By Jorge Castro-Carreia
(from The May edition of the Madeira Times)
Five centuries after his death, Christopher Columbus remains a mysterious and controversial figure. He has been described as one of the greatest mariners in history, a visionary genius, a mystic, a failed administrator, a naive entrepreneur not to mention a ruthless, greedy imperialist.
Consequently, much about Christopher Columbus and his legacy continues to be unresolved. Inconsistencies in his own account of his exploits have been debated by academics across the globe for centuries. Objective historical records have also, either been rewritten in later editions or interpreted subjectively by those willing to satisfy their own preconceived notions. Therefore, trying to find information on Christopher Columbus and his stay here on the archipelago of Madeira is much like trying to find a needle in an haystack. The resource material is there, but none of it seems to be coherent. Each new piece of information seems to differ from another. To make matters worse, no contemporary original documents exist in the Madeiran archives or in the national Portuguese archives to confirm that he ever set foot on Madeira. This lack of evidence in Portugal is blamed on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which destroyed most of the city including the national archive.
It is irrelevant for this article to involve ourselves in the question of whether Columbus was Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or of Jewish descent. What is important is to establish the extent of his involvement with the archipelago of Madeira and fortunately we have reliable foreign sources to prove that he did in fact stay on the island.
A good example is the Asseretto Document, from the Notarial Archive of the city of Genoa. The papers were named after Hugo Asseretto who in 1904 recognised its importance. Because notarial documents were used as legal proof, this document is considered highly reliable and incontrovertible proof of Columbus’s involvement with Madeira. It records a dispute over the mishandling of a shipment of sugar, between 1478-79, during what is commonly referred to as Columbus’s commercial period. In 1478, Paolo di Negro, a Genoese living in Lisbon, commissioned Columbus to go to Madeira to purchase for Ludovico Centurione, a resident of Genoa, 2,400 arrobas of sugar. Ludovico Centurione wanted the sugar to be shipped to Genoa and paid Paolo di Negro 1,290 ducats for the order. However, Paolo di Negro entrusted Columbus with only 103 ducats, instructing him that he would forward the rest of the money to Madeira on a latter date. Columbus chartered a Portuguese vessel and sailed from Lisbon bound for Madeira in July 1478. Once there, he prematurely placed an order for the 2,400 arrobas of sugar from Erogio Catalão expecting to receive the rest of the money from Lisbon with which to pay for the consignment. However, the money was never forthcoming and Columbus had to settle for a small portion of the sugar that he had originally ordered. When Columbus reached Genoa, Ludovico Centurione then wanted to know why Columbus had only delivered a small fraction of the merchandise that he had originally ordered and paid for in full. The ship’s Captain also protested, insisting on being paid for the transport of the entire freight as had been stipulated in their agreement. The unhappy Centurione then consulted, Gerolamo Ventimiglia, a public notary in Genoa to resolve the dispute. On the 25st of August 1479 in the presence of both parties and witnesses , the notary duly recorded the proceeding now known as the Asseretto Document. In a sworn statement Columbus recounted the story and declared that he was a citizen of Genoa, that he was about 27 years of age, that he had 100 florins on his person, and that he intended to depart for Lisbon the following day.
Soon after this incident in 1479 or 1480 Columbus married Filipa Moniz Perestrello, the daughter of Isabel Moniz and Bartholomew Perestrello, the first governor of the island of Porto Santo. It is interesting that Columbus never mentions the name of his wife in any of his papers, although he does refer to her twice. There is a letter written in 1500 where he confirms to having a wife. He refers to her again in his Will written on the 25th of August 1505 where he recommends to his son Diogo that a Mass should be said for “the souls of my father, my mother, and my wife.” However, a record of this marriage has never been found. All that we know today about their marriage was written by Fernando Columbus, the youngest illegitimate son of Columbus who traveled constantly with his father between the ages of 12 and 18. He was the author of the first published biography, Historia del Almirante Don Cristóbal Colón, in which he confesses, “I do not have enough information, because he died when I did not have the audacity or the experience to ask him, out of filial respect or to speak with greater veracity, because as a boy I was far from the idea of ever writing it.” The other source of reference that Christopher Columbus got married comes from Historia De Las Indies by Bartolome de las Casas, later the Bishop of Chiapas, who sailed with Columbus on his third voyage to the new world. However, the historical value of these two volumes have seriously been questioned by historians for they contain many contradictions, although Bartolome de Las Casas undoubtedly plagiarized a great deal of Fernando’s writing. Nevertheless, according to Fernando, Columbus met Filipa Moniz Perestrello whilst attending Mass at the Convento de Santos in Lisbon, which belonged to the Order of Santiago and where Filipa was living, as most aristocratic girls did at that time. The marriage took place in Lisbon, but they departed shortly after for Porto Santo. Unfortunately we do not know the date or the place of the marriage, but since their son Diogo was born in Porto Santo in 1480, we can suppose that the marriage took place towards the end of 1479. They resided for some time with his mother-in-law, Isabel Moniz, in Porto Santo. Due to Columbus’s interest in navigation Isabel Moniz gave him the papers, maps and navigational instruments which had once belonged to her deceased husband, Bartholomew Perestrello, who had been a successful navigator. Unfortunately we do not know why or when Filipa died only that it was prior to Columbus’s departure for Spain in 1485 and soon after the birth of their son. We do know, however, that she was buried in Lisbon, for Diogo in his Will refers to “the body of Dona Felipa Moniz, the legitimate wife of the Admiral which lies in the Carmo Monastery, in Lisbon, in the Piety chapel, because of her Moniz lineage .” After the death of his wife Columbus left Madeira with his son, Diogo.
Today many visitors are delighted when they are shown the location of where Columbus is supposedly to have lived in Funchal. Unfortunately, there is controversy surrounding the authenticity of the exact location where the 15th century Casa Esmeraldo was suppose to have stood. The building, the old residence of the wealthy Flemish sugar merchant, João Esmeraldo, was regrettably demolished in 1877 to make way for a new road. However, the Manueline twin-arched window frame, which once formed part of the principal window of the house, was bought by Henry Hinton and removed before the house was demolished. It can today be seen in the gardens of the Quinta da Palmeira. Before living in Funchal Columbus inhabited a house which was located just behind the church on Porto Santo now believed to be the Casa Museu Cristóvão Colombo. There is no documented proof that he ever lived there but all the evidence points to that location.
Columbus’s last contact with Madeira was in 1498 on his third voyage to the Americas. Columbus left the port of Sanlucar in southern Spain on May 30th, 1498 with six ships. Spain was at war with France and it was rumoured that a French were lying in wait for him off the Cape of São Vicente. To avoid this ambush Columbus decided to sail south, passing near the African coast, instead of following a direct route to Porto Santo. Eight days later, on the 7th of June 1498, his fleet finally reached Porto Santo to take on valuable supplies. Unfortunately, the island was on high alert, confusing Columbus’s fleet with that of the French corsairs. Almost all of the farms, goods and flocks were guarded and the islanders had fled towards the interior. Unable to take on provisions Columbus decided to sail that same night for Madeira. They only reached Funchal on the 10th of June and according to Bartolome de Las Casas, “he was very well received in the town and with much rejoicing, because he was well known there, having been a citizen thereof during some time.” Columbus remained in Funchal for six days stocking up on provisions such as water, wood and other necessities for his long voyage. There is no written evidence to suppose he ever saw Madeira again.
Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20th, 1506, at the age of 54. He had suffered through a long terminal illness that first showed symptoms on his third voyage eight years before. According to his son Fernando, the cause of death was “gout”. However, a Recent study by Dr. Gerald Weissmann indicates that the most likely cause of death was Reiter’s Syndrome, a rare tropical disease. Columbus was initially buried in a small cemetery in Valladolid. Shortly thereafter, his body was moved to Seville. When Columbus’ eldest son and heir Diogo died in 1526, he was buried beside his father.