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Was Columbus a double agent?

While archaeologists spar over treasure hunter Barry Clifford’s claims to have found Christopher Columbus’ flagship off Haiti, amateur historian Manuel Rosa thinks there is reason to suspect the explorer credited with discovering America fudged what happened to the Santa Maria in his journal to mislead the Spanish crown. In a shot across Clifford’s bow, a UNESCO archaeological team sent to dive on his find off Cap Haitien reported that it could not have been Columbus’ flagship.

This Andries van Eertvelt painting depicts the Santa Maria on the first of the voyages Columbus made to North America.

Nieto Prieto, former director of Spain’s National Museum of Underwater Archaeology and an expert on Spanish shipwrecks, says bronze or copper fasteners found at the wreck site near Coque Vieille Reef were used in 17th- and 18th-century shipbuilding. Columbus’ vessels — the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria — would have been built using iron or wood fasteners. Prieto also noted that, based on information gleaned from Columbus’ journal, the wreck was too far from shore to be the Santa Maria.

Clifford is standing by his claim, based on the wreck’s location, the type of stones used to ballast it and the type of cannon (subsequently plundered) that he found there during an earlier exploration. He told the Associated Press that the copper fasteners could have been from the Santa Maria or might have been from nearby wrecks.

The UNESCO team, called in by the Haitian government, recommended further exploration for the Santa Maria, but Rosa doubts they’ll find it in the water because he thinks Columbus deliberately ran the ship onto the beach. Rosa’s 23-year quest to uncover the real Columbus casts the 15th-century explorer in a role worthy of James Bond as a Portuguese spy who sowed misinformation in the Spanish court about his voyages of discovery, including the fate of his flagship, the Santa Maria. If true, Rosa’s findings throw into further doubt Clifford’s claims to have found the remains of the Columbus flagship off Cap Haitien.

“There has been a lot of misinformation spread about Columbus as far back as 1486, and this has led to a very confused and false history of Columbus,” says the 54-year-old Rosa, a Portuguese American and the author of four books on Columbus, including the Spanish-language Columbus: The Untold Story.

Rosa doesn’t believe the Santa Maria sank off Haiti. Rather, Columbus sailed her to Caracol on Haiti’s northeast coast, dragged her onto the beach and on Jan. 2, 1492, ordered her shot through with a cannonball. But why sabotage his flagship? “You have to grasp that the whole first voyage was a ruse against Spain,” says Rosa, an IT analyst at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

He was drawn to the Columbus saga by earlier histories that questioned the explorer’s Italian lineage. Rosa speaks Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and English, and has traveled to the Dominican Republic, Portugal and its Madeira archipelago, Spain, Italy, Germany, Lithuania and Poland, seeking original documents, letters and chronicles to sort fact from fiction about Columbus. His research suggests Columbus was Portuguese, not Italian. Rosa theorizes that Columbus was the son of a Polish king, Wladyslaw III Jagiellon, who fought against the Ottomans at Varna in 1444 and was subsequently exiled to Madeira, where he lived under the assumed name of Henrique Alemão (Henry the German) and married a Portuguese noblewoman who was descended from the Italian Colonna family of Pope Martin V.

So Columbus was not the son of a humble Genoese wool weaver? That’s right, Rosa says. This is the backdrop of the intrigues that Rosa believes drew Columbus into the bitter rivalry between Spain’s monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Portugal’s King John II.

As Spain and Portugal vied to discover and dominate trade routes around Africa to the Indies, Isabella in 1483 plotted to assassinate John II with the help of two Portuguese nobles, both nephews of Columbus, Rosa says. John caught wind of the conspiracy and recruited Columbus as a double agent who, because of his noble lineage, was able to insinuate himself into the Spanish court and join his traitorous nephews in the plot, which never was executed. Gaining the ear of Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus persuaded the monarchs to underwrite his voyages west across the Atlantic, ostensibly to find a western route to the Indies, but his real reason was to turn the Spanish crown’s attention away from the African trade routes, Rosa believes.

“Columbus knew how to get to India [via the Cape of Good Hope],” Rosa says. “He sailed to the Americas with that secret proprietary knowledge, which the king of Portugal had given to him. It had been researched for years by the Portuguese.”

Archaeologist Barry Clifford claims that a pile of ballast stones he found off Haiti are the remains of the Santa Maria.

Columbus’ mission — assigned him by John II — was to get the Spanish crown focused on an ersatz India to the west, leaving the routes around Africa for Portugal to exploit, starting with Vasco de Gama’s voyage to the real India in 1498. Rosa hypothesizes that the endgame for John — and for Columbus — was to persuade Ferdinand and Isabella to sign the Treaty of Tordesillas, which they did in 1494, giving Spain control of all newly discovered lands west of the Verde Islands, while Portugal would get all of the lands east of there, including India, which it coveted — a deal Columbus greased by giving the Spanish monarchs wildly inflated reports of gold and spices to be found in the West Indies. Rosa says Columbus tells in his diaries of an Indian giving one of his crew bundles of cinnamon, which couldn’t have happened because cinnamon was as yet unknown in the New World.

It wasn’t until later, when Spanish explorers pushed farther west and found the Aztecs and Incas mining massive deposits of gold and silver on their lands, that it became apparent that Spain actually had gotten the better deal by far in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Rosa says Columbus’ secret mission on John’s behalf explains anomalies — deliberate falsehoods, Rosa believes — in his diaries regarding Santa Maria’s loss. The historian doubts the ship ever ran aground off Haiti. Contrary to popular belief, Columbus was a meticulous navigator, Rosa says. “He never ran aground with any ship.”

But even if the Santa Maria did sink off Haiti, Columbus’ diary account, in Rosa’s view, doesn’t make much sense. On Christmas night in 1492 about 11 p.m., Santa Maria was sailing off Haiti in a “dead calm” that he described as “water in a bowl,” according to the diaries. Columbus, having been without sleep for two days, had gone to his quarters to rest.

His helmsman decided to also get some sleep and, violating a strict policy that Columbus himself had set, turned the helm over to a “young ship’s boy.” About midnight, currents carried the ship onto a bank, although according to Columbus even in the calm seas the water could be heard lapping at the banks a league away (about 3 miles).

Columbus says Santa Maria drifted onto the banks so gently that those aboard hardly noticed it, but the boy felt the rudder freeze. Columbus ordered several of his crew, including the master, to launch the ship’s rowing boat, take the anchor and drop it astern so they could pull themselves off. Inexplicably, Columbus writes, the crew rowed to another of his ships — a caravel — a half-league to windward to save their own skins, but the caravel’s captain wouldn’t take them aboard. They returned to the Santa Maria, along with the caravel’s rowing boat and some of its crew.

Meanwhile, Columbus, seeing his crew in flight as the tide ebbed, ordered the mast cut down and everything jettisoned to lighten the ship so it could be refloated. But the diary suggests there was not enough time to do all that, for “as the waters were still receding, she could not be saved, and she settled on her side, broadside on to the sea, although there was little or no sea. And her seams opened, though she stayed in one piece.” The diary says Columbus decided to abandon Santa Maria and enlisted Indians to unload the ship’s stores and cannons and take them ashore.

Rosa suggests that if this account is true, Columbus didn’t make much of an effort to save the Santa Maria, and there was no real reason for the crewmembers to high-tail it to the caravel. Seas were calm, and the ship was close to land. Rosa thinks Columbus was too quick to abandon the ship. He believes the account of the sinking is bogus.

Preparing to return to Spain with the Pinta and Niña, Columbus built a fort named Navidad, or Christmas, and left 39 of his crewmembers, among them three of the Spanish crown’s representatives, to defend it. Rosa says the three courtiers were left behind so they couldn’t contradict his glowing report to the Spanish crown of his discovery of the Indies, a land rich in gold and spices.

In his Jan. 2, 1493, diary entry, Columbus tells of showing the Tainos — indigenous Hispaniolans who impressed Columbus with their gentle ways — the power of Santa Maria’s cannons so they would know that the Spanish who stayed behind could defend them against the warlike — and cannibalistic — Caribs from Puerto Rico.

In the English translation of his diary, Columbus “ordered a lombard [cannon] to be loaded and fired at the side of the [Santa Maria], which was aground,” Rosa says. “And he saw the range of the lombard and how the shot passed through the side of the ship and went into the sea some way beyond. He also had some men from the ships arm themselves and stage a mock battle, telling the cacique that he should not be afraid of the Caribs, even if they did come.”

Manuel Rosa is the author of four books on Columbus.

The diary’s English translation says the ship Columbus shot with the cannon “was aground,” but the original Spanish translation has the ship “en tierra,” or on land, which makes more sense because the cannons were at the fort and the Santa Maria — if grounded where Columbus says it sank — would have been six miles offshore. “How could he hit it from shore?” Rosa asks. He didn’t. “He sailed it straight in to shore. This is what he planned. He knew there was nothing [on Hispaniola] for Spain to send him back for.”

So he sailed the Santa Maria in to shore, beached her, shot a hole through her and left 39 crew there, including the three courtiers, giving him free rein to return to Spain and convince Ferdinand and Isabella that he had discovered the Indies. Then he would have to come back to get the crew he had left behind. To ensure that the three courtiers wouldn’t repair Santa Maria and sail her back prematurely, he took all six of his pilots to Spain with him. Rosa leaves open the possibility that Santa Maria ran aground, but if she did he theorizes that the crew threw out her ballast, floated her off and sailed her to shore, which isn’t what the Columbus diaries say happened.

Rosa notes other oddities. Columbus’ first stop on returning from his first voyage was Lisbon. Columbus blamed it on the weather, but he was greeted on his arrival with a parade and stayed in Lisbon for a week. And after arriving at Hispaniola on his second voyage, in 1494 — in the midst of negotiation of the Treaty of Tordesillas — he made Niña’s crew sign an oath that they would always say Cuba is the continent of Asia or have their tongues cut out and pay a fine of 10,000 gold coins.

Columbus is alleged to have been a second-rate navigator because his log contained so many errors, but Rosa believes they were deliberate to make the trip seem shorter and less arduous than it really was to allay his crew’s fears. Others believe he faked the numbers to extend his reach as viceroy of the Indies. “Columbus’ ship’s log wasn’t meant to tell the truth to anybody,” Rosa says. “It was written as a prop to his whole mission of tricking Spain.”

Massachusetts-based underwater explorer Clifford, who also found one of the world’s only proven pirate shipwrecks, “Black Sam” Bellamy’s Whydah, in 1984 off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, says he believes a 6-foot-high by 20-foot-wide by 60-foot-long pile of ballast stones he found 11 years ago in 10 to 15 feet of water four miles off Cap Haitien may indeed be the long-lost Santa Maria de la Inmaculada Concepción — Columbus’ flagship. Aside from doubting that the Santa Maria ever sank, Rosa says the location of the Clifford wreck doesn’t jibe with his calculations of where Columbus ran the Santa Maria ashore and built the Navidad fort — at Caracol, 10 miles southeast of Cap Haitien.

Far-fetched? Conspiratorial? Perhaps, but Rosa’s meticulous and scholarly research has been well received by Portuguese historians. Professor Joaquim Veríssimo Serrão, former president of the University of Lisbon and the Portuguese Academy of History, praises Rosa for his “meticulous study of the life and deeds of Columbus” and says “nothing invalidates the concept that Columbus was truly born in Portugal.”

And from University of Lisbon history professor Antonio Vicente: “For the first time ever a book was written about Columbus without starting from any preconceived certainties, and every piece of the puzzle is explained point by point.”

Rosa’s books are in print in Portuguese, Spanish, Polish and Lithuanian (, but the English translation remains in manuscript. Rosa says he’s still looking for an English-language publisher. He believes his findings about the Great Discoverer uncover a “whole history” that, like any successful espionage mission, “has been kept secret.”

Haitian culture minister Monique Rocourt last year announced that Haiti had rejected Clifford’s proposal to excavate the presumed wreck of the Santa Maria, saying the plan was too hastily drawn and not in compliance with international archaeological standards. Citing a Spanish archaeological team that has offered a theory similar to Rosa’s — that the ship’s remains are not underwater but on land near Fort Navidad — she says, “There is no certainty that this wreck is that of Santa Maria.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.