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The mysterious origin of Columbus

Analysis of the hypotheses about the discoverer’s nationality in popular history magazines from different countries


Author: Antonio Seoane. University of Salamanca
Translation: Antonio Jiménez-Martín. IES Campo Charro (Salamanca)

Editing: Alicia García-Holgado. University of Salamanca


Click on the different landmarks to learn more about the different hypotheses about his origins.

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Age and course level

13-14 years 2nd Course Compulsory Secondary Education


In your textbook you are going to find information about the geographical explorations and discoveries, especially Castilian and Portuguese that take place at the beginning of Modern Age: their causes, main routes and discoverers, etc.

Among the characters that star these historic events the figure of Christopher Columbus stands out. His expeditions in the search of commercial routes to Asia produced as a result the discovering of a continent which was unknown until that time: America.

The figure of Columbus is enigmatic and controversial. Although there is a general consensus about his Genoese origin, different secondary hypotheses defend some other places as a birthplace. In fact, the mystery of his nationality has originated all type of speculations, especially from the 19th century, not only about the origins of the discoverer but also about the reasons why he himself seems to try to hide it.

Some of these hypotheses have certain historical basis, while others, perhaps, are rather a consequence of fictional inventiveness and of the interest to demand the origin of a well-known character for their own territory.

This module will enable you to get close to some of these hypotheses on Christopher Columbus' origins through the study of articles published in history magazines just like the ones you can find at any newsagent's, but from different countries. You'll be able to study this question through documents and activities which are suggested in this module, or with the help of the teacher, who is also offered some suggestions to set out the question in the classroom. Go through the tabs in this module through the student view (select it in the headline) to access the contents and activities which have been prepared for you.

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Presentation of teachers

The learning object that is presented here deals with the topic of Christopher Columbus origin and nationality. Although there is a general consensus among historians in relation to his birth somewhere in the Republic of Genoa, from the late 19th century a great number of secondary hypotheses arises, with more or less historical rigour, that make up and ideal breeding ground for speculation and literary fantasy.

Popular history magazines find in this type of mystery an attractive subject for the audience. Taking several articles from Spanish and foreign magazines as a starting point, the focus and activities which are suggested in this module enable the teacher:

  • to make a critical approach to the different hypotheses about Columbus' origins, because the selected articles have not been chosen to support any of them, but to analyze and compare in a critical way the reasons and sources they are based on.
  • to introduce in the classroom the variety of points of view which the magazines from different countries approach a controversial subject with.
  • to introduce the problem of historical narrative building, analyzing the reasons why some hypotheses arise specifically in particular historical contexts and with specific interests.

In this module you'll find teaching material and, at the same time, suggestions to introduce this topic in the classroom. These activities will enable you both to introduce a historical problem to your students from a critical point of view with its full controversy and to deal with the subject's understanding from the different national points of view.

Reference to the curricula

The contents in this block have been developed for 2nd year Compulsory Secondary Education students (13-14 years).Social Sciences, Geography and History curriculum deals in Block 3. The Preindustrial Societies with the development of a topic about "Political and economic evolution in the Iberian Peninsula in Modern Age. The Spanish Monarchy and the Colonization of America. Art and Culture in the Modern Age" (RD 1631/2006, December 29, Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia). The different Autonomous Communities regulate the introduction of these minimum contents in their respective curricula. In the case of Castile and Leon, this topic is included in Block 3.The preindustrial societies. Modern Age, "Political and economic evolution in the Iberian Peninsula the Catholic Kings monarchy. The European expansion: The Canary Islands. The Discovery and Colonization of America and its economic impact (Decree 52/2007, May 17 Junta de Castilla y León).

Related to the acquisition of the basic competences, the Spanish legal framework establishes that the subject contributes to the "learn how to learn" competence, among some other reasons, through the "search of multicausal explanations and the knowledge of the information sources and its use by collecting and classifying the information obtained by different means provided that an analysis of it is made". In this sense, the critical analysis of the different sources of historical information enables the student to reinforce the acquisition of this competence.

Learning objectives

The standpoint of the activities in this module agrees with the following aims of the subject Social Sciences and History, according to the Spanish legislation.

  1. Value the cultural diversity showing attitudes of respect and tolerance towards other cultures and opinions which do not match the own ones, but without renouncing a judgement of them because of it.
  2. Acquire a historical view which enables to elaborate a personal view of the world.
  3. Search, classify, understand and relate information from different sources, included that given by the Mass Media.
  4. Carry out group tasks and participate in debates with a constructive, critical and tolerant attitude.

In relation to the topic to be dealt, the following aim of the subject in the course (2nd year Compulsory Secondary education) is expected to be reinforced.

  • To understand how the discovery, conquest and colonization of America were produced as well as its consequences.
  • Finally, the specific teaching objectives of this resource are indicated:
  • To get the students closer to the views of history which are set out from traditions and different national perspectives, through the use of popular history magazines as a source of information.

To encourage the setting-up of a certain intercultural dialogue bringing about a critical understanding of the interests which influence the building of different historical narratives.

  • To compare the information from these sources and the student textbook contents.
  • To know the view of the historic events from the perspective of the student textbooks of different countries.

Spanish textbooks perspective related to the origin of Columbus

Columbus figure appears in the Spanish textbooks in a topic entitled "The Modern State"." The Origin of Modern State" and the like.

In this context it is included information about the discoveries of the time and their economic political and social causes, the technological and navigation advances, the Portuguese and Castilian expansions and the following conquest and colonization processes with their corresponding consequences.

Therefore, it is understandable that textbooks do not devote much space to the sailor. It is usually highlighted the fact that he managed to persuade the Catholic Kings to finance his business, the composition of the expedition and the vessels which set out on the voyage as well as the wrong certainty that the reached lands were those of Asia and not a new continent. However, it is worth noticing that in most textbooks the nationality of the discoverer is not mentioned at all, while the origin of many of the following conquerors is clearly indicated.

The discovery of America appears, then, in the context of the explorations of the time and linked to the notion of "geographical discoveries", along with Bartolome Dias, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan or Juan Sabastian Elcano.

Later (in some textbooks it appears in the same unit, while other unit is devoted to it in others)the process of conquest and the peak of the Spanish Empire is thoughtfully analyzed, The conquest of America appears along with the state organization and the conflicts with other European powers and the riots in Flanders.

In the analysis of the process of colonization of America, the abuses committed and the exploitation the indigenous people were subjected to are not hidden.

Other countries´ textbooks perspective related to this topic

EHISTO project has produced five modules on Christopher Columbus taking as a reference the national curricula of the participating countries.

In every module a comparative analysis among national and international popular history magazine articles on the same topic is made. This way, the teacher may know and present different national perspectives on the same question to the students, getting, at the same time, an enriched analysis of an article of popular history magazines of his/her own country which has been seen from the point of view of historians from other participating countries.

It is possible to access the corresponding modules on the same topic clicking on the country or flag below:


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