Columbus's Death and Burial


Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506, at the age of 54. He had suffered through a long terminal illness that first showed symptoms on his third voyage eight years before.

According to his son Fernando, the cause of death was "gout." But in those days, gout was a catchall diagnosis for anything that caused joint pain. Recent research by Gerald Weissmann indicates that the most likely cause of death was Reiter's Syndrome, a rare tropical disease.

Upon his death, Columbus was initially buried in a small cemetary in Valladolid. Shortly thereafter, his body was moved to Seville. When Columbus' eldest son and heir Diego died in 1526, he was buried beside his father.

But Diego's widow petitioned the Spanish court to move both bodies to the cathedral in Santo Domingo on Hispaniola. So the remains of Columbus were moved across the Atlantic, and were buried under the right side of the altar in the cathedral in Santo Domingo. And there matters stood for two centuries.

In 1795, France captured the island of Hispaniola from Spain. By this time, the Spanish viewed the Admiral's remains as a national treasure, and wanted to prevent their capture by the French at all costs. So, relying on old records, they dug up the remains and removed them to Havana, Cuba. A century later, when Cuba won independence from Spain, the remains were moved again, from Havana back across the ocean to Seville. And so, if you visit the cathedral in Seville today, you will find the tomb of Columbus.

But that's not the whole story. In 1877, workers were restoring the cathedral in Santo Domingo and found, under the left side of the altar, a box containing human remains. The box bore Columbus's name. It immediately became clear to some that the "left" and "right" sides of the altar depend entirely upon the direction one is facing. And therefore, some argue, the body that had been moved to Havana in 1795 was really that of Diego, while the Admiral's remains had been in Santo Domingo all along. And so, if you visit the cathedral in Santo Domingo today, you will find another tomb of Columbus.

Meanwhile, one historian has argued that the wrong body was moved from Havana to Seville, and therefore, Columbus's remains are really in Havana. And another historian argues that Columbus's remains never left Valladolid! Furthermore, portions of the remains in Seville were given to the city of Genoa in 1892 as part of the quadricentennial celebration.

Recently, Spanish scientists tried DNA analysis to answer the question. As it turned out, DNA was not even necessary: a cursory examination of the bones in Seville showed that they must have been those of Columbus's sickly son Diego, not the Admiral himself. So the discoverer's final resting place is in Santo Domingo after all.


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