Travelling to Spain's La Rabida: the birth place of the Americas

30 October 2015

Words: Habeeb Salloum | Photos: Various photographers

In Spain's spectacular city Seville, it seemed that every person we talked to was proud of Christopher Columbus, who five centuries ago changed the history of the world forever. This Genoese sailor was the subject of almost every conversation I had with the people I met in the city. A fine gentleman who I had befriended told me that, to get a feel for the renowned sailor, I should make a trip to La Rabida, the place from where Columbus set out for the New World.

Spain - La Pinta Festival - Festival commemorating the arrival of the caravel La Pinta bringing news of the discovery of America

Niebla - Iglesia Sta. Maria de la Granada. Photo credit Embassy of Spain, Tourist Section

Niebla - Walls of the City. Photo credit Embassy of Spain, Tourism Section

The port in Palos de la Frontera. Photo credit Habeeb Salloum

Seville - Archbishop's Palace (left) and the Restaurant El Giraldillo at the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes square.

However, every time I discussed this explorer's deeds, my mind would stray back to the Dominican Republic, where a Peruvian friend of Inca descent was incensed by his very name. When I asked him if it was true that Columbus's tomb was located in Santo Domingo, he blurted out, "Columbus was a murderer who set the stage for enslaving the Americas!" His eyes blazed. "The world has made a hero out of a gold-seeking monster. I hope that he is burning in the hottest furnace of hell." To him, this, the most famous sailor the world has ever known, was no saintly figure.

Loved or hated, there is no denying that this discoverer of the Americas changed forever the history of mankind. His life, thoughts, works and movements, even in death - Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Spain all claim his tomb - have been studied and volumes have been written, mostly glorifying his deeds. Only in the last few decades have a number of historians disputed the actions of this adventurer, who sailed halfway around an unknown world to enrich the treasury of Spain and, in the process, convert the ‘infidels’.

Taking the gentleman’s advice to heart, I became intrigued with La Rábida; the place from where Columbus set out on his voyage of discovery. Renting a car for a day, my travelling companion and I set out driving westward from Seville. The seductive atmosphere of Seville, with its world-wide reputation as a town of flowers, dark haired beauties and exquisite Moorish patios, was soon forgotten as we drove through a rich-looking countryside filled with the footsteps of Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths and, especially the Arabs, who had left deep imprints on the people and landscape.

Past Sanlúcar la Mayor, noted for its ruined Moorish castle, we drove on until the red-brown misty Arab walls of Niebla, towering on the crest of a hill like a pale mirage above Rio Tinto (Red River), came into view. Crossing a well-preserved Roman bridge, we entered the town through a charming Moorish gate - one of the four remaining from Arab times in the impressive ramparts.

Inside, our hope of finding a fascinating Moorish city was dashed. All around us were flaking and decaying homes, divided by dusty spaces where buildings have vanished. Gone were the days when Niebla, whose name comes from the Arabic Lebla, itself derived from the Roman Llipula, was a splendid capital of a small state, established after the downfall of the Caliphate of Cordova.

I could not see why Alfonso Lowe, in his book The South of Spain, called it the noblest ruin that ever excited the senses of the romantic. Perhaps the outline of its walls with their 46 towers, said to be the only complete Moorish ramparts in Spain, gives it that aura.

After parking our car, we explored the ruins of the Moorish Alcázar and the Church of Santa Maria de la Granada, which still retains a Moorish doorway, ablution-fountain and some exquisite tiles, then departed.

In less than half an hour we were in Huelva, known in Roman times as Onuba. Situated some 94 km (55 mi) west of Seville, in the centre of Costa del Luz, the city lies between the joint delta of the Rio Tinto and Rio Odiel. As the capital of the Province of Huelva and the seat of a bishopric, it’ becomes a busy and prosperous fishing and ore exporting port, but is not known for its tourist attributes.

While touring the exquisite San Pedro Church, built on the ruins of a mosque, I asked a well-dressed man standing near the doorway, in my broken Spanish, the way to the Franciscan Monastery of La Rábida. He answered in perfect English, "Follow the Avenida de los Pinzones along the banks of the Odiel and in about 10 km (6 mi) you will reach the monastery that gave Spain its greatness."

I smiled and said, "Others are not so enamoured with this launching pad for discovering America." I was thinking of the words of my Peruvian friend. The man grinned, "Columbus was a giant among men, a world sailor who once called this monastery home. Men must not judge him by today's standards."

Crossing the Rio Tinto we saw La Rábida, known to many as the birthplace of the Americas, atop a hill, gleaming in the sunlight. Parking our car, we walked through a pleasant garden to the famous Franciscan holy spot, constructed in the early 1400s. It is said that the building, encompassed by towering palms and pines, has retained the same outline as when it was first seen by America's discoverer.

Palos de la Frontera - Church of San Jorge. Photo credit: Turespana

In 1485, Columbus, destitute, arrived, holding his five year-old son Diego by the hand at La Rábida. King John II of Portugal had rejected his scheme for a western route to Asia, and Columbus was reduced to begging for bread and water.

However, the reception by the Franciscan friars at this white-walled Gothic Mudéjar Monastery was very friendly. They recognised the feasibility of Columbus's vision and became advocates of his cause. Fray Antonio de Marchena, an astronomer with a lively interest in navigation, and Fray Juan Pérez, who had been Queen Isabella's confessor, were won over and became the greatest source of encouragement in the difficult years to come. Believing in his theory that the world was round, they took care of his son and interceded with Isabella and her nobles on his behalf.

While living in La Rábida, Columbus spent his time making plans for his voyage and awaiting approval from the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella for financial backing. During this period he conferred with the monks and local shipbuilding Pinzón brothers, who were later to command ships in the Voyage of Discovery. At first his ideas were rejected by Isabella and her advisors, but the friars worked on to further his quest. Eventually, their efforts bore fruit and the Queen gave the go-ahead for the expedition.

A bored Franciscan guide took us with a group of other visitors for a tour of the monastery. After being shown the beautiful 14th century figure of Christ on the Cross and of Nuestra Señora de la Rábida, we passed through a horseshoe arch and entered a charming Mudéjar patio. Many believe that the patio was built on the site of an Arab watchtower from where we get the name La Rábida (Arabic rabat).

We examined the cell that served as Columbus's lodging place for six years, then ended our circuit in one of the rooms in the monastery that now houses a museum. It contains old books, navigation charts, models of Columbus's three ships and specimens of neatly packed caskets of earth from every one of Spain's former American possessions.

As we left the museum, a young woman turned to the guide, "Isn’t it true that many medieval scientists, long before Columbus's time, knew the world was round?" The guide's face turned red, "People are always trying to destroy the work of this man who alone had the vision and drive to change history."

After stopping to admire an American-built 64 m (212 ft) high granite monument to the discoverer of the New World, we drove to the decaying small town of Palos de la Frontera, 5 km (3 mi) away. From this small village, Columbus organised, then set out on his first voyage.

The wealthy Pinzón brothers, Martín and Vincente, who were born here, helped him find the sailors he required. They were mostly from the town itself and neighbouring villages. Many were jail inmates, who were promised freedom if they joined the expedition. I could feel the throb of history as I thought of that third day of August 1492, when the three caravels, Pinta, Niña and Santa María set sail into the unknown.

From those exciting days, there remains the 15th century Church of San Jorge, at whose door the royal letter ordering the levy of the crew and equipping the ships was read to the inhabitants. Here, also, Columbus and his men heard mass before boarding their ships.

Palos de la Frontera - La Fontillana and the Iglesia de San Jorge. Photo credit Embassy of Spain, Tourism Section

Cathedral and La Giralda. Photo credit Embassy of Spain, Office of Tourism

Seville - Plaza de España

La Rabida where Columbus planned his trip

From those exciting days, there remains the 15th century Church of San Jorge, at whose door the royal letter ordering the levy of the crew and equipping the ships was read to the inhabitants. Here, also, Columbus and his men heard mass before boarding their ships.

After visiting the church we stopped across the road at a well that was formerly an Arab fountain from where Columbus's ships took on their water supplies. Thereafter, we drove around for a few minutes to explore the sleepy village.

When Columbus sailed it had a thriving harbour and remained for decades the principal port of the Conquistadors - the most famous being Cortes, the Conqueror of Mexico. The town prospered until the harbour became silted up. Thereafter it declined. However, Palos today has been somewhat revived by the introduction of strawberry cultivation to the surrounding countryside.

In about one-and-a-half hours after leaving this former port, with its memories of the Americas’ discoverer behind, we were back in Seville where, to many, it seemed that Columbus was still alive. A mercenary and gold-seeking adventurer he might have been, but few other men have ever left such a lasting stamp on mankind.