Year
1493
Month Day
January 09

Columbus mistakes manatees for mermaids

On January 9, 1493, explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, sees three “mermaids”—in reality manatees—and describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) set off from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or “New World.”

Mermaids, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have existed in seafaring cultures at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Typically depicted as having a woman’s head and torso, a fishtail instead of legs and holding a mirror and comb, mermaids live in the ocean and, according to some legends, can take on a human shape and marry mortal men. Mermaids are closely linked to sirens, another folkloric figure, part-woman, part-bird, who live on islands and sing seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths.

Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting). Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they share with the elephant. The three species of manatee (West Indian, West African and Amazonian) and one species of dugong belong to the Sirenia order. As adults, they’re typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They’re plant-eaters, have a slow metabolism and can only survive in warm water.

Manatees live an average of 50 to 60 years in the wild and have no natural predators. However, they are an endangered species. In the U.S., the majority of manatees are found in Florida, where scores of them die or are injured each year due to collisions with boat.

READ MORE: The Ships of Christopher Columbus Were Sleek, Fast—and Cramped

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Apple launches iTunes, revolutionizing how people consume music

On January 9, 2001, Apple launches iTunes, a media player that revolutionized the way people consumed digital media. Bill Kincaid and Jeff Robbin, two former Apple employees, developed an MP3 player called SoundJam MP in the late 1990s. In 2000, Apple re-hired them and their ...read more

One of the “Hillside Stranglers” sentenced to life

Angelo Buono, one of the Hillside Stranglers, is sentenced to life in prison for his role in the rape, torture, and murder of 10 young women in Los Angeles. Buono’s cousin and partner in crime, Kenneth Bianchi, testified against Buono to escape the death penalty. Buono, a ...read more

Steve Jobs debuts the iPhone

On January 9, 2007, Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone—a touchscreen mobile phone with an iPod, camera and Web-browsing capabilities, among other features—at the Macworld convention in San Francisco. Jobs, dressed in his customary jeans and black mock turtleneck, called ...read more

First modern circus is staged

Englishman Philip Astley stages the first modern circus in London. Trick riders, acrobats, clowns, trained animals, and other familiar components of the circus have existed throughout recorded history, but it was not until the late 18th century that the modern spectacle of the ...read more

United States invades Luzon in Philippines

Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the American 6th Army land on the Lingayen Gulf of Luzon, another step in the capture of the Philippine Islands from the Japanese. The Japanese controlled the Philippines from May 1942, when the defeat of American forces led to General MacArthur’s ...read more

Richard M. Nixon is born

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th president of the United States, is born on January 9, 1913 in California. The son of Quaker parents, Nixon grew up in the southern California city of Yorba Linda. Early on he proved himself to be a stellar student, attending Whittier College and ...read more

Record cold and snow decimates cattle herds

On one of the worst days of the “worst winter in the West,” nearly an inch of snow falls every hour for 16 hours, impeding the ability of already starving cattle to find food. The plains ranchers had seen hard winters before, but they had survived because their cattle had been ...read more

Pop luminaries gather at the U.N. for the Music for UNICEF concert

In an effort to call attention to the poverty, malnutrition and lack of access to quality education affecting millions of children throughout the developing world, the United Nations proclaimed 1979 the “International Year of the Child.” To publicize the proclamation and raise ...read more

Virginia Woolf buys a house in Bloomsbury

On January 9, 1924, Virginia Woolf and her husband buy a house at 52 Tavistock Square, in the Bloomsbury district of London near the British Museum. Woolf had been associated with the district since 1902, when she took a house in the area with her three siblings after their ...read more

Sylvester Stallone starts filming "Rocky"

The classic rags-to-riches story got a macho spin in the Oscar-winning Rocky, which was written by its star, Sylvester Stallone, and began filming on January 9, 1976. Stallone had his own rags-to-riches tale: Born in the gritty Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, he was ...read more

Fire breaks out on former RMS Queen Elizabeth

On January 9, 1972, the ship Seawise University (formerly the RMS Queen Elizabeth) sinks in Hong Kong Harbor despite a massive firefighting effort over two days. The Queen Elizabeth, named after the wife of King George VI, was launched on September 27, 1938; at the time, it was ...read more

President Truman warns of Cold War dangers

In his 1952 State of the Union address, President Harry S. Truman warns Americans that they are “moving through a perilous time,” and calls for vigorous action to meet the communist threat. Though Truman’s popularity had nose-dived during the previous 18 months because of ...read more

“Star of the West” is fired upon

On January 9, 1861, a Union merchant ship, the Star of the West, is fired upon as it tries to deliver supplies to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. This incident was the first time shots were exchanged between North and South, although it not trigger the Civil ...read more

Thomas Paine publishes "Common Sense"

On January 9, 1776, writer Thomas Paine publishes his pamphlet “Common Sense,” setting forth his arguments in favor of American independence.  Although little used today, pamphlets were an important medium for the spread of ideas in the 16th through 19th centuries. Originally ...read more