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Columbus: Portugal's Secret Agent?

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

Yesterday was October 12, the original date when America celebrated its discoverer, Christopher Columbus. On that date in 1492, Columbus claimed the islands now known as Cuba and Hispaniola for Spain. For much of the past century, in the USA Columbus was held in the highest regard and respect afforded such heroes as Thomas Edison and Thomas Jefferson.

In this recent era of ‘wokeness’ the reputations of each of those men have come under scrutiny and knocked them down a rung or two on the status bar. None more so than Columbus. This entry is not intended to defend Columbus' treatment of the native peoples, but to suggest he may not have been the man presented in history books.

It is quite possible and “likely” that Cristóbal Colón (his true name in the custom of Iberia) actually was an expert mariner born to Portuguese royalty and eventually commissioned by King Joao II of Portugal to serve as his secret agent in Spain.

A year ago, when I was in between books and looking for a good story, I came upon this wild theory that Columbus was not a Genoese weaver (and therefore not Italian by birth) who lucked into a wild story that the best route to India was by sailing west – and not around the tip of Africa as the Portuguese had exploited for decades.

How was he a secret agent, you may have wondered. According to the theory posited by two Portuguese authors, Mascarenhas Barreto (The Portuguese Columbus: Secret Agent of King John II 1992) and Manuel Rosa (Columbus: The Untold Story 2016), Colón had earned his seaman’s stripes sailing on voyages as far away as Greenland. Which in the minds of these two authors disproved the mainstream theory that Columbus had little experience sailing the seas and struck out west across the Atlantic with three ships on a hunch.

This citation May 24, 2021 from El Pais, best summarizes Barreto's theory: "A third theory involving Portugal is proposed by the researcher Carlos Evaristo, who insists that, in reality, Columbus was the son of Ferdinand, the duke of Visue and Beja, and Isabel Gonçalves, a woman of Jewish descent. According to this version, Columbus would have been called Salvador Fernandes Zarco, and been born in the town of Cuba, in Portugal’s Alentejo region. As an adult, he became a captain and spied on Castile on behalf of King John II of Portugal. The author describes Columbus as a kind of “007 agent” for Spain’s neighbor."

Moreover, each author provided evidence that although Colón was a bastard, he descended from Portuguese royalty and was a distant cousin to King Joao (John) II. Which is why, the authors maintained, the Portuguese king turned to a trusted confidant and relative in asking Colón to convince the Spanish monarchs to fund Colón’s expeditions west over the Atlantic, which he claimed was the most direct route to India. King John pushed this theory so that the Spanish, who were then a distant second in the world’s maritime industry, would stop following Portuguese ships on their easterly routes to India.

It took seven years, but the ruse worked. Colón finally convinced Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to sponsor his voyage west, while the Portuguese solidified their established camps in Indian ports. The bounty included spices and other commodities that helped solidify Portugal as a world power.

Meantime, the fruits of Columbus’ journeys didn’t immediately produce wealth. In time, however, the Spanish expanded its bases in the islands and moved to what is now Central and South America, emerging with wealth far more valuable than the spice trade. So, in time, the Spanish came to appreciate Colón’s farsight and accomplishments.

As did the United States of America, which established Columbus Day in 1934 thanks to the lobbying efforts of Knights of Columbus. It wasn’t until 1971, however, that Columbus Day was acknowledged as a federal holiday, with the celebration to occur on the second Monday in October.

Just 21 years later, the city of Berkeley, California dropped Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day. Twenty years later some three dozen cities and towns across America followed suit.

At present the United States retains the acknowledgement of Columbus’ contributions with a tip of the cap on the second Monday in October. With a respectful nod to the native peoples who Columbus met along his journeys to the “New World.”

Someday, we also may celebrate the true story about the Portuguese mariner and secret agent, Cristóbal Colón. But that day, likely, is a long ways off.


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