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Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery By Justin Winsor Characters: 18675

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The name Colombo.

No one has mastered so thoroughly as Harrisse the intricacies of the Columbus genealogy. A pride in the name of Colombo has been shared by all who have borne it or have had relationship with it, and there has been a not unworthy competition among many branches of the common stock to establish the evidences of their descent in connection, more or less intimate, with the greatest name that has signalized the family history.

This reduplication of families, as well as the constant recurrence of the same fore-names, particularly common in Italian families, has rendered it difficult to construct the genealogical tree of the Admiral, and has given ground for drafts of his pedigree, acceptable to some, and disputed by other claimants of kinship.

The French Colombos.

There was a Gascon-French subject of Louis XI., Guillaume de Casanove, sometimes called Coulomp, Coullon, Colon, in the Italian accounts Colombo, and Latinized as Columbus, who is said to have commanded a fleet of seven sail, which, in October, 1474, captured two galleys belonging to Ferdinand, king of Sicily. When Leibnitz published, for the first time, some of the diplomatic correspondence which ensued, he interjected the fore-name Christophorus in the references to the Columbus of this narrative. This was in his Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus, published at Hannover in 1693. Leibnitz was soon undeceived by Nicolas Thoynard, who explained that the corsair in question was Guillaume de Casanove, vice-admiral of France, and Leibnitz disavowed the imputation upon the Genoese navigator in a subsequent volume. Though there is some difference of opinion respecting the identity of Casanove and the capturer of the galleys, there can no longer be any doubt, in the light of pertinent investigations, that the French Colombos were of no immediate kin to the family of Genoa and Savona, as is abundantly set forth by Harrisse in his Les Colombo de France et d'Italie (Paris, 1874). Since the French Coullon, or Coulomp, was sometimes in the waters neighboring to Genoa, it is not unlikely that some confusion may arise in separating the Italian from the French Colombos; and it has been pointed out that a certain entry of wreckage in the registry of Genoa, which Spotorno associates with Christopher Columbus, may more probably be connected with this Gascon navigator.

Bossi, the earliest biographer in recent times, considers that a Colombo named in a letter to the Duke of Milan as being in a naval fight off Cyprus, between Genoese and Venetian vessels, in 1476, was the discoverer of the New World. Harrisse, in his Les Colombo, has printed this letter, and from it it does not appear that the commander of the Genoese fleet is known by name, and that the only mention of a Colombo is that a fleet commanded by one of that name was somewhere encountered. There is no indication, however, that this commander was Christopher Columbus. The presumption is that he was the roving Casanove.

Leibnitz was doubtless misled by the assertion of the Historie of 1571, which allows that Christopher Columbus had sailed under the orders of an admiral of his name and family, and, particularly, was in that naval combat off Lisbon, when, his vessel getting on fire, he swam with the aid of an oar to the Portuguese shore. The doubtful character of this episode will be considered later; but it is more to the purpose here that this same book, in citing a letter, of which we are supposed to have the complete text as preserved by Columbus himself, makes Columbus say that he was not the only admiral which his family had produced. This is a clear reference, it is supposed, to this vice-admiral of France. It is enough to say that the genuine text of this letter to the nurse of Don Juan does not contain this controverted passage, and the defenders of the truth of the Historie, like D'Avezac, are forced to imagine there must have been another letter, not now known.

The younger French admiral.

Beside the elder admiral of France, the name of Colombo Junior belonged to another of these French sea-rovers in the fifteenth century, who has been held to be a nephew, or at least a relative, of the elder. He has also sometimes been confounded with the Genoese Columbus.



To determine the exact relationship between the various French and Italian Colombos and Coulons of the fifteenth century would be hazardous. It is enough to say that no evidence that stands a critical test remains to connect these famous mariners with the line of Christopher Columbus. The genealogical tables which Spotorno presents, upon which Caleb Cushing enlightened American readers at the time in the North American Review, and in which the French family is made to issue from an alleged great-grandfather of Christopher Columbus, are affirmed by Harrisse, with much reason, to have been made up not far from 1583, to support the claims of Bernardo and Baldassare (Balthazar) Colombo, as pretenders to the rights and titles of the discoverer of the New World.

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Ferdinand is made in his own name to say of his father, "I think it better that all the honor be derived to us from his person than to go about to inquire whether his father was a merchant or a man of quality, that kept his hawks and hounds." Other biographers, however, have pursued the inquiry diligently.

Columbus's family line.

In one of the sections of his book on Christopher Columbus and the Bank of Saint George, Harrisse has shown how the notarial records of Savona and Genoa have been worked, to develop the early history of the Admiral's family from documentary proofs. These evidences are distinct from the narratives of those who had known him, or who at a later day had told his story, as Gallo, the writer of the Historie, and Oviedo did. Reference has already been made to the prevalence of Colombo as a patronymic in Genoa and the neighboring country at that time. Harrisse in his Christophe Colomb has enumerated two hundred of this name in Liguria alone, in those days, who seem to have had no kinship to the family of the Admiral. There appear to have been in Genoa, moreover, four Colombos, and in Liguria, outside of Genoa, six others who bore the name of Christopher's father, Domenico; but the searchers have not yet found a single other Christoforo. These facts show the discrimination which those who of late years have been investigating the history of the Admiral's family have been obliged to exercise. There are sixty notarial acts of one kind and another, out of which these investigators have constructed a pedigree, which must stand till present knowledge is increased or overthrown.

His grandfather.

What we know in the main is this: Giovanni Colombo, the grandfather of the Admiral, lived probably in Quinto al Mare, and was of a stock that seemingly had been earlier settled in the valley of Fontanabuona, a region east of Genoa. This is a parentage of the father of Columbus quite different from that shown in the genealogical chart made by Napione in 1805 and later; and Harrisse tells us that the notarial acts which were given then as the authority for such other line of descent cannot now be found, and that there are grave doubts of their authenticity.

His father.

It was this Giovanni's son, Domenico, who came from Quinto (where he left a brother, Antonio) at least as early as 1439, and perhaps earlier, and settled himself in the wool-weaver's quarter, so called, in Genoa, where in due time he owned a house. Thence he seems to have removed to Savona, where various notarial acts recognize him at a later period as a Genoese, resident in Savona.

The essential thing remaining to be proved is that the Domenico Colombo of these notarial acts was the Domenico who was the father of Christopher Columbus. For this purpose we must take the testimony of those who knew the genuine Colombos, as Oviedo and Gallo did; and from their statements we learn that the father of Christopher was a weaver named Domenico, who lived in Genoa, and had sons, Christoforo, Bartolomeo, and Giacomo. These, then, are the test conditions, and finding them every one answered in the Savona-Genoa family, the proof seems incontestable, even to the further fact that at the end of the fifteenth century all three brothers had for some years lived under the Spanish crown.

It is too much to say that this concatenation of identities may not possibly be overturned, perhaps by discrediting the documents, not indeed untried already by Peragallo and others, but it is safe to accept it under present conditions of knowledge; though we have to trust on some points to the statements of those who have seen what no longer can be found. Domenico Colombo, who had removed to Savona in 1470, did not, apparently, prosper there. He and his son Christopher pursued their trade as weavers, as the notarial records show. Lamartine, in his Life of Columbus, speaking of the wool-carding of the time, calls it "a business now low, but then respectable and almost noble,"-an idealization quite of a kind with the spirit that pervades Lamartine's book, and a spirit in which it has been a fashion to write of Columbus and other heroes. The calling was doubtless, then as now, simply respectable. The father added some e

xperience, it would seem, in keeping a house of entertainment. The joint profit, however, of these two occupations did not suffice to keep him free from debt, out of which his son Christopher is known to have helped him in some measure. Domenico sold and bought small landed properties, but did not pay for one of them at least. There were fifteen years of this precarious life passed in Savona, during which he lost his wife, when, putting his youngest son to an apprenticeship, he returned in 1484, or perhaps a little earlier, to Genoa, to try other chances. His fortune here was no better. Insolvency still followed him. When we lose sight of him, in 1494, the old man may, it is hoped, have heard rumors of the transient prosperity of his son, and perhaps have read in the fresh little quartos of Plaanck the marvelous tale of the great discovery. He lived we know not how much longer, but probably died before the winter of 1499-1500, when the heirs of Corrado de Cuneo, who had never received due payment for an estate which Domenico had bought in Savona, got judgment against Christopher and his brother Diego, the sons of Domenico, then of course beyond reach in foreign lands.

Domenico's house in Genoa.

Within a few years the Marquis Marcello Staglieno, a learned antiquary in Genoa, who has succeeded in throwing much new light on the early life of Columbus from the notarial records of that city, has identified a house in the Vico Dritto Ponticello, No. 37, as the one in which Domenico Colombo lived during the younger years of Christopher's life. The municipality bought this estate in June, 1887, and placed over its door an inscription recording the associations of the spot. Harrisse thinks it not unlikely that the great navigator was even born here. The discovery of his father's ownership of the house seems to have been made by carefully tracing back the title of the land to the time when Domenico owned it. This was rendered surer by tracing the titles of the adjoining estates back to the time of Nicolas Paravania and Antonio Bondi, who, according to the notarial act of 1477, recording Domenico's wife's assent to the sale of the property, lived as Domenico's next neighbors.

Columbus born.

If Christopher Columbus was born in this house, that event took place, as notarial records, brought to bear by the Marquis Staglieno, make evident, between October 29, 1446, and October 29, 1451; and if some degree of inference be allowed, Harrisse thinks he can narrow the range to the twelve months between March 15, 1446, and March 20, 1447. This is the period within which, by deduction from other statements, some of the modern authorities, like Mu?oz, Bossi, and Spotorno, among the Italians, D'Avezac among the French, and Major in England, have placed the event of Columbus's birth without the aid of attested documents. This conclusion has been reached by taking an avowal of Columbus that he had led twenty-three years a sailor's life at the time of his first voyage, and was fourteen years old when he began a seaman's career. The question which complicates the decision is: When did Columbus consider his sailor's life to have ended? If in 1492, as Peschel contends, it would carry his birth back no farther than 1455-56, according as fractions are managed; and Peschel accepts this date, because he believes the unconfirmed statement of Columbus in a letter of July 7, 1503, that he was twenty-eight when he entered the service of Spain in 1484.


But if 1484 is accepted as the termination of that twenty-three years of sea life, as Mu?oz and the others already mentioned say, then we get the result which most nearly accords with the notarial records, and we can place the birth of Columbus somewhere in the years 1445-47, according as the fractions are considered. This again is confirmed by another of the varied statements of Columbus, that in 1501 it was forty years since, at fourteen, he first took to the sea.


There has been one other deduction used, through which Navarrete, Humboldt, Irving, Roselly de Lorgues, Napione, and others, who copy them, determine that his birth must have taken place, by a similar fractional allowance of margin, in 1435-37. This is based upon the explicit statement of Andrès Bernaldez, in his book on the Catholic monarchs of Spain, that Columbus at his death was about seventy years old. So there is a twenty years' range for those who may be influenced by one line of argument or another in determining the date of the Admiral's birth. Many writers have discussed the arguments; but the weight of authority seems, on the whole, to rest upon the records which are used by Harrisse.

His mother, brothers, and sister.

The mother of Columbus was Susanna, a daughter of Giacomo de Fontanarossa, and Domenico married her in the Bisagno country, a region lying east of Genoa. She was certainly dead in 1489, and had, perhaps, died as early as 1482, in Savona. Beside Christoforo, this alliance with Domenico Colombo produced four other children, who were probably born in one and the same house. They were Giovanni-Pellegrino, who, in 1501, had been dead ten years, and was unmarried; Bartolomeo, who was never married, and who will be encountered later as Bartholomew; and Giacomo, who when he went to Spain became known as Diego Colon, but who is called Jacobus in all Latin narratives. There was also a daughter, Bianchinetta, who married a cheesemonger named Bavarello, and had one child.

His uncle and cousins.

Antonio, the brother of Domenico, seems to have had three sons, Giovanni, Matteo, and Amighetto. They were thus cousins of the Admiral, and they were so far cognizant of his fame in 1496 as to combine in a declaration before a notary that they united in sending one of their number, Giovanni, on a voyage to Spain to visit their famous kinsman, the Admiral of the Indies; their object being, most probably, to profit, if they could, by basking in his favor.

Born in Genoa.

Claim for Savona,

and other places.

If the evidences thus set forth of his family history be accepted, there is no question that Columbus, as he himself always said, and finally in his will declared, and as Ferdinand knew, although it is not affirmed in the Historie, was born in Genoa. Among the early writers, if we except Galindez de Carvajal, who claimed him for Savona, there seems to have been little or no doubt that he was born in Genoa. Peter Martyr and Las Casas affirm it. Bernaldez believed it. Giustiniani asserts it. But when Oviedo, not many years after Columbus's death, wrote, it was become so doubtful where Columbus was born that he mentions five or six towns which claimed the honor of being his birthplace. The claim for Savona has always remained, after Genoa, that which has received the best recognition. The grounds of such a belief, however, have been pretty well disproved in Harrisse's Christophe Colomb et Savone (Genoa, 1887), and it has been shown, as it would seem conclusively, that, prior to Domenico Colombo's settling in Savona in 1470-71, he had lived in Genoa, where his children, taking into account their known or computed ages, must have been born. It seems useless to rehearse the arguments which strenuous advocates have, at one time or another, offered in support of the pretensions of many other Italian towns and villages to have furnished the great discoverer to the world,-Plaisance, Cuccaro, Cogoleto, Pradello, Nervi, Albissola, Bogliasco, Cosseria, Finale, Oneglia, Quinto, Novare, Chiavari, Milan, Modena. The pretensions of some of them were so urgent that in 1812 the Academy of History at Genoa thought it worth while to present the proofs as respects their city in a formal way. The claims of Cuccaro were used in support of a suit by Balthazar Colombo, to obtain possession of the Admiral's legal rights. The claim of Cogoleto seems to have been mixed up with the supposed birth of the corsairs, Colombos, in that town, who for a long while were confounded with the Admiral. There is left in favor of any of them, after their claims are critically examined, nothing but local pride and enthusiasm.

The latest claimant for the honor is the town of Calvi, in Corsica, and this cause has been particularly embraced by the French. So late as 1882, President Grévy, of the French Republic, undertook to give a national sanction to these claims by approving the erection there of a statue of Columbus. The assumption is based upon a tradition that the great discoverer was a native of that place. The principal elucidator of that claim, the Abbé Martin Casanova de Pioggiola, seems to have a comfortable notion that tradition is the strongest kind of historical proof, though it is not certain that he would think so with respect to the twenty and more other places on the Italian coast where similar traditions exist or are said to be current. Harrisse seems to have thought the claim worth refuting in his Christophe Colomb et La Corse (Paris, 1888), to say nothing of other examinations of the subject in the Revue de Paris and the Revue Critique, and of two very recent refutations, one by the Abbé Casabianca in his Le Berceau de Christophe Colomb et la Corse (Paris, 1889), and the last word of Harrisse in the Revue Historique (1890, p. 182).

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