Monday, October 14, 2013

Christopher Columbus and the Lighthouse Connection

Columbus Day—a day to relax from my teaching duties and a day to remember a great explorer.

Sadly, Christopher Columbus, great “Admiral of the Ocean Seas,”  has been much maligned in recent years. He’s been taken down a peg or two as discoverers go. Did he really discover America? Technically, no. Historic evidence leans toward the Vikings, and of course Amerigo Vespucci gets the naming honors. Columbus got close—the Bahamas—but did he set foot on the North American mainland itself? No. And we also know (but for centuries blinded outselves to the fact) that there were thousands of Native Americans in America on October 12, 1492, so we must accept that “discovery” is an odd, in accurate word for what Columbus accomplished.

No, he wasn’t the first westerner to find America, but no one would deny he was an exceptional navigator in his day, a man of unusual vision. He had just the right amount of persistence and pluck to find the money for his venture and stay the course through adversity and doubt to find those Bahamian islands in the Caribbean that count as “America.” He never quite set foot on the mainland, no, but we appreciate his efforts and how close he came, if only because of the Federal Holiday he bequeathed us.

We know a lot about Columbus, but perhaps one thing not recognized is his connection to lighthouse history.  Cristoforo Columbo (his proper Italian name) grew to love the sea in the middle of the Fifteenth Century during visits with his uncle, Antonio Columbo, who was the keeper of the great lighthouse at Genoa, Italy .  Genoa was an exceedingly busy and prosperous port in the 1400s, and as such, deserved its own lighthouse. Such emblems of civility and welcome were rare in this pre-cinquecento period. Historians believe the Lighthouse at Genoa, often referred to simply as La Lanterna (the light) was at this time the best-known lighthouse in the world.

Antonio Columbo became lightkeeper in 1449 and was still serving at the lighthouse when his nephew Cristoforo was born the following year.  He continued to work in the lighthouse as Columbus grew to manhood, and he was his nephew’s favorite uncle. Young Cristoforo might have followed tradition and become a weaver and cheese dealer like his father, Domenico Columbo. History is glad he didn’t. The call of the sea--an enormous uncharted frontier at the time--was loud and clear. As the son of a merchant, Cristoforo certainly came to understand the origin of Genoa’s wealth and the need to develop new trade routes to sustain it.

Inspiration for the young Columbus came from two sources: His brother, Bartolomeo, worked in a cartography shop. Its colorful and varied maps intrigued the boy, especially maps with large empty spaces and drawings of mythical sea monsters and unknown lands. On days he was not helping his father in the family businesses in Genoa, Columbus often slipped away and climbed the hill to San Benigno and the stately lighthouse. Here, he went to the top of the tower to help his uncle tend the oil lamps and polish the mirror that amplified the light. He may have marveled at the lighthouse’s curious fish weathervane topped with a cross—a symbol of Christianity. Even more, the elevated view of the commercial activities in the harbor below, the briny smells wafting up from the port, and the distant and enigmatic flat horizon over which toylike ships appeared and disappeared, beckoned to him.

The great stone lighthouse was one of the oldest sentinels in the world, even in Columbus’ day, and mariners everywhere knew it well. Originally established around 1128 as a tiered tower resembling a fortress, it dominated the profile of Genoa from sea and land.  The well-traveled coastal road to the city passed between the lighthouse and the sea. A cobble road led to the hill where the lighthouse stood and inside the great tower stone steps--each one hand-hewn--led to the lantern, modern for its time and fueled by wood. Ships entering the harbor at Genoa paid port dues which helped maintain the lighthouse and pay its lightkeeper. But the tower was also, at various times in its career, maintained by local merchants and the Church. By the time Antonio Columbo became the lightkeeper—a much venerated occupation—the Lighthouse of Genoa was illuminated with olive oil lamps and was part of the city walls. It was the most defining structure of the shoreline and a symbol of the city itself.

In some of his writings, Columbus claimed that he went to sea by the age of ten.  Perhaps he exaggerated in saying this, but certainly his life in one of the world’s greatest ports allowed him to rub shoulders with seaman and yearn for the roving life asea. What boy wouldn’t have been enamored with the idea of living on a ship and traveling to new places? (It could be compared to a desire to be an astronaut today.) By age twenty, Columbus had signed aboard a Genovese fighting ship to protect the city of Naples. Subsequent voyages on various types of vessels took him to many places in Europe. He learned everything he could about seamanship.

In his twenties, he married into a wealthy family, had a family of his own, and began working the trade routes of the Mediterranean and West African coast. He was becoming ever more self-educated, with extensive knowledge of geography, cartography, astronomy, and history, and he had mastered numerous languages. He was well-read, an astute thinker and speaker, and sensible enough to know anyone who found new lands found new trade routes…and fame too.

He was also a skillful enough sailor to know the Earth is round. Many of us who were educated years ago were fed a sanitized, altered version of history, one that taught us that the popular notion of Columbus’ day was of a flat Earth. The prevailing Fifteenth Century belief was quite different—a least a spherical world in some form. Anyone as nautically experienced as Columbus knew the planet was round. Seeing Genoa’s lighthouse appear on the horizon and rise above it as he approached his native city, or drop and disappear as he departed, was proof enough.

The rest is history, all-too-familiar….
In 1492, with funding from the Spanish monarchs and Italian investors, Cristoforo Columbo, a robust man in his forties, set off on August 3, 1492 from Palos de la Frontera, Spain with three ships, some passable maps, his Bible, journal, and navigating instruments, extensive knowledge of the sea and sailing, excellent navigators in the Pinzón brothers, and a dedicated heart and taste for adventure. The crossing was not overly eventful considering it was dreadfully hot and hurricane season; he rode the same route as tropical cyclones do.

In the night on October 11th Columbus stood at the rail of the Santa Maria and spied a light on the horizon—not a lighthouse, but a bonfire, he said. Hours later, not long after midnight on October 12th, the lookout on the Pinta sighted the moonlit profile of land, present-day San Salvador. But Columbus’ claim that he had “seen the light” hours before ensured he would receive the first-to-sight-land prize promised by the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella—a lifetime pension. 

If there was a light on the shore that night (and many historians believe Columbus falsely claimed thus) , it could very well have been a lighthouse in the metaphoric sense. One of history’s most celebrated men—much bruised by recent theories about who saw America first and our modern sensitivity about altering the truth to suit our needs—was himself a lighthouse. And as proof, I'll add that the great navigator today has his own lighthouse in the Dominican Republic. Columbus Memorial Lighthouse was dedicated in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first historic voyage. The lighthouse is shaped like a cross and has 157 beams of light that are directed skyward. The interior houses a museum of the Americas and various memorials to Columbus.

If the Great Admiral were to sail by today, he’d have no trouble finding this island!

A nice video of a visit to the Columbus Memorial Lighthouse can be found on You Tube:
(All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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