Columbus’ Connection To Greece

As far as we know, almost every time Christopher Columbus wrote the word Chios, he spelled it either Xio or Xio, something like the Greek way. To this day, people from Chios insist that Columbus was born on their island. They’ll gamely show you his house and assure you that families named Kolomvos have lived on Chios since the 14th century. And th

As far as we know, almost every time Christopher Columbus wrote the word Chios, he spelled it either Xio or Xio, something like the Greek way. To this day, people from Chios insist that Columbus was born on their island. They’ll gamely show you his house and assure you that families named Kolomvos have lived on Chios since the 14th century.
And there is more. Columbus’ writings mention a voyage to Chios. Certain vegetation in the Caribbean islands reminded him of the mastic trees of Chios. And on his first voyage of discovery, didn’t he keep a secret log, in Greek as some say, to keep his fearful crews from knowing exactly how far they’d actually sailed from home? Late in life, didn’t Columbus insist on using a strange Greco-Latin cipher — Χρo-FERENS — when signing his name? And in 1937, didn’t Spyros Cateras sweep aside any doubt with a book whose title says it all: Christopher Columbus was a Greek Prince and His Real Name was Nikolaos Ypshilantis from the Greek Island of Chios?
Dare we think it? Was Christopher Columbus a Greek from Chios?{68664}

Sadly, there is not a shred of documentary proof that Columbus was from Chios. Just like the Chiotes, who rely on legend and point to the indigenous Kolomvos Family, people in at least five Italian cities (Genoa, Cuccaro, Cogoleto, Savona, and Piacenza) also point to long-established Colombo families as proof of Columbus’ birthplace. Going the Chiotes one better, they’ll credulously show you not only the house where Columbus was born, but also the graves of his ancestors.
The Greeks and the Italians are both mistaken. Columbus never used the surname Kolomvos or its Italian or Latin variants, Colombo and Columbus. They’re mutations (by others) of Colon and Colom, the only surnames he is known to have used.
Nor has a secret voyage log ever been found, let alone a Greek one. And Spyros Cateras’ book simply doesn’t live up to its cocksure title. His so-called proof was a metallic box once kept somewhere on Chios. The box supposedly contained a record of Prince Nikolaos Ypshilantis, said to have been the real Columbus according to local legend. But the telltale box and its contents disappeared after the massacre of 1822. For such gossamer facts, “proof” is much too strong a word.
And then there are the problematical 15th century Genoese legal documents. They came to light during the Columbus quadricentennial and describe a lanaiolo (a person in the wool business) named Cristoforo Colombo and his brothers Bartolomeo and Giacomo, residents of Genoa and nearby towns. These contemporaneous records, unquestionably genuine, support the traditional view, which is that this Genoese wool merchant is the same person who in 1492 “discovered” America and became the famous Admiral of the Ocean Sea.
But even if Columbus wasn’t from Chios and was in fact from Genoa or its neighborhood, isn’t it still possible that he had a Greek connection? Xio and Χρo-FERENS still nag. So does Columbus’ ignorance of Italian. And considering the rigid social stratification of his time, how could a Genoese wool merchant become a Castillian admiral, and acquire as thorough an education as Columbus did, and become an accomplished seaman, and marry a noble Portuguese woman, and acquire royal patrons, and be at such apparent ease with kings and princes of every stripe? After all, King John II of Portugal addressed Columbus in a letter of 1488 as “noso especial amigo” (our special friend); and when Columbus went to kiss the Spanish sovereigns’ hands on his return from the Caribbean in 1493, they stood up, a most unusual concession to a common merchant. These are a few of the many well-known and perplexing anomalies of the Columbus biography.
Columbus was notoriously reticent about his family background and place of origin. Even his son and first biographer, Fernando (1488-1539), knew few details about his father’s origins. The problem has plagued Columbus scholars for centuries.
Exactly seventy years ago, Seraphim G. Canoutas (1874-1944) jumped squarely into the fray. Deeply troubled by the improbability of a medieval wool merchant becoming an admiral, Canoutas spent eight years researching the Columbus question at libraries in New York, Washington, Paris, and Athens. In 1943, with the skills of a lawyer and more dispassion than would ordinarily be expected of a Greek, he privately published the fruits of his meticulous study: Christopher Columbus – A Greek Nobleman.
The book aggressively challenged the traditional view that the Genoese wool merchant and the world-famous Admiral were the same person. And beyond declaring who Columbus was not, Canoutas plausibly argued that Columbus was indeed a high-born Greek. Canoutas died the year after publication, and his intriguing study went out of print. Now, it is all but forgotten.
Canoutas himself has also undeservedly faded from memory. At the beginning of the 20th century, he was a preeminent leader in Greek-American society and letters. A prolific writer, beginning in 1908 he published the annual Greek American Guide and Business Directory, full of useful information for new immigrants, including Greek translations of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Naturalization Act. He was the source of much of the information in Thomas Burgess’ Greeks in America (1913), the first comprehensive study of the Greeks in American society. Canoutas later wrote his own history of the Greeks in America from 1453 to 1938.
Born among the crags of Evrytania in tiny Nostimon, Canoutas walked three miles over a mountain each day for four years to and from elementary school in equally obscure Voutyron. Being the best pupil, arrangements were made to continue his education in Prousos, where he boarded in a monastery. Again finishing first, he walked for two days to Agrinion and continued his education at the gymnasion there and later in Lamia. He went on to law school at the University of Athens, the first son of Evrytanian farmers ever to attend. After graduation, he practiced law in Athens and Constantinople for six years.
Reading of Franklin, Lincoln, and other self-made Americans, the United States became irresistible. Arriving in 1905, Canoutas learned English and began publishing his useful books for Greek immigrants. After serving as Greek vice-consul in Nashville and acquiring an American law degree, he settled in Boston, was admitted to the bar, and began his law practice, which he later transferred to New York City. One of his bar sponsors testified to the “dignity and courtesy of his bearing and manners.” He struck another sponsor as “an unusually intelligent man” and “the kind of man in whose statements I should place confidence.” This sponsor also mentioned Canoutas’ “rather remarkable command of English.”
According to Canoutas, Columbus’ Greek connection had nothing to do with his surname, or local legends, or how he wrote the word Chios. Instead, it rested mainly on specific statements attributed to Columbus himself. According to his son Fernando, Columbus said that he was “not the first admiral of my family” and “was honorably descended, though his parents, through the peevishness of fortune were fallen into great poverty and want.” Most importantly, Fernando recorded the crucial role played in Columbus’ early seagoing career by Colon the Younger, “a famous man of his [Columbus] name and family: As concerning the cause of the Admiral’s coming into Spain, and his being addicted to sea affairs, the occasion of it was a famous man of his name and family, called Colon, renowned upon the sea, on account of the fleet he commanded against infidels . . .. This man was called Colon the Younger, to distinguish him from another who was a great seaman before him. . . . [T]he Admiral sailed with the aforesaid Colon the Younger…a long time …”
Most scholars rejected these statements (and still do) as the pretentious fibs of a wool merchant trying to obscure his lowly station. But Canoutas pointed out that Columbus had no reason to tell lies that could have been refuted easily during his lifetime. More than that, Canoutas recognized that if Columbus’ claims were true, they explained the host of anomalies that either had to be ignored or attributed to error or falsehood in order for the wool merchant to be the same person as the Admiral. {68667}

The key to the puzzle, argued Canoutas, was in the identity of “Colon the Younger,” whom Fernando’s biography did not identify, perhaps because Fernando did not know who he was. Nor did scholars for the next 350 years. Either they just repeated the story of Columbus’ claim of kinship to Colon the Younger without further elaboration, or they rejected it as another one of Columbus’ fables.
Then in 1874, the renowned Columbus scholar Henry Harrisse came upon information that began to shed light on the mystery of Colon the Younger. Harrisse discovered two famous corsairs, one elder and one junior, both in the service of King Louis XI of France (1423-1483). Corsairs were captains who had permission (usually from a king) to chase down and capture enemy ships. Harrisse believed these corsairs were French, not Italian or Genoese, and were not related. The elder of the two, a vice-admiral, went by the name Coullon, which in the records was sometimes Italianized into Colombo or Hispanicized into Colon. “Coullon” was his nom-de-guerre. His real name was Guillaume de Casenove.
Harrisse did not definitively identify the younger corsair. But he speculated that he came to be known as Colon the Younger because the two men were regular companions at sea. Harrisse also discovered that the younger Colon was sometimes called Giorgio Griego, or Grecus, or Graecus.
After Harrisse, Alberto Salvagnini made another important discovery. Searching among the archives of Milan and Genoa, he brought to light more than a hundred 15th century records referring to these two famous corsairs of France and their numerous exploits. In these documents, the junior corsair was usually named Giorgio Greco, Georgius Graecus, Zorzi Greco, or the like. In other words, George the Greek.
Finally, in 1905, another highly respected Columbus scholar, Henry Vignaud, after reviewing all the documents examined by Salvagnini, proved beyond any doubt that Colon the Younger was none other than Georges Paleologue de Bissipat, also called Georges le Grec. He proved that this man was an expatriate Byzantine prince related to the imperial Palaiologos Family, and that he held a high rank in the French navy, being the principal lieutenant of vice-admiral Guillaume de Casenove. Vignaud’s opinion on these points, said Canoutas, was accepted by almost all subsequent Columbus scholars.
But even so, Vignaud and the others never discovered the correct Greek version of this Byzantine prince’s name. And, still convinced that Columbus was the wool merchant of Genoa, they rejected Columbus’ claim of kinship with Colon the Younger. Canoutas, however, accepting the kinship claim as true, probed the Greek identity of the transplanted prince. In a 1680 French compendium of the imperial families of Byzantium, Canoutas found that “de Bissipat” was the French corruption of George the Greek’s proper Greek surname: Dishypatos. In other words, Colon the Younger was Georgios Palaiologos Dishypatos .
The Dishypatoses were among the most illustrious Byzantine families, recorded as far back as the 9th century. From the 11th through the 15th centuries, the name appears again and again, often attached to prominent ecclesiastics. In the early 15th century, Alexis Dishypatos was sent by emperor Manuel II Palaiologos as special ambassador to France to secure financial aid. John Dishypatos, an officer of the imperial court, was twice sent by the emperor John VIII Palaiologos as ambassador to the Council of Basel and to the Papal court to negotiate in matters concerning the union of the Greek and Latin churches. In 1434, the emperor sent two other Dishypatos brothers, Emanuel and George (not to be confused with Colon the Younger), on another mission to the Pope. Somewhat later, this same George was dispatched to the Morea to reconcile the emperor’s quarreling brothers, Thomas and Demetrios Palaiologos. So we can see, said Canoutas, that for centuries the Dishypatoses were great personages — ecclesiastics, officers of the imperial court, diplomats — and enjoyed the full confidence of the Byzantine emperors, who employed them on missions involving the most vital interests of the state and the church.
On his mother’s side, Colon the Younger was related to the imperial Palaiologos and Laskaris families and, following the custom of the time, used both surnames. Here, Canoutas observed that between these two families there were at least five famous admirals, perhaps the ones to whom Columbus alluded when claiming he was not the first admiral in his family.
Canoutas then pointed out certain other details about the Palaiologos and Laskaris families that shed more light on Dishypatos and, hence, his kinsman Columbus. For example, the House of Palaiologos was closely connected by blood or marriage to many of the ruling families of Italy, including those of Genoa and Montferrat. All the marquises of Montferrat were Palaiologoi, he pointed out, and one of them was invited in 1409 to take charge of the government of Genoa. Such connections, he suggested, may explain why Columbus was thought to be Genoese or Ligurian.
He went further and proposed that if Columbus, as he claimed, went to sea at age fourteen and had spent forty years at sea by 1500 plus another seven years at the Spanish court, then he must have been born around 1438-1439, and he must have gone to sea around 1453. This is when Canoutas thought Columbus began sailing with his famous kinsman, Colon the Younger.
Canoutas found additional information about Colon the Younger in a late 19th century French history of the de Bissipat family. From this, Canoutas learned that sometime after the fall of Constantinople Georges Paleologue de Bissipat was received in France by King Louis XI with great honors for his excellent military feats, the king referring to him in 1460 as “our noble man Georges le Grec, counselor and chamberlain of the King and viscount of Falaise.” Eventually, de Bissipat became commander of the French fleet in the English Channel. Louis XI granted him large estates in northern France, sent him on important missions, and naturalized him as a French subject. De Bissipat’s royal favor continued with Louis XI’s son and successor, Charles VIII (1470-1498), who entrusted him with still more important missions, not the least of which was command of the French fleet against Italy in 1494.
The de Bissipat coat of arms shows a patriarchal cross, two Stars of David, and a crescent, symbols of the three great monotheistic religions known to the Byzantines. Canoutas found the Stars of David of interest given that the Palaiologos family (to which Dishypatos was related on his mother’s side) claimed descent from the House of David. Tellingly, Columbus liked to compare himself to King David.
The crescent alludes to Islam. Recently, another scholar has discovered that Dishypatos’ first cousin, known only as Huseyn, was an ambassador and intelligence agent of Sultan Bayezid II (1447-1512), the son of Mehmet II (1432-1481), the conqueror of Byzantium. In 1486, French King Charles VIII wrote a letter of safe passage allowing Huseyn to come to France as Bayezid’s ambassador. Greek was Huseyn’s native tongue, and he had useful connections with Christians in the West, not least of whom was his first cousin Georges de Bissipat, by then one of Charles VIII’s most trusted advisors.
As Canoutas said, if we accept that Columbus was telling the truth when he claimed to have sailed for many years with his noble kinsman Colon the Younger, then “all the incidents of his complex life, all his lofty aspirations, all his talents and accomplishments, and all his peculiar characteristics, which hitherto seemed inexplicable, will be readily explained. It will be easy for anyone to see how he had acquired his education, his religious mysticism, his exquisite manners, his daring courage and, above all, his preparation in seamanship; also how he was able to make all the voyages he claimed . . . ; and how he succeeded in commanding the respect of several kings and princes and of so many other great personages.” Likewise, Columbus’ claim of kinship with Colon the Younger explained Columbus’ noble marriage and many other puzzling anomalies of his life. In other words, if the claim was true, then Columbus could indeed have been a Byzantine nobleman, or at least related to one.
But what about the Genoese legal documents? Canoutas addressed them at length, ultimately dismissing them as irrelevant. He convincingly showed that they are irreconcilable with other genuine sources and cannot possibly describe the same person as the Admiral.
In the end, however, Canoutas’ case rests entirely on Columbus’ claim of kinship with Dishypatos, for which there is only one source: Fernando’s biography. If the kinship connection fails, Canoutas’ theory falls completely apart.
And even if the connection is sound, it does not necessarily mean that Columbus was Greek. He may have had Greek relatives, but given the fluidity of the times he may not have lived as a Greek in a Greek city or holding. And while Canoutas gave us persuasive circumstantial reasons to accept that Columbus was related to Dishypatos, what was the relationship? Was it on his father’s side or his mother’s? Was it by blood or marriage? And we still do not know who Columbus’ parents were or where he was born.
Nevertheless, Canoutas blazed an intriguing new path and presented a very plausible theory about Columbus’ origins. His thesis needs to be better known and further developed. Picking up where Canoutas left off, others may someday discover the true nature of Columbus’ Greek connection.

James L. Marketos is an attorney in Washington, D.C.