Oh Brother

One of the chapters of The India Road is called Oh Columbus. In it, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea is in Lisbon, invited to a talk given in the palace by Bartolomeu Dias, the man who rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Columbus had a special dispensation for travel from King John II, the Perfect Prince, because he was wanted by the authorities in Lisbon for an unpaid debt.

There’s a fascination with the origin of Columbus, and the mysteries surrounding his identity. The mainstream view is well described in sources like Wikipedia, with the Genovese family context, including the names of both parents, and of his brothers.

The world around us is becoming severely derailed, for various reasons, and I don’t much feel like talking about it this morning. I would just say that in Europe, all the austerity programs are a symptom of a whole continent gone bonkers. Russia appears to be going bonkers, I guess the people thought that cycles in democracy should be more like the US, Republican-Democrat-Republican, rather than the incestuous cycle of Putin-Medvedev-Putin. In the US, the GOP is going bonkers―makes the Tea Party look like a genteel place where cucumber sandwiches are served.

The world gone bonkers. Evidence from the United States.

The Mid-East clearly is bonkers, so only Africa and SE Asia appear to be acting normally (ok, pretty bonkers, but not in an unusual way).

I think the achievements of Columbus are much more important than his nationality, and I have grave reservations about those. Like the sovereign debt crisis, the voyages of Columbus seem to abide by the law of unintended consequences. He thought you could sail the Atlantic in three days, got to Guanahani which he considered to be India, and measured the latitude of Cuba as Boston. He couldn’t do sums, let’s face it. Maybe he was Portuguese, since apparently we can’t do sums either. As an example of how much nonsense is still written about Columbus, consider this text. The original, written by a child, has forgivable inaccuracies. The “Editor’s” notes are appalling, including the claim Columbus sailed without a compass.

Having said all that, it’s fun to speculate about the origin of the explorer. The main lines of “evidence” that Columbus might not be from Genoa are that he didn’t write or apparently speak Italian, various cryptic references (made by him) throughout his life, and the fact there are large gaps in his biographical documentation. There have been theories that he was of Polish descent, which if confirmed would cause a bit of fun in the States between Americans of Italian and Polish roots, but it’s probably fair to say that the Admiral of the Ocean Sea was not of the Polish persuasion.

It’s undeniable that Columbus spent much time in Portugal, that he was married to a lady from the island of Madeira, from the Perestrelo family, that his brother Bartolomeu lived in Lisbon, and that he sailed extensively with the Portuguese. There is a book, in the Dan Brown vein, which spins a yarn around the possibility that the explorer was a Portuguese Jew, but it’s just a collection of factoids. And the brainy hotty is actually a Swedish hooker. Contrary to Uncle Dan’s books, where sex is streng verboten, the novel describes a lewd scene with the hooker, where for some bizarre reason she want to make a soup for the hero with milk from her boobs. Except she’s clearly not lactating. But I digress.

Now two brothers have appeared on the scene. They are apparently descended from a bastard line of Afonso V, the father of the Perfect Prince, and have become obsessed with the origins of both Magellan and Columbus. Magellan, or Fernão de Magalhães, was undoubtedly Portuguese, as were many other explorers that sailed under the Castillian flag. The diaspora didn’t start with Frau Merkel, and it will continue long after the bean counters have run out of beans.

Cabeza the Vaca, explorer of Texas and Louisiana, had some Portuguese commanders, and the feast of João Cabrilho in San Diego, California, is still celebrated today. I’m doing some work in North Puget Sound right now, and I was delighted to find that oceanography data has been collected there at a location called Fidalgo Island. Our wiki-wiki friends tell us that the name comes from the Spanish explorer Salvador Fidalgo, but I say nay nay. Hidalgo, contracted from Hijo de Algo, i.e. son of someone (important), is the Castillian word. Fidalgo has a similar root, from the Portuguese word Filho.

What I can’t see on those Library of Congress maps are the captions. No amount of zooming will do it. I had never heard of Herr Johann Georg Kohl, but I’m an instant fan. I need to go to Germany next month, and if the maps are in Weimar, I need to see them. No speed limits on the autobahn.

In the cabbage (kohl) department, I had only heard of Helmut, and I sorely miss him in these Merkozy days. Somehow, it seems that the XIXth century historian Kohl, the mega-inflationary Weimar Republic, the modern day pro-Europe Chancellor Helmut, and the sovereign debt crisis have coalesced in a bizarre coincidence of Brownian motion. If I believed in conspiracy theories, I’d start stirring the milk into the soup.

The Library of Congress reference, which I didn’t know, also has a document related to Portuguese exploration of the North American east coast. That too is a revelation for me, together with the hypothesis that Labrador was named after an Azorian farmer. If that’s true, then the Portuguese indirectly named an extremely popular breed of dogs. The story of João Vaz Corte Real, which the LOC article also relates, is well known. The discoverer of Newfoundland is described in The India Road, and the XVth century (1489 or 1490) world map of Henricus Martellus Germanicus labels it the Land of Johannes Vaz.

Anes is the patronymic of João (just as the surname Gonçalves is of the Christian name Gonçalo), and according to the latest Columbian theory, Columbus was in fact called Sancho Anes da Silva. I took time out on Thursday evening to go to a conference at the aptly named Museum of the Orient, to listen to the theory unfold. The brothers were up on stage, somewhat reminiscent of the two old fellows from the Muppets. One spoke, one listened. Maybe they take turns.

According to this story, and it was well told, the identity of Columbus couldn’t be revealed because he was the fruit of an affair between the Infanta Leonor of Portugal and D. João Meneses da Silva. Funnily enough, the father later became a Franciscan monk, taking on the name Beato Amador. It literally means Lover Monk.

Leonor was the daughter of D. Duarte, king of Portugal, and sister of Afonso V, father of the Perfect Prince. Afonso V died in mid-September, just before Leonor’s fourth birthday. By then he had also sired another daughter, born the following March. Sounds to me like the poor monarch was completely shagged out. The girl born in March was called Joana, and is also mentioned in The India Road. Prudish she wasn’t! But that’s another story.

Prominent nasal evidence. From left to right; Eleanor of Portugal, Christopher Columbus, Emperor Maximillian I. Undoubtedly, all were in possession of impressive conks.

Eleanor of Portugal, Holy Roman Empress, was apparently betrothed to Frederick III, but prior to the arranged marriage, had a fling with the Portuguese nobleman and became pregnant. Politically, it would have been tragic to have to cancel the planned wedding, which would considerably strengthen the crown of Portugal. Several details of the marriage contract were interesting, one of them being that it lacked the so-called Matutine (morning) Clause. This contract term rewarded the virginity of the bride, and the theory was that it was deliberately omitted. In this case, they could have looked for stretch marks!

Eleanor is easy to find on the web, since she was the mother of Emperor Maximillian. Columbus will, according to this theory, have grown up in Italy, where the queen got married. The marriage was arranged in 1448, and the contract signed in Naples in 1451. Columbus was apparently born around August-Spetember 1451, which is a nice fit on dates. According to the story, he grew up as Sancho de Pedrosa, registered as born in Cuba. Lest you wonder, Cuba is a village in the Alentejo, southern Portugal, and I have myself spent some excellent moments there, largely doing things I shouldn’t discuss here.

The reason for his change of name was to pass him off as the son of Inês Gomes and Diogo de Pedrosa, who travelled to Italy with the Infanta Eleanor for her marriage to Frederick. The adopted child will have gone with them. Columbus often wrote in Catalan in later years, and the language used by the Kingdom of Naples in that period happened to be Catalan. Various pieces of evidence were presented at the talk. Some more believable, others less convincing.

The lecture promised to reveal the true identity of Columbus’s two brothers. One them is not a brother at all, and his name was Luis de Pedrosa, born from the first marriage of Columbus’s adopted father, Diogo. Luis would apparently be the elder brother Bartolomeu Colombo. Why poor old Luis would have needed to change his name to Columbus is altogether unclear. But these guys (or at least one of them) gave a good sales pitch, and I’m guessing they had an answer to that one too.

The other (half) brother would have been the offspring of the randy Franciscan, the Lover Monk. According to the tale, he was called Octavianno Sforza, and was the son of the Duke of Sforza. Only he wasn’t. The duke, no doubt in an effort to live up to his name, had twenty-four children, qualifying him, by any yardstick, as an enthusiastic fornicator. Only eight were in wedlock. Apparently his wife was somewhat dissatisfied with this situation, and described the eighth (octavian) child as a miracle. Presumably that was an explanation provided to the duke, who was probably too busy elsewhere to attend to domestic duties.

It certainly looks as if something was afoot, but it wasn’t the hand of god.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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