In the month of October, the Italians, Americans and Spanish celebrate "Columbus Day", specifically, the 500th anniversary of his death (1506-2006).
There are many mysteries surrounding Columbus. Many hundreds of portraits have been painted of the discoverer but there is not one that is acknowledged to represent his authentic image. Some periods of his life are completely unknown. Nobody knows anything about Columbus' strange signature, and in no official document of the Catholic Kings, is there a record of his origin It has always been believed that Columbus was Genoese, but the scientific DNA test promoted by the Discovery Channel in America, discards the Genoese origin in favour of the theory that he was in fact a Catalan.
It seems that Christopher Columbus wanted to hide his own identity, at least he wrote this in the book of the privileges that Columbus used "In te Speravi", the beginning of Psalm 70 and he continues: "In te, domine, speravi, non confundar in aeternum": We hope that this is not an eternal confusion".
In the time of Columbus, Catalonia was part of the Catalan-Aragonese confederation governed by Ferdinand the Catholic. Christopher Columbus lived in a period of profound transformation and upheaval throughout the western Mediterranean and Iberian Peninsula.
A Genoese Columbus, subject of a Republic displaying economic decadence and maritime power, presents few problems in the history of the Imperialist Spanish discovery of the New World. In the second half of the 15th Century, the three main centres of political and economic power in the Iberian Peninsula: Portugal, Castilia and the Catalan-Aragonese Confederation, began to fight in order to gain political hegemony. Both the Portuguese and the Catalans based their economical power on maritime trading, in the Atlantic Ocean in the case of the Portuguese, and the Mediterranean in the case of the Catalans. The Castilian economy was not as dependent on maritime trade, but seeing the indisputable success of the Portuguese in Africa, all three powers realised the need to strengthen overseas commerce.
A Columbus of Catalan origin would complicate this neat picture as it would automatically cast doubt on internationally accepted theories about the motives for and consequences of the discovery of America. For this reason, the origin of Christopher Columbus could be much more important than popularly thought. In the scientific world, when a theory appears to explain an experimental phenomenon, this idea is adopted as truth until the time that it superseded by a new and better explanation.
Applying this theory to the Genoese origin of Christopher Columbus, if a Catalan origin of the discoverer allows, in balance, a better understanding of the causes and effects of the discovery of America, it should be given due consideration. In the Colombina library of Seville are some 15.000 books acquired by Hernan, the son of Christopher Columbus, some of which belonged to the Admiral himself, and among which we can find many documents that would seem to affirm the Catalan origin of Columbus.
These include a letter from 1493, written by Columbus, in Catalan, announcing to a friend from Valencia, Mr. Lluís de Santàngel that he was a scribe of Ferdinand the Catholic. Today, it seems this letter has disappeared.
The engineer and Peruvian diplomat, Mr. Luís Ulloa, director of the National library in Peru in 1914, thought that although there did exist a Genoese Christopher Columbus, he couldn't be the same person as that who discovered America. Ulloa moved to Spain during the twenties to investigate the files of the colonies, and in 1927, in Paris he published a surprising deduction: "Columbus was not Genoese, he was Catalan".
Ulloa's studies revealed that in many contemporary documents of the discoverer, his surname was written in its Catalan form "Colom", not "Colombo" as it would be in Italian or "Colón" in Castilian. He also found that the Admiral did not write in Genoese or any other Italian dialect. Instead he wrote only in Castilian, Latin and Catalan. Referring to the chronicles of the period and the letters of this "Colom", Ulloa deduced that his Colom belonged to a noble Catalan family who fought against Joan II, the father of Ferdinand the Catholic, in the Catalan Civil War (1462-1472).
Colom would have been a corsair under the command of his father, Admiral Casanova-Colom, under the orders of Renat d'Anjou, the Catalan pretender to the Crown of Aragon.Ulloa had only 9 years to research his theory, as he died in 1936, just before the start of the Spanish Civil War. Before his death, however, he petitioned the Catalan historians: "I've brought us to this point, now its up to you to discover Columbus's true origin". We are now in the third generation of investigators and, although there are no definite conclusions confirming his theory, nothing has occurred to disprove a possible Catalan origin for Columbus.
The Fundació d'Estudis Històrics de Catalunya (www.histocat.cat) and the Centre d'Estudis Colombins (www.cecolom.cat) in Barcelona, continue to work on this question. Two of the people particularly involved in this subject are Francesc Albardaner and Lluís de Yzaguirre.
Both have commented that this investigation advances slowly but is very solid and reliable and thanks to scientific advances, such as genetics and lexicometry, which are tools that could enable researchers to finally decipher the enigmatic origins of Columbus.
Dr. Lluís de Yzaguirre, doctor of linguistics at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, is blunt: "The lexicometric study of the writing of Columbus reveals that his mother tongue has to have been Catalan, while all the techniques of this discipline refute his possible Genoese origin".
His work confirms that the parent tongue of the discoverer could be central Catalan, that is the Catalan spoken in the Barcelona area, but this does not exclude the possibility that he was born outside Catalonia. This research was possible largely thanks to the documentary Columbus: Secrets from the grave, made by the Discovery Channel in USA and which pointed out the possible Catalan origin of the discoverer.
Its success prompted a second part to be made when the final DNA results are available. Francesc Albardaner, one of the professionals working in this field, admits that the process is complicated. Between November and January of last year, Dr. Albardaner collected 253 DNA samples from the Catalan Countries with the surname Colom The Catalan Countries is the area where Catalan is spoken today and include Catalonia (5,980,000 people), Valencia (3,350,000), the Balearic Islands: (755,000), west Aragon (48,000), the Carxe of Murcia (2,000), Andorra (38,000), south-central France (330,000) and the town of Alguer in Sardinia (37.000).
The Italians, made a similar collection of genetic material from people in the Llombardia area with the surname Colombo. The secret is in the Y chromosome, the male determiner, which is repeated in men of the same family for centuries. It is now possible to compare the DNA taken from Columbus's remains with the new samples, but this study is subject to international regulations and must be carried out in parallel by at least three centres of research of different countries.
Dr. Albardaner suggests that the research is very slow as it is necessary to be very scrupulous and three international and three national centres are involved. We are still waiting for genetic studies that ultimately tip the balance one way or the other. No study has yet discarded the possibility that Columbus was Catalan.
On the contrary, sciences auxiliary to historical studies have demonstrated that, for example, "in a period which the type of writing differed clearly among countries, Columbus wrote with typical Catalan features from the Catalan School". His writing also proves that Columbus, far from having humble and Genoese origins, was capable of writing like a "literate man with middle-level studies". Columbus's handwriting is also identical to that which was used in Catalonia in the 15th Century.
Analysis of the remains of Diego, the brother of Columbus, anthropologists have proved that he died aged approximately 55, a fact which does not agree with the age estimated for the Genoevse Giaccomo Colombo, who was approximately 48. It would seem then, that certain myths are being brought into question while continuing research is revealing new possibilities. With any luck, this particular question should be solved by the end of the year. Whatever the outcome, it appears that the enigma which is Christopher Columbus and the mystery surrounding his origin will not remain "an eternal confusion".
Only time will tell whether the theories of Mr. Ulloa are to be proved true.
The Hibernian Magazine