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Where are the Remains of Christopher Columbus?

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Where are the Remains of Christopher Columbus?

The Monument to Christopher Columbus, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Christopher Minster

Where are the Remains of Christopher Columbus?:

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was a Genoese navigator and explorer, best remembered for his 1492 voyage which discovered the western hemisphere for Europe. Although he died in Spain, his remains were sent back to Hispaniola…and from there, things get a little murky. Two cities, Seville (Spain) and Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) claim that they have the remains of the great explorer.

A Legendary Explorer:

Christopher Columbus is a controversial figure. Some revere him for boldly sailing west from Europe at a time when to do so was considered certain death, finding continents never dreamed of by Europe's most ancient civilizations. Others see him as a cruel, ruthless man who brought disease, slavery and exploitation to the pristine New World. Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Columbus changed his world.

Death of Christopher Columbus:

After his disastrous fourth voyage to the New World, an aged and infirm Columbus returned to Spain in 1504. He died in Valladolid in May of 1506, and he was at first buried there. But Columbus was, then as now, a powerful figure, and the question soon arose as to what to do with his remains. He had expressed a desire to be buried in the New World, but in 1506 there were no buildings there impressive enough to house such lofty remains. In 1509, his remains were moved to the convent at La Cartuja, an island in a river near Seville.

A Well-Traveled Corpse:

Christopher Columbus traveled more after death than many people do in life! In 1537, his bones and those of his son Diego were sent from Spain to Santo Domingo to lie in the cathedral there. As time went on, Santo Domingo became less important to the Spanish Empire and in 1795 Spain ceded all of Hispaniola, including Santo Domingo, to France as part of a peace treaty. Columbus' remains were judged too important to fall into French hands, so they were sent to Havana. But in 1898, Spain went to war with the United States, and the remains were sent back to Spain lest they fall to the Americans. Thus ended Columbus' fifth round-trip journey to the New World…or so it seemed.

An Interesting Find:

In 1877, workers in the Santo Domingo cathedral found a heavy leaden box inscribed with the words “Illustrious and distinguished male, don Cristobal Colon.” Inside was a set of human remains and everyone assumed they belonged to the legendary explorer. Columbus was returned to his resting place and the Dominicans have claimed ever since that the Spanish hauled the wrong set of bones out of the cathedral in 1795. Meanwhile, the remains sent back to Spain via Cuba were interred in an imposing tomb in the Cathedral in Seville. But which city had the real Columbus?

The Argument for the Dominican Republic:

The man whose remains are in the box in the Dominican Republic shows signs of advanced arthritis, an ailment from which the elderly Columbus was known to have suffered. There is, of course, the inscription on the box, which no one suspects is false. It was Columbus’ wish to be buried in the New World and he founded Santo Domingo: it’s not unreasonable to think that some Dominican passed off some other bones as those of Columbus in 1795.

The Argument for Spain:

The Spanish have two solid arguments. First of all, the DNA contained in the bones in Seville is an extremely close match to that of Columbus’ brother Diego, who is also buried there. The experts who did the DNA testing believe the remains are those of Christopher Columbus. The Dominican Republic has refused to authorize a DNA test of their remains. The other strong Spanish argument is the well-documented travels of the remains in question: had the lead box not been discovered in 1877, there would be no controversy.

What’s at Stake:

At first glance, the whole debate may seem trivial. Columbus has been dead for 500 years, so who cares? The reality is more complicated, and there is more at stake than meets the eye. In spite of the fact that Columbus has lately fallen from grace with the political correctness crowd, he remains a powerful figure: he was once considered for sainthood. Although he has what we could call “baggage,” both cities want to claim him as their own. The tourism factor alone is huge: many tourists would like to take their picture in front of Christopher Columbus’ tomb. This is probably why the Dominican Republic has refused all DNA tests: there is too much to lose and nothing to gain for a small nation that depends heavily on tourism.

So, where is Columbus Buried?:

Each city believes they have the real Columbus, and each has built an impressive monument to house his remains. In Spain, his remains are carried for eternity in a sarcophagus by massive statues. In the Dominican Republic, his remains are securely stored inside a towering monument/lighthouse built for that purpose.

The Dominicans refuse to acknowledge the DNA test done on the Spanish bones and refuse to allow one to be done on theirs: until they do, it will be impossible to know for sure. Some people think that Columbus is in both places: by 1795, his remains would have been nothing but powder and bones and it would have been easy to send half of him to Cuba and hide the other half in the Santo Domingo Cathedral. Perhaps that would be the most fitting end for the man who brought the New World back to the old.

Sources:

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present.. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.

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