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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The historical lack of curosity about women

The most remarkable thing about the recent swearing-in of Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the Tampa City Council, I thought, was Imam Junaid Khan of New Tampa’s Islamic Society. He was on the agenda after the choir from St. John’s Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, as well as “words of wisdom” from Father Len Plazewski of Christ the King Catholic Church and from Rabbi Mendy Dubrowkski of South Tampa’s Chabad Chai. “Mendy” turned out to be a male name, so there was no gender diversity, but with a benediction by Pastor Bart Banks from the same church as the choir, there was plenty of religious diversity.

The crowd – and it was big – responded warmly to Imam Khan, especially after he revealed how nervous he was. He said he never had spoken to so large a group, nor in front of so many TV cameras. He confused “English” and “Arabic” when he explained that he was going to translate from the Quran, and embarrassed, corrected himself before beginning a beautiful chant. It reminded me very much of cantors in Jewish synagogues. In English, he spoke to peace and respect for individuality, and he praised Mayor Bob for creating a city in which we all are free to be ourselves. His words of wisdom were memorable, and the enthusiasm of the audience even more so.

* * *

I’ve just finished reading Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504. I must confess that I bought it intending to use it as a Christmas present, but realized when it arrived that it was too scholarly for the intended recipient. I didn’t know much about the three voyages beyond the famous one of 1492-1493, so it was interesting. And yet, there was so much more that could have been addressed instead of repeating the author’s chief thesis, which was that Christopher Columbus (as we use his name in English) was an odd combination of scientist and mystic. The author, Laurence Bergreen, emphasizes the latter and repeats the prayerful thesis with every gale and water shortage.

He does not begin at the beginning, with Columbus’ birth to weavers in the Italian province of Genoa, but instead in 1492, when he sighted land he thought was Asia. From that famed October 12, the story goes back to March 31 of that year, when Spain – under zealous Catholic Queen Isabella – expelled its Jews and the last of its Muslims. Columbus used this, the beginning of the infamous Inquisition, as a sign that God wanted him to undertake Christianizing the Orient. But even accepting that Columbus was more spiritual and less scientific than I had thought, I had problems with the author as early as page eight.

You won’t be surprised that’s largely because of its lack of attention to women. This book was published by prestigious Penguin in 2012, and according to the front of its jacket, quickly became a New York Times bestseller. I didn’t know that when I bought it at an extremely reduced price just two years after publication. But 2012 certainly is recently enough for question marks on gender to appear in the bubble over every writer’s head, and yet we have men appear on the scene as though other men bore them. Which brings me back to page eight, where the author refers to Ferdinand Columbus, son of the great mariner, with no mention of a mother. I confess I learned something here, as I had thought that Diego was Columbus’ only child.

Bear with me while I explain. I began my Milestones: A Chronology of American Women’s History (1994) with this entry for 1492: “Christopher Columbus uses maps obtained from his mother-in-law in his historic voyage. A widow, Dona Isabel Moniz carefully preserved maps, logs, and other useful items that had belonged to her husband. Columbus also benefits from the experience of his late wife, Filipa Prestrello e Moniz. She not only explored dangerous waters with her father, but also made valuable geographical drawings that her widower, Columbus, will use.”

Unlike his own humble Italian roots, Filipa’s family, especially on its maternal side, had noble connections in Portugal and Spain. The newlyweds lived with them in Lisbon until moving to Porto Santo, one of the Madeira Islands, where Filipa’s family owned an estate. Diego probably was born there or back in Lisbon, probably late in 1579 or early in 1780. Filipa died soon afterwards, but the author doesn’t bother with dates or locations for either wife or son. Nor does he explain how son Ferdinand (or Fernando, in Spanish) enters the picture. One has to go to other sources to figure out that Columbus’ second son, who kept a valuable diary of the fourth and last voyage, was illegitimate. His mother was Beatriz Enriquez de Arana -- and the author finally mentions, on page 362, that Columbus included her in his will because she “weighs heavily on my conscience.” He was 54 years old then, and she still was alive.

How can any author curtail curiosity about that? If he cannot ferret out the facts, why not give a page or two to speculation of the sort that he is perfectly willing to use on other topics? When it comes to women, far too many writers prefer to ignore the questions with romantic language such as Bergreen uses for Filipa Moniz. Almost immediately after recording Columbus’ success in seeking out a well-born wife with political connections, she is dismissed with, “Filipa became all but invisible to posterity.” Invisibility is too easy, and women deserve better.

Her son Diego was young enough that he spent the 1492 voyage as a page at the Spanish court. All sources agree that he was older than his half-brother Ferdinand, and yet it was the illegitimate son who accompanied Columbus on his last voyage, in 1504. If we accept that Ferdinand was born in 1488, as most sources say, then he was a mere sixteen years old when he kept the outstanding diary on which most information about that expedition is based. Ferdinand’s mother, Beatriz Enriquez de Arana, clearly still was alive, and Diego’s mother long had been dead, so the question arises: Why didn’t Columbus marry the mother of his acknowledged child? Especially, why didn’t he marry her immediately after the first voyage, when his reputation was at its height? Instead he included her in his will only after he was impoverished and dying.

I continued to be amazed not only at the lack of curiosity many historians display when it comes to women, but especially at the casual attitudes they take on facts related to women. When I was researching Beatriz Enriquez de Arana, this was so appalling that I asked Hubby come into my study and look at the screen to verify what I thought I saw. On the very same computer page, the author of “Christopher Columbus Genealogy” (sponsored, sadly, by FiOS) says that Enriquez was “a peasant woman” – and just eight sentences later, that she was “a lady of a noble family.” Give me strength!

Spanish women probably were part of Columbus’ second voyage, but again historians display scant interest. I’ve researched this for my upcoming book on Florida women, but the only thing I learned from this 2012 book is a brief reference to “a woman who had come here [Guadeloupe] from Castile.” She was mentioned because Columbus placed in her care a baby who had survived six days alone after a battle. Although he went on in some detail about the one-year-old child, he said no more about the Castilian woman, nor any other.

The second voyage was his biggest, with “a thousand gentlemen, commoners, and criminals,” but the author has nothing to say about their gender. Nor did he mention what I know from other sources: Columbus dangerously took his fleet of seventeen vessels to the tiny harbor at the island of Gomera in the Canaries because Dona Ines Peraza de Garcia was goboernadora, or governor, there. According to an Italian man who wrote in 1495, “Columbus was in love with Dona Ines.” So much more could be said about the powerful roles women held at this early stage of globalization, but historians seem to be too lazy to look.

* * *

So I’ve almost used up my outrage about omissions and contradictions, but I must add a bit about native women. I’ve got some two-dozen entries for page numbers at the back of the book on this, but I’ll cut it short.

Already on his first voyage, Columbus realized that everything works better if women are included. While exploring Cuba on November 10, he reported that six men and five women rowed to his ship in a dugout canoe. He repaid their friendliness by “detaining” them, intending to take them back to Spain as slaves. Later he added seven more women and three boys, explaining, “I did this because the men would behave better in Spain with women of their own country than without them.”

Columbus added a remembrance of an earlier experience on the west coast of Africa, when a canoe appeared with “the husband of two women and father of three children, a boy and two girls, and said he wished to come with [us] and begged me hard.” The Africans came aboard, but Columbus then rejected them because the sole man was “more than 45 years,” too old to be valuable. He failed to note the ages of the female majority, who clearly were the motivation for this boatload of globally curious people.

To his credit, the author included several references to female warriors and other strong women, including tribal chiefs. Some forcefully resisted their Spanish rapists, and a Puerto Rican woman whom the Spanish called Catalina led a escape of sex slaves that required swimming three miles in rough seas. Another entry, in 1496, read: “Before we reached the beach, a multitude of women armed with bows and arrows and with plumes on their heads rushed out of the woods and assumed a menacing attitude.”

As with other early explorers in all of the Americas, this book confirms that women were the primary workers in native societies. It also includes evidence that women worked cooperatively together and even sometimes lived with each other and their children on land separate from that of men. Most of the book’s quotations related to women, however, are of a brutal heterosexual nature, and some are so graphic that I wouldn’t want a teenager to read them. But you can.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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