Fact Check

The Sinking of the Santa Maria

Dex and Ava learn that the Santa Maria, Columbus’ flagship, sank on Christmas Eve 1492, and a fort was built out of the wood salvaged from the sinking ship.

How Did the Ship Sink?

What must have seemed like a disaster at the time became one of the memorable events of the Columbus voyage of 1492.

On Christmas Eve as midnight approached, Columbus and his crew decided to get some rest, leaving the steering of the Santa Maria to one of the ship’s boys. The Santa Maria was drifting in a bay near current day Cap-Haïtien. According to his log book, Columbus said he was asleep for only a short time when the boy yelled for the captain. The rudder scraped against ground and the ship stuck on the reef. Columbus tried to lighten the ship to get it to float out to sea, but after a few hours Columbus knew the Santa Maria would be impossible to save.

Unloading the Ship

At dawn, the Taino chief Guacanagarí send large canoes to help. The Native Americans, including the chief and his family, helped unload the sinking ship.

Columbus wrote in amazement that not even a single shoelace was lost thanks to the Taino’s kindness: “I do not believe there is a better people or better country. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the softest and gentlest voices in the world and are always smiling.” 1

What Did Columbus Do With the Santa Maria?

With the crew now stranded, Columbus saw the sinking of the Santa Maria as an opportunity to start the first European colony in this new land.

He ordered that his crew use the wood from the sinking ship to create a tower and fort to be built next to the Taino village 5 miles away. On Christmas Day 1492, the fort was named La Navidad (Spanish for “Christmas”).

Even before the Christmas Eve accident, Columbus thought that the Santa Maria (which was not a caravel but a larger ship called a nao) has slowed down the work of exploration. With the Santa Maria gone, Columbus became captain of the Niña which he later said was his favorite of this the ships. He left instructions with the 39 men left behind at La Navidad to continue exploring and look for gold while he made the trip back to Spain.

What Happened to the Fort?

Click the NEXT button below to read Navidad Fort Detroyed.


1 Columbus, C., & Fuson, R. H. (1987). The log of Christopher Columbus. Camden, Me: International Marine Pub., p.153.

2 Columbus, C., Eames, W., & Lenox Library. (1892). The letter of Columbus on the discovery of America: A facsimile of the pictorial edition, with a new and literal translation, and a complete reprint of the oldest four editions in Latin. New York: The De Vinne Press., p.8.

Sources and Further Reading

Fernández-Armesto, F. (1991). Columbus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.87-89

Dor-Ner, Z., & Scheller, W. (1991). Columbus and the age of discovery. (Companion Volume to the PBS Series) New York: W. Morrow, p.184-187

Landström, B. (1967). Columbus. New York: Macmillan, p.92-95

* Roop, P., & Roop, C. (2000). In Their Own Words: Christopher Columbus. New York: Scholastic, p.67-72

* Levinson, N. S. (1990). Christopher Columbus: Voyager to the unknown. New York: Lodestar Books, p.49-52

* Dodge, S. (1991). Christopher Columbus and the first voyages. New York: Chelsea House, p.86-88

* Young Reader's Selection