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Christopher Columbus

Myth or Man

Columbus, A Great Explorer or a Simple Charlatan

Columbus Casket
The Casket from Columbus's Tomb

Christopher Columbus discovered the future America, but did he also cover up his own past?

Biographers clash over events in his life, Columbus himself, deliberately, deepened the confusion. History has him born in Genoa in 1451, now even this is in doubt. Language specialist Charles Merrill hopes to uncover evidence to prove that Columbus never had Italian origins. At the same time, in Spain, Columbus's tomb is being opened. It's a unique opportunity to confirm if these really are the explorer's bones.


No pictures of him were made in his lifetime, so who was the real Columbus? Today, many nations claim Columbus. The conflicting claims have him as a pirate, a mercenary, an enemy of the state or a Jew in hiding from the Spanish Inquisition. There are even rumours that Columbus hid his past to escape the stigma of illegitimacy.

Columbus died in 1506, now nearly 500 years later, Dr. Charles Merrill aims to find out where he really came from. Other linguists will deconstruct Columbus's writings to detect his mother tongue, and a psychological profiler will attempt to peel the mask from the man. "

He's continually writing-up his social background because he was a character driven by social ambition. He was a snob!" claims Professor Fernandez-Armesto from the University of London.

Meanwhile, a team of scientists have received special permission to examine the contents of the tomb. Heading this team is Professor Jose Lorente from the University of Granada, who hopes that, they can extract DNA from the bones he can, finally, find out who Christopher Columbus is. Dr. Anunciada Colon, a direct descendant of Columbus and a historian, is present to witness the event. The experts do not know what, if anything, still exists inside the casket.

Hernando Colon

To help establish if these bones do belong to the explorer, the remains of his brother Diego and his illegitimate son Hernando are also exhumed. Hernando wrote the first account of his father's life. He admits that his father kept his origins murky and that he found it difficult to trace witnesses to the early years. According to Hernando, after his father's wife died, he moved to Castile, a region of modern-day Spain. This is the point at which the story of the explorer, as we know today, begins.

He appeared at the court of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, but was the unknown adventurer all he said he was? He seemed to be educated, familiar with the stars and maps, was he the son of a weaver from Genoa, or did his past hide more dangerous origins?

In 1492 he was able to persuade King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella and the court of Castile to fund his first voyage. Columbus set sail, from Spain, in search of a new western route to India, instead he found the New World. His brilliance as a navigator, cartographer and religious missionary brought him wealth and honours.

This rags to riches story is a true life example of the American dream, allegedly.

Columbus wrote "From Genoa I came, and therein was I born". Why was it so important where he came from? Professor Fernendez-Armestra explains "It matters that he was Genoese in order to understand his career. Without being Genoese you can't move through that cosmopolitan world of Genoese ex-patriots and exiles around the Mediterranean.

Charles Merrill travelled to Genoa to see the site where the wool-merchants cottage used to be occupied by Dominico Colombo and Susanna Fontananarossa. Dominico and Susanna had five children one of whom was Christopher, who after working in crafts went on to be a sailor. Merrill believes that this Genoese Christopher Colombo is not the same man that discovered America.

The accepted theory is that Columbus sailed from the age of 14 before exchanging his father's business for life as a seaman. He joined a Genoese trading ship and left Italy for good. Four years later, say early writers, he was involved in an event that was to change his life. In 1476, 6 miles off the Portugese coast, 5 Genoese merchant vessels came under fierce attack from a flotilla of pirates. Columbus was forced to swim for his life after his ship caught fire. He allegedly w=swam two leagues, about six miles, to reach shore. The orthodox view is that Columbus was not present at the sea-battle and he has never claimed to be. It is believed this myth making is due to the imagination of early biographers.

Back at the University of Granada, scientists have just six days to conclude the testing of the tomb remains. Professor Jose Lorente will carry out DNA analysis while Professor Miguel Botella, a forensic anthropologist, will try and determine other facts from the bones.

Charles Merrill
Dr. Charles Merrill

Charles Merrill wants to study a document from the naval museum which, experts claim, proves that Columbus was from Genoa. Written by the explorer himself, the document is traditionally interpreted as saying "Although my body is here, my heart is in Genoa". Under Merrill's scrutiny it's clear the letter never mentions Genoa, the actual words are "Although my body is here, my heart is there".

Traditional historians believe that Columbus went to sea from the age of fourteen as part of the extensive Genoese trade network. Merrill believes that this can't be the weaver's son, as the explorer had extensive nautical experience which he must have gained from the age of childhood, whereas the Christopher Colombo of Genoa didn't sail at all until he was nearly twenty.

For Merrill, Columbus's marriage is another inconsistency. Dona Felipa Perestrello whom he married in 1478 was not a commoner. Felipa belonged to a noble family, her father was the governor of Porto Santo. This causes Merrill to wonder if Columbus also came from a noble family.

Professor Botella has found an unusual cut in one of the bone fragments which could be consistent with the medieval practise of de-fleshing of the corpse. This was generally done when a body had to be transported long distances. When Columbus died, in 1506, he was to be buries on the island on which he first landed in 1492, Hispaniola or the modern day Dominican Republic.

Columbus's daughter-in-law later arranged for his remains to be shipped there in secret. His camouflaged coffin had to be smuggled on board under cover of night. Crucially, de-fleshing was only done to members of the nobility, which Columbus certainly was by the time of his death.

Santa Maria
Replica of the Santa Maria

Columbus made four voyages to the Americas and he was accompanied by his brother on the later journeys. If the boys had not been born in Genoa then where had they grown up? Merrill goes to the centre of a controversial theory! It declares that Columbus is not an Italian at all, instead he's supposed to come from Catalonia. Today, Catalonia is a region of Spain, it's capital is Barcelona. Merrill meets with Francesc Albardaner  the Research Director of the Columbus Research Centre which is dedicated to proving that Columbus is Catalan. He takes the investigator to the site of a home once owned by a noble family called Colon. The Catalan theory claims that Columbus was one of their members. The Colon family were a very rich, noble and famous family of bankers who traded all around the Mediterranean, so the tradition of this family is already in sailing. Colon, Colom and Colombo are all variations of the same common Catalan name. At one time Columbu was called Colon.

If Columbus was from Catalonia, then why would he not say so? In a letter he makes an extraordinary statement. He says he captained a ship during the Catalan Civil War agains King Ferdinand's family, this was the very monarchy that financed his voyage of discovery.

The Catalan theory asserts that Columbus was involved in a battle off the coast of Portugal, but instead of being one of the crew of a Genoese merchant ship, it puts him on the other side, fighting with the Corsairs, or pirates, and the Corsair Admiral came from the Colon family of Barcelona.

Statue of Columbus

When Columbus wrote, it was not in Genoese, even when he wrote to his brothers and his bankers in Genoa his letter are written in the language of Castile. Professor Lluis de Yzaguirre of the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona is an expert in the structure of languages. Using a special technique known as lexicometry his computer searches for mistakes in Columbus's sentences, taking them apart may identify his mother tongue.

The handwriting analysis and lexicometry results both suggested Catalan origins. The DNA tests and forensic anthropology were inconclusive. However, they did manage to extract the "Y" chromosome from Hernando's remains and isolate Columbus's DNA from this. This suggests that Columbus was Caucasian, not Jewish as some believe 

Further Reading:

amazon.com amazon.co.uk Christopher Columbus (Famous Lives) - M. Lacey
amazon.com amazon.co.uk The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus - Christopher Columbus