People who weren’t who they were

I’m a long-time fan of the Earl of Oxford as Shakespeare (although the Kit Marlowe theory also has its appeal). Edward de Vere died 400 years ago, but the mystery remains: who wrote Shakespeare? And if we can’t figure Shakespeare out, how can anyone ever have hoped to find the “historical” Jesus, at five times as many centuries past?

The history of the Portuguese Age of Exploration is relatively well-documented. Under the Infante Dom Henriques (Prince Henry the Navigator) Jo?o Gon?alves Zarco discovered the islands of Madeira around 1420, either Diogo de Silves or Gon?alo Velho discovered the Azores in 1427, and various expeditions explored the West African coast, reaching Cape Verde around 1460 and S?o Tom? e Pr??ncipe around 1470. Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, Vasco da Gama established the sea route to India in 1498, and Pedro ??lvares Cabral claimed Brazil in 1500 (although its borders had already been established by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494). In 1519–1521, Fern?o Magalhaes (Magellan) sailed west for the Moluccas; though he died along the way, he had already made it to a longitude he’d been to before, making him the first man to circumnavigate the globe—not the Spaniards who turned pirate after his death and limped home with 18 out of the original 270 crewmen.

It’s a simple story encompassing every important sea expedition of Western history, all in the space of 100 years, all undertaken by Portuguese nationals. You may think that there’s one missing, that some Italian named Columbus discovered America. The usual answer to this claim is that the Portuguese discovered Brazil before 1492 but kept it a secret. But there are more radical answers to the Columbus Question. Some Portuguese scholars claim that Crist??v?o Colom (or Cristof?m Colon) was the Portuguese pseudonym of one Salvador Fernandes Zarco, a native of the city of Cuba in the Alentejo and grandson of the Zarco who discovered Madeira. Most of the information about Colom is only available in Portuguese: Cuba, em portugu?s antigo coba? significava torre? e n?o tinha qualquer significado noutro pa??s. But here’s an English version.

I don’t expect any non-Portuguese readers to buy the Colom story; I just find it fascinating that we can have such exotic doubts about the identities of people who were well-known in their own day. The true identity of Shakespeare is supposed to have been known to many of his contemporaries, and Salvador Fernandes Zarco’s grandfather had been a governor of Madeira for forty years before “Columbus” married the daughter of another governor there. It’s hard to imagine that people didn’t know these things, but easy to believe they didn’t feel it necessary to write down that Colom wasn’t some random Genovese shipwrecked on the Portuguese coast at 25, never to return to Genoa, as the official version goes.

In both stories we have two lives glued together: that of the actual man who did the deeds (whether sailing or writing plays) and that of some random schmo with the right name and paper trail. Shakespeare’s case is supposed to have been a matter of genuine deceit, whether because Marlowe was playing dead or a nobleman (Oxford or Bacon) was preserving his reputation. Colom’s case looks like later Italian self-deception.

It’s also harder to correct; Oxford, Marlowe, and Bacon were all Englishmen (and Marlowe not even a nobleman), so national dignity isn’t at stake in the Shakespeare Question. But if Colom was Portuguese, that puts all the descobrimentos squarely in the hands of the Portuguese navigators—a logical conclusion, but not one likely to be popular with Italians or Spaniards.

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