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Geo-Joint: Where’s Columbus?

Posted on September 21 2016

Along with George Washington fessing up about that cherry tree, one of the chestnuts of American common knowledge was that Columbus discovered America. He surely encountered some islands in the Caribbean and changed the course of history, but between the Vikings and others, his rep as the first to arrive has long been disputed. And, of course, there were lots of other folks who were well aware of the New World before Columbus arrived—because they were living here. All that aside, Columbus’ life was one of great ups and downs. His explorations gave him fame and fortune for a while, but after his later voyages to South and Central America, his false claims and bad behavior caused him to fall from grace with his royal patrons. Arrested and brought to court at one point, he regained some but not all of his stature before he died.

Not surprisingly, Columbus’ reputation was held in higher esteem after his death. After all, he had been a key figure in bringing awareness of huge new lands to Europe. He was buried in Valladolid, Spain where he died in 1506, but that wasn’t exactly the end of his earthly journeys. Diego, Columbus’ eldest son, was unhappy with his father’s being buried in Valladolid. He made arrangements three years later for the remains to be moved to a more prestigious location 360 miles south, at the Monasterio de la Cartuja, in the city of Seville, Spain. The dead explorer’s bones rested from their travels to Seville for about 28 years, whereupon his daughter-in-law brought both Christopher and his son Diego’s remains all the way across the Atlantic. Their destination there was the relatively new Catedral Santa Maria del Menor in Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola. Some think it had been Columbus’ wish to be buried in the New World and this was a fulfillment of his request, made possible by the building of this proper cathedral. After landing there in 1537, it looked like the last stop. For 250 years, Columbus slumbered in the lands he had long ago sailed to.

However, politics has a way of botching up a happy ending. The Spanish and French both had colonies on Hispaniola, but Spanish influence waned, and in 1795 Spain ceded its part of the island to France. Wishing to keep the remains of Columbus under Spanish protection, he was moved over to Havana, the capital of Cuba. Still, in the New World, he got to enjoy a Caribbean plot for another 100 years until the outbreak of war messed things up again. In 1898, the Spanish-American War brought hostilities to a number of locations in both the Pacific and Caribbean, including Cuba. Cuba gained independence through that conflict, and Columbus took another trip. Whether or not it pleased him, he was carried back across the Atlantic to Seville once again, this time to the Seville Cathedral. By this time, as happens whenever you move around a lot, it looks like things may have gotten mislabeled or gone missing.

In 1877, long after Columbus supposedly departed Hispaniola, a box was found during renovations at the Catedral there, that had the name “Don Colón” and descriptor, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” on it. Did the movers take the wrong casket to Havana and thence back to Spain, or was the one discovered on Hispaniola actually that of his son who was also a naval commander? The mystery was on. Perhaps as a point of pride, those wanting to honor Columbus in Santo Domingo built an enormous edifice in 1992 to house their collection of Columbian bones. They call it a lighthouse, Faro a Colón, though it looks more like an industrial complex. Questions about what bones were where were argued without any real hope of settlement, until genetic testing became available. Comparing the bones in Seville with others known to belong to Columbus’ brother showed a match, so advantage Spain. The curators of that Columbus Lighthouse in what is now the Dominican Republic won’t allow their bones to be tested. They could belong to Columbus, his son, or somebody else. It’s been a long time, making plenty of opportunity for confusion or even manipulation.

Scholars still argue over Columbus’ nationality as well: Italian or Spanish? Portuguese? Several theories exist, based on historical accounts, population genetic tests, and even analyses of his writings to determine his first language. Nothing has conclusively proven his origin, just as his final resting place(s?) are still in dispute. Cristóforo Colombo, Cristóbal Colón, Christopher Columbus—by whatever name, he is truly an International Man of Mystery.

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