On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from the Spanish port of Palos. The explorer, in command of three ships, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, hoped to find a sea route to the fabled riches (in spices and gold) of Asia. This voyage, as well as three subsequent ones, were funded by Spain, whose monarchs hoped Columbus’ success would make them one of Europe’s premier powers.
Spain’s role in Columbus’ story has, perhaps unsurprisingly, led some people to believe that the explorer was of Spanish origin. But those of Italian descent, particularly Italian-Americans, have laid claim to Columbus, despite the modern-day controversies surrounding his mistreatment of the Indigenous populations he encountered in the “New World.”
It turns out that determining Columbus’ true origins is just as complicated, with theories and supposed evidence linking him to any number of regions, countries and even religions, and unanswered questions that linger more than 500 years after his voyages.
Many think Columbus was Italian
Conventional wisdom has long held that Columbus was born Cristoforo Colombo around 1451, in the region of Liguria, in what is now Northwest Italy. In Columbus’ time, Liguria’s capital was Genoa, a rich, influential and independent city-state (Italy as a unified nation-state did not exist until 1861). He may have been the son of Susanna Fontanarossa and Domenico Colombo, a wool merchant.
Genoa had close trading ties with other regions, including several Spanish kingdoms, and Columbus likely learned multiple languages before adulthood. According to later accounts, including those by his son Ferdinand (or Hernando), Columbus left Genoa as a teenager, serving in the Portuguese merchant marines and gaining valuable seafaring experience on explorations that took him as far afield as Ireland, Iceland, and West Africa. While in Portugal, he married a woman from a noble, but somewhat poor, family and began seeking support from the Portuguese court for his cross-Atlantic expedition. When they refused, he moved to Spain in 1485, where years of lobbying monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella finally paid off in 1492, when they agreed to fund his first voyage.
Supporters of the “Italian” origin point to Columbus’ own writings from late in his life, including his will, in which he purportedly claimed to be from Genoa. However, relatively few surviving, contemporary accounts support this. Despite Columbus’ successes, Genoese ambassadors in Spain did not claim him as their own in their correspondence, and unlike other explorers who sailed under Spain’s flag, official government documents make no reference to Columbus as a foreigner.
And, most intriguingly, even Ferdinand Columbus seemingly admitted that his father wished, for unknown reasons, to obscure his true origins. However, many historians point to the fact that documents, letters and even early maps produced in the decades immediately following Columbus’ death identify him as hailing from Genoa as proof of his origins.
Others believe Columbus was Portuguese
Columbus’ strong ties to Portugal have led many to believe he was born there, not in Genoa. Some historians have argued that his marriage into a noble Portuguese family would have been unlikely had he been an unknown (and yet-unproven) foreigner. In 2012, Fernando Branco, an engineering professor at the University of Lisbon, published a book that argued that Columbus was actually Portuguese-born and his real name was Pedro Ataíde. Ataíde, the illegitimate child of a Portuguese lord, was presumed to have died in a naval battle in 1476. But Branco and a number of Portuguese historians believe that he actually survived, and to avoid persecution for his family’s possible treasonous opposition to the Portuguese crown, changed his name to Culon, after a French sailor he served with, embarking on a new life with a new identity.
In early 2018, researchers began to put this theory to the test. Using the previously authenticated and sequenced DNA of Columbus’ son, Fernando, they hope to find a genetic match with DNA extracted from the remains of Ataíde’s cousin, Antonio, a Portuguese count and diplomat.
People assume Columbus was Spanish
Supporters of the idea that Columbus was from Spain after all have also gotten a boost in recent years. In 2009, Georgetown University linguistic professor Estelle Irizarry published her book, "Christopher Columbus: The DNA of His Writings," based on close examination of hundreds of documents written by Columbus. According to her research, he was born in the kingdom of Aragon, in Northern Spain, and his primary language was Castilian (there are no existing documents in which Columbus used Ligurian, the common language of Genoa).
But if he was Spanish all along, why go to great lengths to disguise his identity? Because, Irizarry and a number of other historians argue, Columbus was actually Jewish. Linguistic traits in his writings led them to believe Columbus was raised learning Ladino, a hybrid form of Castilian Spanish, comparable to Yiddish, which was spoken by Spain’s Sephardic Jewish community. They believe there is ample evidence to support their conclusions, including the existence of a Hebrew blessing, “with God’s help,” on all but one of Columbus’ letters to another son, Diego (but which do not appear on letters to anyone outside his family).
They also point to Columbus’ links to the wealthy Sephardic businessmen who helped fund his expeditions, bequests he made to other Jews and even the triangular symbol that Columbus used as a family signature of sorts, which is similar to inscriptions on gravestones of Sephardim. And they believe that Columbus’ one-day delay in leaving Spain in August 1492 was to ensure he did not set sail on the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
If Columbus was, in fact, Jewish, he would have had every reason to obscure his true origins. For decades, Ferdinand and Isabella had been pursuing the fabled “Reconquista” of Spain, which saw the forced conversion and harsh persecution of tens of thousands of Spanish Jews and Muslims. Those Sephardim who converted and remained became known as Marranos. Those who refused to convert were forced to sell their possessions and leave the country entirely — the very same year that Columbus first set sail for the New World.
There is a far-fetched theory that he was Scottish
While the evidence linking Columbus to Genoa, Spain and Portugal seems credible, other theories seem more far-fetched, including those that claim he was the son of a Polish king, who also survived his supposed death before fleeing to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where Columbus was born in secrecy. Or that he was born in Genoa as the son of a Scottish family living in the city, and his real name was Pedro Scotto, which he changed to Columbus after the pirate he worked for in his youth.