Christopher Columbus encountered three mermaids on January 8, 1493 somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. Unfortunately, Columbus’ Log, his daily account of his seven-month first voyage to the New World, is lost. Sadly we don’t get to read his first-hand account of the event. However, Bartolome de Las Casas did read Columbus’ log and wrote up synopses of some parts and copied word-for-word other parts. Las Casas’ version of the log is what historians use as a primary source for Columbus’ first voyage. The entry for Wednesday, January 9, 1493 reads:
On the previous day, when the Admiral had gone to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids, that came very high up out of the sea; but they were not so beautiful as they are depicted for only after a fashion had human form in their faces. He said that he had seen some on other occasion in Guinea, on the coast of Malagueta.
Here, Columbus described seeing mermaids as least twice, once off the coast of Liberia and once in the Caribbean.
What did Columbus Actually See?
It’s tempting to ascribe a rational explanation for what Columbus saw. The common explanation is that he encountered three manatees.
Columbus fit the new experiences and phenomena he witnessed in the New World into his existing mental framework and knowledge. That frame included mermaids.
The first description of a mermaid comes from Assyria in 1000 BCE. From there mermaids entered Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman cultures during antiquity, and European and Arabic cultures during the medieval period. At the time Columbus wrote, mermaids had existed in print and in the collective knowledge base for at least 2,500 years. It makes perfect sense that Columbus thought he saw a mermaid.
Mermaids were part of life in Columbus’ day. In a formal education, students read about mermaids in Pliny the Elder. The royal House of Luxembourg was founded by a mermaid named Melusine. Territories on the sea had stories of mermaids stealing from sailors, swimming inland and being adopted by humans, and revealing locations of treasures as rewards for kindness and generosity.
Manatees weren’t swimming around in ancient Assyria or founded royal houses in the Low Countries. So I don’t know what Columbus saw.
However, what I think is more important is what Columbus actually thought he saw – which was three ugly mermaids swimming in the Caribbean Sea. This is not unlike his contemporaries who unicorns on a regular basis – in print in the Bible, in Pliny, and in the Physiologus and bestiaries; first hand sightings in the Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia; and the physical remains like the Horn of Windsor owned by Elizabeth I, in a bishop’s crozier like the one in Iceland; or in a church in the Netherlands.