Fall 1992, Volume 9.3
Critical Essay


Columbus and Spain: Accident or Destiny?

In the floor of the main nave of Seville's cathedral the visitor will find a stone installed by the Columbus family, which inscription presents a narrow and self-serving view of the founder's achievement:

A Castilla y Le–n

Nuevo Mundo di– Col–n

(Columbus gave the New World to Castile and Le–n)

This bit of doggerel encapsulates a popular image of Columbus as an isolated visionary who presents a fortunate queen and king with a lottery ticket for unearned riches. The tale of a foreign adventurer, upon whom Fortune (or God) smiled, at the same time dismisses, by inference, the prior achievements of Castile in the maritime world. A view of the conjunction as mere accident was assiduously promulgated by Spain's rivals. For example, Sir Walter Raleigh, writing Elizabeth I, observed: "The West Indies were first offered Her Majesty's grandfather by Columbus a stranger, in whom there might be doubt of deceit, and besides it was then thought incredible that there were such and so many lands and regions never written of before" (Hakluyt 348). Later writers typically place the great navigator and his adopted country on separate paths which intersected only by chance (Ballesteros y Baretta 762-67).

The conjunction of Spain and Columbus was, I believe, if not inevitable (for what is in history?), at least no lucky accident. While the case for Portuguese navigation prior to 1492 has been more than adequately developed, far less notice has been taken that Castile too had longstanding navigational interests in the Atlantic, ones which it vigorously pursued through the fifteenth century. Significant to this expanding sphere of exploration was a resident Genoese mercantile network. Considering these traditions, I argue in this article that it was in no way unusual for the Castilian crown to rely in navigation upon outsiders, that it was thus an obvious path for Columbus to migrate to Castile after his plans fell through in Lisbon, and therefore that his employment by the king and queen was not merely happenstance.

In line with these observations, I will start by making the point that Columbus had no need for mysterious connections to make contact with the Castilian crownsuch as requiring the covert intervention of Jewish courtiers who saw in him a secret co-religionist. Although the accounts of Columbus's early life are fragmentary, there is little to doubt that his career was typical of the many Genoese of the late middle ages who went to make their fortunes in Iberia. It is thus not necessary to speculate that Columbus was anything but a Genoese Christian. His grandfather, Giovanni Colombo, first appears in a document dated 1429, when he was living in a village outside Genoa. While it is not inconceivable that the family fled Spain during the wave of persecutions in the 1390s, there is no mention in municipal records of foreign origins for the family, and considering the longstanding Genoese prohibition against the entry of Jews, this locale was a most unlikely place for converso (convert) refugees to settle (Citta di Genova). The silence regarding any such daring, for whatever little silence is worth, continues in documents concerning his father Domenico Colombo (Lollis 83-143).

Despite the lack of evidence of Jewish origins for the family, someone is always sure, when Columbus's name comes up, to ask about the subject. So prevalent is the belief that the libretto of Christopher Columbus, an opera by Guillermo Tonsky commissioned for the quincentenary in Barcelona during 1989, takes it as a given that he was a converso who set out into the unknown to locate a new homeland for his persecuted people. Without the help of glorious music, earlier writers also have suspected Columbus of having a Jewish heritage because it explains to them how a penniless, low-born, stranger could worm his way into the confidence of grandees and monarchs by tapping into pre-existing networks of Jews and converts.

However, in the fluid society of Europe's small kingdoms Columbus did not have to face an antechamber of Byzantine or Confucian bureaucrats before approaching the august presence, either in Portugal or Castile. Fernando and Isabel, in particular, were quite open to their subjects. They visited virtually every part of their realms, in some years covering well over two thousand kilometers, holding open audiences wherever they alighted (Kamen 16).

The most prominent scholarly advocate of a Jewish Columbus has been Salvador de Madariaga, who confidently believes the Colombo family were Catalan Jews, settled in Genoa (Madariaga 60). He maintains that the transplanted family clung to their Iberian dialect at home, by noting that Columbus hardly ever wrote in Genoese, always preferring Castilian. Columbus's Spanish, upon investigation, proves, however to be an inaccurate Portuguese version of Castilian with Genoese terms mixed in (Milini). Columbus did not dare write in Genoese because his native language was thoroughly corrupted by an admixture of tongues picked up over the years. His use of Castilian was perceived as an act of homage to the monarchs, and in Genoa his letters were more acceptable than they would have been if they had been written in a flawed form.

Madariaga places less of the weight of his argument on language than on character traits: Columbus was a rootless cosmopolitan who was loyal neither to his native city or any of his adopted countries, and he was greedy. "The Jew in Colon, usually shy and out of the way," he writes, "comes to the surface, irresistibly attracted as soon as there is a mention of gold or gems in the books he reads" (Madariaga 90). S. E. Morrison finds subtle anti-semitism in Madariaga's text, and notes that although many hard things were written about the Admiral during his lifetime there is no record of his being called "that Jew" or "that converso," even in the hostile testimony of trial deputations (Morison AHR; Pedroso).

Cecil Roth has also focused upon the explorer's reticence in revealing his origins and claims that his family's occupation of woolworking was typically Jewish. Yet why should it be regarded as a mystery that a low-born foreigner would prefer not to talk at court about his modest origins? Above all, the very fact that Columbus was so pious rouses Roth's suspicions, which he felt was typical of over-ardent conversos (Roth). Columbus certainly appears rigidly orthodox in his journal:

I say that your Highnesses ought not to consent that any foreigner does business or sets foot here, except Catholic Christians, since this was the end and the beginning of the enterprise, that it should be for the enhancement and glory of the Christian religion, nor is anyone who is not a good Christian come to these parts. (Varela 42)

A last author to be considered, Simon Wiesenthal, ventured far outside of his important field of work to explore the question. Giving up on any attempt conclusively to prove that Columbus was Jewish, Wiesenthal focused instead upon Columbus's converso sponsorsLuis de Sant‡ngel, Diego de Deza and Gabriel Sanchez, plus observing that five presumed conversos were on shipboard during the first voyage. He ends by making a case, unsupported by any taint of documentation, that conversos were looking to Columbus to find kingdoms ruled by Jews to provide a new homeland (Wiesenthal 170-75). Yet who could have said even up to the last moment in 1492 that the monarchs would decide to expel the Jews, rather than accept yet another bribe to let them stay?

I would personally find it significant if a convincing case could be made for a Jewish heritage for the explorer, but there is little in his life, career, or intellectual makeup which cannot be accounted for just as satisfactorily by postulating that he was a Genoese Christian of the breed who had so often before gone to Iberia to make their fortunes. Whatever can be said by historians about the Jewish familial network across the Mediterranean applies equally well to the Genoese community which was also tight knit, cosmopolitan, and commercial minded. Genose settlements were, like those of Jews, suffused by family ties and nostalgic solidarity. Columbus's tenacity in holding to his vision of La Empresa de las Indias is typical of the Genoese trader who neither tolls, taxes, wars, nor discrimination could deter. Columbus's varied transfers prior to settling in Castile were hardly unusual for Genoese commercial travelers who moved easily between Portugal, Africa, and southern Iberia (Sopranis).

Quite early, Columbus worked for the Genoese partnership of Spinola-Di Negri, although whether as a commercial factor or as a sailor remains unknown (Crone 49f). Columbus blended into the Genoese colony in Lisbon after his arrival there in 1474, either disembarking as an agent of the firm or else crawling out of the surf after a disputed, romantic, shipwreck (Fern‡ndez-Armesto 106). He next undertook a commercial voyage to Madeira in 1478-79 for the Centurione [Centrui–n] firm (Pike 99). These employers, as will be seen, stood by him later when he went to Castile. At Lisbon in 1479 his social standing increased when he married into a prominent Portuguese family whose head was the first governor of Porto Santo. It is therefore not unexpected that his "Enterprise" should get a respectful hearing from the king.

The Genoese were well thought of in Iberia as sailors. During the late thirteenth century the development of high-sided ships, which protected them from great waves, permitted Italian navigation to escape the Mediterranean for the Atlantic, even before Catalans ventured out into the deep. In 1291 Ugolino and Vadino Vivalde, those shadowy transatlantic navigators manquZ, sailed two vessels from Genoa through the Pillars of Hercules. Their aim seems to have been to go ad partes Indie per mare oceanum ("for the regions of India by way of the Ocean"), but we shall never know, since they did not return (Chaunu 82). Thereafter, the Genoese impact was strong on Portugal. During 1317 the king named Emmanuel Pezagno [Pasanha] "Lord High Admiral of Lusitania," who along with twenty fellow Genoese were to be pilots and captains for the fleet (Beazley 423). Later in the century there are two other naturalized admirals with the same surname (VicZns Vives, Economic 268; Diffie 23f).

In 1341 the Genoese and Florentines colonized Madeira. The Canary Islands were first recontacted under Portuguese direction by the Genoese Lanzarote Malocello, after whom an island is named. Henry "the Navigator" employed Antoniotto Usodimare and Antonio da Noli to locate the Cape Verde islands. A Venetian captain, C‡ da Mosto, was sent up the Gambia River in 1456 to locate Africa's source of gold (Godinho 20f; Russell 23). The Genoese also kept a hand in Castile's share of the traffic in African gold, by means of their connections in Seville, thence they shipped the greater part of Castile's Granadine and West African metal to the Republic of Saint George (VicZns Vives, Economic 283). Thus was set the pattern for American gold to slip through the fingers of the Spanish empire during the sixteenth century.

In Lisbon, Columbus's Genoese and marital connections gained him audiences but, as is well known, the crown did not fund him. Portugal had developed a sufficient stable of home-grown navigators so it no longer need rely upon outsiders. Castile, on the other hand, was at the time still employing condotteri of the sea, to borrow J. H. Parry's phrase, and would continue to appoint Italian and Portuguese navigators to head its longer expeditions until well into the next century (Parry, Discovery 264). Such foreign staffing does not take anything away from the Cantabrian and Andalusian sailors who had a late developing, but active, interest in Atlantic maritime traffic. Castile intervened in the Hundred Year's War on France's side to secure a continuing place in the wool trade. After Edward III of England signed a treaty, in 1351, with the "Brotherhood of the Coast," Cantabrian fleets laden with wool were guaranteed trouble-free passage to Flanders (VicZns Vives, Economic 264). The French continued through 1402 to encourage the Cantabrians to fight against England and Portugal (Suarez-Fern‡ndez 58f). By the second half of the fifteenth century, then, Cantabrian sailors were in control of their sector of the North Atlantic, a dominion to which even the powerful Hanseatic League bowed.

Basques also penetrated the Mediterranean, sailing to Barcelona and Marseilles. From 1426 they became intermediaries between the Crown of Arag–n and Italy, collaborating with Genoa to carry the salt of Ibiza and the wheat of Sicily, Apulia, and Seville. After 1495, facing up to Andalusia's dominance in the Atlantic, the Basques became resigned merely to maintaining the Spanish Empire's lines of communication with Italy (VicZns Vives, Economic 207).

Once Castilian sea connections with Italy and Flanders had been established, Andalusia, in particular, gained the benefit of new technology and capitalist enterprise that allowed it to take full advantage of its favorable trade winds (Chaunu 96f). The Castilian parliaments of 1436 and of 1438 laid down optimistic decrees for constructing ocean-going ships, with an eye to developing a large commercial fleet (Colmeiro y Penido 264, 325). Andalusian towns along the coastline from Cadiz to Huelva aimed to get to the Canaries for sugar and slaving, to trade with Morocco and Genoa, and to undertake pirating expeditions along the African coast. The Order of Santa Mar’a de Espa—a makes its appearance for "the exploit of the sea, " meaning the domination of the Strait of Gibraltar (VicZns Vives, Economic 268f).

The Andalusian aristocracy played a powerful role in ocean voyages, in the absence of consistent direction from the monarchy. Fleets of the dukes of Medina Celi and Medina Sidonia, as well as those of the marques of Cadiz ranged the waters. In 1449, to give one example, Juan II of Castile awarded the Duke of Medina Sidonia a monopoly fishing concession in the African waters by Cape Bojador (VicZns Vives, Historia 495).

It is thus only expected that upon arriving in Castile from Portugal Columbus applied to Don Enrique de Guzm‡n, the duke of Medina Sidonia. He next turned to Don Luis de la Cerda, Count of Medina Celi, who kept a large fleet at Puerto de Santa Mar’a, from which Columbus might well have received his caravels. Isabel reserved this decision to herself, agreeing at first to allow Medina Celi to outfit the expedition if her advisors found in Columbus's favor (Taviani, Brevi; Morison, Admiral 182).

Andalusians clashed increasingly in the 1470s with the Portuguese over the latter's proclaimed monopoly of African trade. When Afonso V invaded Castile in 1476 Fernando and Isabel sent squadrons to support their aristocrats in raids on the coast of Guinea. Fernando and Isabel considered establishing a colony on the Guinea coast in a decree of 17 February 1479 which provided for the transportation of workers to operate gold mines there. A fleet they sent out to gain control of the trading post of El Mina was beaten back. Elsewhere, a Castilian flotilla attempted to seize the Cape Verde islands and the Portuguese threatened the Canaries. The 1480 peace treaty between Portugal and Castile allowed Lisbon to retain control over the gold trade and several islands in return for giving up its claim to the Canaries (Crone 39f).

"[I]t is the Canary Islands that are the key to everything that is most spectacular in the rise of Castile" (Fern‡ndez-Armesto 221). After the Castilians established themselves in Gomera, during the War of Succession , Fernando and Isabel made sure to head off Portuguese settlement on other islands. Despite the strain of the Granada War, the monarchs authorized completing the conquest of the CanariesPalma in 1490 and Tenerife in 1493 (Parry, Spanish 40). The labor of the Guanche natives was handed over to settlers, along with land, developing patterns to be followed in the Caribbean.

Since the Canaries were on the fringe of the world, might there not be islands even further westthe legendary Atlantis, or St. Brandon's Island, or Antilla? Recall that, according to his royal capitulati–ns, Columbus's mission was "to discover and acquire islands and mainland in the Ocean Sea" (Stevens 42-45). The first European literary response to the encounter with the New World is an untitled Italian poem published in Rome on 15 June 1493. It concludes: "Here ends the History of the Discovery of the New Islands of the Indian Canaries . . . " (Cachey). No knowledgeable observer in Rome, Florence, or Genoa believed at this point that nothing more exciting than islands similar to ones already colonized had been found.

It is clear from the foregoing that Castile had an early stake in the Atlantic and in exploration beyond the known islands. Its occupation of the Canaries and continued rivalry with Portugal played a vital role in gaining Columbus a hearing from the Andalusian aristocracy and the monarchy. At this point, the long-established Genoese colony in Seville comes into the picture. A Catalan historian noted that: "the colonization of Spain by the Genoese after the 13th century marked a fundamental stage for the discovery of America . . . " (VicZns Vives, Economic 282). After the conquest of Andalusia by Fernando III, the next two reigns saw the opening of the straits of Gibraltar by Castile, due to the fleet and maritime skills of the Zaccarias family of Genoa (Pistarino). Fernando III granted the Genoese status in Seville during 1251, a privilege later extended to other areas and the alliance which developed between the crown and the merchants of Seville with Genoa never lapsed. Catalonia's commerce, which attempted to provide a counterweight to Genoa, could not survive the competition (Gonzalez Jimenez 118f; Heers 486-89). Thus, American trade would remain a monopoly of the union of Seville and the Republic of Saint George.

Columbus, not a man to leave any contact untapped, did indeed use conversos, Jews, Franciscans, and secretaries as intermediaries to the powerful, but for financing the Genoese connection predominates. For this Enterprise the crown, as was its custom with expeditions, put up no money. Columbus turned for aid to two Genoese, Francesco Pinelli [Pinelo] and Francesco da Rivarola [Riberol], city councilors of Seville, who both had invested in the Canaries (Boscolo, Genovese). The principal loan for the expedition came, due to their prompting, from the Council of the Holy Brotherhood, which urban militia group was administered by the Queen's treasurer, Luis de Sant‡ngel, an Aragonese converso who had profited from his connection with Pinelli and Rivola in the Canary Islands (Lunenfeld 65N). Rivarola, along with Francesco Doria, Francesco Cataneo [Cana—o], and Gaspar Spinolain addition to the Florentine Juanoto Berardiloaned Columbus additional credits, the money which he personally invested in the first venture (Boscolo, Fiorentini; Pike 99).

Funds for the third voyage were transferred, in part, through the Centurione [Centuri–n] family in Seville, the Genoese firm for which Columbus had worked a quarter century before. Gaspar Centurione, in particular, was an active creditor of the Columbus family. Diego Columbus, brother of the Admiral, mentions in his will drawn up in 1515 some 2,000 ducats he had left for investment in his hands (Castellano; Harrisse 475-500).

In addition to providing funding, the Genoese never abandoned Columbus, when native Castilians sneered. Garcia Ferrando recalled that courtiers had laughed at Columbus in the hard years before his first voyage, calling the Enterprise "todo era un poco de aire, or as we would say, nothing but hot air (Colecc’on de documentos 192). Pinellithe financier of the first voyageremained a mainstay of the Navigator's later years when Castilians were scorning the meager first fruits of settlement. He lived for a time with Columbus, and eventually financed his final voyage, along with Rivarola. Thus, without question, the Genoese all looked upon Columbus as one of their own. Niccol– Oderico, ambassador of the Republic of Genoa, made an address to Fernando and Isabel in April 1501 in which he praised them for having discovered hidden and inaccessible places under the command of "our fellow citizen, illustrious cosmographer and steadfast leader" (Taviani, Columbus 21).

In the florid prose favored by 19th century Americans, one historian declaimed of Columbus: "And in all that was then transpiring, there are few intelligent readers of history who cannot see an overshadowing, all-controlling destiny shaping events . . . " (Bancroft 237). Despite scholarly abandonment of belief in such providential causation, there was indeed a certain inevitability in the conjunction of Columbus and Spain. When, in 1492, Fernando and Isabel authorized a foreign navigator to explore in their name, they were, like their predecessors, relying upon Genoese expertise to assist Castile in extending westward its already well-established Atlantic frontier, certainly not gambling on the untried and the unknown.


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