The Quest of the House of Columbus

Everyone has heard of Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who discovered the New World. Whilst the statement about his discovery is untrue (the Vikings under Leif Ericson had discovered Newfoundland centuries earlier), Columbus did initiate a prolonged period of contact between Europe and America. Despite the enormity of his discovery (and luck as Columbus had severely miscalculated the distance between Europe and Asia) Columbus always refused to accept that he had found a new landmass and maintained that America was the East Indies. However, Columbus’ success not only brought new lands and riches for Spain but also brought a huge increase in prestige for his descendants.

In 1492 as Columbus began his first voyage to the New World, his eldest son, Diego, was placed as a page at the Spanish royal court. This was already an extraordinary advancement for the grandson of a middle-class wool weaver from Genoa. Prior to sailing for the New World Christopher Columbus had struck a deal with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain known as “The Capitulation of Santa Fe” (from the Spanish word capitulos meaning “chapters”). These were negotiated as the Spanish army was camped outside the besieged city of Granada, the last remnant of the Muslim presence in Spain. The terms of these negotiations were so in Columbus’ favour that the term “capitulation” is almost more accurate than the original Spanish. The Capitulation of Santa Fe made Columbus Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor-General of all territories claimed for Spain, one tenth of all profits from the voyage, and an option to buy one-eighth into any commercial venture undertaken in the new lands.

However, reports of Columbus’ harsh rule in the New World (between 1494-1508) reached the King and Queen back in Spain including allegations of torture and genocide. Columbus was jailed and although he was released later he was stripped of his title of Viceroy and Governor-General. Without these titles to back up his claim the other stipulations of the Capitulation of Santa Fe were largely ignored.

These events would have a profound effect on the young Diego Columbus who would spend most of his adult life trying to regain the privileges of his disgraced father. An interesting theory exists that ties Diego to the pejorative word “dago”, used in the English lanquage to denote Mediterranean people. The theory states that “dago” is the English form of Diego’s name which was originally spelt D’ego and that due to his fame in the Caribbean it became a common term for all Spaniards in the Americas. However, a more likely theory is that the name Diego was a common reference to ship-hands on Portuguese vessels (similar to Jack on English ships) which led to an assumption that all Mediterraneans were called Diego.

In 1509 Diego followed in his father’s footsteps and was made Governor of the Indies, establishing his capital in Santo Domingo (in the modern day Dominican Republic). His house still stands today, known as El Alcazar de Colon. In 1511 he succeeded in regaining his father’s old title of Viceroy of the Indies. However, this was not a permanent honour and he would lose this title 7 years later. In an attempt to reassert his claims to the honours held by his father under the Capitulation Diego returned to Spain 1515 and 1523 to plead his case, failing in both attempts. His attempt in 1523 wont have been helped by the fact that he had just had to surpress the first major slave rebellion (1522) when Muslim slaves, taken from the Wolof Nation led an uprising on Diego’s own sugar plantations. This rebellion was never completely crushed and many of the insurgents fled into the mountains where they established independent communities among the native tribes. This event caused Diego his Governorship of the Indies much as his father’s hard-handed rule had in 1508.

Ultimately the greatest aid to Diego’s quest to regain his father’s rights came in the form of his wife. Using his position as Viceroy and Governor of the Indies Diego managed to secure a marriage with Maria de Toledo y Rojas, the daughter of the 1st Duke of Alba and the cousin of King Ferdinand. Diego would never manage to regain the titles for himself, following his own disgrace he returned to Spain reissued his lawsuit against the Spanish government for the return of titles and privileges given to Christopher Columbus. Diego, however, died two years later in 1526.

However, the lawsuit did not end with Diego’s death. His wife, Maria took up the issue which she now fought on behalf of her eldest son, Luis Colon (Colon being the Spanish form of Columbus) who was still a minor. She was aided in this by Diego’s half-brother (by Christopher’s mistress) , Fernando. Using her enormous influence Maria was finally able to accomplish what Diego had not. Her son was named Admiral of the Indies (in perpetuity to the line of Columbus) which contained similar privileges to the Admiral of Castile, he was also named Marquess of Jamaica (with the island as a personal fief for the Columbus family) as well as the title of Duke of Veragua (Panama). On top of this was added a perpetual annuity of 10,000 ducats (gold coins) to Columbus’ direct male heirs and 500,000 maravedi (silver coins) to each of his direct female heirs, in return the family would agree to no longer pursue their claim to the titles of Governor and Viceroy of the Indies.

The title of Marquess of Jamaica would become null in 1655 when the island was seized by the British. However, the title of Duke of Veragua still exists in the form of another Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon de Carvajal y Gorosabel), the 18th Duke. The title, itself holds no longer holds the land bequeathed to the Columbus family as it was returned to the Spanish crown in 1556 in return for an increase in the annuity from 10,000 to 17,000 ducats. However, that the title exists at all in the hands of a descendant of Christopher Columbus is thanks largely to the efforts of Diego Colon and his wife, Maria de Toledo y Rojas.

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