Was Colombus really a Catalan pirate? DNA test will decide

Spanish scientists are to test the DNA of hundreds of Catalans with the surname Colom to prove that Christopher Columbus, far from the Italian gentleman he has long been believed to be, was in fact a pirate born in Catalonia.

The experiment, in determining whether any of the participants are related to the explorer, is designed to clarify the disputed origins of the man who made landfall in America in 1492. While historians have mostly reckoned he was born in Genoa in 1451, a counter-lobby argues that he was the Catalan Cristofol Colom, who airbrushed his past to conceal activities as a pirate and conspirator against the king.

Some 120 Catalans are to donate samples of saliva next week to a team of geneticists headed by Jose Antonio Lorente Acosta, head of the Laboratory of Genetic Identification at Granada University. Similar tests on another 180 sharing the name Colom will follow in Mallorca and Valencia. Investigators will compare the results with DNA from Columbus' illegitimate son Hernando, whose remains lie in Seville cathedral.

"We are not looking for descendants of Columbus, but a common ancestor who may be the link between the Admiral and today's Coloms. If we find a Y chromosome (the only one that males inherit by the paternal line) we could say they were related," a spokesman for Mr Acosta said this week.

The first historian to suggest Columbus was Catalan was a Peruvian, Luis Ulloa Cisneros, who published his theory in Paris in 1927. Linguists favour the idea, saying that Columbus used Catalan - or something like it - rather than Italian or Castilian Spanish in his writings, and gave many of his discoveries in the New World Catalan names. One historian reckons most of the places named by Colombus can be linked directly to the Balearic island of Ibiza.

Historians speculate that Columbus may have been a Catalan noble who joined a failed uprising against King Joan II of Aragon, father of King Ferdinand, and took orders from the French in acts of piracy, including the sinking of Portuguese galleons. Finding he had backed the losing side, Columbus expunged his former identity and hispanicised his name to avoid reprisals and keep support for his planned voyage.

Valladolid, north of Madrid, will host quincentenary commemorations of the explorer's death in May, by which time investigators in Catalonia hope to be able to confirm his nationality.

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