The Vikings were most likely here previously, but the credit of “discoverer” of the Americas still goes to Christopher Columbus. When he set foot on foreign soil in 1492, the Old World of Europe and the New World of the Americas were connected in a way that would change the history of the world.
Almost from Day One, however, there has been debate on where that first footprint was made. Nobody has been able to decisively say which island in the Bahamas was the site that ended Columbus’s failed quest for a route to Asia.
Scholars have tried to follow Columbus’s written sailing log to arrive at a conclusion and some have even tried to track the voyage backwards from a specific island to the Canary Islands, where his trek across the Atlantic began.
There is a diary of Columbus that would, one would think, provide a definitive answer. Unfortunately, only about 20% of the manuscript was actually written by Columbus, with the remaining text probably written by a Dominican friar who had not been on the voyage. The description in the diary of that initial island is also controversial. The described agricultural features of the island are quite vague and could apply to most of the islands in the area. One key phrase: “una laguna en medio muy grande” could, according to historian Paul Aron, mean either a large lake in the middle of an island (of which some of the candidates have) or a large lagoon in the middle of the shoreline.
In that diary, Columbus clearly states that he landed on the island he named “San Salvador” and there is indeed an island called San Salvador in the Bahamas. Case closed? Unfortunately not. That island was only named “San Salvador” in the 1920s (before that it was known as “Watlings Island”).
For the 500th anniversary of the landing, the National Geographic Society funded a one million dollar study that proposed the island of Samana Cay as the landing site. This was not accepted by many scholars of the topic and alternative islands such as Grand Turk, the Plana Cays, Mayaguana, and Conception Island still have their supporters.
The only one who never joined in this debate was Columbus himself. From what we know, even as new explorers were picking over his discovery and agreeing it was a new land to be conquered, Columbus insisted until his death that he had landed on islands very near Asia.
It may never be possible to re-trace Columbus’s voyage to specify with certainty where his initial landing was. That question is almost insignificant, however, compared to the global effect the discovery had on both sides of the Atlantic.