17 October 2009

Columbus, Pirate

[Readers should take note of the corrections added in the Comments to this post.]

In April 1485, Bartolomeo
Minio, who had managed not to die of malaria in Nauplion, or of camp fever in the Ferrara War, was elected captain of the trading muda to Flanders and England. This was the biennial sailing of four great trading galleys carrying 200,000 ducats worth of goods belonging to Venetian merchants and the state for trade in English and Flemish markets.

The galleys were transporting metalwork from the east, currants, molasses, spice, sugar, raw and spun cotton, lambskins and hides, wax, paper, silk, various kinds of eastern and Venetian fabrics, carpets, small luxury goods, and much else.
Minio's commission directed him to take presents for Richard III of England and Philip the Handsome of Burgundy. The commission detailed the ports where the galleys were required to stop, and the optional ports. It said how long the galleys might remain in each port, and specified when to send back couriers to Venice. It directed him to bring back, among other things, ordnance for the Venetian armory, and 120,000 weight of light goods and 80,000-weight of copper and tin on each galley.*
To be captain meant that Minio was responsible, not for the details of sailing, but for the military defense of the galleys from the pirates and privateers that littered the waters the whole way down the Adriatic, westward across the Mediterranean, through Gibraltar, and then up the Spanish and French coasts. Each galley had 30 crossbowmen, and everyone else was armed and expected to participate in defense. There is no indication that there was any ordnance aboard though some may have had personal firearms. The major pirate concern was a Columbo, from a family of pirates. This Columbo was variously known in Venetian records as Collombo, John the Greek, George the Greek, Nick the Greek, and Columbus Jr. This is confusing. Columbo primarily sailed as a privateer under the license of one king or another -- in this case Charles VIII of France -- and we find records of Venice making treaties with him not to attack her ships.

The muda of four galleys sailed 15 July, and stopped off in Messina and Famagusta. By late August, the convoy had reached the Atlantic. At night they sailed with lanterns on their masts to keep track of each other's positions, and used trumpets to signal. These, as you might expect, made them easy to track. A single candle can be seen 12 kilometers away on a clear night.

They were tracked. At dawn on the morning of 23 August they were attacked in the Bay of Biscay by seven ships (think Nina-Pinta-Sta. Maria-types) of Columbo's privateers. One of the privateers became really famous. This is his son's account:

The first cause of the Admiral's [Columbus] coming to Spain and devoting himself to the sea was a renowned man of his name and family, called Colombo [Nicolò Griego], who won great fame on the sea because he warred so fiercely against infidels and the enemies of his country that his name was used to frighten children in their cradles. . . . on one occasion he captured four large Venetian galleys of such great size and armament that they had to be seen to be believed. . . . . While the Admiral was sailing in the company of the said Colombo the Younger (which he did for a long time), it was learned that those four great Venetian galleys aforesaid were returning from Flanders. Accordingly Colombo went out to meet those ships and found them between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent, which is in Portugal. Here they came to blows, fighting with great fury and approaching each other until the ships grappled and the men crossed from boat to boat, killing and wounding each other without mercy, using not only hand arms but also fire pots and other devices. After they had fought from morning to the hour of vespers, with many dead and wounded on both sides, fire spread from the Admiral's ship to a great Venetian galley. As the two ships were grappled tight with hooks and iron chains which sailors use for this purpose, and on both sides there was much confusion and fear of the flames, neither side could check the fire; it spread so swiftly that soon there was no remedy for those aboard save to leap in the water and die in this manner rather than suffer the torture of the fire. But the Admiral, being an excellent swimmer, and seeing land only a little more than two leagues away, seized an oar which fate offered him, and on which he could rest at times; and so it pleased God, who was preserving him for greater things, to give him the strength to reach the shore. However, he was so fatigued by his experience that it took him many days to recover.
The struggle lasted from about 6 in the morning to nearly 8 in the evening. Most of the oarsmen and crossbowmen were killed and two of the investors. Minio, the two surviving investors, the merchants, and a few oarsmen and crossbowmen were set ashore on the coast of Portugal in their smallclothes. King Joao II "The Perfect" of Portugal who had great affection for Venice provided them -->with appropriate clothes, money, and transportation home. In October it was learned in Venice that goods from the galleys had been taken to England and sold there, while more goods worth 100,000 ducats turned up for sale at Honfleur. A suggestion of the total value of the cargo comes from the fact that the Senato estimated the loss to Venice at 200,000 ducats, not counting the ships, and not counting the pensions to the widows of the dead sailors. This was potential bankruptcy for the Republic of Venice. A mound of documents in the archives tracks the various diplomatic efforts across France, England, and Flanders.
One of the major losses to Venice was the Flemish wools which should have been brought back: a great deal of the Venetian wool industry was involved in processing and weaving these wools, and their loss could mean industry-wide starvation. The king of France, Charles VIII, was eventually able to retrieve most of the stolen goods. He tried to protect his corsairs, but after some of them murdered a royal messenger, the king had to inflict "due and signal punishment." Columbo apologized.

Alan Hartley writes: "These figures are in pounds. ("Weight" is used in English in that sense in "hundredweight, " a variable measure of about 112 pounds.)


  1. I had to check my facts before making this post. It has been a while since I last looked into the mysteries of Columbus’ pre-discovery past and I needed to get my bearings.

    Historians and writers dealing with those mysteries usually tend to follow one of two trends. The most serious ones have attempted to mould Columbus into a recorded, verifiable individual; to make him fit the evidence rather than match him to it. The others to give him a passport that is non-Genoese by making points that are usually either weak or outright laughable. Both have created a kind of mythology.

    Because it is a myth that Columbus was born in 1451, that he was a wool-weaver’s son, a deck-hand on a ship from Genoa or Burgundy who survived an attack by French corsairs and settled in Portugal in 1476 and many other “facts”.
    We simply do not know when he was born. We don’t know what name he was given at birth or whether he had a surname before settling in Portugal – let alone what it was. So rather than dispute what he said about himself and what his two contemporary biographers – his son Fernando Colon and Bartolome de las Casas – wrote, let us see what picture emerges and if it makes sense.

    Columbus was Genoese. Because that is what he said himself and that is what everyone else who knew him said. The only Cristoforo Colombo in Genoese archives that bears some similarities to Columbus is a wool-weaver’s son who is believed to have been born around 1451. But they don’t have to be the same person. Columbus may not have been called Cristoforo Colombo when living in Genoa; or may not have lived there at all. There were thousands of Genoese citizens borne and brought up in Constantinople, Chios, the Black Sea coast, and all over the Mediterranean.

    Columbus said he came from a seafaring family and went to sea at fourteen. This is outright dismissed by some because it does not fit the wool-weaver theory. He also said he was contracted by “le bon roi Rene”, titular king of Naples, to capture a ship called Fernandina. We have no idea when this is supposed to have happened but the 1460s or early 1470s are thought the most likely time. This story is often called fanciful, as it does not fit in with the young wool-weaver theory and as an alternative it is suggested he may have been a simple deck-hand in that enterprise.

    At some point Columbus settled in Portugal. It is almost certain it was in the 1470s but we don’t know exactly when. The year 1476 is often given. It was the year a combined Franco-Portuguese fleet attacked a Genoese convoy off the cape of St Vincent in Portugal. The leader of the corsairs was a man known as Colombo the Elder, a vice-admiral of the kingdom of France, who is otherwise known as Guillaume de Casenove. With him was his successor, Colombo the Younger, also known a Georges Paleologue de Bissipat. Many were killed and several ships from both sides caught fire and sank. Many historians, based on what Fernando Colon wrote, believe Columbus took part in that battle and, after managing to swim to safety, settled in Portugal. But they place Columbus on the Genoese ships, or on a ship from Burgunty that was with them, as a simple deck-hand, because that fits with the young wool-weaver theory again. By a coincidence that can only be described as diabolical or divine by the proponents of that theory, his brother Bartholomeo was already established in Portugal as a cartographer.

    It is also the year the king of Portugal, Alphonse V the African, visited France. He returned the following year on board the ship of Colombo the Younger. At some point in the next couple of years, we do not know exactly when, Columbus married Filipa Perestrello e Moniz, from one of the most prestigious families of Portuguese nobility. The proponents of the wool-weaver theory have no option but to accept that a simple sailor, shipwrecked as a result of Portuguese military action, could marry such a woman! They put it down to physical attraction alone, at least on her part. More to follow.

    Best regards,

  2. Somewhere between 1484 and 1486 Columbus leaves Portugal suddenly and in secret and goes to Spain with his young son Diego. His wife may be dead or simply abandoned. His biographer son Fernando claims he feared the king of Portugal, who was by then John II. The wool-weaver theorists tend to assume he was fleeing his creditors. Some speculate he may have got involved in politics. If we take the word of Fernando Colon literally though, his escape to Spain had something to do with a new pirate attack off the cape of St Vincent. This time the French corsairs were led by Colon the Younger, a man of Columbus’s “name and family” and with whom Columbus had “sailed for a long time”. The victims were Venetians under Minio. It is obvious that Fernando gets his facts mixed up and mingles up the two attacks but it is conceivable that he is correct his father’s escape was linked to this second attack. A letter of the Portuguese king to Colombus in 1488, indemnifying him from prosecution leads credence to this possibility. Unfortunately the letter does not specify, or give a clue, why Colombus may have got into trouble in Portugal but there was it seems an issue with the Crown. The king’s policy was very different from his predecessor’s. This is how Marino Sanuto describes it:

    "They unloaded the galleys, and having stowed the merchandise in their own ships left them empty and departed thence. But the King of Portugal—remembering that one of the Kings, his predecessors, came to Venice on his way to Jerusalem, as also subsequently did a son of that King, both being much honoured by the Venetians—clad the captain, Minio, the two masters, and the other noblemen and crews who had been stripped, and gave them money; so they set out on their way home, by land, and arrived here thus."


    We have then a very clear pattern of Columbus serving French – and for a time also Portuguese – interests, first in the Mediterranean and then in Portugal. He married well, not because of his looks but because of French influence in the – at the time – allied kingdom of Portugal. Or perhaps because of the personal influence of Colombo the Younger in the Portuguese Court. When Portuguese and French interests no longer coincided he got into trouble and fled to Spain. Perhaps this was because of his own and de Bissipat’s actions or perhaps because of the latter’s actions only. He did not go to France from there because it did not serve his purpose of sailing west. Spain was his best chance and he was right in his choice.

    Was Cristoforo Colombo and Colombo the Younger related as Fernando Colon said? It would fit well in the picture. We do not know how they were supposed to be related. Most historians dismiss this possibility. De Bissipat was an aristocrat and Columbus a weaver’s son. But there is no definite proof Columbus was a weaver’s son, neither does the weaver theory fit in with certain known facts of his life. They say Bissipat was a Greek and Columbus was Genoese so they could not be related. Then I could not be related to my English, Irish and Anglo-Polish relatives because I am Greek. The phrase “of his name and family” does not mean they were descended from the same line paternally. Spanish culture is alien to me but I think Spaniards often included their mother’s maiden name in their surname or even used it as their principal surname. It certainly was not unheard of in 15th century Greece, as the name Paleologue de Bissipat or Palaeologos Dishypatos shows. Columbus may have been a chosen name rather than a family one anyway.

    And Colombus may, just may, have robbed Bartolomeo Minio.

    Best regards,

  3. Splendid information, and I am grateful to you for taking so much trouble. If you see the New Year's blog, I am inviting you to write a guest blog, and I was going to suggest this topic . . .


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