Dust and din

IN the presence of friends and fellow votaries of history assembled in an upper room of the National Newark Bank, the normally serene William A. Whitehead confessed to having suffered from “something like outraged feelings.”

A half century earlier, he had stood in awed silence at the sepulchre of the man who “gave a new world to Castile and to León.” What proud American could gaze at the great navigator’s final resting place and not be moved? Who would not feel both humbled and exalted before the tomb of the Genoese mariner who, though he never touched the North American continent, could be hailed as progenitor and forerunner of all Americans? “The remains of Christopher Columbus!” cried Whitehead. “How natural to regard as most sacred the shrine in which they repose!”1

A mid-19th century rendering of the stone effigy designating the tomb of Christopher Columbus in Havana Cathedral.

The island of Cuba was home to this shrine. The canons of Havana’s cathedral “systematically” escorted visitors past the main altar to a stone effigy portraying the Discoverer of America, his index finger resting expressively on a globe. Sculpted boughs of laurel framed the bust above, an array of nautical emblems could be seen below. On these were superimposed three “poor verses,” now recited by Whitehead in English: “Remains and image of Columbus! A thousand years will ye be preserved in this urn and in the remembrance of our nation.”2

In death Columbus lay far, far away from his native soil: the migrations of these mortal remains came near to replicating his journeys while alive. Buried twice in Spain–in Valladolid, where he died, and later in Seville–his bones were disinterred again and transported in 1536 to Hispaniola, together with those of his son Diego. They rested in the cathedral of Santo Domingo until 1795, when Spain ceded its claims on Hispaniola to the French, and the decision was made to remove Columbus once more, this time to Spanish-ruled Cuba.

The exhumed remains were met in Havana with magnificent displays and solemnities. Set down at the monument to the first Mass and the first cabildo (celebrated, it was widely believed, by Columbus himself), they then were carried in procession to the cathedral, where a Missa pro defunctis was sung and the gilt leaden coffin containing them formally installed in the chancel wall. Here, in March 1829, Whitehead paid homage while on his first visit to the city; he gave impassioned voice to the experience in the third of his “Letters from Havana,” published in the Newark Daily Advertiser nine years later.

Now, in 1878, a much older Whitehead had to admit that his long-cherished memory rested on a falsehood. Excavations and analysis the previous year made it clear that the bones and dust of Christopher Columbus remained on Hispaniola, that they were never taken from the cathedral of Santo Domingo, and that those relics so impressively received by Cuba in 1795 had belonged only to “some deceased person” unknown–possibly to Diego who had been interred in an adjacent tomb. After nearly fifty years, Whitehead acknowledged that he had been duped. Evidently, so had the world.

Whitehead’s disappointment was all the greater as he had taken pains to inquire into the validity of the tomb in Havana. There seem to have been suspicions all along. A newspaper in the capital asserted in 1834 that the contents of the cathedral niche had been taken out some years before and consigned to a public burying ground outside the city walls. Two years later, a Spanish language periodical in New York acknowledged rumors, if only to repudiate them, that the remains of Columbus never left Santo Domingo. Toward the end of his stay in the tropics Whitehead became conscious of the uncertainties; but, with information obtained from the American consul and corroborated by “old merchants who have long resided here,” he satisfied himself that the remains in the cathedral were genuine.3

Skepticism, however, lingered in the minds of foreign observers–even if questioning the official story “were heresy in Havana.”4 A visitor in 1850 remarked in a letter to the Newark Daily Advertiser that a niche in the cathedral “it is said, contains the ashes of Columbus,” which made it the fourth such tomb he had been shown. Whitehead, feeling his powers of discernment thus called into doubt, asked the Advertiser to reprint the evidence he had contributed more than a decade earlier and so “reassure the faith of others as well as of himself.”5

The epitaph composed for Columbus by the Bishop of Havana in 1795.

Chastened by the subsequent discoveries at Santo Domingo, Whitehead did not sulk in silence or try to mitigate his error. Gathering all that he was able to learn from local authorities he shared this information with his fellow historians. The presence or absence of inscriptions, he observed, had proved critical: whereas the bones in Havana had been taken from an unmarked vault and the casket containing them was likewise uninscribed, the leaden case unearthed and opened in Santo Domingo on 10 September 1877 bore inscriptions proving beyond doubt that it contained the physical remains of the immortal Admiral.6

The older Whitehead, a seasoned chronicler of the past, grasped more fully than his younger self the uses and limitations of evidence. The inscriptions in Havana were created at the time of the casket’s arrival there. Among them one long and highly abbreviated Latin epitaph, included in Whitehead’s 1838 letter for the Daily Advertiser, contained much vital information about the transfer of the relics but could not be taken as proof of their authenticity. (The Advertiser called on “some learned virtuoso” for a translation; one appeared only when the epitaph was republished twelve years later.)7

The true site of the Admiral’s grave continued–and continues–to divide scholars and officials in Spain, which repatriated the remains from Havana upon Cuban independence in 1898, and the Dominican Republic, which insists that Santo Domingo is his final resting place. Of all the considerations affecting our appraisal of Columbus’s life and legacy this one seems far less momentous than it did in the nineteenth century. But the Dominican claim and Whitehead’s enthusiastic embrace of it influenced later perceptions, national identities and histories throughout the hemisphere.

Whitehead’s account of the posthumous wanderings of Columbus and the blunders, deceptions and revelations surrounding his remains entertained some in his audience, and inspired others to act. At its next meeting the New Jersey Historical Society launched a campaign to build Columbus a mausoleum in Santo Domingo, “a monument which shall be suitable to his greatness.” The project would be jointly financed by all republics in the Americas that saw fit to contribute, led by the United States. Whitehead, as Corresponding Secretary of the Society, was appointed to publicize the endeavor to New Jersey’s representatives in Congress and to historical societies across the country.8

Whitehead could soon report that a number of organizations thought highly of the plan to fund a worthy monument to Columbus, an initiative also gratefully acknowledged by “the good people of Hispaniola.”9 Documentation of the Columbus controversy flowed into the Society; the treasurer, Robert S. Swords, translated much of it from Spanish to English for the library collections. The unexpected deaths of Swords and of Recording Secretary Adolphus P. Young, two leaders of the New Jersey-inspired campaign, may have caused the monument idea to languish.10

On a broader scale the progress of any movement for international cooperation was sure to be slow. Not until late in the following century did such a Pan-American effort bear a kind of fruit. What are said to be the relics of Columbus now rest in a colossal lighthouse, built with no financial support from the government of the United States. It’s unlikely William Whitehead would be pleased.

Copyright © 2018-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] W. A. Whitehead, “The resting place of the remains of Christopher Columbus,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society (hereafter Proceedings) ser. 2, 5:3 (1878) (128-137) 128-129.

[2] “Letters from Havana III,” Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser 7 August 1838 2:1-2, reprinted in The Sentinel of Freedom (Newark, N.J.) 14 August 1838 1:3-4. Henry Harrisse characterized the lines as “poor” (“pobres versos”) in Los restos de Don Cristoval Colón. Disquisición por el autor de la Bibliotheca Americana Vetustissima (Seville 1878) 3, but he was hardly alone. James Anthony Froude complained, “The court poet, or whoever wrote the lines, was as poor an artist in verse as the sculptor in stone.” The English in the West Indies or The bow of Ulysses (London 1888) 263.

[3] In his Letter from Havana Whitehead referred to a review (unseen by him) of William H. Prescott’s History of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic (3 vols. Boston 1837); the passage in the North American review 46 (no. 98) (1838) (203-291) 245 stated that “at the last account” the remains of Columbus rested in Santo Domingo. On 18 January 1838 the National gazette and literary register (Philadelphia, Pa.) 1:4 contained a communication about the removal of Columbus’s remains “some years ago” from the cathedral of Havana, and even their possible destruction, citing Diario de la Habana of 19 January 1834. (The Diario of 18 January 1834 is cited in Rocco Cocchia, Los restos de Cristobal Colón en la catedral de Santo Domingo. Contestación al informe de la Real Academia de la Historia al Gobierno de S. M. el Rey de España [Santo Domingo 1879] 96.) In his 1878 paper Whitehead also referred to “erroneous and imperfect notices” about the remains that El Noticioso de ambos mundos of 19 March 1836 had tried to discredit: “The resting place” 133.  Even a former bishop of Havana was thought to credit some of the rumors: see Cocchia, Los restos 95, and Informe que sobre los restos de Colón, presenta al Excmo. Sr. Gobernador General D. Joaquín Jovellar y Soler, después de su viaje à Santo Domingo Don Antonio López Prieto (Havana 1878) 61.

[4] “A physician” [John George F. Wurdemann], Notes on Cuba, containing an account of its discovery and early history; a description of the face of the country, its population, resources, and wealth; its institutions, and the manners and customs of its inhabitants. With directions to travellers visiting the island (Boston 1844) 57n: “What, after all, if these are not the ashes of Columbus! There was neither inscription nor sign on the leaden chest or plate, by which the enclosed remains could be certainly identified,–the account mentions none…”

[5] S., “A Glimpse at Havana–Society, Customs, &c.” Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser 29 January 1850 2:1-2; “The Remains of Columbus.” Newark (N.J.) Daily Advertiser 14 February 1850 2:1.

[6] Whitehead, “The resting place” 134. The absence of any markings on the casket in Havana had already been noted in 1860 by Wurdemann (note 4).

[7] “Letters from Havana III” 2:2; “The Remains of Columbus” 2:1. Composed for the funeral rites attending the reception of Columbus’s remains, the Latin inscription reproduced above was exhibited temporarily in the cathedral, but a more permanent version was placed in the present-day precinct of El Templete, where in 1829 Whitehead saw it affixed to the pillar erected in 1754. I have not learned the present whereabouts of this tablet.

[8] Proceedings ser. 2 5:4 (1879) 168-169.

[9] Proceedings ser. 2 6:1 (1879) 2; cf. 6:1 (1880) 66, 6:2 (1880) 86-87.

[10] Swords’s translations from Spanish are preserved in Manuscript Group 1, D:260-262, New Jersey Historical Society. In January 1879 Swords delivered his paper “The bones of Columbus,“ a continuation of Whitehead’s narrative past the events of September 1877; it was printed in Proceedings ser. 2 5:4 (1879) 179-90. See also Proceedings ser. 2 6:1 (1879) 2, 68; 6:1 (1880) 74; 6:2 (1880) 86-87, 94, 102-3, 116-17, 124.

Images: 1) “Tombeau de Christophe Colomb, à la Havane,” in Édouard Charton, Voyageurs anciens et modernes ou Choix des relations de voyages les plus intéressantes et les plus intructives depuis le cinquième siècle avant Jésus-Christ jusqu’au dix-neuvième siècle 3:188, via Bibliothèque Nationale de France. 2) Relacion del funeral, que hizo la muy noble y leal ciudad de la Havana a las cenizas del gran descubridor de las Americas y esclarecido Almirante Don Cristobal Colon, trasladadas de la iglesia metropolitana de la ciudad de Santo Domingo en la Isla Española, y depositadas en esta Santa Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion el 19 de Enero del año de 1796 (Havana 1796).

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