Was the Mayflower just used for when Columbus used it?

In this weeks column, Is it possible to diet with beer?, Cecil mentions he recieved the question “Was the Mayflower just used for when Columbus used it?”

This struck me as a clumbsy, but potentially interesting question. So, in ancient times, were ships built simply for the trips they were used for? Were these presumably large uncommon ships used for the trans-oceanic voyages of the upcoming centuries reused, or purpose built? Could the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria have been used to cart olive oil from Italy to France? Maybe carrying Spring Breakers to Ibiza?

I suppose this is a GQ too, so move it as you see fit.

I think it’s pretty obvious that ships like that were built and then used all over. They would run to the Med, or run down the African coast, depending on the captain, where he wanted to go, what cargo he could get, etc. They were not one time use disposables. :wink:

I do not know the history of the ships Columbus used, and whether they were new or existing.

Why do you think its obvious?

I suppose that with the Mayflower, considering the Pilgrims weren’t backed by large sums of money, is likely a older used ship. But the ships used by Columbus, Magellan, De Soto, and the like were probably provided for by the sponsoring natons, none of which had especially shallow pockets.

How much of a comodity are these ships really?

The governments may have had “deep pockets” but not for speculative ventures into the unknown. These were crazy gambles, and the only ones who had really a lot of dough pre-Americas were the major trading powers like Venice, who had better things to do than sail off into the sunset. Portugal, for example, the finest deep-ocean exploring power of the 1400’s, financed only expeditions that had a good likelihood of expanding the known or reasonably expected trade routes.

In the time-frame we’re talking about, fleets were still pretty much a muster-up-when-needed affair. (Heck, let’s remember that as late as the XIXth century nations still used privateers) Circa 1500, governments did commission and operate some fighting vessels – but for most operations, including military, the procedure to outfit an expedition would involve (a) pressing existing vessels into service by royal warrant, and/or (b) chartering them, which was made easier by a royal Letter of Credit.

Specifically for Columbus’ first voyage, according to Morrison: The Pinta and Niña were vessels owned by Palos shipping concerns, and there was some outstanding fine or tax on the Municipality of Palos which conveniently added up to the cost of outfitting and running two ships for 4 months; the Santa María was chartered from its independent owner-operator. The crews had to be recruited on-the-spot with bonuses and 4 months advance pay (Able Seamen being a limited commodity). For the second voyage, flush with success, the fleet procurement agent “bought or chartered” 17 vessels (including “small craft”) in and around Cádiz. By the 3rd trip Colombo was down to chartering vessels on credit again.


OK, why did the Santa Maria sink on Christmas Day, 1492?

I think it was for the insurance

Doh! Should have caught this earlier. Knew it didn’t look right.
thread title:
“Was the Mayflower just used for when Columbus used it?”

Omniscient, Columbus didn’t use the Mayflower. Columbus used the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The Pilgrims used the Mayflower.

As for the Pilgrims, they originally had a second ship of their own, and were going to tag along following the Mayflower (a commercial ship) across the ocean. However, their ship started falling apart, and they docked in Plymouth, England, for a while. Finally they divided up their group and sent most over on the Mayflower as passengers. The Mayflower was an existing ship that just got chartered.

He/she’s aware of that. Read the OP. Cecil was asked the Columbus/Mayflower question.


Oh, yes, that – the vessels used throughout the Age of Exploration were the standard shipping of the particular time period in which you may place yourself: from caravels around 1492 to frigates in the 1700’s. The sleek “tall ships” ships we associate with the “age of sail” (barques, brigs, schooners) were developed in response to the needs of deep-water sailing because caravels, galleons, etc. proved inefficient and unsafe for regular, profitable oceanic passage (or successful open-water combat with cannon). “Uncommon” vessels designed (or adapted) specially for the rigors of long-range exploration would wait 'til after Cook’s time.

I had a chance on several ocassions to step aboard the reconstructions of the Columbus ships as they did the 1992 Quincentennial Tour. My thought a the time: “They set out into totally uncharted open ocean, not knowing where the heck the destination was, with no communications technology, no real meteorology, no way to compute longitude, no powered machinery, for 7 months’ total time… on THIS??? They must have saved a lot on ballast, with balls like that!” Though the Santa María was relatively large for a trading vessel out of Palos in 1492 it was barely a 100 foot (30 metre) boat (my eyeball estimate). The smaller Niña and Pinta were standard trading vessels of the time.

So yes, they probably carried barrels of wine and olive oil and herring along the Mediterranean and North Sea routes before being hired out on this wacko project. (Santa Maria wrecked during the trip, Niña made it on to the next two crossings, Pinta apparently was too worn out afterward and is not heard form again)


First, Columbus used his various ships.

Then, the Mayflower was built and used as a wine carrying vessel.

Later, the Pilgrims used it, long after Columbus died.

I always heard that the Mayflower was used as a slave ship before the Pilgrims chartered it.

History of the Mayflower:


I would have placed such a claim on the same category as the claim that Columbus was [choose: (a) a former pirate (b) a former slave trader © both ] – plausible given the times and places, but the boring answer is likelier…

yabob’s link gives a good history of the vessel.

Interesting, in light of this 21st century view, is that Columbus considered the Santa Maria a big, unwieldy barge that he really hated. His favorite was the Niña, the smallest of his fleet, because it was best suited to navigate into and out of difficult bays and inlets (and was, apparently, a very good handler, overall).

(So what was that about sinking the Santa Maria for the insurance?)

I’ve toured the replicas parked in Corpus Christi - and parked is the word, not docked. They are in terrible shape, being poorly maintained, and there’s several scandals about who’s in charge and where’s the funds to maintain them, etc. If you ever want to visit them, better do it soon; Spain is threatening to take them back.