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If Not For a Hurricane, Saona Wouldn't Have Been Discovered

Did you know Saona island was discovered by Christopher Columbus because of a hurricane?

It’s true because more than 500 years before Saona became the most popular daytime excursion from Punta Cana, it was the sleepy offshore sanctuary of the Tainos, the Dominican Republic’s original inhabitants. And if it wasn’t for a chance hurricane, the New World may have never met the Old World on Saona.

Christopher Columbus had already stumbled upon a New World two years earlier in 1492. After visiting several islands, he ultimately set up a permanent post at La Isabela, located on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Unlike Columbus’ first exploratory trip, his return voyage in 1494 brought more supplies and a bigger strategy on how best to exploit the New World for the Spanish crown. But things seldom go as planned…

A pending storm approaches

By early September 1494, Columbus and his crew were drawing near the southern shores of the Dominican Republic. Their destination was La Isabela, in the north, to see how their settlement had fared in their two year absence. But Columbus could sense a problem. As one of the world’s most experienced seamen, he was growing more and more concerned with the distant cloud formations. He ordered his crew to anchor in one of Saona’s safe harbors, as a precaution, and took this unplanned opportunity to inspect the lush, tropical island before them.

If Saona island is stunningly beautiful now, one can only imagine it’s virgin beauty a half a century ago. Not surprisingly, Columbus fell in love with Saona, which at the time was called Adamanay by the local Tainos. He then renamed the isle Bella Savonese (Beautiful Savonese) and presented the land as a gift to his close friend and traveling companion, from Savona, Italy, Miguel de Cunneo. Over the years Savona has been corrupted into its current name - Saona.

A written history that survives today

Now, imagine being gifted your own Caribbean island! Saona wasn’t a tiny key, it was the Dominican Republic’s largest offshore island at 42 square kilometers. Imagine bone white sands as far as the eye could see, swaying palm trees, turquoise waters and natives. Natives? Yes thousands of them lived on Saona when Columbus and his crew arrived. We know this because Cunneo was obviously happy with his recent gift from Columbus and wrote in a letter:

“It was well named the beautiful, for it had about 37 villages with at least 30 thousand souls.”

Columbus wrote as well. During the night of his arrival, and before the pending hurricane, Columbus admired a lunar eclipse and calculated the difference of longitude between his current location and Europe. Not surprisingly, spending time on an untouched Caribbean Island can get the creative juices flowing. In Columbus’ Book of Prophecies he reported:

"In the year 1494, when I was at the island of Saona, which is at the eastern end of the island of Hispaniola, there was an eclipse of the moon on the 14th of September, and it was found that there was a difference from there to the Cape of St. Vincent in Portugal of five hours and more than one half."

In the end, Columbus’ hunch of a pending storm turned out to be correct. For eight days, Columbus and his men hunkered down at the newly named Saona island braving powerful winds and heavy rains. During this anxious week as castaways, Columbus feared not only for himself and his crew, but also for the fate of other Spanish ships, who had trailed behind and were still at sea. They escaped, however, and would eventually rejoin Columbus on his second journey in the New World.

Historians believe this to be the very first hurricane ever experienced by Europeans. But unfortunately, for Saona island’s 30 thousand native Taino souls, it would not be their last.

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Ken Harrington

When I'm not traveling, you can find me hanging out of the beach here in the Dominican Republic. I try not to take life too seriously if I can avoid it. Oh yeah, and I’m the guy that sort of keeps this site from falling apart.


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