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Was Christopher Columbus Catalan?

Untitled 2(By Simon Harris) The origins of Christopher Columbus are shrouded in mystery and show definite characteristics of a political cover-up. What seems extremely clear is that the idea of a humble Genoese wool weaver’s son gaining favour with kings and leading an expensive expedition to discover the New World is highly implausible.

Was he Catalan? I am strongly inclined to think so but, although I present all the pro-Catalan arguments here, I have to admit that as far as international historians are concerned the jury is out.

The Columbus Monument in Barcelona

The first time it occurred to me that Christopher Columbus might be Catalan was over 20 years ago whilst reading Robert Hughes’ account of the building of the Columbus Monument at the bottom of La Rambla in his immense ‘Barcelona’, written just prior to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.

barcelona-Monument-a-Colom“The presence of Columbus – Colom, to give him his Catalan name – requires some explanation today, but in 1882, the year Rius i Taulet commissioned the monument, it was self-evident. Columbus did have connections with Barcelona: he recuperated from his first voyage there and was received by Ferdinand and Isabella, who bestowed on him the plangent title of Almirante del Mar Oceano – Admiral of the Ocean Sea. But that was not the point of the monument – not all of it, anyway. Late-nineteenth-century Catalans were convinced, as an article of patriotic faith, that Columbus was Catalan himself. (He was in fact Genoese.)

Not only that: he was the Catalan who discovered the New World from whose subsequent plunder by Castile all future Catalans, at least until the time of the indianos, were excluded. It has never been lost on Barcelona that Columbus, up there on his monument, slightly higher than Nelson Stylites in Trafalgar Square, is pointing out to sea with his back towards Castile. Because of the inconvenient configuration of the coast, he is pointing in the general direction of Libya, not America, but the sea is Catalan. In order to reinforce Columbus’s incipient catalanisme, the designer (an engineer named Gaietà Buigas i Monravà) covered the plinth with an iconic program, much of it as obscure as it was elaborate, of bas-reliefs and figures symbolizing the role played by other Catalans in the discovery of America – the Blanes family, for instance, or the priest Bernat de Bol, who went on the Discoverer’s second voyage and became the first apostolic vicar of the West Indies.”

Although I was beginning to become interested in Catalan history at the time, I didn’t pay much attention apart from adding the fact that the Columbus statue was pointing out to Libya to my growing list of Barcelona trivia.

After Dinner Talk

Then a couple of years ago, a friend who had just come back from a holiday in the Caribbean came round for lunch and over coffee started talking about her visit to the British-controlled island of Montserrat. “That was when I realised Columbus had to be Catalan,” she exclaimed. “After all, why would a Genoese sailor in the employment of the Crown of Castile call one of his discoveries after a religious mountain in the centre of Catalonia?”

imagen2This got us thinking and we quickly came up with Antilles, which loosely translates as ‘Before Islands’, presumably meaning the islands you come to before you reach the mainland. The word for islands in Catalan is illes whereas it is islas in Spanish. Similarly, the country Argentina uses the Catalan word for silver argent rather than the Spanish plata in its name.

These after-dinner reflections were a long way from solid evidence but my curiosity and been pricked and I decided to look at the Columbus story a little more closely.  To my surprise, there was a growing mass of literature on whether Christopher Columbus was Catalan or not.

The Conventional Story

According to legend, Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in the Italian Republic of Genoa and his Italian name is Cristoforo Colombo while in Spanish he’s known as Cristóbal Colón. His father was a humble wool weaver who worked both in Genoa and Savona and who also owned a cheese stand at which young Christopher worked as a helper.

In 1473, Columbus began his apprenticeship as business agent for the important Centurione, Di Negro and Spinola families of Genoa, and in May 1476, he took part in an armed convoy sent by Genoa to carry a valuable cargo to northern Europe, docked in Bristol, England and Galway, Ireland and possibly in Iceland. In the autumn of 1477 Columbus sailed on a Portuguese ship from Galway to Lisbon, where he found his brother Bartolomeo, and they continued trading for the Centurione family.

Img.1hApparently, Columbus was intelligent but self-taught and, as a result of his work with merchants and his early sea voyages, he became interested in finding an alternative sea route to the Indies and China. In 1485, Columbus presented his plans to John II, King of Portugal. He proposed that the king equip three sturdy ships and grant Columbus one year’s time to sail out into the Atlantic, search for a western route to the Orient, and return. Columbus also requested he be made “Great Admiral of the Ocean”, appointed governor of any and all lands he discovered, and given one-tenth of all revenue from those lands. The story goes that the king submitted Columbus’ proposal to his experts, who rejected it. It was their considered opinion that Columbus’ estimation of a travel distance of 2,400 miles was, in fact, far too low.

On being rebuffed, Columbus sought an audience from the monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile and on 1 May 1486, permission having been granted, Columbus presented his plans to Queen Isabella, who, in turn, referred it to a committee. After the passing of much time, the savants of Spain, like their counterparts in Portugal, replied that Columbus had grossly underestimated the distance to Asia. They pronounced the idea impractical and advised their Majesties to pass on the proposed venture.

Legend then has it that after continually lobbying at the Spanish court and two years of negotiations, he finally had success and in April 1492 at the Capitulations of Santa Fe, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella promised Columbus that if he succeeded he would be given the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and appointed hereditary Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands he could claim for Spain.

Columbus would have the right to nominate three persons, from whom the sovereigns would choose one, for any office in the new lands. He would be entitled to 10% of all the revenues from the new lands in perpetuity. Additionally, he would also have the option of buying one-eighth interest in any commercial venture with the new lands and receive one-eighth of the profits.

I Have My Doubts

I don’t know about you but this zero to hero story of a poor Genoese wool weavers’ son even getting access to, not only one but, two of the most powerful courts in Christendom seems a bit far-fetched to me. He also had no formal studies yet he apparently learnt Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian and there are surviving documents written in all of these but none in Italian or the Genoese dialect. In fact, most of his writings are in Castilian and linguists suggest that they are translations from another peninsula language, possibly Catalan or Galician.

sapiens49_g_228x309For some reason, legend has him born in 1451 but according to his own writings he was already leading maritime expeditions in the 1460s when young Cristoforo Colombo would have only been 15 or 16. Similarly, not only did a commoner get the Catholic kings to finance his expedition and provide him with three ships and crew, most of whom were Spanish not Portuguese or Genoese where he would likely have more friends, but they also offered him the rank of Admiral and the title of Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands he discovered. Ferdinand and Isabella obviously had a lot of faith in the young Italian’s abilities.

The truth is that titles such as Viceroy and Governor were only ever given to members of the Castilian or Aragonese nobility, never to foreigners and certainly in Aragon at the time the position of Viceroy, who would rule in the monarch’s place, had only ever been given to family members. This was the case when Alfons the Magnanimous made his brother John the Faithless Viceroy of Aragon whilst he held court in Naples.

More Research

When I began to look at the subject, I knew from the plinth of the Columbus Monument in Barcelona that the Mayor and the City Council, at least, had believed Christopher Columbus and many of his companions to be Catalan but you only have to scratch the surface to find out how common the theory is. The first important publication on the subject was written in 1927 by the Peruvian historian Luis de Ulloa, who claimed that Christopher Columbus was a Catalan named Joan Colom, who after years of captaining pirate vessels established himself in Portugal and changed his name to Xristoferens Colomo.

Apart from during the Franco period, there have been other studies including a comparison of the Coats of Arms of the Colom i Bertran family and the official Coat of Arms of Christopher Columbus and both were found to include stripes, a rampant lion and a globe with a cross on top. The missing element of the dove, which is translated as colom in Catalan, was removed by Castilian censors from Columbus’ Coat of Arms according to testimonies in the court cases that the Columbus family brought against the Spanish monarchs for breaking their word on the hereditary titles promised at the Capitulations of Santa Fe.

In 1976, another study showed that the four Colom Bertran brothers, Guillem, Francesc, Joan and Lluís, were clearly contemproaries of the Admiral. However, it wasn’t until 1999 that the researchers from the Institut Nova Història led by Jordi Bilbeny began to pull the various threads together in a coherent whole. What follows is a much simplified version of the Institut Nova Historia’s conclusions but will give you a reasonably clear idea of their claims.

Joan Colom i Bertran

According to Bilbeny and his team, Christopher Columbus’ real name was Joan Colom i Bertran from a Barcelona family of high-ranking religious or military men, navigators, cosmographers or merchants with access to the Court. His brothers, Lluís and Francesc were a sea-captain and President of the Generalitat respectively and he had more brothers and sisters including Jaume, Guillem, Elionor, Isabel and Beatriu. All these names in their castilianised versions also appear in Christopher Columbus’ family tree and Joan Colom had a son called Jaume whilst Columbus’ son was called Diego, which is the medieval translation of Jaume in Castilian.

carabelasJoan Colom was born in 1424 and married twice. His first wife was Margarida d’Alós, with whom he had three sons, and his second Felipa de Coimbra, who was daughter of Pere of Portugal and of Elisabet of Urgell, which made her granddaughter of Jaume of Urgell, the failed Catalan pretender to the Aragonese throne.

Joan Colom had been a military leader on the side of the Generalitat in the Catalan Civil War against Ferdinand the Catholic’s father Joan the Faithless during which time the Catalans had made Pere of Portugal their king. Following the defeat, Joan escaped and led various pirate attacks off the coast of Catalonia on military and merchant targets before ending up in the service of Louis XI of France for whom he led expeditions into the Arctic. It seems very likely the Joan Colom would have visited North America so he knew that another continent existed but that the rich pickings would be further south.

In the 1480s, Joan Colom wound up at the Potuguese court where he fell in love with Felipa, the sister of his deceased former ally, Pere. They had a son called Ferran, who as great-grandson of Jaume of Urgell would have definitely had a claim to the throne of Aragon. Incidentally, Ferran is translated as Fernando or Hernando in Castilian and sure enough Christopher Columbus had a son called Hernando.

For reasons of patriotism, Joan Colom wanted to lead his expedition from Catalonia and taking advantage of the amnesty for participants in the Civil War, installed himself in the port of Pals, on the coast of Northern Catalonia. Negotiations began mainly with Fernando of Aragon in order to guarantee the benefits and hereditary titles, which would allow Colom to establish what would effectively be a new royal family in the New World.

Finally, in August 1492, the expedition sailed from Pals, not Spanish nationalists claim from Palos de la Frontera in Andalusia, whose port was certainly not big enough to moor three large ocean-going ships. Many of Columbus’ companions are documented as living in the Empordà region of Catalonia and of being known to the Colom i Bertran family. The best example is the famous Yañes Pinzón brothers who in Catalan were Anes Pinçon.

In early engravings, most of the flags the ships carry bear stripes just like the Catalan senyera whilst the Castilian flag showing the picture of a castle is suspiciously absent. The flags cannot be Spanish flags because the red stripes on the gold background of the rojigualda wasn’t invented until 1785. Incidentally, when you stop and think about it, the Spanish flag looks much more like the Catalan senyera than it does the Castilian flag.

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