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.