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Christopher Columbus' Flag (U.S.)

Historical

Last modified: 2013-12-19 by rick wyatt
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[Christopher Columbus' flag] image by Rick Wyatt, 2 December 2001


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U.S. 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 January 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 U.S. 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.

Santiago Dotor, 28 January 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, 3 February 1999


This flag of Columbus appears in Crampton 1990 with a swallowtail. I've always had a doubt: is this a personal flag, one belonging to him (Colombus), or is it a position flag, the flag of the captain of the ships sailing to America (that is Colombus as a member of a hierarchy, not Columbus as a chap with a flag)?
Jorge Candeias, 15 October 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 3 ships. Cristopher 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 Cristopher 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 swallowtailed, 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 Cristopher 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 October 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, 19 October 1999