Mysterious Columbus

The explorer's name, origin, face, and other details remain puzzling

IRONICALLY, while new criticisms grow about Christopher Columbus, old mysteries remain about his personal life, particularly about his actual appearance, where he was born and buried, and why he changed his name a number of times.For example, though there are more than 70 old portraits of him, all are different, and none has been authenticated. Also, about a dozen countries and cities claim him to be a native son, though the weight of evidence favors Genoa. Some scholars, including Italian ambassador Alberto Leoncini Bartoli, suggest that his parents, especially his mother, were Jews who had converted to Roman Catholicism. While traveling from one country to another in search of financial backers, he frequently changed his name. Christopher Columbus is the Latinized form of the Italian Christoforo Colombo. When living in Portugal, he used Colom as his surname, and when he moved to Spain, he adopted Colomo and then Colon. Why the changes, no one really knows. Greater mystery revolves about where his remains, or part of them, are buried - in Seville, Santo Domingo, Cuba, or in a destroyed Franciscan monastery's vault in Valladolid, Spain, above which there is now a poolroom. Other aspects of Columbus's persona are less murky, though not always to his credit. He was a persuasive, determined, proud, and religious man, obsessed with finding a Western route to the Indies, whose riches he had read about in Marco Polo's writings. His seamanship was daring, if not foolhardy, based on a gross mis-estimation of the earth's circumference, which eventually led him to believe that he was in the Indies, which were really thousands of miles away. And his lust for glory and wealth was second only to that of Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whose political and religious rule he hoped to expand by crushing Islam and reconquering Jerusalem. Then, as today, not everyone liked him. Many in the Spanish court maligned him as a "stranger," braggard, and dilettante; others hailed him as a bold, experienced, devout seaman. Because Columbus brought Catholicism to the "New World," some in the late 19th century tried to have him canonized, but in vain because he lived in sin with a woman, fathered an illegitimate son, and enslaved Indians. Recent efforts to canonize Queen Isabella also failed, largely because of her role in the Inquisition and persec ution of Jews and Muslims. To many 19th-century Protestant nativists, Columbus's Catholicism and Italian roots were galling, leading them to oppose Congress's establishment of "Columbus Day" in 1892. More to their liking and Anglo-Saxon roots was Leif Ericson, who they said was the real first discoverer of America. Conflicting views of Columbus surfaced a few years ago at the United Nations, where the world powers could not agree on how to commemorate the quincentenary of Columbus's voyage. While America, Spain, Italy, and Hispanic America favored a major UN celebration, the African countries opposed it, chiefly because of Columbus's and Spain's enslavement of their ancestors. Also, on a community level, many North and South American Indian tribes denounced his voyages as the beginning of their ruination. Last May, in a major policy turnabout, the National Council of Churches overwhelmingly recommended that 1992 become a time of reflection and repentance for the "oppression, degradation and genocide" that marked Columbus's treatment of Indians and African slaves. Undoubtedly, racial, ethnic, and religious differences about Columbus will increase in the months to come, and probably for the worse. His days as an unblemished hero are over, at least in countries with racial minorities. Hopefully, however, the historical uniqueness of the man and the positive impact of his voyages will not be lost. No other actual or fabled European, Asian, or African voyage to America had the impact that Columbus's had - the world's largest and most continuing immigration of refugees, pilgrims, outcasts, dissenters, opportunists, and people who simply wanted a newer and happier life for themselves.

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