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Christopher Columbus' Flags, 1492 (Spain)

Last modified: 2015-07-28 by ivan sache
Keywords: coat of arms: quartered (counterquartered) | columbus (christopher) | cross: formy (green) | letters: 2 (green) | fy | crowns: 2 (yellow) | conquistador |
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Christopher Columbus' Fleet Ensign, 1492

[Captain's Ensign of Columbus' Ships 1492]
Captain's Ensign of Columbus' Ships (not Columbus' personal flag)
image by António Martins, 1998

[Pennant of the 'Santa María' 1492 (Spain)]
Pennant of the Santa María
image by José Carlos Alegría

The Castile and Leon flag is reputedly the first to have flown on American territory, since it was the one used by Christopher Columbus on behalf of the Spanish government who subsidized his journeys. The Spanish flag being relatively new – it was first used at the end of the eighteenth century – the kings of Spain used to fly the flags of the different kingdoms that joined together at the end of the Middle Ages.

José Gabriel Barbero, 27 Jan 1999

US commercial sites sell a historical "Columbus flag" which is not the Castile and Leon one but a standard containing the initials F (Fernando) and Y (Ysabel) with a cross between the initials and crowns above them.

Dov Gutterman, 27 Jan 1999

In Washington, an 1846 painting image by John Vanderlyn (U.S. Capitol rotunda) depicting the landing shows the castles and lions flag and in the booklet Columbus in the Capitol, Quincentenary Edition it is noted on page 5 shows the Castile and Leon flag, which is the flag under discussion. I hesitate to call the Columbus flag – as described image by Dov Gutterman – a flag, at least in the original sense. It was originally described as the Expeditionary Banner in some catalogues when it first came on the market. One version that I have seen, from Spain, was arranged so the flag hung as a banner, although most all that I have seen sold in catalogues are arranged as a flag. The Vanderlyn portrait seems to portray this as a banner/pennant ending in a swallowtail.

Phil Nelson, 27 Jan 1999

Christopher Columbus wrote in his logbook that on October 12th 1492 he picked the Royal Flag, and his captains two flags which the Admiral carried in all the ships as Ensign, each white with a green cross formy couped addorsed by old Gothic letters 'F' and 'Y', both green and crowned with golden, open royal crowns, for Fernando and Ysabel. With these three flags he took possession of Guanahani island (nowadays San Salvador). Source: Calvo and Grávalos 1983, illustrations nos. 69 and 70. These were the first European flags to fly over America – provided the Vikings did not display one earlier.

So US commercial sites are quite right. However, strictly speaking, Columbus travelled only on behalf of Elizabeth, Queen of Castile and Leon. Some historians argue that this is the reason why so few Aragonese-Catalan conquerors travelled to the Americas. The Catholic Kings were not the Kings of Castile and Leon – Ferdinand was King of Aragon and Sicily, Elizabeth was Queen of Castile and Leon.

The letters F and Y stand for "Fernando" and "Ysabel" (nowadays spelt "Isabel"). It is funny that the usual English name for that queen, rather than Isabel or Elizabeth, is Isabella which is neither proper English nor Spanish...

Santiago Dotor, 28 Jan 1999

The original documents of Columbus' expeditions describe a banner (apparently ecclesiastical-style, hung from a crossbar and forked at the bottom), white with a green cross and the crowned initials F and Y. This is not a perfect description, so interpretations differ. I don't think that his expedition is known to have carried any other flag. As for "the kings of Spain used to fly the flags of the different kingdoms that joined together at the end of the Middle Ages," Castile and Leon were the realms of Elizabeth; Ferdinand was the King of Aragon.

John S. Ayer, 03 Feb 1999

Columbus Day has been taken over in the United States by the Italian community as "their" festivity. I guess the large amount of Italian immigrants have historically seen St. Patrick's day, as the Irish festivity, like a mirror to look at, and found the national holiday of Columbus Day as a chance to make themselves present. They claim Christopher Columbus was Italian. Nobody can prove that, but, anyway, the celebration is because he arrived at America, and he did that in the name of Spain. I send the flags from the book Calvo and Grávalos 1983 used by Christopher Columbus when he landed in San Salvador island [nowadays part of Bahamas, see this country's coat-of-arms]. The pennant from Christopher Columbus ship, the Santa María, was as long as the mast and bore the royal arms, the [Catholic Kings'] motto Tanto Monta and a crucifix.

José Carlos Alegría, 12 Oct 1999

This flag of Columbus [es~cc492.gif] appears in Crampton 1990 with a swallowtail. And I've always had a doubt: is this a personal flag, one belonging to him (Columbus), or is it a position flag, the flag of the captain of the ships sailing to America (that is Columbus as a member of a hierarchy, not Columbus as a chap with a flag)?

Jorge Candeias, 15 Oct 1999

In the records written in his logbook, he says that October 12th, when they arrived at San Salvador (of course, he didn't know at the time where he was exactly), they landed in small boats from the three ships. Christopher Columbus took from the Santa María the Royal Flag, and the captains of the Pinta and the Niña, a Captain's flag each. About this last flag, we know it was a capitana flag (a Spanish military term) for the expedition. It was used to distinguish the ships under the command of Christopher Columbus (3 ships in this trip). It was not a personal/private flag belonging to him, but a sign of the fleet under his authority (each ship having a captain with this flag). It could have been swallow-tailed, but only oral transmission remains of the flag. The symbols it contains (the 'F' for King Fernando and the 'Y' for Queen Isabel, crowned, and separated by a cross) are engraved at his burial mound in the Cathedral of Seville, but no flag shape is described.

This flag was given by the monarchs of Spain to distinguish the fleet under the command of Christopher Columbus. That is, it was a flag to be hold by each Captain (one captain per ship) on Columbus' flotilla. I am no military expert, but I imagine it is something as if all the ships of the American 6th Fleet had a common flag to fly on each ship, and the fleet's commander-in-chief were Columbus.

José Carlos Alegría, 15 and 19 Oct 1999

Isn't that an ensign? Possibly not the national ensign, but a fleet ensign?

Santiago Dotor, 21 Oct 1999

Regarding the three ships of the Columbian expedition, the actual names of the ships were the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Santa Clara. The Santa Clara was the smallest and therefore nicknamed the the small one or Niña. This was also a reference to the Captain's last name and was therefore a play on words on two levels.

James J. Ferrigan (University of Santa Clara '72), 19 Oct 1999

The primary source for this flag is Columbus' Journal describing the first landing on Guanahani:

. . . the admiral went ashore in the armed boat, and Martin Alonso Pinzon [captain of the Pinta] and Vicente Yanez, his brother, who was captain of the Nina. The admiral brought out the royal standard, and the captains went with two banners of the Green Cross, which the admiral flew on all the ships as a flag, with an F and a Y, and over each letter their crown, one being on one side of the [Maltese cross] and the other on the other.
(Cecil Jane translation, originally published by Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1960).

Peter Ansoff, 03 Sep 2007

Just for fun, I conducted a study on the subject of "What is the flag that Christopher Colombus planted on the island of Guanahani on October 12, 1492?"

I found 16 different types of vexils: banners, flags, with Castilian arms, with crosses...

Dominique Cureau, 27 Mar 2005

Being the only ones to include the royal standard and expedition flags, the 3rd hypothesis (white flag carrying a heraldic eagle with arms of kings of Spain) and 9th hypothesis (banner with arms surounded by a chain, perhaps a collar) are the only ones that come close, but the right Royal Arms of 1492 are those of hypothesis 3. Hypothesis 9 has the wrong arms (the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece was impossible in 1492).

Jose C. Alegria and Dominique Cureau, 28 – 30 Mar 2005

Erroneous Depictions of Columbus' Flag

Yellow With Castille-Leon Arms

Wikipedia shows something a bit different: a yellow banner with vertical coats of arms.

Peter Ansoff, 04 Sep 2007

Columbus should be holding the Castille-Leon flag, and that is probably an attempt to depict is as it is on the modern Spanish flag (with the Pillars, Crown, etc. etc.) instead of a simple Banner of Arms. The other two flags are, following Peter's source, clearly the F-Y flag.

Nathan Lamm, 04 Sep 2007

Alleged Flag of Columbus in 19th-Century French Print

[Alleged Flag of Columbus in 19th-Century French Print]
image by Ivan Sache, 13 Feb 2005
[Alleged Flag of Columbus in 19th-Century French Print]
image d'Epinal

Dominique Cureau forwarded to the FrancoVex list an image d'Epinal showing Columbus landing in America.

The images d'Epinal were produced in the imagerie (print manufacture) founded in Epinal (eastern France) by Jean-Charles Pellerin (1756-1836). Pellerin was the son of a playing cards and dominos manufacturer. He designed clock dials in stenciled colour paper, and later adapted the technique to the mass production of prints. The drawings were carved on a piece of pear-tree wood and printed using a Gutenberg handpress; the colours were then stenciled one by one.

Initially, the imagerie produced mostly religious and historical prints. Pellerin diversified the production with prints depicting popular songs, riddles, La Fontaine's fables... Pellerin was succeeded by his son, who developed at the end of the XIXth century the production of advertising prints. The best French illustrators, such as Caran d'Ache, O'Galop, Job and Benjamin Rabier, worked for the imagerie d'Epinal. Production fell severely after the Second World War, but still exists, mostly of art prints.

On the traditional images d'Epinal, the scenes were depicted in a realistic but naive and stereotypical manner, with garish colours. The prints were so popular that the term image d'Epinal has passed into common French; it is now used to refer to any form of stereotypical representation, not necessarily printed.

The image d'Epinal found by Dominique is entitled: Decouverte de l'Amerique par Christophe Colomb (The discovery of America by Christopher Columbus). Columbus is shown holding a big flag in his left hand. The flag is yellow with a red cross. Dominique believes that the illustrator combined a Christian cross and the colours of Spain.

Ivan Sache, 13 Feb 2005

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