THE AMAZON, PART II: Discovery of the Amazon
By William W. Lamar
There is an ancient cemetery at Triana, on the Guadalquivir River in Spain. Its gravestones and plaques are mute reminders of a colorful Sevillian culture and tradition from Moors and Sephardis to gypsies, flamenco dancers, matadors, and ceramicists to Torquemada and The Inquisition. But the graveyard also holds a secret: the unmarked resting place of Vicente Yañez Pinzón. He has lain there for 500 years.
Yañez Pinzón, the youngest of three brothers, was born in 1462 on the coast in Palos de la Frontera. At the invitation of his brother Martín he captained “la Niña,” the caravel that accompanied “la Pinta” and “la Santa María” when Columbus made his celebrated voyage to America in 1492. He distinguished himself on that trip as a sailor, navigator, and as a prudent leader. Thus, the missing gravestone would have listed him as a “Seaman, Explorer, and Adventurer.”
Arriving home after the journey, Yañez Pinzón raised the funds to organize another expedition which sailed from Palos in 1499 with four caravels. Passing the Canary Islands and Cape Verde, they finally reached a point of land which Vicente formally claimed for Spain, naming it Cabo Santa María de la Consolación (near modern day Recife, Pernambuco). Yañez Pinzón’s hometown of Palos de la Frontera erected a monument to his memory in 1999, celebrating the fifth centenary of his discovery and the town’s sisterhood with Cabo de Santo Agostinho, Brazil. Thus, the missing gravestone would have named him “Discoverer of Brazil.”
They proceeded northward along Brazil’s coast. Four skiffs with armed men reached shore from the expedition’s anchorage at the mouth of the Pará but an altercation occurred. Eight of Yañez Pinzón’s sailors were killed and another dozen wounded. Many indigenous people perished. Saddened by their loss, they set sail, this time reaching another riverbank some 40 leagues away. Such was the distance that they assumed it to be a different river, rather than one of immense size. The men were astonished and elated to find fresh water far out to sea; they refilled all the ships’ containers. Yañez Pinzón named this great river Santa María de la Mar Dulce.
Amazed and intrigued by the massive stream, they decided to ascend it and learn its secrets. Upon entering a vast archipelago the expedition encountered heavily populated villages filled with peaceful but disinterested Indians. Their inquiries about gold produced nothing but rumors of riches to be found “upstream.” They continued for another fifty miles and after making a series of discoveries and loading the ships with mahogany, gold, and gems, Yañez Pinzón and his expedition continued northward along the coast to the Venezuelan Paria. A terrible storm off the Turks and Caicos Islands with resulting loss of boats and lives cut short his travel and they limped home, largely sans cargo. The financial blow was devastating.
Vicente Yañez Pinzón made one more voyage, this time to Central America, before succumbing to illness and being laid to rest in the cemetery at Triana. His grave may have been marked, but the great floods of 1545 and 1554 likely altered the landscape. It has been suggested that the derivation of “Triana” comes from the Latin expression Trans amnem, meaning “those beyond the river;” so it is a fitting place for a peerless sailor and wanderer like Yañez Pinzón. And that headstone, had he received it, would also have named him “Discoverer of the Amazon River.”
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