Cristóbol Colón

Columbus's remains in Sevilla's cathedral

Columbus’s remains in Sevilla’s cathedral

Cristóbol Colón is the Spanish name of the Italian merchant and explorer Cristoforo Colombo, the guy we Americans know as Christopher Columbus. Technically he was not Italian, as Italy as a country did not exist when Columbus was born in 1451 (or thereabouts). He was Genoese, born in the kingdom of Genoa, which is now part of Italy. He went to sea sometime after 1473, settled in Portugal for awhile, and by 1485 was living in Castilla, a kingdom in what is now Spain.

I am intrigued with Columbus’s story, which is incomplete at best. There are so many gaps and contradictions in his life history and so many theories of what really happened; we can only go by a consensus of what historians have unravelled. One thing seems clear: He is not the hero we were taught he was in school.

Columbus monument with Isabel's and Fernando's names prominently featured

Columbus monument with Isabel’s and Fernando’s names prominently featured

I was never sure why Europeans were so determined to find a sea route to Asia for spices. Turns out when the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 and the Eastern Roman Empire crumbled, the land route to Asia (Silk Road) was no longer viable. Columbus may not have been the first to theorize that it was possible to sail west to Asia, but he was one of the most passionate. (And, no, the world did not believe the earth was flat at that time. The Greeks had proved it long before the Christian era.) It took him seven years of pitching his plan to five different European governments before Spain reluctantly agreed to fund him. Portugal had just discovered a southeastern sea route around the tip of Africa, and Spain was desperate to get in on the action. Despite their financial risk, Isabel and Fernando didn’t believe he would be successful, but they were willing to let him die trying. In return for their investment, they became the wealthiest country in the world. Columbus didn’t bring back spices, but the lands he claimed for Spain yielded untold riches in silver and gold.

Funny thing, but Columbus never conceded that the lands he discovered and claimed for Spain were not in Asia. Several years after Columbus’s first voyage (he made four round-trip voyages), explorer Amerigo Vespucci landed in the Americas. When he returned to Florence, he was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he had landed on a continent previously unknown to Europe and Asia. And we all know who got the new continents named after him!

And whose head is this way down at the bottom? Oh, that would be Columbus.

And whose head is this way down at the bottom? Oh, that would be Columbus.

That Columbus survived his first mid-Atlantic voyage during hurricane season and made landfall on an island in what is now the Bahamas in just five weeks was plain luck. That he was released from his contract with Fernando and Isabel after eight years for tyranny and incompetence was poor judgment. Historians believe that Columbus and his two brothers practically eradicated the native population of Hispaniola, where they set up operations, through slave labor and cruelty. And they are credited with starting the trans-Atlantic slave trade, bringing captives from the Americas to Europe with each return voyage.

Columbus died in Spain at the age of 54, stripped of his titles and fortunes and riddled with disease, but I have to give him credit for being the first European to take on the open Atlantic. He may not have been correct in his assumptions of where he would land or what he would find, but he was adamant in his convictions.

Sevilla is all about Columbus. There is a monument to him here in Sevilla, so I guess Spain changed its mind about his place in history – although I noticed Isabel and Fernando are featured more prominently on the monument than Columbus is. His first voyage was planned in the Alcázar Palace, where Fernando and Isabel were living after they conquered Al-Andalus (Andalucía), the land of the Moors. And his remains eventually ended up in the cathedral here. He may not be a hero, but what a helluva an accident!

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