Yesterday, August 3, but in 1492, three small ships were untied in pre-dawn darkness from the inland Port of Palos in Spain. Christopher Columbus, a man born in Genoa some 40 years before, set sail to change the world.
The explorer was kindly backed by the Catholic king and queen of Spain but the sponsorship did not include the funding. The mystery clouding the source of the money remains an untold story to this day. Such an ambitious venture would have required abundant cash for that first journey into the unknown; add to that, then three more, to the Caribbean. But the capital and the source have never been clear. The king and queen’s backing appears to have been just a show.
Columbus thought he was sailing West to India or elsewhere in what is better known as the Far East, but for the Spanish court and the Portuguese the mission sought possession of the expanse of land that lay between Europe and the East. Both countries advised Rome of their intentions, so the Vatican might have something in the files that the rest of us don’t know. The rumour in ports of Spain, and among other seafaring nations in the Mediterranean, was that early traders and explorers had reached unknown and unnamed lands. Rather like the story that the Vikings or similar had reached Greenland and Nova Scotia well before the “official discovery.”
The life and times of Columbus are plagued with queries and few answers. My early learnings, as taught under established Argentine elementary education (which I suffered in the small village school built by my parents, uncles and several other English-speaking neighbours) were conveyed in starched language, repetitious and not generous with information.
We here in the pearl of the Plate were not to be “discovered” until some time after Columbus went to the Bahamas in 1492 (and his landing, on October 12, would be called Race Day, “Día de la Raza,” in our latitudes). The initial landing was by Juan Diaz de Solis (1470-1516), the first European to set foot on what is today Uruguay. He was eaten up by Guaraní Indians (the local Charrúas, initially blamed, were not thought to have cannibalistic interests). Here we waited until February 1536 for Don Pedro de Mendoza to build the fort that would be eventually part of Buenos Aires. A sick man, suffering from syphilis, Mendoza left in 1537 and died at sea aged 50.
As happens throughout history, no one thing takes place on its own, but is always somehow linked in a chain of events preceding and then following.
For my hints about Columbus, however, I must thank Dr Antonio Las Heras, an expert in matters to do with mental phenomena, spiritual and parapsychology research, and a strong follower of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), among other things. Essentially he has an eye for matters related to conspiracy theories and historical mysteries. Las Heras’ essay this week, published on the web but in part to be found in his book La trama Colón (“The Columbus Network,” published in Madrid in 2006), helped to produce this article.
Las Heras tries to answer questions concerning the political circumstances that pressed Columbus to get under way without delay, to claim the New World in an unknown geography as part of a Catholic empire. Coinciding or even nurturing Las Heras’ theories is the book by Simon Wiesenthal, Sails of Hope: the Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus, published in 1973.
Having thanked my sources, the next step is to bring the gossip up to date. For example, why did Columbus sail secretly in darkness before dawn, which was not the practice at that time, late Summer. High tide? No, from Palos to open water the river was deep enough (six to eight metres) normally. Daylight was preferred by port officials and seagoing captains. This was, after all, 1492.
Much of the story of Spanish conquest might sound like historical gossip. But the history of Latin America is a web of fantasies and fabrications born in Europe and cranked up in the colonies and have ruled over much political and social behaviour ever since. Read Gabriel García Márquez and Antonio di Benedetto for safe reference.
Las Heras wonders not just how the sailing under darkness was decided, but also why the sails of the three ships of Columbus bannered the crosses of the Templars, venturing that it was they, the Knights of Christ and the Temple of Jerusalem who may have put forth the money for the Columbus epic. You might say the foreign debt starts here. Antonio Las Heras also quotes a reminder from Simon Wiesenthal’s book that points to the secrecy surrounding the departure of Columbus, amid growing antiSemitism in the Spanish court. The Spanish had just recently defeated the Arab occupation of northern Spain and then ordered all Jews who did not accept conversion to become Catholics to leave Spain by August 2. Was this just a matter of religion or was there a greater interest in laying claim to the New World?
Also, Spain was irritated that England had not helped in the war against the Moorish occupation, even though the English Crown was still Roman Catholic. Henry VIII broke with Rome by Acts of Parliament passed between 1532 and 1534. The rivalry with England would soon be evident after Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) published his book Utopia in 1516. The story speaks of the creation of an island (Utopia) where a group of worthy gents attended by a servant class could spend their lives in harmony planning a better world. Although the death of Thomas More was ordered by Henry VIII in 1535, for refusing to abandon his Catholic faith, followers of the Utopia proposals wondered if they might not start up that ideal island somewhere in the land newly discovered, possibly in what would eventually be known as Patagonia. Spain saw that as the signal to send legions of conquerors, adelantados and armies of thugs, to safeguard the possession of the lands in the Americas.
So, as you butter your toast and sip your coffee this morning, bear in mind that 526 years ago today, Cristoforo Colombo or Cristóbal Colón or Christopher Columbus (whose name lives on in many forms: British Columbia, Columbia University, the republic of Colombia, and so on) and his three ships were secretly sailing in the Atlantic towards the beginning of the New World. Just look at what he left us.