Wednesday, September 24, 2008

His name wasn't Columbus and he wasn't Italian

You can't get any farther from having a knife in a fight than my knife is from the fight over whether Christopher Columbus was or wasn't Italian.

The closest I come to Italian is my second cousin Madeline's butcher husband in Jerseyville, who wouldn't recognize me tomorrow if I asked him to trim some fat off the pork loin that looked good to me in his cold meat section.

And as for the coming of Columbus to the Americas (and the millions of other Europeans after him), I'm not sticking up for that as a particularly welcome development. I'm more with the wiseguy who said the Maya and Iroquois should have had a tighter immigration policy.

But I do love early Modern European history, and I can whet my knife on just about any historical tussle if it's sufficiently well written. So I occupied a day or two on my post-op sickbed recently making my way through Colom of Catalonia: Origins of Christopher Columbus Revealed by Charles J. Merrill, a witty writer who makes his way in this wide world as a professor of foreign languages at a 2,100-student Catholic university in Maryland.

Merrill is a bookworm, rather than a shit disturber. He's not trying to rain on anybody's Columbus Day Parade just to see what a bunch of Italians look like when they get wet unexpectedly. He's more interested in getting to the bottom of a genuine historical mystery that has been treated as a given for no good reason - or, maybe, for a lot of bad reasons.

Readers coming to this old knife fight clueless, as I did, will be surprised to find a long list of nations with claims to having sired the man who knew himself as Cristofor Colom. (The last name, by the way, means "dove"; "Columbus" is the Latinate version of it.) My favorite alternate variant of Columbus has the intrepid explorer hailing from Norway, with his actual name "Christopher Bonde." But that's just for the easy, anachronistic joke: "My name is Bonde. Christopher Bonde"; a 007 of the early modern seas.

The theory of origins that Merrill finds most plausible was first proposed in 1927, not by some disgruntled Catalonian nursing a 400-year-old grudge, but by a Peruvian scholar who was sent to France on government business to sort through archives in the interest of resolving South American territorial disputes. At which point, the poor guy entered the Bermuda Triangle of the Christopher Columbus identity question, which also consumed 25 years of Merrill's life before he emerged from the darkness with this interesting book.

The Catalan theory was only two years old when, in 1929, it was assaulted by a fellow Peruvian, a fascist who dedicated his book attempting to reestablish Columbus as Italian (or, more specifically, Genoese) to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. To drop one more recognizable name, in a book with a blizzard of unrecognizable names of dead men (with nicknames like "The Impotent", "The Fratricide" or "The Spider," many of whom died by poisoning), we briefly meet a defender of the Catalan thesis from the 1960s who talked his way into Iberia, James Michener's discursive travelogue about Spain.

The argument that ultimately convinced me that Christopher Columbus of Genoa was really Cristofor Colom of Catalonia requires keeping track of a significant number of these dead men with strange (and similar) names, which is above the paygrade of this moonlighting blogger. His Catalan identity was obscured, in brief, because his Catalan youth was a rebel youth, and the dynasty Colom and his cronies rebelled against was the same dynasty from which Ferdinand - the co-ruler of Spain who greenlit and funded Columbus' historic voyage to the Indies - descended.

If the pain medicine I was high (or, really, low) on when I read this book is letting me remember this correctly, it was all about political expedience and claims to loads of land and booty. I will say this much checks out against what little I know about power politics as it is played out in 21st century St. Louis. Here, the assimilated Lebonese Catholics pass as "white" when it comes time to get "white" people to vote for you so you get to keep the keys to the towing contracts and the lucrative IT outsourcing and stuff like that.

Here is one catalgue of evidence about Colom from Charles J. Merrill that doesn't require keeping track of too many dead men's strange names:

"Columbus gave an island in the Caribbean the name Montserrat because of his attachment to that Catalan monastery and shrine, and because he was accompanied on the second voyage by Catalan monks expelled from there and replaced by Castilians. So many of Columbus' supporters in the royal court, and so many of his associates on his voyages, were Catalan speakers because he was one also. The Bobadillas who were so important in his career, connected with Catalonia though they're never mentioned as such in the standard histories, were characters from his past life as a rebel against Ferdinand's father (and against Ferdinand's wife, uncles, etc.). And Columbus' handwriting was Catalan, and his Spanish has so many Catalanisms in it, because that's the way people from Catalonia wrote and spoke."

I'd drink to that! If I wasn't still on pain medicine.


Cristofor Colom doll from the Kiseno Guest House in Petersburg, Alaska, in the "Celebrity Doll" collection along with Lucille Ball, Liberace and (indeed) Ferdinand and Isabella, who funded the journey that made his identity worth disguising for all these centuries.


Xavier Mir said...

I have linked to your post from a Facebook cause I have started to tell the world what Professor Merrill says. It would be a pleasure if you join us:

Domenico Rosa said...

In "Christopher Columbus," Univ. of Okla. Press (1987), pp. 10-11, Gianni Granzotto lists the following information from documents written by contemporaries of Columbus:
1. Pietro Martire d'Angera (Peter Martyr) was the earliest of Columbus's chroniclers and was in Barcelona when Columbus returned from his first voyage. In his letter of May 14, 1493, addressed to Giovanni Borromeo, he referred to Columbus as Ligurian ["vir Ligur"], Liguria being the Region where Genoa is located.
2. A reference, dated 1492 by a court scribe Galindez, referred to Columbus as "Cristóbal Colón, genovés."
3. In "History of the Catholic Kings," Andrés Bernaldez wrote: "Columbus was a man who came from the land of Genoa."
4. In "General and Natural History of the Indies," Bartolomé de Las Casas asserted his "Genoese nationality."
5. In a book of the same title, Gonzalo de Fernández de Oviedo wrote that Columbus was "originating from the province of Liguria."
6. Antonio Gallo, Agostino Giustiniani and Bartolomeo Serraga wrote that Columbus was Genoese.
Samuel Eliot Morison, who had absolutely no reason to be anything but completely objective, wrote the following in Chapter II of his book ''Admiral of the Ocean Sea,'' pp.7-8.

"There is no mystery about the birth, family or race of Christopher Columbus. ... There is no more reason to doubt that Christopher Columbus was a Genoese-born Catholic Christian, steadfast in his faith and proud of his native city, than to doubt that George Washington was a Virginia-born Anglican of English race, proud of being an American.

"Every contemporary Spaniard or Portuguese who wrote about Columbus and his discoveries calls him Genoese. Three contemporary Genoese chroniclers claim him as a compatriot. Every early map on which his nationality is recorded describes him as Genoese. Nobody in the Admiral's lifetime, or for three centuries after, had any doubt about his birthplace.

"If, however, you suppose that these facts would settle the matter, you fortunately know little of the so-called 'literature' on the 'Columbus Question.' By presenting farfetched hypotheses and sly innuendos as facts, by attacking documents of proven authenticity as false, by fabricating others (such as the famous Pontevedra documents), and drawing unwarranted deductions from things that Columbus said or did, he has been presented as Castilian, Catalan, Corsican, Majorcan, Portuguese, French, German, English, Greek, and Armenian."

Morison noted that many existing legal documents demonstrate the Genoese origin of Columbus, his father Domenico, and his brothers Bartolomeo and Giacomo (Diego). These documents, written in Latin by notaries, were legally valid in Genoese courts. When notaries died, their documents were turned over to the archives of the Republic of Genoa. The documents, uncovered in the 19th century when Italian historians examined the Genoese archives, form part of the "Raccolta Colombiana". On page 14, Morison wrote:
“Besides these documents from which we may glean facts about Christopher's early life, there are others which identify the Discoverer as the son of Domenico the wool weaver, beyond the possibility of doubt. For instance, Domenico had a brother Antonio, like him a respectable member of the lower middle class in Genoa. Antonio had three sons: Matteo, Amigeto and Giovanni, who was generally known as Giannetto (the Genoese equivalent of ‘Johnny’). Giannetto, like Christopher, gave up a humdrum occupation to follow the sea. In 1496 the three brothers met in a notary's office at Genoa and agreed that Johnny should go to Spain and seek out his first cousin ‘Don Cristoforo de Colombo, Admiral of the King of Spain,’ each contributing one third of the traveling expenses. This quest for a job was highly successful. The Admiral gave Johnny command of a caravel on the Third Voyage to America, and entrusted him with confidential matters as well.”

The "ample evidence" supporting the Genoese origin of Columbus is also discussed by Miles H. Davidson in "Columbus Then and Now: A Life Reexamined," University of Oklahoma Press (1997) pp. 3-15. Davidson dismisses all other "futile speculation -- mostly attributed to parochialism." (p. 7)

Domenico Rosa said...

The biography written by Columbus's son Fernando, "Historie del S. D. Fernando Colombo; nelle quali s'ha particolare, & vera relatione della vita, & de fatti dell'Ammiraglio D. Cristoforo Colombo, suo padre: Et dello scoprimento ch'egli fece dell'Indie Occidentali, dette Mondo Nuovo" [English translation: "The life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by his son Ferdinand," translated by Benjamin Keen, Greenwood Press (1978)] is available, in Italian, at:
At the top of page 4 of Keen's translation, Fernando listed Nervi, Cugureo, Bugiasco, Savona, Genoa and Piacenza as possible places of origin. He also stated: "Colombo ... was really the name of his ancestors. But he changed it in order to make it conform to the language of the country in which he came to reside and raise a new estate." (Colom in Portugal and Colón in Castile).
The publication of "Historie" provides irrefutable, indirect evidence about the Genoese origin of the Discoverer. Fernando's manuscript was eventually inherited by his nephew Luis, the playboy grandson of the Discoverer. Luis was always strapped for money and sold the manuscript to Baliano de Fornari, "a wealthy and public-spirited Genoese physician". On page xv, Keen wrote: "In the depth of winter the aged Fornari set out for Venice, the publishing center of Italy, to supervise the translation and publication of the book."
On page xxiv, the April 25, 1571 dedication by Giuseppe Moleto states: "Your Lordship [Fornari], then, being an honorable and generous gentleman, desiring to make immortal the memory of this great man, heedless of your Lordship's seventy years, of the season of the year, and of the length of the journey, came from Genoa to Venice with the aim of publishing the aforementioned book ... that the exploits of this eminent man, the true glory of Italy and especially of your Lordship's native city, might be made known."

There are also the writings of Michele da Cuneo, Columbus’s childhood friend from Savona. I am sure that Cristoforo and Michele spoke to each other in the Genoese dialect. Michele sailed with Columbus during the second voyage and wrote: "In my opinion, since Genoa was Genoa, there was never born a man so well equipped and expert in the art of navigation
as the said lord Admiral." [Felipe Fernández-Armesto, "Columbus,"
Oxford Univ. Press, (1991) pp. 103-104]

Columbus named the small island of "Saona ... to honor Michele da
Cuneo, his friend from Savona." [Paolo Emilio Taviani, "Columbus the Great Adventure," Orion Books, New York (1991) p. 185]