No, Christopher Columbus did not die poor

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Christopher Columbus’s sarcophagus in the Cathedral of Seville (photo by Itto Ogami).

Old myths die hard. Many people still believe that Christopher Columbus died in poverty and disgrace, ignored by all in spite of having made the greatest geographical discovery of all times. Such a scene has a certain romantic appeal but let’s repeat it once and, hopefully, for all: it is FALSE.

Columbus’s finances are well known to historians, in particular since Spanish scholar Juan Gil published an article entitled “Las cuentas de Cristóbal Colón” (Christopher Columbus’s accounts) in the journal Anuario de Estudios Hispano-Americanos in 1984. Unfortunately this article is not available online and has never been translated into English, so its information has remained within a rather limited circle of experts.

Juan Gil painstakingly reviewed Columbus’s revenues, and concluded that on the day of his death Columbus was a very wealthy man. His annual income added up to more than 4 million maravedis. How much was that worth? For comparison, the annual salary of a pilot who steered ships across the ocean was around 24,000 maravedis – that is, 167 times less. The monthly rent for a good house in Seville ranged between 1,000 and 2,000 maravedis. Four million maravedis was a fortune that would be effortlessly earned by Columbus’ heirs every year to come. Another comparison: the wealthiest man in Spain at that time, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had an annual income of 20 million maravedis. Columbus ‘only’ made a fifth of that, but that tells us that we was boxing in the top league of Spain’s millionaires.

So, where does this false idea that Columbus was poor come from? The main blame falls on Hernando Colón, Columbus’s second son (usually called Ferdinand Columbus in English). Don Hernando wrote a biography of his father in which he said that the Admiral had died in “pain of seeing himself fallen from his possession”, hinting that King Ferdinand was trying to deprive the Admiral of his wealth. As Juan Gil points out, Columbus’s heirs were by then involved in a long lawsuit against the Crown regarding their titles and privileges, and Don Hernando’s text may have been an attempt to make the reader feel sorry and sympathetic for Christopher Columbus. Chronicler Bartolomé de las Casas piled on Hernando Colón’s account, as he wrote that Columbus “passed away in a state of much distress, sadness and poverty”. Las Casas’s History of the Indies in turn became one of the main sources for 19th and 20th century historians of the Discovery of America, some of which believed and passed on the fabrication about Columbus’s finances.

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Title page of the first edition of Hernando Colón’s biography of his father (Venice, 1571; translated into Italian by Antonio de Ulloa).

 

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