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Alonso Sánchez de Huelva was a fifteenth-century mariner and merchant born in Huelva, Spain, on Andalusia's Atlantic coast. Legend has it that he reached America several years before Christopher Columbus did.
After the discovery of America several rumors started to spread especially among the conquistadores, claiming that America had not been discovered by Columbus, but that its existence was known at least 20 years before 1492. Bartolomé de las Casas had indeed heard several of those claims, but limited himself to record them.
The most famous of those accounts is that of the Duchess of Medina Sidonia, who believed that Columbus' discovery was the instrument by means of which the Catholic Monarchs of Spain were able to officialize the discovery (supposedly made well before 1492, and kept secret hitherto). According to the Duchess, the international political situation of the second half of the 15th century was not favourable to the Catholic Monarchs, who before 1492 would have faced strong opposition to any claim over the newly found lands, especially from Portugal, France and the Holy See, the later two at war with the Kingdom of Aragon. In order to ensure the ownership of those new lands, and lacking the resources for facing the consequences of an early claim, they waited until 1492, when Alexander VI, a Spaniard, was elected pope, thus ensuring the papacy siding with them. In 1492 they would have sent Columbus on an official voyage to the West, knowing that he would find new territories and lay claim for them in the name of the Catholic Monarchs. The Duchess believed Alonso Sanchez to be the true discoverer, offering several stories, contemporary records and weak proofs for her claims.
Indeed, any of those stories are widely regarded as false, and it is believed that the one about Alonso Sanchez was probably spread either by Pinzón brothers to discredit Columbus in his later years, or by political enemies of Columbus' family during the first years of Spanish settlement in America. Several authors, including Father Bartolomé de las Casas, took notice of rumors and stories similar to those of Alonso Sánchez, although it was not until 1602 when Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616) named the purported discoverer Alonso Sánchez, claiming that he had heard Alonso's story from some old conquistadores still alive in Garcilaso's youth.
According to the tale told by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Alonso Sánchez used to sail quite often between the Canary Islands, Madeira and England engaged in some sort of triangular commerce. In the 1480s, while finally returning to Huelva from Madeira aboard one of his ships, he was surprised by a storm that blew his ship drastically off-course into unknown waters of the mid-Atlantic. The small ship, slightly damaged by the storm, encountered unfavorable winds and currents that dragged it further to the southwest. After several weeks, Sánchez and his frightened crew finally sighted land, probably the island of Hispaniola (Santo Domingo).
Sánchez and his crew continued along the unknown coast until they encountered signs of human habitation, and, at long last, disembarked at a coastal village where they were hospitably received. The natives were impressed with these strangers chiefly because they were taller in stature than themselves and bearded. (The natives were uniformly beardless.) More significantly, the natives communicated to the Spaniards that their mythos held that, eventually, their gods would come from the sea to visit them. The natives gave their "divine" visitors food and gold; they even offered the strangers their women as gifts. (Some believe that syphilis was introduced to the Old World through these acts of generosity.)
After a short sojourn among the natives, the Spaniards began to prepare for their return trip. Sánchez made certain calculations based on his ship's log and his estimates of his ship's course on its outbound leg. The return voyage required about a month at sea, and they hardly made it to Porto Santo Island, in Madeira. It was while recovering from their voyage in Porto Santo where Alonso met Christopher Columbus (who really lived there during the 1480s), to whom he related the story of his amazing adventure.
Some believe that the information provided by Sánchez, regarding headings and distances, influenced Columbus's plans. Others believe that Alonso Sánchez never existed, and that he was simply part of an attempt by the Pinzón brothers to discredit Columbus' skills as a navigator.
Indeed, no document from the time tells about any Alonso Sánchez from Huelva, and everything known about him comes from the writers that told his story well after Columbus' death. Moreover, several authors have claimed Alonso Sánchez to be from Portugal, Biscay or some other parts of Andalusia. However, some historians, starting with José Ceballos in 1762, have claimed the account by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega to be true.
In the city of Huelva, Sánchez's purported birthplace, there are a number of memorials to this little-known pioneering navigator. There is a statue of Alonso Sánchez in the city park that commemorates the voyages of Columbus, 12 October Park, by sculptor León Ortega. There is also a smaller park in Huelva named for him, as well as a public high school.
- Alonso Sánchez de Huelva and the mystery of the authors of the Discovery
- Cesáreo Fernández-Duro. La tradición de Alonso Sánchez de Huelva, descubridor de tierras incógnitas. Cervantes Virtual.
- Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Comentarios reales de los Incas, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega
- Negro y Garrocho, Juan Agustín de Mora (1998). Huelva ilustrada. Breve historia de la Antigua y Noble Villa de Huelva. Diputación de Huelva (1762 facsimile). ISBN 84-500-6502-X.