In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed … and the rest is history

13 October 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Columbus Day

You know me, dear readers, I’m a great fan of history. I learned early-on that young George Washington, a stickler for honesty even as a boy, confessed to his father that he had chopped down the cherry tree. On Washington’s Birthday (he actually had a birthday before they invented this new-fangled “Presidents Day”) my teacher would decorate our classroom with profiles of Washington and cardboard pictures of cherries. The problem was that George Washington did no such thing. It’s a fabrication. So what? Why would anyone let the facts get in the way of history? 

Moving backward, everybody knows Christopher Columbus discovered America. Please don’t be dissuaded by the fact that he never set foot in what is now the continental United States or the fact that he died convinced he had sailed west to Asia four times. Perhaps nobody thought to inform the admiral he was not in Asia but in the “New World.” Don’t fault Columbus if he happened to be a little confused.

Actually, there had been plenty of visitors to the New World before Columbus sailed into town — the Norse, the Portuguese, the Celts, and Phoenicians are among the possibilities. The Native Americans themselves must have come from someplace long before other visitors began to arrive. Sorry, Columbus, you’ll have to get in line.

At least in 1492, Columbus proved once and for all that the world was round. Actually, everybody already knew that. It had been mathematically posited by the Greeks more than 2,000 years before Columbus and proven by Aristotle 200 years after Pythagoras

At least we know that Columbus was the admiral of a fleet of three ships — the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Actually, we know that the flagship, the Santa Maria, was properly titled Santa Maria de la Immaculada Concepción. But it was just a leased ship renamed. The real name was La Gellega, after the place it had been built. Does that mean Columbus sailed the ocean blue in the Nina, the Pinta, and the Gellega? Certainly not. The Nina was not the real name of the vessel either but its nickname. A man named Juan Nina owned it. The surname Nina translates as “the little girl.” It would have been better if it had been called by its actual name. The carvel called the Nina was the Santa Clara. Columbus, then, sailed in the Santa Clara, the Pinta, and the Gellega? No. Pinta is also a nickname. We don’t know the actual name of the caravel the sailors called the Pinta. Pinta can mean “pint.” Pint-sized? A pint of what, grog? It can also mean “the painted lady.” We will never know for sure what painted lady was being referenced. Columbus sailed the ocean blue in the Little Girl, The Painted Lady, and the Gellega. Some historical information is better left sealed in a remote warehouse along with dangerous ancient artifacts. 

Moving forward, were the calculations of Columbus accurate in terms of the time, money, and supplies it would take to reach Asia by sailing west? No, Columbus was very wrong. It would have taken much longer, given that there was a whole continent in the way. The crowned heads of Portugal, Spain, and France were correct when they warned Columbus it was a cockamamie idea. He was sent on a suicide mission.

At least we know Columbus was from Genoa, Italy. That’s the majority opinion, anyway. Others say no way; he was not Genovese, he was Catalan, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, Jewish, Polish, Sardinian, Norwegian, Scottish, or Corsican. I favor the Portuguese/Jewish theory of my late friend, Dr. Manuel da Silva

Nor do we know exactly what Christopher Columbus looked like. Accounts from his day say he had reddish/blonde hair (prematurely grey) light colored eyes, fair skin subject to sunburn; he was physically strong, big-boned, and some six feet or more in height, easily taller than the average man. 

We will probably never be able to put the questions about Columbus to rest. Come to think of it, we haven’t been able to put Columbus himself to rest, either. 

After 14 years of illness, on 20 May 1506, aged probably 54, Columbus died and was buried in Valladolid, Spain. Modern medical doctors suspect he died of a reactive arthritis of the joints cause by intestinal infection due to food poisoning. 

Then his body was moved to Seville. Then his body was moved to Santo Domingo. Then his body was moved to Havana. Then his body was moved back to Spain, or maybe not.

A lead box (containing bone fragments and inscribed “Don Cristobal Colon”) was discovered at Santo Domingo in 1877.

Had all of Christopher Columbus been returned to Spain? Is some of Christopher Columbus still in the Dominican Republic? Is the man who first connected the Old World and the New World buried on both sides of the Atlantic? Where did he come from and where did he go? These questions remain. History must decide.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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