columbus' voyages has not survived for anyone to read. Similarly, his personal diary of the voyage has also been lost. What most everyone actually means when they say "Columbus' log" is a copy of the log and diary made by a man named Bartolome de las Casas [1484 CE - 1566 CE]. So we don't have a direct statement of Columbus' experiences or thoughts... we have someone else's statement of what they felt was important enough to record, and that is from someone who didn't sail with Columbus (Bartolome was eight years old when Columbus made his first trip!). However, Bartolome's father and uncle traveled with Columbus on his second voyage, and Bartolome edited Columbus' travel journals, so he was in a position to be authoritative about Columbus' story of the voyages. Sometime in the 1530's, Bartolome wrote the Diario of Christopher Columbus's First Voyage to America. This Diario of the first trip includes three notes that have become the basis for the reports now attributed to Columbus, two relating to strange lights, and one relating to a compass problem.

        As a sidenote to these odd topics, I'd like to point out one interesting detail that becomes clear upon reading the Diario: Columbus spent the trip lying to his crew about how far they had traveled, typically telling them they had covered less than half the distance each day! This was probably to keep them from panicking as they sailed far beyond distances they had ever covered before.

The Mysterious lights

        The Diario contains two notes regarding strange lights seen by Columbus and his crew. The first occured on Sunday, September 15, 1492:

"They sailed that day and night 27 leagues and a few more on their route west. And on this night, at the beginning of it, they saw a marvelous branch of fire fall from the sky into the sea, distant from them four or five leagues."

It has been assumed by many scholars that this was a sighting of a meteor falling. This first report has become the basis for stories that Columbus and his crew saw a bright object rise up out of the ocean and fly into the sky, usually with only just key words quoted from the passage to emphasize the wierdness of the light but also to disguise the direction the light was seen to travel.
        The second strange light reported in the Diario was seen on Thursday, October 11, 1492, literally just four hours before Columbus and his ships encountered the first lands of America:

"After sunset he [Columbus] steered on his former course to the west. They made about 12 miles each hour and, until two hours after midnight, made about 90 miles, which is twenty-two leagues and a half. And because the caravel Pinta was a better sailor and went ahead of the Admiral [Columbus] it found land and made the signals that the Admiral had ordered. A sailor named Rodrigo de Triana saw this land first, although the Admiral, at the tenth hour of the night, while he was on the sterncastle, saw a light, although it was something so faint that he did not wish to affirm that it was land. But he called Pero Gutierrez, the steward of the king's dais, and told him that there seemed to be a light, and for him to look: and thus he did and saw it. He also told Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia, whom the king and queen were sending as veedor [inspector] of the fleet, who saw nothing because he was not in a place where he could see it. After the Admiral said it, it was seen once or twice; and it was like a small wax candle that rose and lifted up, which to few seemed to be an indication of land. But the Admiral was certain that they were near land, because of which when they recited the Salve, which sailors in their own way are accustomed to recite and sing, all being present, the Admiral entreated and admonished them to keep a good lookout on the forecastle and to watch carefully for land; and that to the man who first told him that he saw land he would later give a silk jacket in addition to the other rewards that the sovereigns had promised, which were ten thousand maravedis [silver coins] as an annuity to whoever should see it first."

The second report has been argued by UFO supporters to not possibly be a light on land, typically by increasing -- or simply not stating -- the short time between this sighting and the first sighting of land, or by claiming that the light was seen to dip beneath the horizon and was therefore farther away and much larger than previously supposed.
        Earlier theories -- as early as 1746 -- tend to lean towards the idea that Columbus' ships were passing islands off the coast of Florida; and at least one of these sources mentions the rumor that Columbus himself was awarded the prize for first sighting land, based on the belief of Ferdinand and Isabella that the light he saw was indeed on an island near the coast.

The Compass Problem

        Columbus had an issue with his compass during the voyage, a problem that has come to be used in two intriguing ways to support theories of both the Bermuda Triangle and of UFOs; but first, let's look at the original report. The diary note for Monday, September 17, 1492:

"The pilots took the north, marking it [the pilots took a sight on the North Star and compared it with its compass bearing], and found that the compasses northwested a full point [i.e., eleven and one-quarter degrees]; and the sailors were fearful and depressed and did not say why. The Admiral was aware of this and he ordered that the north again be marked when dawn came, and they found that the compasses were correct. The cause was that the North Star appears to move and not the compasses."

Sailors from Europe, used to working North of the equator, typically knew how to find the North Star in the night sky to help determine their headings... and compasses always pointed to the North Star to help confirm its usefulness (and the reason for its name). When they sailed closer to the equator, however, magnetic North and the placement of the North Star in the night sky no longer coincided; and the further South they sailed, the greater the variance between true North and the position of the star became. This situation is what Columbus' sailors were distraught over: should they trust the star's position or the compasses? Columbus was already facing the very real possibility of mutiny, and needed to calm his crew immediately. By ordering a check of the compass headings at dawn, they were able to compare the compasses to the known location the Sun would rise at... hence establishing that the compasses were still pointing correctly North to the satisfaction of his crew.

        This event has in some cases now become characterized as bizarre and unknown energies in the Bermuda Triangle causing Columbus' compasses to spin wildly; strangely though, we can't completely blame modern authors for this re-write of history. The compass story was already being over dramatized as early as 1792:

"On the 14th of September he [Columbus] was astonished to find that the magnetic needle in their compass, did not point exactly to the polar star, but varied toward the west; and as they proceeded, this variation increased. This new phenomenon filled the companions of Columbus with terror. Nature itself seemed to have sustained a change; and the only guide they had left, to point them to a safe retreat from an unbounded and trackless ocean, was about to fail them. Columbus, with no less quickness than ingenuity, assigned a reason for this appearance, which, though it did not satisfy himself, seemed so plausible to them, that it dispelled their fears, or silenced their murmurs."

        1792, The American Geography, by Jedidiah Morse

This dramatization became more extreme in 1841, when Washington Irving published his well-known biography of Columbus:

"On the 13th of September, in the evening, being about two hundred leagues from the island of Ferro, Columbus for the first time noticed the variation of the needle; a phenomenon which had never before been remarked. He perceived about nightfall, that the needle, instead of pointing to the north star varied about half a point, or between five and six degrees to the northwest, and still more on the following morning. Struck with this circumstance, he observed it attentively for three days, and found that the variation increased as he advanced. He at first made no mention of this phenomenon, knowing how ready his people were to take alarm, but it soon attracted the attention of the pilots, and filled them with consternation. It seemed as if the very laws of nature were changing as they advanced, and that they were entering another world, subject to unknown influences. They apprehended that the compass was about to lose its mysterious virtues, and without this guide, what was to become of them in a vast and trackless ocean?

        "Columbus tasked his science and ingenuity for reasons with which to allay their terror. He observed that the direction of the needle was not to the polar star, but to some fixed and invisible point. The variation, therefore, was not caused by any fallacy in the compass, but by the movement of the north star itself, which, like the other heavenly bodies, had its changes and revolutions, and every day described a circle round the pole."

        1841, History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Vol. I, by Washington Irving

The Diario of Columbus makes no note of the compass problem before September 17, 1492... so, both Irving and the author before him likely had incorrect sources for their details to start with. Given that Irving then further stretched the truth, is it any wonder that later authors working only with Irving's version of the story would stretch it further to accomedate the new ideas about a 'Bermuda Triangle' that Columbus may have been located in at the time?

        Stranger still, recent specials about historic accounts of UFOs -- which appear to have used Irving's account of Columbus' life -- now represents the compass problem as stating that stars were moving in circles in the sky and, therefore, were UFOs. This ignores, of course, that only one star [the North Star] was accused of moving, that it was only accused of this in Irving's book, and that it only moved over the course of many days as the ships changed their positions relative to the equator.

        In short, there does not appear to be evidence to support either the idea that Columbus and his crew saw UFOs, or that they were harrassed by the Bermuda Triangle.

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