Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Where was Christopher Columbus really from?

Of the many controversies surrounding the life and legacy of Christopher Columbus, who died on this day 510 years ago, one of the most intriguing but least discussed questions is his true country of origin. For reasons lost in time, Columbus has been identified with unquestioned consistency as an Italian of humble beginnings from the Republic of Genoa. Yet in over 536 existing pages of his letters and documents, not once does the famous explorer claim to have come from Genoa.

Moreover, all of these documents, including letters to his brothers and various people in Italy, are written in Spanish or Latin rather than in Italian. If Columbus was from Genoa, why wouldn’t he write in his native tongue? Additionally, in official Castilian documents in which his origin should have been specified, he is simply referred to as “Cristóbal de Colomo, foreigner” or “Xrobal Coloma” with no qualifying adjective, when other foreign mariners were invariably identified in royal documents by their places of origin—”Fernando Magallanes, Portuguese,” for example, and “Amerigo Vespucci, Florentine.” Why was that? And when Columbus returned from his first voyage to the New World in 1493, ambassadors to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella from Genoa said not a word about him being one of their countrymen in letters they wrote home.

Not once does the famous explorer claim to have come from Genoa.

Equally strange is the fact that there are no existing documents indicating that Cristoforo Colombo, a master mariner who supposedly discovered America, had any meaningful sailing experience prior to his epic voyage of 1492. What is more intriguing is that this same son of a lowly wool carder was addressed as don, had his own coat-of-arms, and married a Portuguese noblewoman, all before his historic voyage of discovery. This would have been impossible in the rigidly class-conscious Iberian society of the 15th century if Columbus had not himself been of noble birth.

Those who doubt Columbus’ Genoese origin maintain that the reason why he concealed his true origin was because he was a Catalan naval captain who fought against Ferdinand’s cousin, King Ferrante of Naples, in the Catalan civil war of 1462-1472. Many Portuguese fought on the Catalan side in that war, including Peter of Portugal, close relative of the Portuguese king. If this story is true, it explains how Columbus honed his nautical skills prior to his voyage to the New World, how he might have been introduced to the Portuguese noblewoman who became his wife, and why he would have concealed his (Catalan) heritage from the royal couple who sponsored his voyages of discovery.

Image Credit: “Columbus’ expedition by Gustav Adolf Closs (1864-1938).” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Bill

    Regardless of whether Columbus was Genoese, this is a very weak post, verging on pseudohistory.

    1. Columbus died 509 years ago, not 510.

    2. The question of his origins is probably the MOST discussed aspect of his life, not the least. There are all sorts of theories regarding Columbus’ origins.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_theories_of_Christopher_Columbus

    3. There are many contemporary documents asserting that Columbus was Genoese.

    4. When the author of this post asks why Columbus didn’t write in “his native tongue”, he fails to consider what that tongue was. I personally don’t know whether Genoese was a written language when Columbus was a schoolboy. I would guess the author of the post doesn’t know either. In any case, not many people outside Genoa would’ve known Genoese, and thus it made sense for Columbus to employ more universally known languages. Here we see a bit of pseudohistory: for the author, the fact that Columbus never wrote in Genoese seems to indicate that he wasn’t Genoese. But the fact that he never wrote in Catalan is simply ignored.

    5. Commoners could in fact rise to noble status (coat of arms included) through deeds or marriage. (In fact, this is a major plot element Western literature, from Romeo and Juliet to Tess of the D’Urbervilles).

    6. The last paragraph introduces a possibility that the author has simply pulled out of his hat, with no evidence. It might be true; so might a million other hypotheses.

  2. Lorenzo

    Columbus was a son of a Polish king and a Portuguese noblewoman the king met when on secret exile. Such is the thesis of Manuel Rosa, who has spent the last 23 years researching the life and history of the Discoverer of America. The Secret Identity of Christopher Columbus was revealed in the book COLUMBUS. The Untold Story – http://www.voicesofny.org/2014/10/secret-identity-christopher-columbus/

  3. Bill

    A few days ago I left a thoughtful comment. For some reason, you have apparently decided not to publish it. Please do not solicit comments if you don’t intend to publish anything you disagree with–you’re just wasting people’s time.

  4. Antonio

    Bill, you make a lot of valid points but in actuality they have no historical backing.
    1- Genoese was a written language in 1400s, the Genoese spoke a language amongst themselves, they did not use sign language. Whatever that language was neither Columbus, nor his two brothers used it to communicate between themselves. Neither did Columbus use it with Friar Gaspar Gorricio, a Genoese that only came to Spain in 1490. However Columbus and his brothers wrote in Castilian with frequent Portuguese errors. Quite odd for three genoese “wool-weavers” to be studying Castilian in Genoa, don’t you think?
    2- Commoners could rise to lower nobility by marriage or deeds. However, for any commoner male to marry a noble in Portugal he had to be rich. VERY RICH and even then, he had to be vetted by the family as well as the king. Portugal’s noble society one of the the most restrictive in Europe. However, the Columbus guy from Genoa was a peasant so poor that between him and his father they could not raise 15lira, 92USD to pay a debt, as Manuel Rosa has shown. Furthermore, the history claim he arrived in Portugal in 1476 shipwrecked and empty handed. How would a poor peasant then be able to marry an elite noble lady in just 2 years in a new country not having a job, lands, or even a ship to sail in and make a living?
    3- If the Genoese Columbus will-weaver who did not know how to write Genoese and was poor peasant got to Portugal in 1476, what great deeds did he do to be able to get his coat of arms and marry a noble lady? No such deeds are recorded anywhere. So you see how the show does not fit?
    4- The guy who discovered America was named Cristobal Colón and his son wrote that the Latin form of his name was Colonus and never Columbus. Turns out some Italian bishop corrupted the name to Columbus in a printed letter in Rome in 1493 and that letter was dispersed worldwide and that a certain Genoese Baltazar Colombo in 1578 came to Spain with forged documents to steal the Colón inheritance and those forged documents were later accepted by historians as the truth.

    It is about time we threw out all this fantasy history and review ALL of Columbus history so we can know the truth.

  5. Jill

    I totally agree with Antonio. It seems the current version of Columbus history has been arrived at through hearsay and not via vetted documents. Who can believe that a guy who was an unknown would come out of nowhere and suddenly be frequenting 2 courts and mingling with kings and marrying into nobility and yet not on document exists about his life prior to when he lived in Spain… stranger even is that he changed his identity when he moved to Spain. There is much more here than we have been told. Manuel Rosa-Colon explains a little bit of it in this interview and I have to side with him on this point. https://youtu.be/GCi6JxlUrXE

  6. Bill

    ps: Antonio? What educational background do you have? It’s quite obvious you haven’t been trained as a historian….

  7. doesn't matter

    PS: Are you a trained historian?

  8. Armando Verde Pereira

    Columbo was a spy of the Portuguese king. His real name was Salvador Fernandes Zarco, born in the small town of Cuba, Alentejo, Portugal. He went to Spain to confuse the Spanish king so the portuguese could plan the route to India. We knew about America and Canada way before anybody else. The reason why he called Indians to the native Americans was to make the king of Spain believe he could get to India by the west. Because he was a spy we never revealed his true name. He did not even spoke Italian. It was either Portuguese, Hebrew or Latin he spoke to foreigners. Including to the Pope. And, the first land he discovered he named it after his hometown, Cuba.

  9. Bill

    The Catalan hypothesis is far-fetched, but does offer some intriguing possibilities.

    The Portuguese / Polish hypotheses are utterly ridiculous pseudohistorical rubbish.

    The evidence points to Genoa….

  10. Mike

    It is very unlikely he was a poor peasant. Therefore, Genoa hypothesis is very unlikely. In my view this is a clear case of history manipulation under relatively weak evidence. The existing evidence points clearly to catalan hypothesis.

  11. Rick Lado

    Actually, I believe that the evidence points to Galicia, Spain. Pedro Madruga, a Navigator and Galician Noblemen from San Salvador de Poio in Pontevedra fits the bill perfectly. As a Spanish Gallego he would have spoken Castilian and Portuguese, Portuguese in reality deriving from Gallego. This explains the syntax of Colombus in his writings. And crucially he chose the wrong side in the Spanish War of Succession in the 1400s, fighting against the victorious Spanish Catholic Kings, then having his estate in Galicia seized and fleeing to Portugal for protection. He also studied at the famous Portuguese Mariners School. A Gallego in 1400s Spain and Portugal could do this. Pontevedra was frontier land between Spain and Portugal, and Spanish and Portuguese Nobility and Kings and Queens frequently inter married. This most plausible of explanations was rubbished in the early 20 century because photographers interfered with primary source documents linking Colombus with Salvador de Poio but 1960s/70s document technology confirm that the Colon name did appear in the 1400s Gallego primary source documents. There was also Mussolini pressure in the 1920s when the Gallego hypothesis was promulgated and Spain was in turmoil at that time. For me theSpanish Galician Pedro Madruga hypothesis is the most credible. Pedro Madruga recovered his confiscated lands in Galicia, Spain by using his maritime expertise but had to change his public name to Columbus for the Court of the Spanish Catholic Kings to be able to publicly back his 1492 expedition. Moreover the crew of the 1492 discovery were predominantly Gallegos, and the Santa Maria Ship was built in Pontevedra, Galicia, originally named La Gallego, and only changed its official name to the Santa Maria later. From memory I think the other 2 ships were also built in Galicia but I must check to be sure. Also first American land discovered by Colombus was named Salvador after home town of Pedro Madruga, and 100 other places named by Columbus in the first journey are from the Pontevedra area. Not a single place named in Columbus ‘ first journey is Genoese or Italian

  12. Rick Lado

    Correction: Columbus’ or Colon’s flag ship the Santa Maria, was originally called “La Gallega ” not “La Gallego”. And Pedro Madruga’s First Spanish noble name, for reference was Pedro Alvarez de Soutomaior” aka “Pedro Madruga”, later Cristobal Colon, or Christopher Columbus, native of San Salvador de Poio, Pontevedra, Galicia.

  13. Julie

    CRISTOFORO was sailing under the Spanish flag, in the employ of the Spanish crown, sponsored by Spanish money, looking to discover new trade routes for the greater glory and enrichment of SPAIN, so that is a good reason land masses he encountered would not be named for anything in Genoa, regardless of the fact that he was GENOVESE.

  14. Bill

    “It is very unlikely he was a poor peasant. Therefore, Genoa hypothesis is very unlikely. In my view this is a clear case of history manipulation under relatively weak evidence. The existing evidence points clearly to catalan hypothesis.”

    Huh? Mike, please read a little before making comments. Nobody ever said Columbis of Genoa was a poor peasant, or even a peasant at all.

    Rick? Seriously? Galicia? Where are the documents, Rick?

  15. Rick KDo

    There are no documents for Genoa, or Catalonia or Portugal. Historians, who pretended to be professional in the 19 century, accepted a FAKE 16 th Century will as proof that Columbus was Genoese. The will was fake and it follows totally unreliable as evidence, but not initially questioned hence the creation of the myth.

  16. Rick Lado

    To Bill and Julie. Check out the investigation and scholarly work of Celso de la Riega regarding the Galicia origin published in 1898 and 1929. Casoni was an Italian amateur historian writing in the 18 century who first suggested Columbus might be Genoese, without any evidence, just because there were “Colombu” surnames in Genoa. This was picked up by nationalist Young Italy historians and writers in 19 th century when Italy was being created, and accepted without investigation for quite some time and heavily promulgated by Mussolini propaganda machine. But as Bill might say, where are the documents Bill? No doubt that the Pedro Madruga Galicia theory fits best with Columbus professional biography. Noble man married to a Portuguese noble woman, from the Spanish-Portuguese border lands of Pontevedra who wrote in Spanish /Gallego-Portuguese, with extensive sea expertise, with a mariner biography based around Galicia and Portugal, and with good political reasons to publicly conceal his identity because he had fought on the losing side in the Castilian War of Succession against the Catholic Kings. This is a compelling biographical outline of Columbus unlike the Genoa Weaver theory. Moreover, naming the first discovered place names in the America’s after a hundred places in Galicia is not the work of a man ingratiating himself with the Catholic Kings in based at that time in Castile, in Toledo/Segovia/Valladolid.

  17. Rick Lado

    Heavy Italian emigration to the USA and strong Italian demographics at that time (especially in the USA gave noise, profile and attention to the Italian theory). USA was first place to have public holiday in honour of Columbus inaugurated in the 19th Century. This 19 century myth creation and sound and fury supplies no documentary or physical evidence that Columbus was Genoese.

  18. Matt

    Veritas Radio – Manuel Rosa – Is the Story About Christopher Columbus a Fraud Against History?

    https://youtu.be/yFJzlYSv4FI

  19. Bill

    Every professional historian in the world agrees that Columbus was Genoese.

    All sorts of conspiracy theorists believe he wasn’t, suggesting that he was Catalan, Portuguese, Polish, Greek, whatever.

    I guess the historians are all a bunch of idiots.

    (ps: Rick, there is virtually irrefutable contemporary documentation proving Columbus’ Genoese origins. Study a little, OK?)

  20. Iwanna

    This debate is fascinating. A little less sarcasm would be nice though. Maybe the DNA trail eventually will shed some light on the origins of Christopher Columbus.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *