The top 5 misconceptions about Christopher Columbus and his whereabouts

Monday is Columbus Day, time to buy appliances on sale and contemplate other things that have nothing to do with Christopher Columbus. So much of what we say about Columbus is either wholly untrue or greatly exaggerated.

Here are a few of the top offenders.


1. Columbus set out to prove the world was round.

If he did, he was about 2,000 years too late. Ancient Greek mathematicians had already proven that the earth was round, not flat.

Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C. was one of the originators of the idea. Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. provided the physical evidence, such as the shadow of the Earth on the moon and the curvature of the Earth known by all sailors approaching land. And by the third century B.C., Eratosthenes determined our planet's shape and circumference using basic geometry. In the second century, Claudius Ptolemy wrote the "Almagest," the mathematical and astronomical treatise on planetary shapes and motions, describing the spherical Earth. This text was well known throughout educated Europe in Columbus' time. [Related: Earth Is Flat in Many People's Minds]

Columbus, a self-taught man, greatly underestimated Earth's circumference. He also thought Europe was wider than it actually was and that Japan was farther from the coast of China than it really was. For these reasons, he figured he could reach Asia by going west, a concept that most of educated Europe at the time thought was daft — not because the earth was flat, but because Columbus' math was so wrong. Columbus, in effect, got lucky by bumping into land that, of course, wasn't Asia.

The Columbus flat-earth myth perhaps originated with Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus; there's no mention of this before that. His crew wasn't nervous about falling off the earth.


2. Columbus discovered America.

Yes, let's ignore the fact that millions of humans already inhabited this land later to be called the Americas, having discovered it millennia before. And let's ignore that whole Leif Ericson voyage to Greenland and modern-day Canada around the year 1000. If Columbus discovered America, he himself didn't know. Until his death he claimed to have landed in Asia, even though most navigators knew he didn't. [Top 10 Intrepid Explorers]

What Columbus came across was the archipelago of the Bahamas and then the island later named Hispaniola, now split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On his subsequent voyages he went farther south, to Central and South America. He never got close to what is now called the United States.

So why does the United States celebrate the guy who thought he found a nifty new route to Asia and the lands described by Marco Polo? This is because the early United States was fighting with England, not Spain. John Cabot (a.k.a. Giovanni Cabot, another Italian) "discovered" Newfoundland in England's name around 1497 and paved the way for England's colonization of most of North America. So the American colonialists instead turned to Columbus as their hero, not England's Cabot. Hence we have the capital, Washington, D.C. — that's District of Columbia, not District of Cabot.


3. Columbus introduced syphilis to Europe.

This is hotly debated. Syphilis was present in pre-Columbus America. Yet syphilis probably existed for millennia in Europe as well, but simply wasn't well understood. The ancient Greeks describe lesions rather similar to that from syphilis. Perhaps by coincidence, an outbreak of syphilis occurred in Naples in 1494 during a French invasion, just two years after Columbus' return. This sealed the connection.

But aside from descriptions of syphilis-like lesions by Hippocrates, many researchers believe that there was a syphilis outbreak in, of all places, a 13th-century Augustinian friary in the English port of Kingston upon Hull. This coastal city saw a continual influx of sailors from distant lands, and you know what sailors can do. Carbon dating and DNA analysis of bones from the friary support the theory of syphilis being a worldwide disease before Columbus' voyages.


4. Columbus died unknown in poverty.

Columbus wasn't a rich man when he died in Spain at age 54 in 1506. But he wasn't impoverished. He was living comfortably, economically speaking, in an apartment in Valladolid, Crown of Castile, in present-day Spain, albeit in pain from severe arthritis. Columbus had been arrested years prior on accusations of tyranny and brutality toward native peoples of the Americas. But he was released by King Ferdinand after six weeks in prison. He was subsequently denied most of the profits of his discoveries promised to him by Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

After his death, though, his family sued the royal crown, a famous lawsuit known as the Pleitos colombinos, or Columbian lawsuits, lasting nearly 20 years. Columbus' heirs ultimately secured significant amounts of property and other riches from the crown. Also, most European navigators understood by the end of the 15th century, before his death, that Columbus had discovered islands and a large land mass unknown to them.


5. Columbus did nothing significant.

With all this talk of a hapless Columbus accidentally "discovering" the New World, as well as the subsequent genocide of native cultures, it is easy to understand the current backlash against Columbus and the national holiday called Columbus Day, celebrated throughout North and South America. This isn't entirely fair.

While Columbus was wrong about most things, he did help establish knowledge about trade winds, namely the lower-latitude easterlies that blow toward the Caribbean and the higher-latitude westerlies that can blow a ship back to Western Europe. Also, while Columbus wasn't the first European to reach the Western Hemisphere, he was the first European to stay. His voyages directly initiated a permanent presence of Europeans in both North and South America.

News of the success of his first voyage spread like wildfire through Europe, setting the stage for an era of European conquest. One can argue whether the conquest was good or bad for humanity: that is, the spread of Christianity, rise of modernism, exploitation and annihilation of native cultures, and so on. But it is difficult to deny Columbus' direct role in quickly and radically changing the world.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.



Columbus's Death and Burial, and the movement of his bones over centuries

Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506, at the age of 54. He had suffered through a long terminal illness that first showed symptoms on his third voyage eight years before. His son Fernando records the cause of death as "gout." But in those days, gout was anything that caused joint pain. Recent research by Gerald Weissmann indicates that the most likely cause of death was Reiter's Syndrome, a rare tropical disease.

Following his death, Christopher Columbus perhaps travelled more in death than even in life. His bones moved location in Spain, then went to the Caribbean, mover a number of times there, before being (perhaps) finally repatriated to Spain to rest in Seville Cathedral

After Christopher Columbus' death body underwent excarnation - that is the flesh was removed so that only his bones remained. In his will, Columbus requested his remains to be taken to the Caribbean island of La Espanola. However he was initially buried in the Castilian city of Valladolid, where he died on May 20, 1506. Christopher Columbus, died without the fanfare. He was buried, with only a handful in attendance, in a small monastery at Valladolid, Spain, wearing the habit of the third order of Saint Francis and, according to his wishes, in the chains he wore upon his arrest after his third voyage to the New World. Only three lines of text marked his obituary in the official record

1.Valladolid. He was first first interred in Valladolid. He remained at Valladolid only three years as his bones were disinterred and moved to Seville's Carthusian monastery.

2. The monastery of La Cartuja in Seville. When Columbus' eldest son and heir Diego died in 1526, he was buried beside his father. In 1537, Maria de Rojas y Toledo, widow of one of Columbus' sons, Diego, sent the bones of her husband and his father to the cathedral in Santo Domingo for burial.

His son Diego is the authority for the statement that his remains were buried in the Carthusian Convent of Las Cuevas, Seville, within three years after his death. According to the records of the convent, the remains were given up for transportation to Haiti in 1536, though other documents placed this event in 1537. It is conjectured, however, that the removal did not take place till 1541, when the Cathedral of Santo Domingo was completed, though there are no records of this entombment. The bones certainly were moved to Hispaniola.

And there matters stood for over two centuries.

3. Santiago, Santo Domingo. So the remains of Columbus were moved across the Atlantic, and were buried under the right side of the altar in the cathedral in Santo Domingo. In 1795,the French captured the island of Hispaniola from Spain. By now the Spanish viewed Columbus' remains as a national treasure, and wished to prevent their capture by the French. So, relying on old records, they dug up his remains and removed them to Havana, Cuba.

However the tale is confused by the fact that in 1877, workers restoring the cathedral in Santo Domingo found, under the left side of the altar, a box containing human remains. The box bore the name Columbus. They unearthed an urn containing bones and displaying the inscription: "The illustrious and distinguished male, Don Christopher Columbus." It was thought by some that the "left" and "right" sides of the altar depended upon the direction one is facing. And therefore, some argue, the body that had been moved to Haiti in 1795 was really that of Diego, while the Admiral's remains had been in Santo Domingo all along.

4 Haiti. When, in 1795, Haiti passed under French control, Spanish authorities removed the supposed remains of Columbus to Havana. On the occupation of Cuba by the United States they were once more removed to Seville (1898).

5. Havana. A century later, when Cuba became independent following the Spanish-American War in 1898, his remains were moved back to the Cathedral of Seville

6 Seville Cathedral. They were placed on an elaborate catafalque. Columbus' tomb in the cathedral of Seville is guarded by four statues of kings representing the Kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon, and Navarre.How ever, a lead box bearing an inscription identifying "Don Christopher Columbus" and containing fragments of bone and a bullet was discovered at Santo Domingo in 1877. The DNA tests currently being carried out are to try to determine where Columbus' bones actually are today.


AP Report 20 May 2006

A forensic team led by Spanish geneticist Jose Antonio Lorente has compared DNA from bone fragments that Spain says are from the explorer, and are buried in a cathedral in Seville, with DNA from remains that are known to be from Columbus' brother Diego, who is also buried in the southern Spanish city.

"There is absolute matchup between the mitochondrial DNA we have studied from Columbus' brother and Christopher Columbus," said Marcial Castro, a Seville-area historian and high school teacher who is the mastermind behind the project, which began in 2002. Mitochondria are cell components rich in DNA.

Castro and his research colleagues have been trying in vain for years to convince the Dominican Republic to open up an ornate lighthouse monument in the capital Santo Domingo that it says holds the remains of the explorer. Juan Bautista Mieses, the director of the Columbus Lighthouse, a cross-shaped building several blocks long, dismissed the researchers' findings and insisted Friday that Columbus was indeed buried in the Dominican Republic. "The remains have never left Dominican territory," Bautista said.

Castro stressed in an interview that, although his team is convinced the bones in Seville are from Columbus, this does not necessarily mean the ones in Santo Domingo are not. Columbus' body was moved several times after his death and the tomb in Santo Domingo might conceivably also hold part of the right body. "We don't know what is in there," Castro said.

Castro says the team is now focusing their DNA tools on another Columbus mystery: his country of origin. Traditional theory says he was from Genoa, Italy, but another line of argument says Columbus was actually from the Catalonia region of northeast Spain.

One piece of evidence supporting this latter idea is that when Columbus wrote back from the New World in Spanish, not Italian, he used words and phrases that reflected influence from the Catalan language, Castro said.

The new team has now collected DNA samples from more than 350 men in Catalonia whose last name is Colom, the Catalan way of saying Columbus, and from 80 in Italy whose last name is Colombo. The idea is to compare the genetic material with DNA from another authenticated Columbus relative, his son Hernando, who is buried in Seville. In this case, another kind of DNA is focused on genetic material from the y-chromosome, which men receive only from their fathers.

DNA from y-chromosomes is much more scarce than the mitochondrial kind and deteriorates more rapidly. The team is using Hernando's because that of his alleged father is in bad shape. Lorente and company want to see if the DNA pattern in Columbus' y-chromosome still shows up in men in either Catalonia or Italy, which would suggest he is from one place or the other, Castro said. It is not known when the results of this second study will be available because the data from Italy is still scant. "The people whose last name is Colombo are cooperating less than the Coloms in Spain," he said.


Go back | Date: 11 Oct 2011
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