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  • Christopher Columbus’s Origins August 24, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    There are many different kinds of historical controversies. But Beachcombing’s favourite by far are what he thinks of as ‘identity debates’: nice examples of which include the arguments over the location of Atlantis, the ‘real’ King Arthur and the ‘true’  Shakespeare. Identity debates are characterized by four things: (i) an orthodox academic position; (ii) multiple alternative candidates; (iii) input from an exceptionally informed and articulate non-academic public; and (iv) pent-up rage. Thoughtful readers will have already worked out that some of these points are a natural consequence of each other.

    Beach’s experience is that these arguments (like medieval battles) are best viewed from afar. If you ever want to wile away a Sunday afternoon go and browse a Wikipedia discussion page on an identity debate then have a long hot shower. However, it is simply a waste of time to get involved because, well, blood is precious and blood will be shed and, in any case, everyone made up their minds long ago. Which brings us to the origins of Christopher Columbus.

    In what follows Beachcombing will just have fun with the range of opinions expressed. He is not interested in hand-to-hand combat with members of the Galician or the Greek school: though he will gladly put you in touch so that you can do nasty things to each other.

    First, the orthodox position and the one that many readers, this being a lesser known identity debate, will have taken for granted: Genoa, doh! And, make no mistake, if you go onto a university campus and listen to a lecture on the Age of Discoveries Genoa will be given as the home town of Columbus. The documentation, some contemporary, some near contemporary, is overwhelming.

    However, documentation is not everything and for most of the last four centuries other competitors have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to drag Columbus away from that Italian city. They have made use of several strategies to do so: Columbus allegedly falsified his own background; Columbus’s family may have been from Genoa but that doesn’t mean he was born there; Columbus may have been born in Genoa but that doesn’t mean his family was from there; or Columbus may have been born in Genoese territory elsewhere in the Mediterranean. All of these are potentially important points and if you mix them together you can do extraordinary things with Columbus’s bloodline.

    Just for the hell of it, Beachcombing thought he would put together, as a tribute to the ingenuity of Columbians, a list of the locations suggested. Admittedly it is not quite as exciting as the list of potential locations for Atlantis. But as with all such collections there is a certain poetry. It was also very difficult to write without exclamation marks.

    1) Genoa

    2) Small towns just outside Genoa: e.g. Savona and nearby Albisola

    3) Piacenza (in northern Italy)

    4) A Catalan-speaking territory

    5) Extremadura (today Spain)

    6) A Greek Islander (possibly an island under Genoan control)

    7) A Byzantine noble (who covered up his origins because he didn’t want the Turks to hunt him down)

    8 ) A Mediterranean Jew

    9) A Portuguese/Galician Jew (one particularly beautiful argument claims that Columbus believed he was the Jewish messiah: talk about having your cake and eating it…)

    10) Portugal (he may have been a Portuguese spy…)

    11) Galicia

    12) English (see below)

    13) Scottish or Irish

    14) Polish

    15) Swedish

    It goes without saying that Beach would be grateful for any additions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com He would also love to know when the first theory of non-Genoan origins was aired.

    The earliest example he has been able to dig up is – if it can be called a theory – is that Columbus was English… 1682 in a work by Charles Molloy.

    And, please, no rage…


    25 Aug, 2011: Kate writes in to add to Columbus’s Jewish dimension: ‘My late stepfather was a Protestant (Congregational) clergyman, as well a college professor. An erudite man of faith, he encountered several fellow clergy who firmly believed that not only was Columbus a Jew, but that the voyages to the New World were, in part, to find a new homeland for the Jews after the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain. He didn’t believe this theory himself, but politely refrained from expressing his opinion. I suspect some lesser instructor at some divinity school espoused the theory, students picked up on it and it spread. Protestantism has always had a love/hate relationship with the Jews and the need to connect the New World Jerusalem with the Old pops up in little ways.…’ Thanks Kate!

    26 Aug, 2011: CF is feeling flippant this morning,  ‘Sioux legend has it that Columbus (“Critifer” in Sioux) was born in 1451 in the pre-Columbian jade-trading outpost now known as Columbus, Ohio, USA.  Because there is no such thing as coincidence.‘ Thanks CF!!

    27 Aug, 2011: Edward Goldberg, author of the blog Italy’s Secret Places (look out for E42) and author of the bizarre bibliography featured Jews and Magic in Medici Florence writes in: ‘Ah, yessss… There is nothing I like better than to curl up with a nice identity controversy! In regard to which: Have you been following the very long running debate over ‘Who is buried in Columbus’ tomb[s]’? Meanwhile, ‘experts’ are still floating the idea of using DNA testing to establish CC’s place of origin (although there is apparently a massive overlap between the Ligurian and Catalan gene pools). The one point on which more or less everyone seems to agree is that the identification of the Sebastiano del Piombo ‘Columbus Portrait’ in the Metropolitan Museum is entirely fanciful.’ Thanks EG!!