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Friday, March 10, 2021

The rise of nationalism has made Christopher Columbus’ legacy a peculiar political football. Two modern states — Spain and Italy — claim the Admiral of the Ocean Sea as their native son, despite neither existing as a recognizable political domain during Columbus’ lifetime.

But those two claimants are just the tip of the iceberg. Modern DNA testing on Columbus’ remains and prospective descendants hint at several more ethnic candidacies:

Debate about origins and final resting place of Columbus has raged for over a century, with historians questioning the traditional theory that he hails from Genoa, Italy. Some say he was a Spanish Jew, a Greek, a Basque or Portuguese.

Such was the state of Europe half a millenium ago that no one could decisively trace even a notable figure’s origins. So it is with someone whose life’s pursuits changed a continent’s destiny.

Thanks to my own background, I have a little info about the Greek theory. Timing is critical in this speculation: In 1453, the Byzantine Empire finally fell to the Ottoman Turks (a geopolitical shift that helped spur westward exploration, in fact). Constantinople’s fall led to an exodus of Greeks from the Balkans to the Western Mediterranean, mostly to the Italian states. Because of the murkiness of Columbus’ background, someone suggested that one or both of his parents could have been Greek refugees. Thus, the explorer is granted a Greek heritage — and by extension, the practical discovery of America (as distinguished from the actual discoveries by the Norse and others) is framed as one last flowering of Hellenicism.

There may or may not be some solid academic rigor behind this theory, but I’m not familiar with it. I’m sure there’s some backbone to the Basque, Jewish and other guesses, as well.

- Costa Tsiokos, Fri 03/10/2021 09:47:32 PM
Category: History | Permalink |

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  1. Interesting stuff. I didn’t even know such a debate existed. I was taught that he was an Italian (or in what is now Italy) that was commissioned by Spain (or by Isabella and Ferdinand, whose growing nation which at some point became Spain) and that was the end of that.

    Comment by trumwill — 03/11/2021 @ 06:56:24 PM

  2. Oh, it’s been a debate for forever in Europe. They even spell his name differently, to drive their points home: In Italian, he’s Colombo, in Spanish, he’s Colon. Beyond ethinicity, it’s status: He might have been born in Italy, but he effectively emigrated to Spain. All that.

    Comment by CT — 03/12/2021 @ 11:47:02 AM

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