Patricia Nell Warren

The Forgotten Wife of Christopher Columbus

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | October 10, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Christopher Columbus, Columbus Day, discovery of America, Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, LGBT History Month

Note from Bil: This post originally ran on Bilerico in March for Women's History Month. It seemed appropriate to bring the popular post back for Columbus Day (and LGBT History Month).

It's Women's History Month again, and American neo-conservatives go on clinging to their anti-female denialisms about our history. columbus.jpg Indeed, they're now having our textbooks revised so they can minimize the historical importance of anything female they don't like. That's why the neos never say much about one of the most minimized women of all time - Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, the Portuguese lady who became Columbus's now-forgotten wife around 1479.

For me, the mysterious Filipa's story, and that of her family, is a lens that can magnify half a millennium of Atlantic exploration. The more I try to maximize her own picture, the more I realize that her husband was not the first European to "discover America."

Some of our activists wonder if Columbus was gay, since his marriage appears to have been largely a matter of social climbing - aiming at secret information on navigation that Filipa's family guarded. But that's a question for LGBT History Month. I'll pass over it for now, and deal with the women's history part of this - which does ultimately relate to us, as readers will see. So read on.

First, a thumbnail about the Portuguese woman herself, and that important archive of navigation data owned by her family. (Most Americans connect Columbus with Italy and Spain, and don't know that he lived in Portugal for around a decade.) Then a thumbnail about how that family history points to a far earlier "European discovery of America."

Seagoing Genealogies

Filipa was born around 1452, on the island of Porto Santo, a Portuguese colony in the Atlantic. According to historians who delve into her family genealogy, it shows us that she had a noble pedigree - not the highest nobility, for sure, but distinguished people who served the Portuguese crown on both land and sea.

Her father was Bartolomeu Perestrelo, knight and sea captain. On his father's side, he was descended from Italian nobility, and worked for Prince Henry the Navigator, that royal patron of cutting-edge exploration. Portugal had freed herself from Islamic rule and aimed to take the lead in trade for the known world. So Prince Henry had founded a Navigation School, and fielded his own personal navy of captains pushing Portugal's western frontier across the Atlantic Ocean, locating island groups like the Azores, Cape Verdes, Madeira. These islands gave them stepping-stones for farther voyages.

As a navigator and member of the royal household, Perestrelo belonged to the prestigious Knights of Santiago of the Sword. Membership in this military order was how the royals kept navigation information so closely guarded. As a sea captain, Perestrelo had participated in the discovery of Madeira, 300 miles off the Moroccan coast. To reward him, Prince Henry gave him the Madeiran island of Porto Santo as a hereditary capitania, which he governed on the Prince's behalf.

There, scholarly as well as adventurous, Perestrelo collected his own library of navigation maps, charts, instruments, diaries, reports - all of which he kept under lock and key in his raw new Governor's House on Porto Santo.

The archive is said to be 2nd in importance to Prince Henry's personal library. Of special interest were eyewitness reports on strange tropical plants, hunks of carved wood, even dark-skinned bodies, that had washed up on the beaches of those Portuguese islands, carried there by winds and currents from unknown lands to the west.

By a previous marriage, Perestrelo was allied with the Teixeiras, another family that produced explorers and navigators. Around 1450, Perestrelo married for the third time - Isabel Moniz, who would be Filipa's mother.

The Moniz family had an even longer record with the Portuguese royals, from scholarly courtiers to titled warriors going back to the 12th century. In older times, they were Sephardic Jews, but by the 1400s they had adopted Catholicism, and developed strong church connections. Isabel's uncle was archbishop of Lisbon. Her brother Christopher was a Carmelite monk and bishop. The Monizes also formed a marriage alliance with a noted explorer clan, the Corte Reales, governors in the Azores. Joao Vaz Corte Real had voyaged to Iceland on behalf of Prince Henry. According to one Portuguese source, the Monizes even had some Spanish ties, to Queen Isabel.

Before she bore Filipa, Isabel had a son, also named Bartolomeu, and a daughter, Violante.

A Colonial Outpost

Porto Santo, where little Filipa was born, turned out to be a problematical gift for her father.

Though its offshore fishing was good, the island's bleak treeless volcanic landscape resisted the planting of vineyards and other development that Perestrelo hoped would support him and his colonists. Their stone cottages huddled around the solitary church and Governor's House. Normally Perestrelo would have income from his subjects' rents and crop sales. But everyone, including the Governor himself, was struggling to make things happen.

Around 1457, when Filipa was perhaps five, her father died, possibly worn out by the struggle and effects of old harships at sea.

Widow Isabel inherited his navigation library - and the threat of bankruptcy. Her son Bartolomeu was still a child, unable to govern his inheritance. So she sold his capitania to a male relative, for enough to support her family for a while. Then she packed up her children, and took ship for Lisbon.

In the capital, Isabel put Filipa into the storied convent school of Santos-o-Velho (All Saints), which stood just outside the city walls. Inside that aging cloister, the girl joined an exclusive community of donas - female members of leading noble families who belonged to the Order of Santiago of the Sword. The original purpose of the convent was to serve as a residence for these women while their husbands and fathers were away at war with the Muslims. Later the convent could become home base for women whose family men didn't come home from some ill-fated voyage. Her father's membership qualified her mother to live there as well, in the attached Residence, and Filipa to be in the convent's school.

Typically, the medieval military orders (Templars and others) operated differently than the purely monastic orders of the Church. They lived by a rule, like the monastic orders did. But some, like the Santiago Order, accepted female members as well. Members were not exactly "nuns," and their vows were not perpetual. With permission from the King, who was Master of the order, these Santiago women could leave the convent and marry. Filipa's convent was ruled by an abbess or comendadeira, Beatriz de Meneses.

Eventually Isabel got her two older children married. Bartolomeu married a lady who was a descendent of the Teixeiras and a noted 14th century Scottish navigator, Henry Sinclair, whose son had settled in Madeira. Violante married a Spaniard and went to live in Sevilla.

Meanwhile, in the cloister, Filipa got educated and evidently blossomed into a formidable urbanite by the time she hit her early 20s. According to several historians who cite convent records still existing in Lisbon, Filipa belonged to a committee of 10 young women, the donas, who assisted the prioress in running the convent.

One historian, Maria de Freitas Treen, believes that Filipa was retiring and demure, but I wonder if that's the case. The word comendadeira (commander) implies that these women were made of tougher stuff. In order to have any part in governing a bunch of strong-willed female aristocrats, as well as liaising with church authorities, and administering the convent's rural estate that provided the women with a living, Filipa likely had to be politick, charismatic, and smart.

Orders of the Day

Now for a snapshot on Europe's push across the Atlantic.

The original effort had started long ago and near the Arctic, where several land bodies offered stepping-stones across the stormy North Sea. First, in the year 874, Vikings from Scandinavia hopped west to Iceland, which they successfully colonized. From there, they hopped to south Greenland. By the year 1000, the Norse were attempting to colonize North America. How do we know this for a fact? Because archeology gives us the forensic evidence of Norse houses and artifacts that were excavated in Newfoundland.

To explore as they did, the Vikings and Norsemen had to develop a formidable body of navigation and shipbuilding information on which their lives depended. But the northern climate was harsh, and many of those first colonies failed. So Europeans kept probing ever southwards into warmer climes - which meant longer, riskier voyages across wider stretches of the Atlantic.

Soon these Scandinavian efforts would merge with another powerful navigator tradition coming from the Mediterranean and Middle East. Around 1118, the Order of Knights Templar was organized in Jersalem, supposedly to protect pilgrim traffic there. Ultimately the Templars forged beyond that - to be the medieval world's primo engineers, seamen, bankers and traders. As such, the Templars amassed their own archive of information about ships and navigation. Typically, they kept their knowledge secret in order to give the Order its edge in commerce.

By the 14th century, however, the Templars had grown too rich, powerful and independent for the Church's taste - not to mention too culturally intimate with the Muslims, with whom they traded. So in 1312, the Order was formally disbanded by the Pope. In France, the Templars were horribly persecuted as "heretics," and dozens of top-ranking knights were burned at the stake.

But many Templars escaped the Inquisition, with their ships, money and navigation know-how. They headed for kingdoms where the Pope had little leverage. One of these was Portugal. The Portuguese royals had gotten Templar help while fighting the Islamic occupation, so they felt they owed the Templars. In 1317, King Denis of Portugal took over his kingdom's Templar commanderies, and re-invented them as a brand-new order - the Knights of Christ. Under this camouflage, old Templar wealth and personnel were poured into the Knights of Christ.

This Templar merger explains how Portugal so ably picked up the thread of Atlantic exploration, probing ever southwards along North American shores, looking for a better route for trading with the Far East. When Prince Henry the Navigator became Master of the Knights of Christ, he tapped the new order's old wealth to fund his discovery projects.

Up till then, Christian Europe's trade with the rich Indies had been launched from the Near East. From there, the European goods followed the Silk Road east - a long, hazardous trek across the wastes of Central Asia to China and India. Or, if you went by sea, you had to portage your goods across the Suez isthmus to the Red Sea. There, you loaded your stuff onto ships for a long voyage down the Persian Gulf and east across the Indian Ocean to Asian ports. You came home with silk, spices, ivory.

But as the Middle Ages waned, Europe's leading navigators had accepted the ancient Greek realization that the Earth is round. They wondered if they could reach Asia by a short cut - sailing west across the Atlantic. They even had done calculations that gave them a vague idea of the many thousands of miles in the Earth's vast circumference.

But by the time little Filipa was born, navigators still weren't sure whether the mysterious and rumored coastlines to the west were Asia or not.

Like the Order of Christ, the Order of Santiago of the Sword also had its Templar backstory. Originally founded in 12th-century Spain to protect the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela, the Order of Santiago borrowed its rule from the Spanish Templars. The Order of Santiago spread into Portugal where, in 1316, the king nationalized its commanderies, making them independent of Spain and a part of his household.

This order, too, produced its plethora of explorers - notably Vasco da Gama. He would be the first European to find his way to the Indies via an alternate route - south around Africa's foot, the Cape of Good Hope, and east across the Indian Ocean to Asia in 1497-99.

Enter Columbus

Sometime in the 1470s, a young wannabe trader named Christopher Columbus arrived in Portugal from Genoa, in Italy. He and his brother had come there because Portugal was where the action was.

In Lisbon, the brothers made a sparse living as mapmakers. For several years, Columbus worked as a simple sailor, shipping out on Portuguese voyages of Atlantic trade and exploration. Dreaming of finding his own sea route to the Indies, he aggressively gathered scraps of new information on what might be out there. But the inner secrets of Portuguese navigation were tied up in an aristocratic inner world, hard for him to penetrate.

Today controversy rages over Columbus's nationality, ethnicity and social status. While traditionalists hold fast to the conventional belief that he was born in Italy to a humble family of weavers, a growing body of dissenters state that he had some noble ancestry. Also that he was Spanish, or Catalan, or Portuguese, or Sephardic Jew. The Jewish and noble details are convincing, partly because they explain the apparent ease with which a foreigner like Columbus could marry into Portuguese aristocracy.

When he first met Filipa around 1478, Columbus was in his late 20s, a few years older than she. According to a biography written later by Columbus's younger son Fernando, they met in Lisbon when Columbus was attending masses at the Santos convent church. Santos was the popular hang-out place of young well-born men who were on the hunt for a good match - they went there to look the donas over...and to be looked over by the donas.

Filipa noticed the tall newcomer (so Fernando said), and struck up conversations with him. At some point, Columbus learned that her father had sailed for Prince Henry and left a trove of papers relating to Atlantic exploration. When Columbus asked Isabel and the King for Filipa's hand in marriage, it's hard not to suspect that he had designs on the library.

In 1479, when Filipa was about 24, the King approved the marriage and released her from her vows. Portuguese historians emphasize that the King would not have done this if Columbus's ancestry was not found suitable in some way. The couple married right in the Santos church.

Then, with Isabel, the newlyweds boarded a ship and moved back to Porto Santo.

By then Isabel's son Bartolomeu, now an adult, had gone to court and retrieved the capitania that she had sold. He was living in Porto Santo in the Governor's House. The lawsuit over the governorship evidently had soured relations between Isabel and her son. So she may have lived with her daughter and son-in-law in a modest stone house that is still standing in the town and is now a tourist attraction.

Mother-in-law Isabel still had control over her husband's archive. It was now that she gave Columbus the key to that precious trove of documents. Some sources say that Columbus actually acquired them as part of Filipa's dowry.

Poring over these papers, Columbus may have learned what he might encounter in the way of currents and prevailing winds in that part of the Atlantic. He also must have noted the reports of those bodies and carvings that had drifted in, and the direction of currents that brought them. He began to conjecture that a west-southwest course would take him straight to the Indies. However, it was from corresponding with an Italian source, cosmographer Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, that he came up with the notion that those Indies were just 3000 miles away - far closer than many explorers had believed.

As yet, historians have never discovered whether Filipa actually helped or supported Columbus with his research, or the extent to which she might have networked on his behalf. But it's hard to believe that an educated former comendadeira's assistant could resist having something to say about this ambitious plan.

Around 1480, the couple's first child, a son named Diogo, was born in Porto Santo. A second child, a daughter, may have come along later.

Belief and Betrayal

Meanwhile, Columbus was shopping his Indies theory to any monied royal who would listen. First, naturally, he tried the King of Portugal, John II. But the King was not a dummy about Atlantic navigation, and said no. He added bluntly that the Indies surely lay much, much farther away than Columbus believed.

Similar pitches to the Kings of England and France met with similar rejection.

In 1485, according to Portuguese source Carlos Fontes, Columbus apparently left Filipa and his youngest child. He took his son Diogo and moved to Spain. There, while lobbying the Spanish royals about what he now called his Enterprise of the Indies, he had another son, Fernando, with a mistress. It appears that he had abandoned his wife in favor of his dream.

Back in Portugal, Filipa must have had to fall back on family ties for economic support. Her mother and the royal household must have been outraged at Columbus for having abandoned her and gone to Spain. That big neighbor next door had always had old friendly ties with Portugal but was now emerging as a trade competitor of Portugal. Columbus's action may have been viewed as a betrayal. But evidently Filipa was not being blamed for anything that her spouse might do. After all, Columbus had approached the King of Portugal first, and the King had turned him down.

On September 16, 1490, according to records cited by Fontes, she exercised her rights within the Order of Santiago, and re-entered the convent.

After several frustrating years in Spain, Columbus finally convinced Queen Isabel to finance a 1492 voyage. It is not known whether the alleged Moniz tie to the Spanish Queen had any leverage in this situation. Columbus also convinced the Queen that he had a divine mission to bring Christianity to the heathen Indies.

"God made me the messenger of the new heaven," he wrote.

In 1493, when Columbus returned to Spain in triumph from the alleged "Indies" discovery, Filipa was still alive in Lisbon. But she died four years later, on July 29, 1497, in her mid-40s. Some sources say she died of tuberculosis.

There in Lisbon, she was buried in the Lady of Mercy chapel of the Carmo (Carmelite church). This was the family pantheon, where generations of Moniz family members had exclusive burial privileges. Doubtless her tomb displayed the Moniz arms - a shield with five stars, like those in the sky at night that had guided her sea-going ancestors.

In 1755, most of Lisbon was flattened by a megaquake, probably as severe as the one that just flattened northern Japan. The Carmo was badly damaged, and according to one report, her family had her burial moved elsewhere. The earthquake destroyed much of the city's records, accounting for the paucity of documentation that makes studying her story such a headache.

No portrait of Filipa has survived, that I know of. So we have no idea what she looked liked.

The Convenient Mistake

When Columbus sailed "the ocean blue in 1492," he actually proved his critics right. The island in the Bahamas where he made his first landing was not located anywhere near the real Indies.

But in the long run, "history" forgave him for his mistake. It let the Catholic Church occupy a vast new chunk of the world, and loosed a landslide of Indian gold and silver into Spanish coffers for the next two centuries, making Spain a global power.

In 1494, Spain nailed her claim to the New World, after butting heads with Portugal over some claims. Finally the Pope stepped in, and drew a north-south meridian down the middle of the Atlantic, roughly halfway between the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean islands visited by Columbus. Everything west of that meridian was Spain's, the Pope said. Everything east of the line was Portugal's, including Africa and whatever was on the other side of it.

The Portuguese, who had already made a landing on the Brazil coast, protested. So in 1529 the meridian was joggled to the west, and Portugal got Brazil. After Da Gama's voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese knew they had hit their own jackpot, and concentrated on colonizing in Africa and the Far East.

The minimizing of Filipa's key role in the story started with Columbus himself, in spite of what he owed her. Whether she actively tried to connect him with patrons, or whether she was simply a convenience that got him the Perestrelo archives, he still owed her big time. In 2006, the Madeira Times wrote, "It is interesting that Columbus never mentions the name of his wife in any of his papers, although he does refer to her twice. There is a letter written in 1500 where he confirms to having a wife." Only from the admiral's younger son Fernando, and his history of his father's life, do we learn how Columbus wiggled his way into the Perestrelo library.

Did Columbus minimize her because he saw his achievement lessened by having to admit that he owed her? Did he do it because he was embarrassed over his apparent abandonment of her? We can only guess.

The library itself has disappeared. Columbus may have taken it to Spain with him, and it vanished in the maelstrom that engulfed his life after 1492.

Twists on Women's History

So... if Columbus wasn't the first European to "discover America," who was?

This debate has become a hot one - complete with noisy blogs and scholarly name-calling. Some dissenting historians say that the first Europeans to touch American soil were those Norse who settled Newfoundland. Templar advocates say it was the Scot, Sir Henry Sinclair, who may have financed a 1300s attempt to colonize in North America as a Templar refuge from persecution. Portuguese historian Manuel Luciano da Silva insists that it was a Portuguese discovery. He cites a 1424 chart that shows Canada's Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in their correct latitudes, along with other geographical details known only to the Portuguese. This chart was drawn 68 years before Columbus set sail. Ongoing study, and archeology, will surely be adding more forensic details into the answer to this question.

Before these "first Europeans," the obvious first-before-anybody discoverers of the Americas came here in waves. They call themselves the First Peoples today. But that's another story.

I love studying these controversies, because of the ideological twists that they reveal. Liberals seem to have no problem accepting the reality of 1000-year-old Norse houses excavated in Newfoundland by real-life archeologists, who published their findings in peer-reviewed journals. Whereas the neo-conservatives stick like barnacles to their tale of Columbus-was-first. No amount of archeological proof about anything earlier can budge them. They are especially leery of attributing anything to the Templars, whom they view as devil-worshippers. After all, the Church decided that the Templars were bad guys.

And, despite all the neos' alleged love of family, they have little to say about Filipa's part in the story.

Why is it so screamingly important to cling to Columbus?

At the beginning, the log-line was simply that "Columbus discovered the West Indies." That was how Fernando himself described it, in the title of his book. Well into the 1800s, American WASPs actually ignored Columbus's "discovery," dismissing it as a Latin/Catholic thing. Then in 1828 American author Washington Irving romanticized the story in his Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Even in those days, the power of a bestseller was hard to beat. Little by little, the log-line changed to "Columbus discovered America." Columbimania started spiking in 1870, when he was proposed for sainthood. Then the Catholic Knights of Columbus (another military order) was organized in 1882, and Italian-American immigrants began lobbying for recognition of Columbus's "discovery of America." By then the cause had such momentum that, In 1906, Columbus Day became a state holiday. Aftger that, it was proclaimed a federal holiday in 1937.

Today "Columbus discovered America" is one of the bricks in that wall of belief that "America is a Christian nation." Ultraconservative Catholic author Warren H. Carroll says that Columbus was "ultimately responsible for America's evangelization; and for this we should forever honor him." Carroll adds that the "heathen" Native American cultures fully deserved to be exterminated. The sainthood campaign is still on - its devotees even have a Facebook page. Ultra-conservative American Protestants follow suit. Example: William J. Federer's recent enshrinement of the 1492 navigator in his America's God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations. Federer is founder and president of Amerisearch, Inc., a revisionist publishing company that is fiercely dedicated to Christianizing how Americans see our history.

Politically speaking, U.S. evangelicals suck up to U.S. Catholics by canonizing Columbus in their own way -- it helps them to keep the conservative Catholic vote on their side of the aisle. Today this combined pro-Clumbus base goes off its trolley in outrage at any mention of Europeans reaching America before 1492. You also can't mention any of the extreme conquest cruelties that came in Columbus's wake, some of which he personally was responsible for while governor in the West Indies.

To put it another way, the "Columbus and Christianity first" people are often the same people who invoke church doctrine against gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender/intersex people. Which is why it's in our own best interests to avoid supporting the Columbus myth in any way.

So the neos don't get to experience the full texture of that Columbus story they love so much - not unless they pay attention to the helpmeet and heterodox part of it. Namely, the wife, the navigation library, and the 600 years of prior Atlantic exploration, some of it by pagans and heretics, that made it all happen in 1492. Then maybe, just maybe, some of them might get a queasy feeling that Columbus wasn't "first" after all.

Further reading:

Among the few English-language books written about Filipa Moniz Perestrelo: The Admiral and His Lady: Columbus and Filipa of Portugal, by Maria de Freitas Treen (Robert Speller & Sons, 1989).

The book is somewhat fictionalized, but interests because of the personal insight that this American author brings to the subject of Portugal's Atlantic islands and their history - she grew up in Madeira. Treen often cites Portuguese scholar Rev. Eduardo Pereira, expert on Madeira, who knew some of Filipa's descendants and was familiar with the family history.

Filipa's part in the story is much more visible and discussed in Portugal, where all the areas of controversy about the whole family are being avidly investigated.

Some other sources I consulted as I pieced together Filipa's story:

Uncovering the Real Columbus, by John Wolcott (Aegina Press, 1992)

"The female community of the Order of St. James in Portugal: a journey from the late 15th century to the 16th century," by Joel Silva Ferreira Mata of the Universidade Lusiada do Porto," 2008, vol.6, no.1, p.47-56. ISSN 1645-6432.

Rewriting American History

The Hooked X: Key to the Secret History of North America, by Scott F. Wolter (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2009)

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky (Walker and Company, 1997)

Portuguese Pilgrims and Dighton Rock: The First Chapter in American History, by Manuel Luciano da Silva, with 164 illustrations. Editor: Nelson D. Martins Bristol, Rhode Island, 1971.

"Filipa Moniz Perestrelo," Cristovão Colombo, português? by Carlos Fontes (Lusitopia).

Historia de las Indias escrita por fray Bartolomé de las Casas obispo de Chiapa ahora por primera vez dada a luz por el marques de la Fuensanta del Valle y d. José Sancho Rayon, by Frei Bartolomé de Las Casas. Tomo I, Madrid, Imprenta de Miguel Ginesta, 1875. (Tomo I, Capítulo IV, página 51 a 54).

Filipa's Family Tree

"The Odyssey of the Portuguese Jews," by Manuel Luciano da Silva

Christopher Columbus: his life, his work, his remains, as revealed by original printed and manuscript records, together with an essay on Peter Martyr of Anghera and Bartolome de las Casas, the first historians of America,by John Boyd Thacher (University of Toronto Libraries, 2011)

The History of the Life and Actions of Adm. Christopher Columbus, and of His Discovery of the West-Indies, Call'd the New World, Now in Possession of his Catholik Majesty, by Fernando (Don Ferdinand Columbus) Colon, 1704. Written originally in Spanish, later translated into Italian.

Discussion of Portuguese documents on Filipa and her family

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Patricia this is fascinating. Thank you for doing the research.