Although it is commonly held that it was Columbus who discovered Tobago, recent thinking casts some doubt on this legend.
Allegedly, it was on his third voyage in August 1498 that the admiral of the ocean sighted Tobago and Grenada as he sailed out of the Gulf of Paria, through the Dragon’s Mouth, and headed northwest for Hispaniola.
According to biographer Las Casas ‘on coming out of the entrance he saw an island to the north which was distant from the strait 26 leagues and he named it Isla de la Asuncion. He saw another and called it La Concepcion.’
However, the name Concepcion appears on none of the charts of teh West Indies from this period.
S.E. Morrison, historian, tracing Columbus’ third voyage, writes:
“He saw an island on August 4th of very high land to the northeast, which might be 26 leagues from there and named it Belaforma.”
This sighting on the 4th August cannot have been of Tobago, as Columbus was still inside the Gulf of Paria, which he left on the 13th August. He may have seen the Northern Range of Trinidad, its peaks enskyed, mists shrouding the base of the mountain range. In any event, he thought that the land along which he was sailing was a large island, never knowing that he had come upon the great continent of South America.
In 1502, Alonzo de Ogeda, accompanied by Columbus’ trusted pilot Juan de la Cosa, sailed from Spain on hi second Caribbean voyage. Two of the four ships he sailed with were called ‘Santa Maria de la Grenada’ and ‘La Magdalena’. On reaching Trinidad, a third ship, the ‘Santa Anna’ went missing. While searching for it to the north east of Trinidad, both Grenada and Tobago were sighted, and as was customary named after the two vesseld: Tobago becoming ‘La Magdalena’ as it appears on a map dated 1508, printed in Naples, Italy.
‘La Magdalena’ did not survive as a name. Instead, the island became known first as ‘Tavaco’, then ‘Tabagua’, then as ‘Tobago’, which was the name given by the tribal people who inhabited the island to their long-stemmed pipes in which they smoked a herb that they called ‘cohiba’. It is possible, even probable, that Tobago was named or rather misnamed after the leaf which was found growing there and is now smoked throughout the world.