The Grave Problem of Columbus.

Original title page

Most people don’t even know where Christopher Columbus is supposed to have been buried, let alone whether or not he really was buried there. And as to where he might be buried, if he isn’t buried where he is supposed to have been buried, well, it’s a closed book to most folk. Indeed, I was blissfully unaware of the whole messy controversy until I came across a 22 page booklet by Sir Travers Twiss, entitled Christopher Columbus: a Monograph on his True Burial Place, published in 1879.

First, where is Columbus supposed to be buried? Well, it is certain that some years after his death in 1506 his remains were interred in the chancel of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, on the gospel side (= right hand side) of the altar. Whether his resting place was ever actually marked by an inscription of some kind isn’t clear. But even if it was, in 1655 an English fleet arrived off Santo Domingo, and a certain Archbishop Pio, having got it into his head that the English were about to desecrate the Cathedral’s tombs, ordered them all to be covered with earth, especially, as he put it, that of the illustrious Christopher Columbus. However, tradition seems to have preserved the location of the tomb pretty accurately, so that the Archbishop’s actions appear not to have fuelled the controversy much. Something else did that, as we shall see.

We move forward to 1783 now. In that year it was found necessary to make some repairs to a wall on the gospel side of the altar, and in the course of the work there was unearthed “a chest of stone containing a leaden case, both being of cubical form, and about a yard in height.” It was quite damaged and bore no inscription. The body within was for the most part reduced to dust, though there wee apparently the recognisable remains of a fore-arm.

A few years earlier a similar chest had been discovered on the epistle (=left) side of the altar, and as of 1783 it was believed that the chest on the gospel side of the altar contained the remains of Christopher Columbus, and that on the epistle side the remains either of his brother, Don Bartholomew, or his son, Don Diego.

Moving forward to 1795 now, the Spanish had to hand over this part of Santo Domingo to the French. Not relishing the idea of leaving the mortal remains of Columbus in the care of the French, even if they did only consist of a fore-arm and a few bits and pieces, the Spanish authorities decided to dig him up and move him to Havana. The exhumation took place in the presence of various dignitaries, and every precaution was taken to authenticate it. A notarial act was drawn up certifying that a tomb had been opened on the gospel side of the altar, about a cubic yard in size, containing “some pieces of bone like the small bones of a human body” with “other mould or ashes, the colour of which identifies them as having formed part of the human body.” These remains were gathered up, placed in a gilded chest of lead, and shipped off to Havana.

So far so good. Let us now move forward to 1877, when it was again found necessary to do some repairs to the chancel of the cathedral. Digging on the left hand side of the altar a chest was unearthed which contained some human remains. It had inscribed upon it: “El Almirante D. Luis Colo, Duque de Veragua, Marques de ____”. This was the elder son of Don Diego – that is, the grandson of Christopher Columbus.

At this point we had better recap who is who and who is buried where. Christopher Columbus was buried on the right side of the altar. Don Bartholomew was the brother of Christopher Columbus and might have been buried to the left of the altar. The coffin found there “a few years before” 1783 was either his, or that of Don Diego, who was the son of Christopher Columbus. Don Luis, meanwhile, who was definitely buried on the left side of the altar, was the elder son of Don Diego.

We should now mention that Don Diego had another son – named after his grandfather, Christopher. This, of course, is where the plot thickens, for there are two Christopher Columbuses around, and, furthermore, both appear to have been buried in the cathedral chancel, and on the right side of the altar. The Proceedings of a Diocesan Synod convoked by the Archbishop of Santo Domingo in 1683 states that “the bones of Cristoval Colon (= Christopher Columbus) are interred in a case of lead in the chancel at the side of the pedestal of the great altar, with those of his brother Don Luis, which are on the other side.”

To complicate matters it was suggested, even back in 1795, that the “Don Luis” in this record was a clerical error, and should have read “Don Bartholomew”. But the 1877 discovery of Don Luis’s coffin makes this unlikely. Don Luis was there – what was left of him – and the 1683 report seems to be correct. Therefore Christopher Columbus the Younger ought to be on the right hand side of the altar somewhere. Accordingly, having dug up Don Luis, the workmen dug on the other side of the altar and sure enough there was another coffin, bearing the inscription “Illtre y Esdo Varon Don Cristoval Colon” – that is, “the illustrious and Noble Baron Don Christopher Columbus.”

But was this Christopher Columbus the Younger? The coffin was also inscribed “D. de la A. Per. Ate.” and “C.C.A.” These inscriptions were interpreted as “Descubridor de la America, Primero Almirante” (= Discoverer of America, First Admiral) and “Cristoval Colon Almirante” (= Christopher Columbus, Admiral.) It was the first of these inscriptions that set the cat among the pigeons, of course, for it implied that this was not Christopher Columbus the Younger, but Christopher Columbus the Elder. And if that was the case, then in the midst of all the pomp and ceremony of 1795, the wrong body had been shipped to Havana! It was on this assumption that in September 1877 the Bishop of Orope, the Vicar Apostolic of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo, announced to the world that the true remains of the great Columbus had been discovered, still “in the chancel of the Cathedral Church of Santo Domingo.”

But – the inscriptions on the coffin were in German gothic characters, and these were not used in Spain in monumental inscriptions in the early part of the sixteenth century when Columbus the Elder was interred. Roman characters were used.

 Furthermore, there is something suspicious about that “Descubridor de la America.” America is a name which comes from the name of the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci, who is reputed to have been the first to reach the north coast of South America, as well as large stretches of the coast of North America, between 1497 and 1499. Columbus discovered “the Indies of the Western Hemisphere”, so that it would be surprising if Don Luis had caused his grandfather’s remains to be described, when interred in the cathedral in 1541, as those of “the Discoverer of America”. (The more so since Vespucci was a protegé of a bitter enemy of Columbus.)

The earliest Spanish book in which the name America is used is dated 1672 – long after the 1541 interment of Columbus. Furthermore, when Fernando Columbus, the youngest son of the Great Admiral, was buried in Seville in 1539, the inscription on his tomb referred to his father as discoverer of “the Indies and the New World.”

That the Christopher Columbus dug up in 1877 was not “the discoverer of America”, but his grandson, is confirmed by two things.

Firstly, the remains were much more complete than those dug up in 1793, consisting of upwards of thirty bones, “almost enough to enable a skilful osteologist to set up a skeleton.” The 1793 body, remember, was little more than a forearm. Now, Christopher Columbus the Younger had remained undisturbed since his burial in 1572, whereas the Great Admiral’s body had undergone no less than three journeys overland and a voyage across the Atlantic between his death in 1506 and his interment in Santo Domingo in 1541. Thus the better preserved body seems likely to have been that of the younger Columbus, and the other that of the older.

Secondly, in the coffin dug up in 1877 there was a leaden bullet, about an ounce in weight. There is no record of Christopher Columbus the Older ever having been wounded by a bullet, whereas Christopher Columbus the Younger was a soldier by profession and might well have been wounded by one, if not killed. (There appears to be no record of the cause of death of the younger Columbus, however.) Furthermore, the nature of the bullet is more consistent with the date of the grandson than that of the Admiral.

So, the evidence points to the conclusion that the correct body was transported to Havana in 1795 and that the body dug up in 1877 was that of Columbus’s grandson. But of course, if that is true, what about the inscriptions on the 1877 coffin? Are they not forgeries, as indeed the type of lettering and reference to “America” suggest? And if so, who was responsible?

There is no suggestion that it was the Bishop of Orope, though as Twiss says, he “may have been unduly biased by his desire to procure the beatification of the Great Admiral…and by his hope that the shrine of Columbus in Santo Domingo would become a place of pilgrimage for mariners….”

Whoever perpetrated it, the fact remains that once the controversy was set in motion, no-one could be really sure which body was which. As Twiss says, it is more than a minor mischief “if the Christian mariners of the West Indies are to be permanently perplexed by having to decide which of the two bodies of  Christopher Columbus is the true body of the discoverer of the New World.”

Postscript. Various modern encyclopaedias and guide books confidently assert that the remains of Christopher Columbus were brought from Havana to Spain in 1899 and that they were finally deposited in the Cathedral at Seville in 1902. But of course, this assumes that the correct Christopher Columbus was transferred from Santo Domingo to Havana in the first place……