Columbus, or Colón, might have been Basque

Many Basques were associated with Christopher Columbus, who may have been Basque himself


Colum Echeverria O'Brien

Christopher Columbus

Steve Bass, Historian

Edited from Basques in the Americas From 1492 to 1892: A Chronology by Steve Bass.

Not much is known of Christopher Columbus’ early life except that the history books say he was probably born in Genoa, Italy. His parents’ heritage is unknown. Yet people have questioned whether Columbus was Basque. Supporting this theory, Spanish historian Fernando del Valle Lersundi argues that Columbus was from Nafarroa and, at one time, fought as a Basque pirate for his uncle, Admiral Guillermo de Casenove.

Lersundi states that Casenove was a Basque pirate and was variously known as Colon, Coullon or Coulon. In the battle of Cape St. Vincent, near Lisbon in August 1476, del Valle relates that when Columbus was just 14 years old, he fought in and with his uncle’s pirate fleet against Genoa under the name of Columbo Junior. In addition, after 1485 when Columbus’ wife dies, he spends the rest of his life with Basque Beatriz Enriquez de Arana, who is introduced to him by Diego de Arana. Diego is an officer on Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. Columbus and Beatriz never marry and they have a son, Fernando.

Some scholars now simply refer to Columbus as “Colón.”

Adding to the confusion, Professor Lluís de Yzaguirre, a researcher at the Applied Linguistics Institute of the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, contends that based on linguistic and biographical data, Columbus was much more likely to be of Catalonian origin rather than Genoan.

History of Basques in the
Americas. Click to view

August 2, 1492: Columbus’ Voyage Number One – Three ships

Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria (nicknamed “La Gallega”) is built in Basque shipyards and is the property of Bizkaian Juan “Vizcaino” Lakoza, who is also its shipmaster. (Lakoza is also referred to as Lakotsa, Lakotza, LaCosa, De La Cosa and Juan Vizcaíno.) Among the other Basques on the Santa Maria are: Juan de Lequeitio, boatswain from Bizkaia; Martín de Urtubia, cabin boy from Natxitua, Bizkaia; Lope Aresti, caulker from Erandio, Bizkaia; Pérez Vizcaíno, cooper from Lekeitio, Bizkaia; Domingo de Anchiá, cooper from Ispazter, Bizkaia; Diego de Arana, mentioned earlier, who is expedition bailiff and of Basque origin from Córdoba; Domingo Vizcaino; Juan de Urniga and Pedro de Bilbao. Among the Basques on the Niña are: Juan Ruiz de la Peña, from Bizkaia; Juan Martínez de Açogue, from Deba (Deva), Gipuzkoa; Pedro Arraes, from Deba, Juan Arraes (son of Pedro), also from Deba; Miguel de Soria and Pedro de Soria. Among the Basques on the Pinta are: Juan Quintero, from Algorta, Bizkaia; and Ojer de Berástegui, from Gipuzkoa.

Basque historian Donald Garate reports that most Basque names are toponyms —- taken from geographical locations. In addition, Garate contends that the additions of “de” and accent marks in Basque names are Castilian or Spanish additions. However, some New World Basques made the personal decision to add “de” to their names for the reason of prestige and/or to show nobility. For a complete explanation, see Garate’s paper “Basque Names, Nobility and Ethnicity on the Spanish Frontier.”

The Basques assert their unity early on during this first voyage. Columbus told his crews that they would reach land within 750 leagues of the Canary Islands. When they hadn’t reached land at 800 leagues, the Basques on the Santa Maria threaten to throw him overboard. Only a quick meeting of the crews and officers of all three ships keep this from happening.

It should be noted here what Basque historian José Manuel Azcona Pastor says of the close-knit unity of the Basques: “[In the New World] the Basques participated willingly in all of the enterprises in which their presence was sought by the Spanish monarchy. They often acted collectively, as they represented an ethic group and were seen as such by the Crown’s other settlers. They frequently used Euskara, their native language, to provide greater group strength and unity. Nevertheless, the observable clanlike spirit demonstrated by the Basques could camouflage the fact that they were often highly individualistic and competitive among themselves. Not infrequently, they resolutely defied the established powers through their leading roles in desertions, rebellions, mutinies, and various conspiracies…” After making landfall October 11 in the Bahamas, Columbus’ crews replenish their supplies and continue sailing the Caribbean area.

On December 25, 1492 the Santa Maria becomes shipwrecked off the coast of present day Haiti. The first Spanish-American establishment in the New World, La Navidad, is built with the remains of this Basque ship. (Columbus did not set out to “discover America.” In fact, Columbus never set foot on nor saw what is now America, or even North America. He set out to reach the Spice Islands by sailing directly west from Spain. Some historians call his discovery of the New World “history’s most magnificent accident.”)

As Columbus and Juan Lakoza return to Spain for provisions and additional men, 39 of the crew (Including the remaining Bizkaians) stayed behind at La Navidad under the command of Diego de Arana. (Apparently, Columbus intentionally ran the Santa Maria onto a sandbar. In order to claim new lands, the Spanish government required a settlement to be built on the new territory. In addition, he could not ask for volunteers to stay ashore while he returned to Spain. The “shipwreck” solved both problems.) At the time of Columbus’ first voyage the native population of Mexico has been estimated to be 17 million, two and one-half times greater than the population of Spain. There are another three million natives in the Caribbean Islands and more than five million in Central America. South America may hold an additional 24 million. That was all about to change.

September 25, 1493: Voyage Two – Sixteen ships

Juan de Arbolancha and Iñigo de Artieta organize Columbus’ second voyage in Bizkaia. Juan Perez de Loyola, the older brother of the future Saint Ignatius, outfits one of the ships. Six Basque ships, in a total of 16, sail in July with many Basque crewmen. Juan Lacoza is master of the Marigalante and is chosen by Columbus to be his official cartographer. A total of 1,500 men make the trip. Among the other Basques on this second voyage are the following, several of which will play prominent roles in the development of the New World: Francisco de Garay, Sebastián de Olano, Juan Ortiz de Matienzo, Hernando de Guevara, Luis de Arteaga, Bartolomé Salcedo, Maiguel de Muncharaz, Luis de Lizarzu, Juan de Azúa, Pedro de Arana, Gabriel Butrón, Hernando de Berrio, Juan Ezquerra, Juan de Oñate, Diego de Arciaga, Pedro Vizcaíno, Juan de Barruti, Juan de Zamudio, Adrián de Múxica, Pedro Gámiz, Domingo de Escobar and Juan Ibarra de Ibañez.

As Columbus returns to the island of Hispaniola, his ships are loaded with all types of foodstuffs, seeds, plants and domestic animals including horses, cattle, sheep, hogs and chickens to maintain the colonies he expects to establish. Other organisms also make the voyage. They are in the soil, on the plants and inside and on the animals. These are all types of parasites, insects, seeds, worms, fungi and other new life forms not native to North and South America. These non-native organisms will be responsible for permanent, major changes in the ecosystems of the New World. As an example of the other changes these European life forms will bring, there were no hogs in the New World. Columbus brought eight on this voyage to the island of Cuba. In twenty years there would be 30,000 hogs on Cuba, alone.

At the site of La Navidad, all Columbus finds are burned ruins. The natives report that several of the 39 men he had left behind had killed each other in arguments and that the Indians had killed the remainder because of, among other things, the Europeans’ greed for gold and the native women. Msgr. Francis J. Webber, writing in the Encyclopedia of California’s Catholic Heritage states:
“Surely it is a marvel, in the history of the modern world, that the relatively small nation of Spain, most of whose blood and treasure were already committed to the European theater, could embark upon and actually succeed with a handful of men, in taking possession of the Caribbean archipelago and, from that base, to diffuse Iberian religion, culture, law and language to more than half the population of the two American continents.”

Perhaps the following commentary will help explain how it was possible. When Columbus first lands in the Bahamas, these islands are home to as many as 80,000 native people. Ten years later, the Bahamas are uninhabited; the people killed by disease or taken away to serve as slaves in Spain’s colonies in the New World. (Unfortunately, according to historian C. W. Ceram, Columbus becomes the first in a long line of slave hunters plying the outlying islands of the North American continent for human chattel.) By 1518, due to imported European diseases and difficult forced labor, captive Caribbean natives begin to die off in large numbers and the importation of African slaves begins. The Africans are less vulnerable to the European diseases.

Before Columbus, ailments such as smallpox, influenza, hepatitis, measles, encephalitis, and viral pneumonia; the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, scarlet fever and bacterial meningitis were all unknown in the Western Hemisphere, according to historian Charles C. Mann. Smallpox and measles attack the Indians in what one expert describes as, “possibly…the greatest demographic disaster in the history of the world.” Three-quarters or more of the natives of the New World were killed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by imported diseases. There has never been any event like it in human history.

Historian David Weber asserts that, “…it may be that disease, the least visible trans-Atlantic baggage, was Spain’s most important weapon in the conquest of America.” The natives in the Caribbean Islands immediately feel the impact of these diseases, as they are unable to flee from them. The continentals Indians have places to retreat to but waves of epidemics will sweep over them as well. New forms of diseases from the Indians also find their way back to Europe. After Columbus returns to Spain, syphilis becomes the scourge of the Continent.

1496 – Shortly after the first two voyages of Columbus, Pedro de Arbolancha, from Bilbao, becomes the major supplier and merchant to the New World. In 1496, Santo Domingo is founded in what will become the Dominican Republic. It is founded by Bartholomew Columbus and is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas. Among the most significant Basques to settle early on are: Juan de Uruena, Cristóbal de Vergara, Pedro de Arana, Pedro Arriano and Diego de Ayala. Presently, the Dominican Republic bears several Basque place names. Among these are the province of Azua, with a capital of the same name, the province of Duarte, and the coastal town of Vizcaíno. In Puerto Rico there is a town named Añasco, the capital Loiza and the costal city of Central Aguirre. An example in Panama is the important mid-canal town of Gamboa. From Columbus’ second voyage on, as the Spaniards bring more and more horses to the
New World, occasionally the ships carrying them would come to an area of calm winds that would dangerously prolong the voyage, usually at about 30 degrees latitude. Water and food would have to be rationed. The horses are typically of poor stock and many will become sick and die. The crews have to throw so many of these horses overboard that the area becomes known as, and is still recognized as, “The Horse Latitudes.”

May 30, 1498 Columbus’ Voyage Three – Eight ships

Among the Basques on this voyage are: Lope de Olano, Pedro de Araba, Pedro de Ledesma, Hernando de Guevara, Martín Arriarán, Bernardo de Ibarra, Juan Lakoza, Adrián de Múxica, Pedro Gámiz and Domingo de Escobar. On this third voyage, Columbus has to settle several serious disputes between his brother, Bartolomé–who he had left in charge on the island of Hispaniola after the second voyage–and unhappy colonists. Bizkaians Múxica, Gámiz and Escobar are among the Basques who revolt against the heavy-handed rule of the Columbus family. In addition, Gipuzkoan Hernando de Guevara marries an Indian princess in what is the first mixed marriage in the New World. Columbus’ alcalde mayor, Francisco Roldán, orders the marriage annulled. Guevara refuses and, led by Múxica, another revolt is started by the Basques.

This is Lakoza’s third and last voyage with Columbus to the Americas. (In all, Lakoza makes seven voyages to the New World.) On this trip, Columbus orders Lakoza to sign the Perez-Luna Agreement that states that Cuba is a continent. Lakoza is positive that this is not the case. Columbus remarks that, “Juan Lakoza thinks he knows more than I do in the art of navigating.” (Columbus never believed Cuba was an island.)

On this voyage Columbus tries to establish the settlement of La Isabella. In spite of the fact that the village was completely gone in a few short years, its creation changed the landscape and ecology of the Caribbean forever. Historian Charles C. Mann states in his book 1493 that Columbus and his crew did not travel alone.
“They were accompanied by a menagerie of insects, plants, mammals, and microorganisms. Beginning with La Isabela, European expeditions brought cattle, sheep, and horses, along with crops like sugarcane (originally from New Guinea), wheat (from the Middle East), bananas (from Africa), and coffee (also from Africa). Equally important, creatures the colonists knew nothing about hitchhiked along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees, dandelions, and African grasses; rats of every description—all of them poured from the hulls of Colón’s vessels and those that followed, rushing like eager tourists into lands that had never seen their like before.”

In 1500 Columbus and his two brothers are arrested due to complaints from the colonists. They are taken to Spain in chains, but all charges are dropped.

April 13,1502 Columbus’ Fourth and Last Voyage – Four ships

The ships are the Santa María, Capitana, Gallega and the Vizcaína. The Vizcaína is the property of Juan de Orquina of Getaria, Gipuzkoa, and has a Basque pilot. There are 140 men with Columbus on his final crossing. Of that number, just over 20 are Basque. Among the Basques are: Pedro de Ledesma, pilot; Martín de Fuenterrabía, boatswain Martín de Arrieta, cooper; Domingo Vizcaínos, caulker; Diego de Arana, caulker; Martín Machín, carpenter; Pedro Moya, sailor; Martín de Atín, sailor and Gonzalo de Salazar, trumpeter. Of the Basques on the voyage, six will die during the trip before they reach Cuba as a result of the difficulties faced on these early sailings. This final voyage is a disaster for Columbus. He returns to Spain a broken man. Columbus dies on May 20, 1506.