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History is a record of the past – sculptured by omissions, interlarded with distortions, brazen lies and innocent befuddlement – forming an amalgam that's often stubbornly resistant to analysis. For the sheer scale and persistence of its inaccuracies, few of history's mistold tales could match the mix-ups associated with a certain Christopher Columbus .
Mainstream accounts depict Columbus as an incompetent, seafaring, Genoese peasant wool weaver who washed up on the shores of Portugal in 1476 and there began a career that would make "rags to riches" a lackluster understatement. But a quarter century of research has transformed both the role and the identity of this most illustrious of all explorers.
Long-lost relations, hidden in plain sight: New York's gracious Central Park memorializes two men from very distant spheres of eminence. A new Columbus biography pinpoints King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland/Lithuania (left), victor in one of Medieval Europe's largest and most decisive battles, as the grandfather of Christopher Columbus (right). (Photos Manuel Rosa, 2009)
What’s in a Name?
Christopher Columbus was itself the garbled misinterpretation of the pseudonym, Cristóbal Colón . How the mistranslation took root and flourished is a complicated story in itself. As early as May, 1493, materials printed in Rome corrupted the surname. A century later, documents were faked by one of several Genoese pretenders to the Admiral's bitterly contested estate, and – despite their being judged fraudulent by the Spanish courts – subsequently gained a credibility that's still in force today.
Yet that noble and unquenchable love of truth, passed like a torch down generations – multiplied by the phenomenal power that computer research has made available, the miracle of modern forensic methods, travel and communications technology – has generated a body of data, supporting an argument, which appears irrefutable. The stage has been set for a paradigm shift in how the world will see the real man behind that nexus of fabrication, error and credulity that's long been misidentified as the Italian Columbus.
A Portuguese Nobleman
A case can now be made that the birthplace and parentage of Cristóbal Colón have been reliably identified. Enough of the context has been established at least to demonstrate that Colón was, beyond question , a Portuguese nobleman of very high standing. His true role and identity cannot be understood apart from their historic setting – above all because his role in that setting was so momentous.
This much is certain: The man who became known worldwide as "Columbus" was no Genoese peasant. The long-prevailing views of biographers like Taviani and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Morison have had the ground cut out from under them; they will soon become untenable.
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The portrait of Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo is recognized as such around the world. But no less an authority than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has downgraded its identity from " Columbus" to merely, the "Portrait of a man."
At left is the "Columbus" portrait any schoolchild would recognize, painted by Sebastiano del Piombo in Italy in 1519, and now discredited as a representation of Colón. At right is Pedro Berruguete’s portrait of Cristóbal Colón – almost certainly informed by face-to-face contact – and painted prior to 1504 in Spain, where Berruguete was court painter. (Left, by Sebastiano del Piombo. Right, by artist Pedro Berruguete.)
DNA testing by the University of Granada in 2003 to 2006 found no match between Cristóbal Colón and nearly 500 Colombo test subjects from that region of the Mediterranean – stretching westwards from Genoa to halfway down the Spanish coast – where received opinion has it that the Admiral must have been born.
Places where Colombo DNA samples were collected by Prof. José Lorente’s international team to compare with Colón’s DNA. The two Portuguese samples, from the Duke of Braganza and the Count of Ribeira Grande, were provided for testing by Manuel Rosa. (Image creation by Manuel Rosa)
New material has combined with a fresh look at old data, the inclusion of a hitherto curiously ignored perspective, and persistent, hardnosed reasoning to establish as a certainty that the man behind the "Columbus" illusion was a superbly educated native-speaker of Portuguese, a master pilot and navigator who maintained close if clandestine relations with the Portuguese State long after his secret defection to Spain in 1484.
Deceptions and a Double Agent
The mass of circumstantial evidence – drawn from a stunning range of sources, periods and locations – is overwhelming. Professor of history Trevor Hall agrees that Colón was a double agent, working against the Spanish monarchs on behalf of Portuguese King João II. Lusófona University's José Calazans supports Rosa’s conclusions, regarding Colón’s very high birth and his relations to a swath of European royalty. In 2012, the president of the Portuguese Academy of History publicly confirmed that Colón was a Portuguese-born nobleman.
Portuguese King João II.
Running down and cross-referencing hundreds of documents from hundreds of years ago, in various archaic languages, was itself a mindboggling feat (not to mention knowing what to look for). But that was only the groundwork for analyzing and interpreting this data.
The task was made more difficult by the fact that deceptions abounded from the start. Even if we limit ourselves to Colón's own, extensive writings, the reality behind his records must be filtered through an appreciation of who Colón was lying to and who he was conveying essential truth to by cryptic means. Similarly, on the other side of the ledger – to choose just one example – the chronicler Rui de Pina, serving a Portuguese monarch now in the pocket of the Spanish throne, left in the very falsity of his writings clues whose correct interpretation shows that Cristóbal Colón's identity and role were being censored at the highest levels of state.
This paradigm shift – identifying Colón as a double agent, and emphasizing his hitherto neglected Portuguese background – brings all the relevant data suddenly into a state of coherence, whereas "Columbus" had always been enigmatic, notwithstanding the (grossly inaccurate) consensus built up around his pseudo-identity.
Secret Messages and Puzzling Artifacts
Another dimension of consistently supportive clues exists in the form of artifacts. Among the many who played some role in Colón's original conspiracy, there were able schemers who left furtive messages for posterity to decipher – hoping that the great events of their times might be rightly understood someday, when the political imperative for secrecy would have passed. Thus, the inscription on a tombstone, the peculiarities of a signature, the details in a painted portrait, or a figure in a chapel's ceiling mural – all subject to analysis – add still more, neatly-fitting pieces of the puzzle.
Painting depicting Christopher Columbus on Santa Maria in 1492.
Other evidentiary artifacts emerged without pre-planning. We know Colón was lying to the Spanish monarchs – for instance – through his account of how the Santa Maria had been lost. The ship's anchor, now on display in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is concrete proof of his duplicity, as it would not have been recoverable (by the natives in 1493) if Colón's account of the ship’s sinking were true.
The Santa Maria’s huge anchor: inside the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The anchor was located onshore when the Europeans returned on November 22, 1493. (Photo Manuel Rosa, 2015)
There is yet a further layer to assimilate in triangulating all of the uncertainty away.
Islam and Christendom were at war. Constantinople had fallen in 1453. The immensely lucrative Spice Trade between Europe and India was controlled and exploited by the Muslims, who had expanded into the Indian Ocean. Portugal sought an alternate route to the greatest riches of the age. Hence, the arts and cutting-edge technologies of seamanship were sought after and guarded as state secrets in Portugal, where these sciences were unsurpassed.
The Death of old Myths
As the old "Columbus" mythology collapses, one big sub-myth to go down with it is the notion that Europeans knew little or nothing of the Americas prior to Colón's First Voyage. The Portuguese could never have discovered the Azores, a generation before Colón was born, were it true that sailors never left sight of land. In fact, premier navigators that they were, the Portuguese knew of the Antilles, South America, and even the easternmost longitude of Brazil before Colón's First Voyage.
Sometimes there exist various ways of proving such facts. In this case, the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) may be instructive.
Original page from the Tratado de Tordesilhas - Treaty of Tordesillas.
Who got what and who wasn't allowed to sail where is perfectly consistent with the other evidence. In fact, King João II of Portugal ran a brilliant, international network of spies and agents, a study of which can be made to show that the terms of this monumental treaty, dividing the known world between two superpowers, had been aimed for long in advance and cunningly realized by this most anti-Spanish of all Portuguese kings. João II had suffered a wave of betrayals and defections early in his rather brief career. He deftly took advantage of this treason to slip his own, small army of double agents into the Spanish inner circles. Cristóbal Colón was foremost among them.
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Another sub-myth that crumbles is Colón's hatred of King João II. Colón sacrificed his last 22 years – giving up domestic happiness and the life of a minor prince – to play a very high-stakes game of betrayal against the most powerful rulers of his time, to lie and commit atrocities, all in the loyal service of his beloved King João II.
Maps and Logs
Nor was Colón ever lost at sea, or delivered haphazardly to safe harbor at Lisbon in a storm. He made a beeline for his destinations every time, back and forth. The accounts in his logbooks and correspondence can be interpreted consistently with this claim. Colón kept secret from his own men (with few exceptions) the methods he used to find his way at sea.
The "discoverer" of America owned a copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia, published in Rome in 1478, which included this map, representing the half of the globe that was then known. Note the added labels, in white, where we indicate the mouths of the River Indus, to the west, and Ganges to the east. The territory between these two rivers had been known as "India" for thousands of years. (From The New York Public Library, DigitalCollections.nypl.org)
Among the many revealing personal effects Colón left behind is the ancient map of Ptolemy, showing half the globe. 1300 years after they were drawn, these borders of the known world had not been significantly extended. However, as far back as Ptolemy’s time, the circumference of the Earth had been calculated with tolerable accuracy, and Colón's state-of-the-art navigational expertise was at least that advanced.
Thus, Colón knew perfectly well as he sailed due west for the first time that he'd reach landfall five time zones away – and that another ten time zones lay between the New World and India. Referring to the inhabitants Colón encountered as "Indians" was just another pebble in his mosaic of deception. The whole purpose of his trickery was to send the Spanish on a wild goose chase, leaving Portugal as the undisputed master of the Spice Trade with the real India.
The landmark Waldseemüller map of 1507 represents Earth as a sphere for the first time. It fits Ptolemy's known half of the world like a glove sliding onto a hand – with the mouth of the Ganges (black arrow) still exactly nine time zones east of the Canaries and far west of Ptolemy's eastern limit (white arrow). (Map from James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota callouts added by Manuel Rosa)
Simple arithmetic confirms that Colón understood what he was doing. The top secret science of his day assured that he'd make landfall a mere five time zones west of Portugal. This left seven additional time zones to the line of Sinae, Ptolemy’s easternmost border of the known world, and still another three time zones to the mouth of the Ganges. (Map from James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota callouts added by Manuel Rosa)
None of this does more than hint at the great variety of evidence and keen analysis that's now poised to demolish the old "Columbus," setting in his place an infinitely better focused and more believable – yet even more stupendous – figure.
Who Really Was Columbus?
The last big question in this whole tableau is: Who, exactly, was the man that left his homeland in his late-20s, under the false identity of Cristóbal Colón? A prime suspect has been identified, and DNA analysis is bound to confirm it.
Colón definitely married an elite resident of a convent belonging to the Military Order of Santiago, and thus it may not stretch credulity to identify his mother as a member of the Portuguese high nobility. But to claim that Colón's father was none other than the young Polish king long believed to have fallen in battle against the Muslims at Varna, Bulgaria, in 1444, sounds even more fantastic than pegging the world's most famous admiral as the unlettered son of an Italian peasant. But this is what a mass of reliable data now clearly points to.
The conspiracy to hide Cristóbal Colón's Portuguese origins was international in scope, including even (amazingly) the Spanish monarchs he betrayed. His coded signature is a puzzle unto itself and still remains to be fully deciphered. On the lower line is written his chosen pseudonym ": XpoFERENS ./” [colon (:) Christopher semi-colon (;)] (La Real Academia de la Historia, Biblioteca San Román)
A special, limited edition – including abundant, new material, now appearing for the first time in English – was released on May 20, 2016, to commemorate the 510 th anniversary of Colón's death. While supplies last, Columbus: The Untold Story , by Manuel Rosa.