Historians Continue to Debate the Origins of This Famous Explorer

Historians Continue to Debate the Origins of This Famous Explorer

Alexander Meddings - July 3, 2017

Christopher Columbus’s accomplishments are renowned throughout the world. For generations, the mnemonic “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” has echoed around Anglo-American classrooms so that schoolchildren could drill to memory his “discovery” of the Americas. It’s now widely accepted, however, that Columbus wasn’t the first man—or indeed even the first European— to discover the Americas. Not only where there vast native populations already living on the continent, but it’s clear that others had sailed there before him, namely the Norse explorer Leif Erikson in the 11th century. But if trying to establish the nature of Columbus’s achievements seems a difficult task, trying to work out where he originally came from is nigh on impossible.

Historians Continue to Debate the Origins of This Famous Explorer
The city of Genoa, widely regarded as Columbus’s place of birth. CN Traveller

The scholarly status quo is that Columbus’s family came from Genoa in Liguria: a coastal region of northern Italy stretching from Tuscany in the south to Piedmont in the north. Born to a wool merchant in around 1451, the young Columbus worked on a merchant vessel and traveled extensively until 1470 when French privateers sank his ship off the coast of Portugal. Washed up on Portugal’s shores, he learned the tools of his trade in Lisbon, studying mathematics, navigation, cartography and astronomy. Eventually, in 1492, he found an audience sympathetic to his vision to make the voyage west: the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. And the rest, for want of a better phrase, is history.

The magnitude of Columbus’s expeditions to the Americas in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1502 meant that before his body was even cold as it lay in state in the Spanish city of Valladolid in 1506, different countries had begun to claim him as their own. Italy, Spain and Portugal made the strongest cases. But since then France, Poland, Greece, Norway and even Scotland have also put themselves forwards as Christopher Columbus’s country of origin. And to make matters more interesting, in recent years the debate has been rekindled with new scientific and academic approaches being applied to the existing evidence.

Let’s start with the assumption that Columbus was Genovese (which, if true, makes him Liguria’s second most famous export after the region’s pesto). There’s good evidence to support this view. Firstly there’s an argument from silence: at the Spanish court in 1501, the Genoese ambassador Nicolò Oderico gave a speech lauding Columbus’s remarkable discovery. At one point he referred to Columbus as “our fellow citizen”, and as far as we know nobody contradicted him. Furthermore, two Venetian diplomats who’d been present at court would, in later writing, refer to Columbus as “the Genoese”. With Venice being no friend to Genoa at the time, it’s hard to imagine why they’d have done this if this weren’t the case.

We also have it from Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, in his father’s biography that he was Genovese. But even at this early stage, there was clearly a great deal of uncertainty shrouding Columbus’s exact origins; Ferdinand cites six potential Genoese cities: Nervi, Cogoleto, Bogliasco, Genoa, Savona and Piacenza. And then, amongst all the other fragments of evidence supporting the theory, we supposedly have a deed of primogeniture written by Columbus himself in which he explicitly states his Genovese origins:

Siendo yo nacido en Genova… de ella salí y en ella naci

Seeing that I was born in Genova… I come from there and was born there.

Historians Continue to Debate the Origins of This Famous Explorer
Some believe Columbus’s father was really the Polish King Wladyslaw III. Wikipedia Commons

The problem is that many historians doubt the deed’s authenticity, believing it to be apocryphal. Such historians argue that not once in the 536 plus pages that make up Columbus’s correspondences is there solid evidence that he comes from Genoa. But regardless of whether they’re right or wrong about this, there’s another more pressing problem with Columbus’s documents: the language in which they’re written. Columbus never wrote in his native Italian, or rather Ligurian, dialect. He wrote in either Spanish (Castilian) or Latin. And this is problematic; especially when writing to his supposedly Genovese brothers you’d expect him to use his native Ligurian. So if not Genoa, where was Christopher Columbus from?

A theory that’s gained popularity in recent years locates Columbus’s origins in one of Spain’s Catalan-speaking areas. The theory is rooted in linguists and has been around since the early 20th century. And currently leading the charge with it is Estelle Irizarry, professor of linguistics at the University of Georgetown. Her analysis of Columbus’s language and grammar has led her to the conclusion that Columbus was from the Kingdom of Aragon and that his native tongue was Catalan. He may have written in Castilian, argues Irizarry, but his grammatical errors and use of syntax suggest that it wasn’t his first language, and that the whole time he was translating from Catalan.

Irizarry doesn’t just believe that Columbus was Catalan. She also argues that—contrary to the conventional view of Columbus as a devout Catholic—he was an Iberian Jew at pains to conceal his identity from the rampaging Spanish Inquisition. Her evidence is that at a number of points throughout his writing Columbus deviates from Spanish to write in Hebrew, and that during his account of his first voyage he makes reference to the Jewish High Holiday. Others have gone further in trying to establish Columbus’s Jewish origins, and in doing so have somewhat unconvincingly projected Zionist elements onto their characterization of Columbus.

Simon Weisenthal, for example, suggested that his quest to sail west to the Indies was driven less by geographical curiosity than by the desire to find a new homeland for his fellow Jews. As evidence for this, Weisenthal cites a couple of passages from the Book of Isaiah: “Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from afar…” and “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth”, before tentatively suggesting that, at the end, Columbus believed he had fulfilled this prophecy.

Another attractive, albeit wildly implausible theory is that Christopher Columbus was Polish royalty: the product of a whirlwind romance between the exiled the Polish king Wladyslaw III and a Portuguese noblewoman. According to Portuguese academic Manuel Rosa, Wladyslaw wasn’t in fact killed and beheaded by Ottoman forces at the Battle of Varna in 1444, but survived and fled to the Portuguese island of Madeira. There he took on the identity of Henrique Alemao (one assumes his Portuguese was convincing enough for him to do so) and met the Portuguese noblewoman, Filipa Moniz Perestrelo.

Historians Continue to Debate the Origins of This Famous Explorer
Statue of Christopher Columbus in Cuba, Portugal. Oficina de Português

Rosa’s argument wasn’t well received among the academic community. And despite his claims that further DNA testing could help prove his theory, the cost of running such tests means that’s unlikely to happen in the near future. Plus DNA tests have already been done: 2006 saw the beginning of a project that took samples from possible descendants of Columbus across Europe and matched them with DNA from his supposed tomb in Seville. In Catalonia, swabs were taken from the cheeks of men with the surname Colom; in Italy from those with the surname Colombo and in Portugal swabs were taken from descendants of the deposed royal family, the Duke of Bragança and Count of Ribeira Grande: all in an effort to find that ever-allusive matching Y chromosome. The results, unfortunately, were inconclusive.

Portugal does however remain an attractive theory, just not with an exiled Polish king as Columbus’s father. A more realistic theory is that Columbus was born in Cuba, Portugal to Portuguese nobility. Christened Salvador Fernandes Zarco, he was given the pseudonym of Christopher Columbus (meaning bearer of Christ and the Holy Spirit) and sent to Spain as a spy in order to divert the Spanish from lucrative trade routes between Africa and the Indies. There’s some evidence to support this theory. One piece is a letter in which Columbus refers to Portugal as his “homeland”; another is a court document referring to him as Portuguese. But until something more substantial arises, it’s likely to remain just that: a theory.

That there existed a Genovese Christopher Columbus (or rather a Cristoforo Colombo) is almost beyond doubt because of the weight of archived contemporary records. Whether this is the same man who “discovered” the Americas, however, is a different matter altogether. True, there’s a lot to link the two. But at the same time, it’s hard to reconcile Columbus’s Genovese origins with his Catalan library, his Castilian language, his aristocratic Portuguese wife and the vast helpings of Hebrew that pepper his surviving writings.

What’s sure is that the debate will long continue to rage while the man who opened the Americas up to the Europeans—thereby significantly shaping today’s world—still holds cultural value. True, Columbus’s value, like all commodities, is subject to fluctuations. His associations with genocide and the initiation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade put a black mark next to his name that’s unlikely to fade anytime in the near future. But countries will continue to claim him. And until DNA yields new results, or fresh evidence arises, we’ll have to make do with one of Columbus’s more ambiguous responses when asked about his origins: “Vine de nada“—”I came from nothing”.