In 1992, as part of the general commemoration of the first landing in America by Columbus, Preiser produced this special set. The run was only short because it quickly disappeared again and today is extremely rare, although a version with the figures painted also exists. Sadly the figures were made in one of the two worst colours in terms of photography - white (the other being black) - so our images are not nearly as clear as we would like. However they do portray a complete set of the unpainted figures (although strangely the box claims only 32 figures).
There are many myths about Columbus. Contrary to the popular song nobody laughed when he said the world was round because everyone already knew it was; the Greeks had accurately estimated the circumference in antiquity. However there was dispute over that circumference, and naturally no one had yet been able to prove the figure. Columbus calculated the length was much less, meaning he could sail due west and reach Asia when the general opinion was it was much too far away and a crew would starve before reaching it. The general opinion was right and Columbus was wrong, but he was saved from death and obscurity by the chance discovery of a land mass unsuspected in Europe - America. Columbus was not the first European to set foot in America - the Vikings had done so five centuries earlier, but that knowledge was lost long before 1492. Also of course America was already home to large numbers of people, some of whom had built dazzling civilisations that amazed the Europeans.
On his first voyage, in 1492, Columbus reached the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola. In three later voyages he also visited other areas including the mainland itself, although he never accepted this was an unknown continent and always insisted it was part of or close to Cathay, the place he was looking for from the start. He died in 1506 still stubbornly insisting he had reached part of the Indies (hence the natives being termed Indians).
Enough of the history: what about the figures? As can be seen above the set is evenly divided between Europeans and Americans, so we will discuss the Europeans first. Preiser obligingly provide descriptions for all the figures in row 1 as follows:
- Christopher Columbus
- Martín Alonso Pinzón, captain of the Pinta
- Surveyor of the Crown (perhaps Pedro de Gutierrez, the royal steward)
- Vincente Yáñez Pinzón, captain of the Niña and brother of Martín
- Flag Bearer
Columbus himself is portrayed kneeling, presumably giving thanks for his arrival (particularly as he has removed his cap). The two captains are just standing, as is the 'surveyor', who’s actual identity we have guessed above. The fifth figure is another of those myths about Columbus. On the 1492 voyage there were no priests, nor any clergyman of any description, so this figure is completely wrong for the set. Still he is correctly wearing a hooded cowl and holding up a particularly large cross, and certainly such men were to take passage to America in the following decades to impose their religion on the inhabitants. The final figure merely holds a long lance, and a flag bearing the coat of arms of Castile and Leon is printed on the box which is supposed to be cut out and fixed to this.
The second row are all called armed crewmen. There were no professional soldiers on Columbus's 1492 voyage, so these are seamen wearing whatever bits of armour and weapons had been brought along. They wear much ordinary clothing with some mail and helmets as well as a couple of solid metal cuirasses, which all seems authentic. Three are carrying a crossbow, which was a very popular weapon in Spain at the time and particularly well-suited to war at sea, and the other two hold an arquebus. In terms of pose none of these men are doing very much, which is fine as the first voyage encountered no opposition and there was no fighting apart from some kidnapping.
And so to the 'Indians'. The tribes Columbus encountered were the Lucayas and Arawaks, and from all accounts they were naked apart from tattoos and body paint. Preiser either did not know this or chose to give all their natives loincloths to save the blushes of some of their customers. Either way these figures are wrong in having such clothing, although such things became common once the Europeans began settling in numbers later on. All the natives Columbus met were friendly and curious, so none of these figures are in aggressive poses. The third row shows a chief plus a number of women and children, including a running woman carrying a baby. The last figure is meant to be peering out from behind bushes at the strange new arrivals. On the bottom row are warriors, armed with spears and the rather less common bow, but again not acting aggressively. We thought all the poses were good.
The box helps us to make more sense of these figures. To begin with it shows the figures more clearly than we can with the white plastic. It also has a selection of really nicely painted examples, which always helps makes figures more appealing. Finally it includes some photos of a great diorama which illustrates what the designers were trying to achieve with these figures.
These figures are HO scale, which is to say 1/87th, so they are small when set next to the usual 1/72nd scale figures we feature on this site. The majority also come with some assembly required, as can be seen from looking at the sprue, and at times this is quite difficult. For example the running women clutching a baby to her breast has both arms separate as well as the baby, so some of the parts are extremely small and delicate. However the hard plastic takes normal cement very well, and the parts fit together perfectly too, so if your fingers are slender enough and your eyesight good enough then this kit presents no problems. It also includes a number of extra weapons and accessories for some customisation. The sculpting is excellent as usual, although naturally there are limits with such small pieces. There is a little flash in places, but this is easily trimmed. What all the figures lack is a base, but a piece of clear plastic is provided from which to fashion your own base if required.
It is not very often that we are able to review a non-military set of figures. This one is particularly interesting and has been well engineered. Some or perhaps all of the accuracy problems may in fact be deliberate commercial decisions to give the public what it expects rather than historical authenticity, but some nice ideas have gone into its design and the set does have charm. Their relative fragility make these figures for show rather than play, but properly prepared that is quite a show.