Every year, the United States celebrates Christopher Columbus. But what you learned about Columbus in elementary school is probably wrong. As History reports, the explorer “stumbled upon the Americas.” He made four trips across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502, trying to find a route west from Europe to Asia. Instead, he ran into the New World, and his journeys “marked the beginning of centuries of transatlantic colonization.”
As Vox puts it, Columbus “initiated the two greatest crimes in the history of the Western Hemisphere: the Atlantic slave trade, and the American Indian genocide.” He only embarked on his journey because he “was terrible at math” and believed the earth was thousands of miles smaller than it really was. When he ran into the New World, he sailed around the Caribbean, murdering indigenous people, all the while thinking he was in India.
After learning about the brutal ways he altered the course of Western civilization, most people probably wouldn’t want to be related to Christopher Columbus. But does the infamous explorer have any living descendants? And did his discoveries make his family wealthy? Here’s what you need to know.
Christopher Columbus landing in America | Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Washington Post reports that Christopher Columbus often dismissed queries about his origins with the phrase, “Vine de nada,” or “I came from nothing.” Scholars say he may have been born in Genoa. However, he wrote in indifferent Latin or good Spanish, never in Italian. Columbus also had French connections. He married a Portuguese woman. Plus, Columbus may have been Jewish. And he may have lived in Catalonia. He died in the Spanish city of Valladolid. And he had an illegitimate son, Fernando, and hundreds of possible descendants in three countries.
The BBC notes that theories vary as to whether Columbus was Italian, Spanish, French, Polish, or Portuguese. The publication adds, however, that “The bulk of historical evidence points to Columbus being either Spanish or Italian.” Researchers tested the DNA from bones thought to be Columbus’s remains, gathered DNA samples from hundreds of men with the last names “Colon” and “Colombo,” and scrutinized his letters to try to discover his native language.
But the BBC explains, “even with a mix of historic, scientific, and linguistic research, the story of the explorer’s personal geography may never find completion.”
Columbus’s journeys were funded by the King and Queen of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who hoped that he would find gold. As History reports, “Columbus enjoyed a substantial revenue from Hispaniola gold during the last years of his life.” After Queen Isabella, his chief patron, died, “he repeatedly attempted (unsuccessfully) to gain an audience with King Ferdinand, whom he felt owed him further redress.”
Columbus had two sons, one born of his 1478 marriage to Doña Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, and the other an illegitimate son born to Doña Beatriz Enriquez. In his estate, Columbus left titles and income to his sons, and relations between his legitimate and illegitimate families reportedly remained cordial.
Columbus’s immediate descendants brought a series of lawsuits, known as the “Pleitos Colombinos,” against the Crown of Castile in the early 1500s. The BBC reports that the lawsuits lasted for more than 20 years. Columbus’s family sued for access to profits and property promised to Columbus for his discovery, arguing that the crown didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Luis, Columbus’s grandson, won some concessions, including titles as the Duke of Veragua, and Marquis of Jamaica.
As PR Newswire reports, “The royals agreed, in writing, known as the ‘Capitulations of Santa Fe,’ to give Columbus and his heirs ‘ten percent of all the wealth he discovered and claimed for the Crown on his voyages made on their behalf,’ as well as land grants, extravagant titles and untold potential powers in the New World, in perpetuity.”
The contract would reportedly be valued at more than $100 trillion in today’s currency. And it would have made Columbus’s family one of the wealthiest families in history, if not the single richest family ever. But as PR Newswire notes, “Columbus fell out of favor, and the Royal’s reneged on their agreement.” In 1536, Columbus’s heirs were awarded land in the Caribbean (on Jamaica and Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), other powers, titles, and compensation.
Additionally, the Chicago-based Voelker Litigation Group reports that “A separate, but related, and very colorful action was brought in the form of a declaratory judgment to declare the rightful primary heirs to Columbus’ legacy of money, power, and titles. This litigation continued – on and off – for over two more centuries.”
Christopher Columbus does have living descendants — including Cristóbal Colón, whom the BBC characterizes as the “20th Christopher Columbus” on the family tree. Colón “dedicates most of his time to activities related to his ancestor, and has represented Spain as an ambassador for special missions related to Columbus,” the BBC reports. He also weighed in on the Pleitos Colombinos, telling the BBC that the Spanish crown did not “honor what was agreed.”
All Things Interesting reports of Colón that “if the historical Columbus had been a little more careful with his contracts and demanded his share of the revenue from the New World to pass to his descendants in perpetuity – which was a standard clause at the time – this man would be richer than all of the other people in the world today put together.”
The 20th Christopher Columbus also has some controversial opinions. He once wrote in an op-ed for USA Today that his famous ancestor doesn’t deserve to be blamed for violence against indigenous peoples. “We’re quick to rewrite history and accuse Christopher Columbus of decimating Native Americans when the truth is so much more complex,” Colon wrote.”What is happening at the hands of Columbus’ detractors is political, not historical. As his direct descendant and namesake, I should know.”
Read more: America’s Eyesores: The Ugliest Monuments in the U.S. That Need to Be Torn Down Immediately
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