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Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 6 (October 1984)

by William F. Keegan

Despite the passage of almost 500 years, the particulars of Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery remain unresolved Since speculation on the voyage began, almost every island in the archipelago has been identified as one of the four visited.1 While each new reconstruction is presented as a "theory", they are in fact hypotheses that require objective testing.

Objective testing is complicated by a variety of factors. First, significant environmental changes have occurred in the past 500 years. Shorelines have been modified by. deposition of sediments, beach sand has hardened into rock, estuary outlets have closed and sediments have filled the ponds formed by such closures, and the vegetation has been modified by years of slash-and-burn ("casual") cultivation and the removal of economically important trees (e.g., dyewood, mahogany, Lignum vitae, etc.). Therefore, an exact correspondence between Columbus' descriptions and present environmental conditions should not be expected.2

Second, while it is logical to assume that the trade items distributed by Columbus and his crew would be found at the settlements they visited, it is not logical to assume that the discovery of trade items proves that Columbus visited a settlement Exchange and other forms of communication within the Lucayan Islands and between these islands and the Greater Antilles is well documented.3 Thus, objects brought by Columbus to one village were probably redistributed to uncontacted villages.

Finally, Columbus' journal must be interpreted with great care, especially when English translations are used.4 As with all reports on a foreign culture, the reporter translates his observations and communications into his culture's language. The use of these reports requires an examination of the reporter's ability to communicate with the natives and the stimuli that motivated the report Columbus was motivated by self-interest to make his discoveries sound as appealing as possible. As Sauer suggests: "The means of communicating with the natives were obviously poor, and Columbus supplied what he did not understand from his imagination."5


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  1. For example: Washington living, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, London, 1892; Gustavus V. Fox "Methods and Results: An Attempt to Solve the Problem of the First Landing Place of Columbus, in the New World", United States Coast and Geodetic Survey Report for 1880, Appendix no. 18,1882; Samuel E. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Boston, 1942, and Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, New York, 1963; Edwin A and Marion C. Link, "A New Theory on Columbus's Voyage Through the Bahamas," Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 135,1958; Ruth G.D. Wolper, "A New Theory Identifying the Locale of Columbus's Light, Landfall, and Landing". Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 148,1964; H.E. Sadler, Turks Island Landfall, Grand Turk, 1972; Arne Molander, "The Search for San Salvador", Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, vol. 4,1982, pp. 3-8.
  2. William F. Keegan and Steven W. Mitchell, "An Archaeological Reconnaissance of Long Island, Bahamas", A Report to the Government, Commonwealth of the Bahamas, 1983.
  3. Julian Cranberry, "The Cultural Position of the Bahamas in Caribbean Archaelogy", American Antiquity, vol. 22,1956, pp. 128-34; William H. Sears and Shaun D. Sullivan, "Bahamas Prehistory", American Antiquity, vol. 43,1978, pp. 3-25; Richard E. Daggett, "The Trade Process and the Implications of Trade in the Bahamas", The Florida Anthropologist, vol. 33,1980, pp. 143-51.
  4. Keegan and Mitchell, op. cit.
  5. Carl O. Sauer, The Early Spanish Main, Los Angeles, 1966.