By Miltiades Varvounis arvounis
WHO WAS CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS? WELL, THE date of his birth, his birthplace, and his parentage are all tangled in obscurity. To this day, no hard evidence tells us exactly where he came from, what his native language was or even his proper name. For unknown reasons, Columbus appears to have deliberately hidden his background. Most historians believe he was from Genoa, Italy, but some do not share this opinion. Given Columbus’s fame, there are many nations vying to claim him as their own. Among the various options for his origin are Italy, Portugal, Catalonia and Greece.
However, a new book claims that Columbus was a Lithuanian prince and not a humble Genoese weaver of wool. Portuguese historian Manuel Rosa is the first to present, in his book, Colón: La Historia Nunca Contada (Columbus: The Untold Story), new documents that for five hundred years had been overlooked by historians all over the world. In this well-documented book, Manuel Rosa takes us on a fascinating historical journey into the true origins of Columbus and the real reasons for his 1492 voyage of discovery.
Official biography of Columbus
The official biography of Columbus states he was probably born between August and October of 1451 in Genoa. His name in Italian is Cristoforo Colombo and in Spanish, Cristóbal Colón. His father was Domenico Colombo, a lower middle-class wool weaver, and his mother was Susanna Fontanarossa. Columbus had three brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino, Giacomo and one sister, Bianchinetta. It is not clear when Columbus became a sailor. His first voyage was supposedly to the Island of Chios, then a Genoese colony in the Aegean Sea. In 1476, he took part in a convoy sent by Genoa to carry a cargo to northern Europe, but the fleet was attacked by French privateers off the Portuguese coast. Columbus’s ship was burned and he had to swim for shore. After that, Columbus managed to make his way to Lisbon, where he found his brother Bartolomeo, who was already working there as a cartographer.
In 1479, Columbus married Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, an elite member of the Order of Santiago and daughter of the Governor of Porto Santo in Madeira, Bartolomeu Perestrelo, a Knight of the household of Prince Henry the Navigator. The following year, his son Diego was born. During his stay in Portugal, Columbus learned Latin, as well as Portuguese and Spanish, and read widely in astronomy, theology, geography and history. In 1485, Columbus and two of his brothers (Bartolomeo and Giacomo, who supposedly changed his name to Diego) moved to Spain. There Columbus had a mistress, a commoner named Beatriz Enriquez de Arana. They had one child, Fernando, known in Spanish as Hernando Colón (1488-1539).
In 1492, under the banner of Spain, Columbus opened up the Americas to European colonization. He became famous throughout Europe and gained the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Columbus led three more expeditions to the New World and passed away in 1506.
This traditional view of the Genoese origins of Columbus is supported by certain Genoese legal documents from Columbus’s time. They were meticulously published in fourteen volumes between 1892 and 1896 in a collection commonly referred to by its shortened Italian name, the Raccolta Colombiana. These documents supposedly establish that the discoverer of America was born in Genoa and was by trade a lanaiolo (wool weaver). Followers of the traditional biography of Columbus focus mainly on his Last Will as well as his letter to the Bank of St. George, the oldest and most reputable of Genoa’s financial institutions. In the Will, supposedly made in 1498, the explorer writes: “Since I was born in Genoa…came from it and was born there…”, while the letter dated 2 April 1502 to the Genoese Bank, says: “Though my body is here, my heart is constantly there (Genoa)…”
The vast majority of scholars believe these documents to be genuine, but some consider them forgeries. In addition to the two documents cited here, there are a few others that seem to confirm the Genoese identity of Columbus. One is the notable Documento Assereto, an act drawn in Genoa on 25 August 1479. This act involves a lawsuit over a sugar transaction on the island of Madeira. In it, young Columbus swore he was a twentyseven-year-old Genoese citizen, resident in Portugal, who had been hired to represent his fellow merchants. The Documento Assereto is a legal deed; however, as a lawsuit, it fails to record the paternity of Columbus, an omission which continues to arouse scholarly attention.
Though the Raccolta Colombiana and Documento Assereto seem to demonstrate Columbus’s strong ties to Genoa, the first biography of the discoverer, written by his son Hernando Colón (in Spanish and translated into Italian in 1568, known as the Historie, a shortened version of its lengthy Italian title), confounds the researcher with its content. No wonder the eminent Spanish historian Antonio Ballesteros Beretta has written: “One person is responsible for the polemics about the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and that person is his own son Hernando, who, in his biography of his father, displayed ignorance and doubt on a subject which, on the contrary, he should have known well. […] What is behind the father’s silence and the confusion originated by the son?”
It makes sense that Hernando Colón was ignorant of his father’s true past, however, since Columbus deliberately obscured his background. No wonder then, that Hernando Colón states in his Historie: “…if indeed his name was Cristóbal, if it was authentic, it means he is the Bearer of Christ […] so he called himself ‘Colón.’ Considering this fact, I believe that, since the major part of his undertaking was a work of some mystery, the matter of his name and last name also did not come without mystery.” These words mean that, indeed, Columbus’s son had doubts about the identity of the explorer. Another interesting point is that Hernando Colón claimed his father was of noble family and not of plebeian origin, as the Genoese documents suggest.
Bartolomé de la Casas, whose father traveled with Columbus on his second journey and who personally knew Columbus’s sons, is also not certain of the discoverer’s identity, for he writes in his Historia de las Indias: “This distinguished man was from the Genoese nation, from some place in the province of Genoa; who he was, where he was born or what name he had in that place we do not know in truth…”
It seems then there was a, not-so-certain, confirmation of the Genoese nationality of Columbus by his main contemporary biographers. But when was the earliest identification of Columbus as Genoese? Pietro Martier d’Angera (Peter Martyr) was the first of Columbus’s chroniclers, and in his letter of 14 May 1493, addressed to Giovanni Borromeo, he referred to the discoverer as vir Ligur, a Ligurian; Liguria being the region where Genoa is located. In the same year, Antonio Gallo, chancellor of the Genoese Bank of St. George, wrote De Navigatione Columbi, a first-hand narrative about Columbus that claimed he was from Genoa. Gallo’s manuscript, however, was not discovered and published until 1733. The first published work that mentions the Genoese identity of Columbus was printed in 1516 by the Genoese Dominican bishop and geographer Agostino Giustiniani.
In regard to Spain, despite some documentary evidence, Columbus never became a naturalized Spaniard and was known as an extranjero, a man of foreign birth. His royal patrons never referred to his nationality, as was done with other foreigners (such as Amerigo Vespucci). Throughout his life, Columbus never mentioned his homeland and always referred to himself as Cristóbal Colón. His mysterious cryptic signature was a combination of Greek and Latin, for the discoverer signed his name “Xpo Ferens,” not using any last name. He wrote almost exclusively in Spanish, but used Portuguese phonetics, even when writing personal notes to himself, to his brothers or to the Bank of St. George. His brothers also never wrote in Italian either, but in Spanish. Finally, the Latin epitaph on Columbus’s tomb, Non confundar in aeternam (Let me never be confounded), may be a veiled hint that his identity was different from the one stated by some individuals during his lifetime.
So, who was this masterful explorer who lived a life of intrigue, lies and mystery? Does Manuel Rosa have the final answer to that question?
Was the Discoverer from a Lithuanian family?
According to the evidence presented in his book, Manuel Rosa concludes that the Columbus of the Genoese Documents and the famed explorer are not the same person. Rosa is convinced that the man who discovered America was the son of the King of Poland (as Ladislaus or Wùadysùaw III) and Hungary (as Wùadysùaw I), and Supreme Prince of Lithuania (Vladislovas III Varnietis), who disappeared at the Battle of Varna in 1444. Wùadys- ùaw III was the firstborn son of Grand Duke Jogaila (ca. 1351-1434), the last pagan ruler of medieval Lithuania, and his fourth wife Sofija Alšėniškė (Sophia of Alšėnai). Jogai- la, descended from Grand Duke Gediminas (ca.1275- 1341), founded the Jagieùùonian dynasty, one of the most influential dynasties in late-medieval Europe, ruling Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and other territories for hundreds of years. In 1386, Jogaila converted to Christianity, was baptized as Wùadysùaw Jagieùùo, and married the Polish Queen Jadvyga, thus becoming King of Poland, while his cousin Vytautas ruled Lithuania as Grand Duke.
Rosa claims that the young King Wùadysùaw III survived the Battle of Varna, despite the Ottoman claim to have taken his head, even though his body in royal armor was never found. The Ottomans were to make a similar claim in 1683 after the Battle of Parkany, when they mistakenly thought they had King Jan Sobieski’s head, which turned out to be the head of the Palatine of Pomerania, Wùadysùaw Denhoff.
After the Christian defeat at Varna, Wùadysùaw III escaped to Bosnia, where the Grand Duke of Herzegovina, Stjepan Vuksic Kosaca, supposedly offered him shelter. In secrecy, the King journeyed to the Holy Land and became O Cavaleiro de Santa Catarina, a Knight of St. Catherine of Mount Sinai. Finally, Wùadysùaw III decided to settle at the end of the known world, the Portuguese Madeira Archipelago. King Alfonso V of Portugal granted him land in Cabo Girao, a district of Madeira Island, rent-free for the rest of his life. Wùadys- ùaw III was known there as Henrique Alemao (Henry the German) and married Senhorinha Annes de Sa Colonna, his best man being the same King of Portugal.
But why did Wùadysùaw III hide his identity? Perhaps he was so ambitious he wanted to surpass his father’s fame and accomplishments? So, in 1444, under the influence of the Papal envoy Giuliano Cesarini, the King of Poland-Hungary declared war against the Ottomans on a false pretext, violating the truce he had with Sultan Murad II. Very likely Wùadysùaw III felt his defeat at Varna was a personal warning from God. Thus he wandered as a pilgrim, seeking forgiveness, which he found in the Holy Land. For the rest of his life he would deny his royal identity. Could that be a possible scenario?
After the Battle of Varna, the Hungarian military leader Janos Hunyadi, who narrowly escaped from the battlefield, wrote to the Polish cardinal Zbigniew Olesnicki that “no one knew what happened to the King.” Rumors began that Wùadysùaw III was sighted alive, first in the Holy Land, then in Portugal.
Because of this uncertainty about Wùadysùaw III’s fate, there was an interregnum in Poland, as Casimir (Kazimieras), brother of Wùadysùaw III and Grand Duke of Lithuania, waited for his return, finally succeeding his missing brother as King of Poland in 1447. Two Polish monks went to Portugal in 1450 and, sailing to Madeira, confirmed that indeed the King was alive. Strong evidence of him being alive is presented in a letter dated 1452 recently found at the University of Göttingen, Germany. This letter was written by a Polish monk, Mikolaj Floris, to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ludwig von Erlichshausen, claiming that “Vladislaus, Rex Poloniae et Ungariae vivit in insulis regni Portugaliae” (Wùadysùaw, King of Poland and Hungary lives on an island of the Kingdom of Portugal). The letter is considered authentic, and it is not the only evidence that Wùadysùaw III might have survived.
Portuguese chronicler Henrique Henriques de Noronha (1667-1730) writes in his work, Nobiliario da Ilha da Madeira: “It was said that he (Henrique Alemao) was a Polish prince […] He hid his identity […] in 1584, his identity was confirmed in some documents that I personally saw.” It also seems that Wùadys- ùaw III was accompanied to Madeira by Polish knights, because a Portuguese chronicle (1772) mentions a mysterious Polish nobleman named Andre Gonšalves (Andrzej Gonzalski?), who had come to Madeira and married a Portuguese noblewoman. His son Joao de Franca died in 1511, so we can assume that Goncalves arrived in Madeira at the same time as Wùadysùaw III.
Henrique Alemao had one son, Segismundo Henriques (de Sa Colonna), and one daughter, Barbara Henriques. It is not known if he had other sons (Bartolomeu Henriques and Diogo Henriques?). It is believed that the exiled King died in a strange maritime disaster.
Could Segismundo Henriques be Columbus? Manuel Rosa believes so. In his book, he gives the following reasons why the son of Henrique Alemao could be the man who changed the world in 1492:
– Columbus was a well-educated man, who spoke Spanish, Portuguese and Latin, mastered cosmography, cartography, theology, and navigation, and knew secret ciphers. Could a semiliterate wool weaver, as Columbus was supposed to be, acquire such extensive knowledge during his stay in Portugal? The explorer and discoverer should rather be a noble, well-schooled from a very early age, who also possessed considerable experience on the sea.
– Columbus married an elite member of the Order of Santiago. The King of Portugal, Joao II, was the master of the order, and only he could give permission for this marriage. Could Filipa Moniz marry a foreign, penniless peasant, who arrived shipwrecked with no resources? Marriages between commoners and nobles (especially if the commoner was a man) were impossible during medieval times.
– Columbus signed his early letters with a single letter, “S,” which could signify Segismundo.
– Before 1492, Columbus and his brothers, had the honorific title “Don,” reserved for royalty and select nobles (those of acknowledged high or ancient aristocratic birth). Would an unknown commoner have such an honorific title?
– Columbus was very tall, had light-colored eyes and freckles, and blond hair. That means he did not have the typical physical characteristics of the Mediterranean race.
– Similarities exist between Columbus’s coat of arms and that of King Wùadysùaw III.
-When Segismundo Henriques was placed in Spain as a secret agent of the Portuguese crown, he went under an assumed name, Cristóbal Colón. Another Portuguese agent in Italy, Marcial Barroso, also went under a false name, Perestrelo; the well-known Portuguese master spy Pero da Covilha (1460-1526) pretended to be a Muslim merchant when undercover in Egypt. The Spanish sovereigns probably knew that Columbus was a prince, but did not suspect he was a double agent, believing he hid his royal identity simply to respect his father’s wishes.
In regard to the theory of Columbus being a double agent, Manuel Rosa is not the only one who assumes that Columbus worked secretly for the Portuguese. Mascarenhas Barreto wrote a book about this possibility under the title The Portuguese Columbus: Secret Agent of King John II. Another author, Ivan Van Sertima (They Came before Columbus), also supported that theory, which claims that Columbus wanted to keep the Spaniards away from South America, probably known to the Portuguese before the “official” discovery of Brazil in 1500. Max Justo Guedes, author of The Discovery of Brazil, states: “The existence of this continent was already suspected in the Iberian Peninsula, particularly by Portugal’s King Joao II, even before the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which benefited Portugal by moving considerably westward the division of the Atlantic Ocean.” For Rosa, Barreto and Van Sertima, the stop in Lisbon on Columbus’s first return voyage (9 March 1493) was done intentionally by the discoverer to report to King Joao II. Van Sertima writes about this meeting between the two men: “Don Juan (Joao) seemed to be in an extremely good mood. He talked to Columbus as to a close friend, with great candor and sweetness, insisting that his guest not stand, bow or accord him any special deference, but sit beside him at table as an equal. […] they sat man to man (or was it prince to prince?).”
Finally, although many historians think that King Joao II disliked Columbus, they ignore his letter to the discoverer, in Portuguese, dated 1488. In it, the Portuguese king addressed Columbus as “nosso especial amigo” (our special friend). So, there is the possibility that Joao II used Columbus as a secret agent for his plans to steer Spain away from the maritime routes to Africa, India and South America.
Columbus was not a Genoese wool weaver
In his book, Manuel Rosa convincingly refutes the hypothesis of the Genoese origins of Columbus. And he is not alone. Other biographers of Columbus, such as Seraphim G. Canoutas, Charles Merrill and David Sarfaty, also found inconsistencies between the Genoese legal documents and other sources, especially Columbus’s letters and the biographies by Hernando Colón and Bartolomé de las Casas. So, what are the views mentioned by these authors stating that Columbus could not be a humble Genoese weaver of wool?
– As mentioned in a previous paragraph, a commoner would not be able to marry a noblewoman, the daughter of a governor. In addition, it would be impossible for a commoner to pretend being a noble and hide his peasant background.
– In 1515 and again in 1520-21, Hernando Colón visited numerous northern Italian cities, including Genoa. He was looking for relatives and for his father’s birthplace. But when he made inquiries in Genoa and the vicinity in the hope of discovering relatives, he was disappointed. No one came forward, not even Bianchinetta Columbus, who was supposed to be Columbus’s sister (she died in 1516). Bianchinetta is not mentioned at all in Columbus’s supposed Last Will (1498), nor her father, Domenico, who passed away in 1499 or 1500.
– More than forty Portuguese names were given by Columbus to locations in the Greater and Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean area. Not one Italian name can be identified.
– Even though there was confirmation of Columbus being Genoese from contemporary writers, Italian researcher Maurizio Tagliattini failed to reveal any trace of Genoese claimants in works of Genoese chronicles and historians of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, in the acclaimed work of Uberto Foglietta, Della Republica di Genova (1559), Columbus was not listed among the most famous citizens of Genoa! Among Genoese captains mentioned in Foglietta’s annals are Lazaro Doria and Simone Vignoso; but the fact that Columbus, presumably the most famous of all Genoese captains, was not mentioned, is a remarkable and strange omission.
– Columbus’s brother Bartolomeo was probably born in 1461, but he was already working as a cartographer in Lisbon before 1479! Could a young wool weaver find work in the principal center of cartography before his adulthood?
– In his letter to the nurse of Prince Juan of Castile, Dona Juana de la Torre, Columbus mentioned that “I am not the first admiral of my family.” Could someone from the Genoese Columbus’s peasant ancestors be an admiral?
– Between 1477 and 1485, Columbus sailed with the Portuguese fleet. By royal law, only Portuguese citizens were allowed to become crew members of the fleet.
– The Genoese “Cristoforo Colombo” is a mistranslation of the discoverer’s “Cristóbal Colón.” Colombo means dove or pigeon, but Colón does not have the same meaning, since in Greek kolon means a “member” or “limb” (of a body). Therefore, the name Colón was a stand-in for the Greek derived “Kolon,” chosen by the discoverer to mean (perhaps amputated) “member.”
– In 1578, when Columbus’s last male heir died, Bernardo Colombo from Liguria claimed to be the discoverer’s relative, laying claim to his immense estate and to the title of Admiral of the Indies. The Spanish courts dismissed his claims, declaring all his evidence false.
These are just a few of the many inconsistencies that exist between the Genoese Columbus and the discoverer Columbus. But what again, about the legal documents of Raccolta Colombiana and the Documento Assereto that supposedly shed light on the Genoese origins of Columbus? Regarding Columbus’s Last Will of 1498, Manuel Rosa explains in his book that the Will is a forgery created probably a century later by Bernardo Colombo, because it has so many contradictions in it. It would also be very strange for a man who was cryptic about his origins to suddenly mention his birthplace in a document. Besides, Hernando Colón was not sure of his father’s birthplace, having searched for it in vain. Columbus’s son went to Genoa, Savona, Piacenza and other places rumored as the possible birthplace of his father. The notable French historian Henry Harisse also thought this Will is a forgery.
The letter of Columbus to the St. George Bank seems strong evidence for his Genoese origin (“As I was born in Genoa…came from it and was born there…”). But historians ignore another letter of Columbus to Queen Isabella, dated 4 March 1493. There he states, “Do not forget that I left behind my wife and children, and my homeland (Portugal)…”. Here, Columbus again confuses researchers, because he mentions “children” and not “child” (Diego, like the second son, Hernando, was born in Spain, not Portugal.) But what can one expect from such a mysterious man, of whom no portraits were made during his lifetime? All the known portraits of Columbus were made after his death.
Lastly, the Documento Assereto also doesn’t seem to be authentic. Even before World War II, it was considered problematic by some researchers. Under the patronage of the city of Genoa, a volume of documents was published in 1932 under the title Christopher Columbus: Documents and Proofs of his Genoese Origin. It was reviewed by John Biglow in The Hispanic American Review, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May 1933). Biglow considers this work, which purports to demonstrate that Columbus was born in Genoa, as “a monumental failure.” Regarding the Document Assereto, Biglow adds: “The notable Assereto document passes as an original until critical examination finds it to be an indifferent, uncertified copy of two documents, themselves perhaps unauthenticated.” The famous Spanish historian Salvador de Madariaga y Rojo also considered this document a forgery. While David Sarfaty, in his book Columbus Rediscovered, claims: “The Assereto document is still another example of a fabrication where a third party intrudes the name of Cristoforo Colombo into an episode of the Admiral’s life.”
After twenty years of researching medieval documents, Manuel Rosa seems to have solved a five-hundred-yearold mystery by establishing the theory that Columbus was descended from the Lithuanian Jagieùùonian (Jogai lačių) dynasty. Colon: La Historia Nunca Contada is a magnum opus and by no means should be considered a work of pseudo history or just another source of nutty conspiracy theories. Rosa’s numerous reliable findings and solid theories would make Sherlock Holmes jealous. The history of Columbus has many mixed-up facts and personalities, and maybe the time has come for the discoverer’s life to be finally rewritten. Could Columbus be a Lithuanian prince? If yes, then Rosa will not avoid being a persona non grata in Genoa…