It is almost twelve years since I wrote an article with the title - ‘The Columbus Industry’. There have been others - ‘The Columbus Conspiracy’, ‘The Columbus Conundrum’, ‘The Columbus Improbability’ - but the one about the industry was more or less where it all started. And by it, I mean the determination to disprove that Columbus came from Genoa, my fascination with which lies with what can seem to border on the obsession of those who wish to do this, and all that there is riding on locating his birthplace somewhere other than Genoa.
There was stuff that predated ‘The Columbus Industry’, the DNA studies in particular. There is or has been more than one stab at using DNA in seeking the truth about Columbus. The main project has its roots in research initiated in 2002. The following year, the remains of Columbus, his son Hernando and his brother Diego were exhumed from the Cathedral in Seville, but it is only recently that DNA technology has advanced enough to allow for what is hoped will give rise to something conclusive. Was Columbus born in Genoa? And if not, where?
Academic and scientific research creates its own little industry of funding and of peer-reviwed acclaim. In ‘The Columbus Industry’ I highlighted the work of Estelle Irizarry, emeritus professor of Spanish literature at the University of Georgetown in Washington. In her book, ‘The DNA of the Writings of Columbus’, Irizarry placed Columbus as having come from Catalan-speaking Aragon. He could speak Catalan before he could speak the language of the Spanish court that was to sponsor his journeys - that of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand.
Irizarry’s linguistic analysis suggested that Columbus may have been descended from the Sephardic Jews in Spain. Their language was Ladino, a mix (usually) of Hebrew and Spanish. Irizarry identified use of Ladino by Columbus and implied that there was a variant - Ladino-Catalan. Sephardic Jews were to be found across Spain, but they were prominent in Aragon, Catalonia and Palma.
Much of the debate about Columbus has centred on what he spoke, how he spoke and how he wrote. As far as his writing is concerned, it was pretty much impossible for him to have done so in Ligurian, the language of Genoa, as it wasn’t a written language. As to how he spoke, coming from Ligurian-speaking Genoa would have meant that he had, as scholars have observed, “a strange speaking voice”.
But this voice, it is argued, was because rather than a Ligurian speaker, he was a Catalan speaker. Moreover, he was a Catalan speaker who was born in Mallorca.
This is a generally accepted version of Columbus’s background: In 1451, Christoffa Corombo was born in Genoa. His father was called Domenico, and he was a lowly weaver who later became an innkeeper. Christoffa’s mother, Susanna, was also a weaver. Corombo rose from these humble origins to find a place in the Spanish court.
Here is the Mallorcan version, that of historian Gabriel Verd Martorell: In 1460, Cristòfor Colom was born in Felanitx. The exact location was the finca of s’Alqueria Roja. His father was an Aragonese nobleman, the brother of Ferdinand, who was to marry Isabel. His mother was called Margarita Colom. Cristòfor was the bastard nephew of the Spanish king. This bloodline, unknown to others at the royal court, was to prove vital in giving Cristòfor the patronage to sail on his journeys.
The DNA study being overseen at the University of Granada also involves genetic identification labs in Florence, Rome, Mexico and the US. A documentary film and a mini-series are to be made. The first results are due in a couple of months time. The final conclusions, it is hoped, will be released in October.
Linguistic, scientific, historical research; this is all worthy in seeking to try and explain the Columbus “conundrum”. I don’t knock any of it, but where the real industry angle kicks in lies with those scheduled conclusions. It won’t be any old date. It will be October 12, Spain’s National Day and the date in 1492 when Columbus came across the island he was to call San Salvador.
If it were to be proven that Columbus was Spanish in one way or another, one can imagine what this will mean. There won’t just be a rewriting of history books, there will be a Columbus explosion. It wasn’t just a Spanish expedition that discovered the New World, it was a Spaniard, to boot. Enhanced cultural tourism opportunities beckon. And if he came from Mallorca specifically, well ... .
There again, there is always the anti-Columbus lobby because of his apparent treatment of the Taino people. There is also the possibility, as the professor of forensic medicine in Granada has admitted, that the extracted DNA will not be of sufficient quality to draw conclusions. In which case, that part of the industry dedicated to Columbus research will continue for many a year yet.