Christopher Columbus, the Admiral from the “province” of Genoa
Belen Castro Martin*
On October 12th, 1492 Admiral Christopher Columbus steps upon the soil of San Salvador Island, Bahamas. He does not know it himself, but he has just become Christopher Columbus the Discoverer of the New World, although at that moment he is still convinced to have reached the coast of Asia sailing westward from Europe. He will die 13 years later without knowing that he had discovered a new continent. In a pretty unfair twist of History this new land will be named America after a different seafarer who will cross the Atlantic simply following the path Columbus had just discovered.
Who was Columbus? The better-known parts of his biography start in 1476 when he arrives to Portugal. At this point of his life he is an experienced seaman, a polyglot and a scholar knowing about geography, astronomy, cartography, mathematics amongst other sciences and arts.
The official biography before that point states that he comes from the Italian town of Genoa and that he is the son of a local Genoese family of wool merchants. We know the names of his parents and the city proudly preserves his birth house as a museum. Several texts show a level of agreement around several episodes of his life that allow us to assume that his birth can be dated around 1436. According again with his official biography he spends the first years of his life assisting his father in the family business, but at a certain point, he decides to join a merchant ship and start a career at sea.
This theory seems to be corroborated by several texts, some written by Columbus himself. One of them can be seen in the Genoese museum. It is a letter written to his family where he mentions “Genoa, where I was born” also several other mentions by authors who knew him during his life describe him as “the Genoese” or “of Genoese origin”. We will come back to the precision of all these affirmations later.
There are indeed several important imprecisions regarding this biography that have lead to the existence of many theories that claim that the official version is wrong and that for some reason he was hiding his real identity, and that he allowed or even built himself the story of his “Genoese” origin. These different theories support that he could be from Mallorca, Barcelona, Galicia, Valencia, Portugal or even Poland.
All of them provide details that can be accepted or rejected but all of them seem to agree that the official theory of Admiral Columbus being the son of a family of wool merchants from Genoa has to be rejected and all of them seem to agree on the reasons, too. Just to mention some of the most important: First, we have information from Columbus’ himself again. In other of his letters he writes, “I am not the first Admiral of my family” and that his ancestors “had always followed the sea” We must assume in that case that he does not come from a family of wool merchants but from a family of seafarers. Indeed, his experience and deep knowledge of the sea show that he is an educated man trained at sea from a very young age. Something that fits more to a member of family of a higher status and more deeply attached to seamanship. Second, the letter shown in the museum in Genoa. The phrase above mentioned, by Columbus himself addressing to his family and clearly stating that Genoa is his birthplace could be actually translated as: “I have you and Genoa in my heart”. This translation is proposed by Professor Charles Merril who is one of the supporters of the theory of the Catalan origin of the Admiral (Charles Merril, Mount St. Mary University, Merrill, Charles J. Colom of Catalonia: origins of Christopher Columbus revealed. Spokane, Wash.: Demers Books, 2008 ISBN 9780981600222)
All these theories are supported by statements and facts that can be extracted from the different texts, biographies, letters, and diaries left by Columbus, or other people who played an important role in his life. The best-known authors and most reliable are his son Hernando Colon and the Bishop Bartolome de las Casas. Hernando had sailed with his father and is the author of the diary of the fourth voyage to the New World and of the “Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus” the first official biography ever written about him. Hernando was known to have complained repeatedly that there were many lies, and falsehoods being written and disseminated about his father. His chosen mission in life was to clear up the many misconceptions, and to let the truth be known. Bishop De las Casas had also traveled with the Admiral and is the author of the first “Historia de las Indias” Within the text he also mentions some information about Columbus, his life and origins. Both Hernando Colon and De las Casas mention that the Admiral was “from the Genoese nation”
Still all the theories seem to consider that there are many facts against the “son of the wool maker family from Genoa” and that the above-mentioned affirmation is false. All claim that he was hiding his identity, give different reasons for that and propose a possible origin instead of the Genoese official one. However, all theories have different gaps or problems and that’s why experts keep on discussing the matter without consensus. One of the major issues against every theory is that all of them are supported by scholars and “experts” coming from the city or region that is proposed as candidate to be the real birthplace of the discoverer. This happens often when a region or town proudly wants to promote as the starting point of any remarkable historical figure and the political speech involved presents the facts promoting local interests. Of course, every theory always achieves lots of proud local supporters and this is the situation with all proposals for Columbus’ origins.
Let us take one of them. One of the less known maybe. The only one that seems to agree with the Genoese origin of Columbus and at the same time rejects the possibility of the Admiral being a member of a poor wool merchant’s family.
The Chios theory
This theory proposes that Columbus was born in the Greek island of Chios, was of noble origin and member of a Greek family of seafarers. It was written by Ruth G. Durlacher Wolper an author whose credentials are difficult to trace and does not seem to have composed any other papers or books apart from her two titles that are related to Columbus and the discovery of the New World (https://www.worldcat.org/wcidentities/viaf-281765204). The first one, “A new theory identifying the locale of Columbus’ light landfall and landing”, was published in San Salvador, Bahamas, and appears to have ten editions between 1964 and 2016 and the second one “Christophoros Columbus: A Byzantine prince from Chios, Greece” appears to have been published by the New World Museum also in San Salvador, Bahamas, in 1982. This second book is the one that proposes the Greek origins of Columbus being his birthplace the island of Chios. It has a Greek translation published by John Perikos with different editions from 1988 to 1994. The conclusions of this book can be traced in different web sites that propose this theory in a tone between historical fact and conspiracy theory. Of course, this version of Columbus’ biography has lots of proud local Greek supporters and in short has the same problem of exclusively local support than the other theories have. In a display of aroused feelings supporting the Chiotic origins of Columbus one of the sites that present the theory states “If Columbus was Greek, he HAD TO be from Chios, from where else?”
Let us study what this theory proposes, what parts are clearly exaggerated and what can be perfectly possible and worth further study from a scientific approach. In order to do so we can try to separate the facts that are supported exclusively by Durlacher Wolper and those that agree with her but can be traced from other sources.
The first clue that supports the Chios theory is the official theory itself. Let us not forget that for centuries the Genoese origin of Columbus did not seem to be argued at all and that the theories that oppose that version started many years after his death. However, the detail that all options reject has to do with Columbus’ identity as the son of a family of wool makers, this cannot be the family of seafarers that has already had “several Admirals and always has followed the sea” as Columbus mentions about his family. But the fact that Columbus was not a member of that family does not mean that he was not Genoese.
The island of Chios belonged to the Republic of Genoa from 1346 to 1566 when it was conquered by the Ottoman empire. During the Middle Ages, the Genoese state was known amongst other names as “la Dominante dei Mari” (“the dominant of the seas”) and Genoese people were renowned seafarers and traders. Regarding Chios, during its Genoese period the island had a population of around 12.000 Greeks and 2500 Genoese. This is an especially brilliant period for the island thanks to the production and trade of its most appreciated local goods. The Genoese had kept for themselves the right to produce and trade mastic and salt and the Greeks kept on producing wine and fabrics. Genoese rulers seemed to be most concerned about economic development and they had brought the island to a flourishing period of multicultural and religious freedom.
We can assume that a natural born from Chios around year 1436, when the island had already been part of Genoa for almost one century, would introduce himself as Genoese. Going back to the writings of Bishop De las Casas, he mentions that Columbus was “of the Genoese nation” but that does not mean that he had to be from the city of Genoa. In 1893 the Spanish scholar Antonio Maria Fabie wrote his book “Cristobal Colon autographs and American papers” within the studies carried on for the celebration of the 400 anniversary of the discovery (Antonio Maria Fabie, Autógrafos de Cristóbal Colón y Papeles de América, Boletín de la Real Academia de la Historia, tomo 22 (1893), pp. 481-527 digital edition of Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, last revised on March 26th 2006) In this book he recovers several texts and comments regarding the figure of the Admiral. In one of the paragraphs he mentions an old history book “Historia de los Reyes Catolicos” (“History of the Catholic Monarchs”) by a scholar named Bernaldez. Columbus had stayed at his house after coming back from his second trip to the New World in June of 1496, so we know that Bernaldez knew the Admiral personally and in his history book he writes regarding Columbus death:
«El qual dicho Almirante Don Christobal Colón de maravillosa y honrada memoria, natural de la provincia de Génova, estando en Valladolid el año de 1506 en el mes de mayo, murió in senectute bona inventor de las Indias, de 70 años poco más ó menos. Nuestro Señor le ponga en su gloria. Amen-DEO GRATIAS»
“The above-mentioned Admiral Don Christobal Colon, of wonderful and honored memory, born in the PROVINCE of Genoa, being in Valladolid in year 1506 in the month of May, died in senectute bona (at an old age) discoverer of the Indies, at more or less the age of 70. May God our Lord put him in His glory. AMEN -DEO GRATIAS (Thanks to God)”
After quoting this paragraph from the old historian, Fabie also puts the stress in the way that Bernaldez, a contemporary of Columbus who knew him, specifies that he was from the “province” and not the city of Genoa. Let us not forget that during that period Chios was also part of that province.
Durlacher Wolper tries to precise even more the part of the province of Genoa that was the exact birthplace of the Admiral and mentions that Columbus introduces himself in other texts and letters as “Columbus de Terra Rubra” (“Columbus from the Red Earth”). She specifies that he refers to the southern part of Chios known for the production of the mastic trees. She does not mention it but the peninsula that is exactly in front of Chios in present day Turkey and that was inhabited by Greeks from ancient times is called “Erythrea” (Red Earth) and a part of Chios coast is still called Eryth(r)a probably being also a related toponym. Mastic is an appreciated product that is produced exclusively in the island of Chios and Durlacher Wolper also refers that Columbus mentions the product in several of his texts as well. Those are several of the texts that must be referred precisely in order to confirm her affirmations.
Durlacher Wolper also quotes Samuel Eliot Morison, historian and expert in Columbus’ biography, in his book “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” (Little, Brown & Co. Boston 1942) he states that Columbus had “ardent enthusiasm for seafaring” and “he made many voyages to Chios in the Aegean” where he learned “hand reef, and steer, to estimate distance by eye, to let go and weigh anchor properly, and all other elements of seamanship”. The references to Morison’s book mention a period of Columbus’ early life attached to the island of Chios without reaching the point to affirm that he was born there and in any case, like several other references from Durlacher Wolper’s proposal, this text also must be referred and confirmed.
Finally, Durlacher Wolper also mentions one more detail against the official theory regarding the Genoese family of wool merchants when she mentions another text, this time by Columbus’ son, Hernando, who affirms that he could find no sign of the Colombo family when he searched for them in Genoa. These were supposedly the relatives of his father, but he writes that “I have not been able to find out how or where [they] live” Again this text by Hernando Colon must be referred and confirmed.
Hiding identity? Not necessarily. On Columbus’ faith and signature
So far, we have seen that there is a possibility Columbus was from Chios but, in that case, was he a local Greek Orthodox or a Roman Catholic? As we have already mentioned during the Genoese period of the island the local population was a mix between local Greek and Genoese people. In the 14th century the Schism that separated Catholic from Orthodox Church had already taken place, but we have also seen how this did not affect coexistence between local Orthodox Chiotes and Catholic Genoese and the fonts even mention that mixed marriages were a common practice.
Regarding the religious identity of the Admiral, Durlacher Wolper proposes he was a Greek Orthodox, but he was hiding it in order to avoid prosecution by the Turks after the fall of Constantinople and by the Catholics once he moved to the west. This is one of the most arguable parts of Durlacher Wolper’s theory. If Columbus was thinking of any possible Turkish threat there was no reason to keep on fearing once he was in France, Portugal or Spain. On the other hand, Greek Orthodoxy has always been accepted by the Roman Catholic Church so being a Greek Orthodox could not have been the reason to hide that his birthplace was Chios.
Let us remember another famous Greek resident in Spain. Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the artist better known as “El Greco” He was born in Crete in 1541. He moved to Venice around 1567 and then to Spain ten years later, that is a century after Columbus. We are certain of Theotokopoulos Greek origin and his Orthodox faith but that did not suppose any problem for him in order to reside and work in Spain. His work was very related to religion as almost all his paintings belong to Christian imagery where he mixes the Byzantine and western styles. He had a family with Doña Jeronima de las Cuevas. He christened his child as a catholic, which is an agreement that´s respected even today in mixed families and in short he was never prosecuted for being an Orthodox Christian and all this facts took place while he was living in the extremist Catholic Spain of king Philip II when Spanish Inquisition was at its peak of prosecution and massive executions. Theotokopoulos declares in his last will that he is a devoted catholic, but this can be just a formal declaration that did not mean that he was forced or prosecuted in any way during his life.
In short, a Greek Orthodox Christian had no reason to hide his identity, his birthplace and faith while being in the Catholic west and such assumption from Durlacher Wolper actually shows more the reflection of the censorious behavior of Orthodox Christians towards Roman Catholics and does not have much to do with the reality Columbus could have faced when he was in countries like Portugal or Spain. All that said supposing he was a Greek Orthodox. In case he was indeed born in Chios during this period, he could also have been a Catholic Genoese.
Regarding his faith, he was a much-devoted Christian and he proudly mentions it in every single text or letter he writes. His strong Christian faith is something we cannot doubt. It is again his son Hernando who mentions that Columbus wrote his name “Christo-Ferens” because “it means one who bears Christ” and “[my father] had carried Christ over deep waters with great danger to himself … that the Indian nations might become dwellers in the triumphant Church of Heaven” Columbus’ signature was a combination of Greek and Latin. He signed his name Xpo-Ferens, the first part being Greek and the second Latin. In a letter he instructed his heirs to continue to “sign with my signature, which I now employ, which is an X [“CHI”] with an S over it, and an M with an A over it, and over that an S, and then a Greek Y with an S over it, preserving the relation of the lines and points”. This letter is mentioned by Durlacher Wolper who quotes again Morison’s book. In the case of this affirmation regarding his half Greek signature. We can confirm the authenticity of this facts since we still preserve the original of all the letters with his personal signature that are also available through the digital library of Instituto Cervantes.
All that said it seems that religion cannot be the reason he was hiding episodes of his past. Could it be he was hiding any precise episode of his biography? It is true that we do not have many details about his early ages. The reason most theories propose for that is he spent several years engaged in naval warfare during this convulse period of history. The fact that he was fighting in the wrong side at certain moments was not something he would want to show in his resumé when addressing to kings for support. In other words, you do not go asking for sponsorship to a king mentioning that your previous experience at sea includes sinking his ships in different naval battles.
This part of his life includes the years, possibly between 1473 and 1476 when almost all authors mention the possibility he was working close to another Colon, a captain described also as a ruthless pirate. Fabie (1893) presents him more like a corsair or mercenary and mentions he was French. Durlacher Wolper mentions this captain and links him with the Byzantine Palaiologos family in a very obscure part of her book. Other theories, like the ones that propose he was from Barcelona of Galicia, also put the stress in this period of his life and basically are based in the fact that the whole mystery begins because he wanted to hide his years as member of a fleet of mercenaries.
The truth is that we have proof by Columbus himself again that he was not hiding the fact that in previous years he was engaged in warfare against the interests of the king he was serving at that given moment. To be more precise we have a letter that Columbus wrote in 1495 to the king of Spain. In this letter Columbus mentions one episode from 1472, during the war that started in 1470 when Barcelona revolted against the Spanish king. Columbus writes that he was in command of a Genoese ship at the service of Duke Reyner who was fighting against king Fernando of Spain (Fabie, 1893) Again in other words we can see that Columbus did not seem to have any problem in admitting that he had worked against the king’s interests in the past.
These episodes of his life, related to naval warfare, are especially important because they describe how he arrived in Portugal and it is recorded in full detail in the biography written by his son. According to Hernando Colon in August of 1476 his father was in a fleet of 11 ships, eight of them Portuguese and the other three Genoese. They encountered the fleet of Colon the Corsair and a furious battle started in the southern Portuguese coast close to Sagres. Columbus was forced to jump to the sea and with the help of some floating remains he managed to reach the coast. We have a rather clear image of where the battle took place. To save his life Columbus had to swim in the Atlantic around 14 nautical miles. Years after this episode he would mention to his son that he was convinced that God’s will had saved him and that it was a sign that God wanted to change the course of his life.
At this point of his life he was already a man in his 40s He has spent many years at sea mostly engaged in warfare and it seems logical than he started to consider using his nautical knowledge in other short of activities. At this moment is when the better-known parts of his life begin.
He moves to Lisbon and starts meeting influential members of the court and intellectual circles. The descriptions (Fabie, 1893) mention him as a tall man of strong complexion with blonde-red head and blue eyes. He is fluent in different languages, has gentle conversation, good manners and a very high education in many different sciences that allow him to approach the high members of the court, experts, and scholars. Once again here we must remember that this description does not match with the illiterate child of a humble merchant that left the family wool business and has spent the rest of his years between crews of soldiers and corsairs.
Another very important detail of this period, that all theories agree with, is that in 1479 he marries Lady Felipa Moniz de Perestrello. Felipa is the daughter of the captain (a title that equals a governor) of the island of Porto Santo appointed by prince Henry the Navigator. By the time Columbus meets Felipa her father has died, and she is a noble lady with a large heritage and dowry. The marriage is approved and has the blessing of the Portuguese king himself. At that moment a foreigner, no matter how experienced Admiral he was, but being the jobless son of a humble family would never have been allowed to marry a high ranked lady of the Portuguese nobility. He had to be something else and probably he also had to be able to prove his origins without hiding any detail.
Another clue that shows that, apparently, he was not hiding his origins and family is the fact that from that moment on and in almost all his contacts with kings and nobility he has his brother Bartolome with him. Bartolome appears to be a cartographer in Lisbon, so he also had a level of education more related to seamanship. We also know that he was in the second ship, the “Santiago de Palos” during his brother’s fourth trip to the New World and that when it was caught in a storm Bartolome took the helm himself and saved the ship and crew, so we must assume that he also was well trained at sea. Bartolome is a less known figure of the Columbus dynasty, but when the Portuguese crown refused to support the expedition to Asia sailing towards the west, he played a huge role in presenting the project to other possible candidates. At this point the Columbus brothers split. In 1484 Christopher moved to Spain and a few years later Bartolome went to England to meet Henry VII. The idea was rejected by the English king and also by Charles VIII in France.
When word arrived in 1493 that his brother had succeeded to prove his ideas sponsored by the Spanish kings, Bartolome returned to Spain, where he missed Christopher, who had already left on a second voyage. The two brothers met again after Christopher’s return and since then they appear always together in front of the Spanish court and during the next two voyages to the New World. Bartolome also received Spanish titles of nobility as reward for his efforts enlarging Spanish territory in the Antilles where the island of Saint Barthelemy was named after him and he appears to be the eldest of the family accompanying and advising his nephew Diego after Christopher’s death in 1506. His biography and that of a third Columbus brother, Giacomo, who also appears assisting in the administration of the first Caribbean colonies, have always been linked to that of Christopher’s, and all mentions to the origins of the family always support that the younger Columbus siblings were natural from the Republic of Genoa as well. After the discovery, the three men always appear together, and it seems complicated to assume that a whole family was forced to change identity and managed to hide their origins because of an episode in the life of the eldest of the three.
What seems logical at this point is that there was no reason for hiding anything and that all sources seem to agree and clearly state that Columbus and his family were indeed naturals from the province of Genoa. About the fact that he did not specify more precisely from which point exactly of the Genoese Republic we can say that: First, maybe he did, when he mentioned “Terra Rubra” Although this point must absolutely be verified and second, maybe he did not see the reason to be more precise. Admiral Christopher Columbus, like many other historical figures, never realized the size of his achievements during his lifetime. He lacked recognition and even fall in disgrace in several occasions. His contemporaries, like himself, hadn’t really noticed the magnitude of the events and would require many years to realize the size of the discovery and the fact that his actions had started a new era in the history of humanity. He kept on searching for new discoveries till the end of his days and always struggled to ensure a good legacy for his heirs, but he died without knowing the real role he had played in history. Considering this we can understand why probably he did not see the reason to leave a full detailed account of his biography.
On Columbus’ literacy and language
Let us stand now in one important point of Columbus personality, his level of instruction and literacy. We have seen he had a higher education and was a fluent polyglot. Language is also one of the major points all theories support against the official Genoese theory, and to be more precise the fact that although he was a prolific writer, he could not speak or write in Italian or Ligurian Italian dialect. In Seville, the Biblioteca Capitular y Colombina preserves a large collection of his own books and writings in the form of diaries, and his official and personal correspondence with authorities, but also with his acquaintances, friends, and family. None of his texts in written in Italian or the Genoese Ligurian Italian dialect.
This is really a puzzling detail. Even if he was stablished in Portugal or later in Spain one should expect him to address to his family members using their native Genoese language. Apparently, he does not use it neither in the letters he sends to his bankers in Genoa. This commercial correspondence is mentioned by Durlacher Wolper who refers to some letters regarding his business or investments with the Bank of St. George in Genoa. She also makes the link with the fact that this Genoese bank oversaw the administration of the commerce of mastic in Chios during this period, through a chartered company called the “Mahona” linking again the figure of Columbus with the island. Again, these commercial letters must be referred and confirmed. Regarding language and going a step further not only in the fact that he did not use Italian, but he could speak Greek instead Durlacher Wolper also mentions several facts, more or less arguable. The first is that he spells the name of the island starting with an X, like in Greek: “Xios” Once again this must be double checked with the original handwritten texts. Second that he keeps two logbooks in his voyages, one “official” where he measures distances using Roman units of measurement and a second “personal” where he measures using Greek units. Again, we must check the accuracy of this affirmation.
Finally, one very important remark regarding Columbus’ favorite book the “Imago Mundi” written in 1410 by the French scholar Pierre D’Ailly, Chancellor of Paris University, who was an astronomer, geographer and theologist. This book is a compendium of geography based mostly on Ptolemy´s concept of the Earth as a sphere, and is a compendium of the astronomy, cosmography, and geography of the time. The book seems to have inspired new ideas regarding the shape of the world to different scholars in later years. Columbus was one of them. Bishop De las Casas writes that “this scholar (D’Ailly) more than any other amongst the ancients inspired Cristobal Colon in his business”
Columbus had a copy of the book that is still preserved in Seville. What it is even more interesting is the fact that he filled the margins with his own comments and notes. Many experts have done their research about those marginal notes where Columbus shows his thoughts like a “good student” as Edmond Buron mentions. Buron is the author of the edition of the book in 1930. The same original book had already been studied by another expert, Washington Irving in 1831. Irving mentions that “his notes (Columbus’) illustrate his researches and, in a manner, the current of his thoughts while as yet his great enterprise existed but in idea, and he was seeking means to convince the world of its practicability” (W. Irving, The life and voyages of Christopher Columbus, new ed. New York 1831 bk.VIII, ch.1 pp.294-295) Durlacher Wolper mentions that these notes are written in Greek and that is proof of his knowledge of Greek language. This affirmation is false.
Columbus’ own copy of the Imago Mundi with his personal notes is safely guarded in the Biblioteca Colombina in Seville. In 1990, Testimonio Compañía Editorial in Madrid edited a facsimile of the book with its translation in a limited edition of 980 copies, within the frame of the celebration of the 5th centenary of the discovery in 1992. One of them is still available and some of the pages can be seen in:
This picture of a page of the facsimile shows that Columbus’ marginal notes are written in Latin. This site does not allow to check all pages of the book, but we still can notice several interesting details. First, we have an image of Columbus’ level of literacy. He makes comments regarding the position of planets and constellations that show his knowledge of geography and astronomy, and in general he understands and assimilates with ease Ptolemy’s descriptions and ideas. Second, we have a glimpse of his own handwritten words. His pristine Latin calligraphy shows a person that has mastered literacy from a very early age and finally we must reject Durlacher Wolper’s affirmation regarding Columbus’ knowledge on Greek language at least regarding this book.
This page of the book is the closest representation of the Earth as a sphere we can find in 15th century. On the right page, over a round depiction of the world we can see positioned all the nations known to the moment. If the part where Europe is depicted was “marked” or “darkened” by Columbus, it seems like he had an image in mind of how the world’s shape really was. He pinpointed where he was standing on a spherical world and what was his relative position to other places on the planet. This is remarkable because in this period of history he was probably one of the few people, in western Europe, able to figure this out in a society where the notion of a flat Earth was the officially accepted.
Leaving aside the facts included in the text by Durlacher Wolper that, as we have seen are not that reliable, let us stop in one detail that none of the authors proposing different theories seem to have considered. All books, texts and theories, like Imago Mundi and others that we will see now were available to any scholar or literate person of the period, even if knowledge was not as easy to reach in 15th century as it is nowadays. Many other people were interested in science. Many other seamen like Columbus were engaged in the search of new discoveries but for some reason only he adopted these new ideas and came out with a plan to explore the other side of the Ocean sailing westward.
I have purposely underlined the comment of De las Casas regarding Columbus being inspired by the ancients because this is the point of his studies we must absolutely turn our attention to. One possible reason Columbus was more open to accept the idea of a spherical Earth was his contact and knowledge of philosophers and men of science even more ancient than D’Ailly.
We are going to follow the scientific work and possible oral tradition that may have inspired Columbus, and our first stop are those men of the Renaissance he was in direct contact with. The first one is a Florentine scholar, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli.
Toscanelli was born in Florence in 1397 He was an astronomer, cosmographer and mathematician. He was a famous humanist with a keen interest in the rediscovery of ancient Greek knowledge regarding all sciences. He appears to have belonged to a network of Florentine and Roman intellectuals who searched for and studied Greek mathematical works, along with the Byzantine Greek from Crete George of Trebizond, the humanist Pope Nicholas V, in company with Brunelleschi and others. Around 1468 Toscanelli devised “il gnomone” named after the Greek word “gnomon” (γνώμων) still visible in the Florence Cathedral whose dome is the masterpiece of his friend Brunelleschi. The “gnomon” is a bronze plate let into the dome high above the left transept, and a circular white marble slab let into the floor of the cathedral, which records the summer solstice to a half-second. This was then and subsequently used for centuries for other calculations such as the regular movement of the Sun adding a camera obscura effect.
A “gnomon” was also used by another astronomer and geographer many centuries before Toscanelli, the Greek Erathosthenes, who used this instrument in a different form in order to use its shadow to measure the circumference of the Earth, on this precise date, a Summer Solstice of the 3rd century BC. Of course, Eratosthenes knew what the real shape of the Earth is and Toscanelli was applying his knowledge to Renaissance architecture adding some concepts of optical science to create an astronomical instrument of observation, based on the fact that the Earth is round and orbits around the Sun. This affirmation may sound obvious to us, but it was totally innovative in Toscanelli’s time.
However, the man who really inspired Toscanelli in 1439 was the Greek philosopher Georgios Gemistos, known as Plethon. Attending the Council of Florence Plethon acquainted Toscanelli with the extensive travels, writings and mapping of the 1st century BC/AD Greek geographer Strabo, hitherto unknown in Italy. Nearly 35 years later, the Italian was to follow up this amplified knowledge creating a map of both shores of the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to Asia (at that moment they could not know that something else was in between).
In 1474 Toscanelli sent a letter and the map to his Portuguese correspondent Fernão Martins who was a priest at Lisbon, detailing a scheme for sailing westwards to reach the Spice Islands and Asia. Martins delivered this letter and the map to the Portuguese king, Afonso V, in his court of Lisbon, but although Afonso and his son Joao, who would be king in 1481, seemed very interested in exploring and making new discoveries and they had highly supported sea exploration along the African coast, the plan to reach Asia crossing the Ocean westwards was rejected. No matter how open they were to exploration the idea of a round Earth was beyond their believes and apparently the highly appreciated and renowned Portuguese explorers and seamen that were part of the court seemed to agree with the king’s opinion. Except for one foreigner…
Columbus was also in contact with the Portuguese court that period and unlike the king and his fellow seafarers he absolutely supported the idea of a round Earth. The original of Toscanelli’s letter sent to the king is lost, but its existence is known through Toscanelli himself, who later transcribed it along with the map and sent it to Columbus, who carried them with him between the pages of his Imago Mundi during his first voyage to the New World.
“The said voyage is not only possible, but it is true, and certain to be honorable and to yield incalculable profit, and very great fame among all Christians. But you cannot know this perfectly save through experience and practice, as I have had in the form of the most copious and good and true information from distinguished men of great learning who have come from the said parts, here in the court of Rome, and from others being merchants who have had business for a long time in those parts, men of high authority”
— Extract of the First Letter of Paolo Toscanelli to Columbus in Markam, Clements R. Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492–93) and Documents Relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real Ayer Publishing, 1972 ISBN 0-8337-2230-1
We preserve this correspondence between Columbus and Toscanelli and also a recommendation letter by Toscanelli written in 1479 where he mentions how experienced and talented the Admiral was and “how deep his desire was to explore new routes to the islands where the spice is produced” we can assume that the Italian scholar was backing Columbus in his search of support to proof these theories that had found, in the person of the Admiral, the perfect candidate to put the voyage in practice.
What was different about Columbus that made him think out of his contemporaries’ point of view about the world? If we put ourselves in the mind of any captain of the period, experienced at sea but firmly believer in the flat shape of the Earth, we can imagine the sort of awful death that those men had in mind when they thought of reaching the edge of the Ocean. Columbus was convinced that such risk did not exist and was willing to prove it although knowing that if his contemporaries were right it would mean death for himself and his crew. Let us apply a bit of Ocean experience into the whole plan of the voyage. It is against any nautical logic that Columbus could have left the safety of the port with three ships and human lives under his responsibility without having a plan. He did not know where he was going, and he did not even understand where he was when he arrived, but he had to know he was going somewhere and must have done a passage plan with calculations. No one leaves a port without a plan in mind.
If we retake the theory of the possible Greek origins of Columbus, we might find something that so far hasn’t been taken in count. In case the Admiral grew up and trained at sea within the Greek cultural frame he would have been in contact with the Greek tradition at sea that includes the stories of the ancients, voyages and discoveries that were unknown to the west. As an example, we have the case of Toscanelli who had never heard of Strabo until he met Plethon from Constantinople. Plethon was a highly educated scholar who was willing to go back to the virtues of antiquity and had a very critical approach towards the church. In fact, his works were destroyed as contrary to the faith by the Archbishop of Constantinople after the fall of the city in 1453. This use of destroying texts that seemed contrary to the position of the church was nothing new in Byzantine tradition but, although it did a great damage to the preservation of ancient knowledge, it did not stop the preservation of the oral tradition regarding the accomplishments and discoveries of the ancient Greeks that, in spite of the position of the church, never lost entirely their position of respect.
Columbus, due to his origins, could had been more in contact with ancient Greek tradition than his western colleagues and seamen are known to be great storytellers and consequently the best preservers of oral tradition. This can be noticed even today when we talk to any Greek seaman, no matter the level of education they all will know who Pytheas was and all his accomplishments. We have already mentioned Strabo but also Plutarch relates great voyages westward crossing the Ocean. Pytheas, one of the most ancient discoverers, who was the first Mediterranean man who witnessed the tidal movements of the ocean. All these ancient explorers were accused of inventing their stories and were called liars at their times, but all were proven right at the end. What if the ancient philosophers who claimed that the Earth is round are right too? We can imagine that question puzzling Columbus when he was developing his ideas.
Ancient Greek sciences and discoveries were still preserved by Byzantine scholars like Plethon and a rich oral tradition when the western Mediterranean nations started a modern period of discoveries although they were constrained by the fear of leaving the shore caused by the lack of knowledge provoked by the Dark Ages. Is it possible that Columbus was educated in both shores of the Mediterranean and that made him the perfect candidate to explore further west? Could he have been a Greek scholar dedicated to his studies and books who turned to the sea in order to follow his family tradition? Could a scholar, a polyglot interested in the study of the ancients become a skilled Admiral?
Further research: genetics.
Durlacher Wolper’s theory finishes with a last detail that is where the local Chiotes supporters put the major stress. The existence of a Kolomvo family in the town of Pyrghi, in the southern shore of the island. According to her book the author got in contact with this family and affirms that their genealogy can be traced up to 600 years back in time. This opens the last line of study within the field of genealogy and genetics.
What do we know from Columbus’ own remains? After his death in 1506 the Admiral was first buried in the crypt of Monasterio de La Cartuja in Seville. His last will was being buried in his beloved Española, today Dominican Republic, in the place where he had first set foot in the new world. His remains where moved to the capital of the island Santo Domingo. He remained there until the French conquest in 1795. Spanish authorities feared for the safety of the Admiral’s remains. Before the Spanish retreat from Santo Domingo they removed Columbus from the cathedral and placed him in a new mausoleum in Santiago de Cuba. One century after that in 1898, when also Cuba gained its independency, the last Spanish dwellers in the island took Columbus with them again when they returned to Spain. In 1905 he was finally put to rest in a massive mausoleum within the cathedral in Sevilla just a few meters away from the final resting place of his son Hernando, who so much cared about his father’s memory.
Because of all these events after his death the impressive tomb that can be admired in Sevilla today only contains 150 grams of bone material. This was discovered in 2003 when the Laboratory of Genetic Identification of the University of Granada was allowed to inspect the remains in order to carry on a full genetic and DNA identification research. The team was composed by Dr. Jose A. Lorente, the specialist in forensic anthropology Miguel Botella and professor Inmaculada Colon de Carvajal, historian and direct descendant of the Admiral. The remains of the Admiral’s children Hernando and Diego were also exhumated for the research but the bad state of preservation of Christopher Columbus’ remains did not allow to reach any clear conclusion. The whole study was published in 2006 (“DNA verifies Columbus’ remains in Spain”. Associated Press. 19 May 2006. Retrieved 26 October 2014) and in professor Lorente’s words “with these results we consider concluded a first stage of the research, but we have to keep on investigating”. The team only managed to extract mtDNA from the bones of the Admiral which is only half the genetic code of a person and does not allow on its own to reach final conclusions but it may allow to compare two individuals in order to check if they are related. Mitocondrial DNA cannot be used like paternal DNA to stablish a possible paternity relationship between two people but a match of the mtDNA of two individuals means that they have a common maternal ancestor and can be used to stablish a family relationship between them.
This method was used by Leicester University in order to identify the remains of king Richard III by comparing his mtDNA with that of his descendants (Identification of the remains of King Richard III Turi E. King, Nature Communications volume 5, Article number: 5631 (2014) In the case of King Richard, although his remains were in much better state of preservation than those of Columbus, mtDNA had to be used because the king died without having any children and his closest descendants today are related to him through his sister so the match had to be stablished through general female ancestry. If we could stablish though mtDNA a possible match between the remains of the Admiral and the members of the Kolomvo family from Chios, even if that meant just a common female ancestor between them, given the distance in space and time it would be enough to proof a family relationship.
Durlacher Wolper’s theory is as controversial and obscure as other candidates to explain the real identity and origins of Admiral Columbus. However, although some of her affirmations can be easily refused just by a minor superficial research there are some points that keep on being interesting and worth further study.
The genetic study above mentioned requires a major level of expertise and the collaboration of related experts, but it certainly is the option that offers the most conclusive results in the identification of Columbus’ origins in case of a positive match.
The other fields of investigation, like in most archaeological research, must be explored in the libraries. The intensive research of the original fonts of every single text written by Columbus, his family and those who were directly related to him. The confirmation of the existence of his own handwritten texts in Greek that would allow experts in history of Greek language to determinate if his Greek can be related to the language spoken in Chios at that time. An extensive research of the bibliography regarding early periods of his life that can shed a light in the formation of his personality. His relationship with ancient knowledge possibly acquired during a period of contact with Greek tradition that led him to become the link between the past and present of the Mediterranean and made of him the perfect candidate to explore further like ancients from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean had already done centuries before him and whose stories had been forgotten by his contemporaries in the west.
*Belen Castro Martin full CV: Belen Castro Martin NEW CV NO PIC