Sunday, October 12, 2008

Flemish Contributions to Columbus' Discovery of America - Part I: Family History

Christopher Columbus

With the exception of a few outliers such as Berkeley, CA , most of the U.S. celebrates Columbus Day on the 2nd Monday in October. This year that means October 13th (even though the accurate date according to the current, Gregorian calendar, is October 21st). For the part of the U.S. population that claims Italian heritage, this day marks an important validation of their ethnicity and their place in America.

Louis II, Duke of Bourbon, in Genoa in the 15th C - painted in Brugge

Perhaps in a kind of ethno envy, other ancestral groups - Portuguese, English, Norwegian, and even Jewish - have laid claim to Columbus' origins. But serious historians doubt that there were any other nationalities besides the Italians, Basques, Spanish and Portuguese among the 87 crew of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria in 1492. However, as even that limited tally suggests, the European Discovery of America, as the late historian Samuel Eliot Morison described it, was more of a trans-national effort than the product of a lone individual or a single nationality. And, as you may suspect, the Flemish had a hand in this process.

Bruges today looks much like it did in the 15th century

The ties between Italy and Flanders go back of course to Roman times when Caesar called the tribes in Flanders the bravest he had ever met. But in more recent centuries the Italian presence is documented as early as 1128 (see, for example, "Italianen te Gent in de XIVe Eeuw" by Dr. P. Rogghe in Bijdragen Geschiedenis der Nederlanden, 1, 1946, 197-226). The expat Italian merchants rose to high strata in Flemish society. By the mid 1300s, for example, not only had most of these Italian merchants married into the local gentry, but had risen to prominence as receivers for Gent (Sanders Conte and Conte Gaulterotti) and mayors of Brugge (Anselm Adorne and Vanne Gui). And even those with generations of family history in the commercial and financial capital of 14th century Flanders, Brugge - such as the aforementioned Anselm Adorne - still considered themselves natives of their ancestral Italian home. In Adorne's case home was in fact Genoa in the 1470s. In other words, at the same time of Columbus' residence there.

The Ligurian coast surrounding Genoa

Columbus’ Family’s Early Flemish Connection

Columbus' connection with Flanders started, so to speak, before he was born in 1451. In 1429, at the tender age of 11, Columbus' father Domenico was apprenticed to a Flemish weaver for at least six years. This Flemish weaver was variably known as either William or Gerard of Brabant. This weaver certainly spoke Genoese and Flemish and since apprentices lived in the homes of their master, it is possible that Columbus' father picked up a few phrases of Flemish. In apprenticing to a weaver, Domenico was following in his father, Giovanni's footsteps. And after Domenico, Columbus also followed his father (and mother) as a weaver until the sea called him away sometime in his youth during the late 1460s or early 1470s (various conflicting accounts exist).

Weavers loom 16th century

The blue-eyed, reddish-blond haired Columbus - as both his son, Fernando Colon, and his first biographer, Bartholmew Las Casas who also knew him, described the man - was as most people know, a Genoese by origin. Despite some hints by famed Columbus historian Samuel Eliot Morison at a 'northern' ethnicity alluding to Columbus' strikingly northern European features, it is unlikely that Columbus was of Flemish ancestry. But throughout his career, at key points, he brushed against and benefitted from the knowledge and contributions of overseas Flemings.

My next blog postings will show how Columbus used not only Flemish technology to make it to the New World but how he followed earlier Flemish seafarers who had attempted the trip. And finally, how clues and inferences from Flemish sailors, merchants, priests and cartographers made it possible for Columbus to become known as Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

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