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G - 32 : Genoa's Most Famous Son?

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

We all know that Christopher Columbus was Genovese. Several places claim that he was born In their town. There is Savona, where we start our trip this year, then Calvi in Corsica, which we visited in 2020, and – last but not least - Genoa. But recent research indicates that this may not be true. Even when given his last rites on 20th of May 1506, Columbus refused to say where he was born and what was his true origin. He took the secret into his grave.

Already during his life, rumors circulated the Columbus was actually not Italian. He was said to be the illegitimate son of a high ranking Portuguese royal and that his mother was of Jewish descent. At that time, so soon after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, nobody wanted to be associated with anything Jewish. Definitely not Columbus who was suing the Spanish Crown for his share of the Latin American wealth now reaching Spain. In his original agreement with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, he was promised 10%. Any link to Jewish ancestry would have eliminated his claim.

The House where Columbus "apparently" was born in Genoa's old Town

Was there any substance to these rumors? Historians recently re-opened the case. It is nicely summarized in the YouTube video “The Real Truth about Christopher Columbus”. The good hour it takes watching is well spent.

Calvi also claims that Columbus was born here. There are only ruins left of "his" birth house

The case made is convincing. The son of humble Genovese wool dyers would never have had the access to royalty that Columbus enjoyed. He could get appointments with the Kings of Portugal and Spain and spent a lot of time with them – a privilege reserved for nobles and war heroes only.

Artist impression of Columbus' Reception by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand

Columbus was also well versed in geopolitics discussed at Spain’s and Portugal’s Royal Courts. Would it be possible to find a direct way to India? It would allow to bypass the Ottomans and the Mamluks who both made handsome profits from taxing the east-west trade passing through the Levant and Egypt. If these Muslim rulers had less money, they would be less powerful and could be more easily defeated.

During Columbus’ time, there were three alternative narratives on how to find a direct route. They all were based on the sturdy fishing vessels which Portuguese and Basques people had developed for long-distance fishing. Since Friday was a meat free day in Christian Europe, fishing was big business. The Portuguese ventured to the direction of the Azores and south along the coast of Africa, the Basque headed straight west and fished in the rich waters of Newfoundland, Nordic countries and England tried to develop the North-West passage (not going to cover in this blog).

Replicas of Columbus Ships Nina, Santa Maria and Pinta at Palos de la Frontera from where Columbus set sail for this first voyage - the ships are about the same size as our sail boats

Columbus’s combined the tales of unknown lands to the West from Basque fishermen with his understanding of cartography. At that time, there were few world maps. All were incomplete. But it was generally accepted that the world was a sphere and could be circum-navigated. Sailing west would eventually lead to Asia. Whether the earth was at the center of the solar system or circled around the sun was an issue that kept astronomers and the Catholic church busy 150 years later and led to Galileo Galilei’s house arrest in 1633.

Columbus' Map of the World superimposed on the real world - Mexico is located where he assumed he would find Japan

Columbus would never have been able to put the arguments supporting his voyage west together, had he not been trained at Lisbon’s prestigious school for navigators and had he not had access to maps, globes and other cartographic materials. It was a privilege only for nobles or very wealthy people. Columbus was not wealthy.

Another surprising fact was his easy access to the Spanish and Portuguese court. These contacts and his frequent visits are well document. Why the son of Genovese fabric tanners should have such access, nobody explains. Nor why he never wrote anything in Italian, but only in Portuguese and Spanish - The video makes a good case.

Columbus first submitted his idea to the King of Portugal. But his calculation of the size of the earth were proven wrong and his plan rejected. The Portuguese court decided to go for the safer option and kept pushing along the African coast until it could be rounded. Navigators at that time were aware of Egyptian texts which claimed that Phoenician had circumnavigated Africa in around 600 BC and that it took them 2 - 3 years.

Never to be outdone by its western neighbor, the Spanish Crown, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella , looked at Columbus’ proposal as a low-cost bet. If it worked, Spain got direct access to India. The profit from trading would cover the costs many time.

Columbus' Fourth Voyage in 1504 got him eventually to the American Main Land

As we know, Columbus did not find India. The honour goes to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama who reached the Malabar coast in 1498, six years after Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. After conquistadores like Cortes and Pizarro defeated the Mayas and the Incas respectively, the wealth from the new lands started flowing into Spain. The Spanish Empire became the first global Empire where the sun never set. Comprising a large part of Europe, the Americas, Guam and the Philippines, it was always daytime somewhere.

The Flow of Silver from Potosi did not only make Spain the first global Power, it also inflated the World Economy not seen before and even felt in India and China

For the Spanish Crown, the bet on Columbus was the most lucrative decision made ever. The silver mine from Petosi, in today’s Bolivia, gave Spain the funds to become Europe’s conservative-catholic bullwork. It stopped the spread of Protestantism, eventually stopped the Ottoman’s expansion towards Rome and Vienna, and moved the centre of the world economy from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. It truly changed the world. Not bad for the son of poor wool dyers from Genoa.

Glorified Painting of Columbus' Landing - we know it was not like that - but the Painting has good decorative Value in a big Royal Reception Hall

A few forensic researchers and historians are now trying to get DNA samples from the remains of Columbus and other Portuguese Royals to resolve the questions. So far, the authorities have not thought the case to be important enough to open the graves. Stay tuned. One day, we will learn who Columbus truly was.

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