Mrs. Columbus

Bernnard Perlman

October 12, 1990|By Bennard Perlman

WHEN THE quincentenary (500th anniversary) of Christopher Columbus' sailing takes place two years from today, there will, of course, be memorable events to mark the occasion (although perhaps nothing quite as grandiose as the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 -- it opened a year late).

Tall ships will grace the harbors of Baltimore and other U.S. ports, an appropriate commemoration will be held at the Columbus Monument so beautifully ensconced on the western edge of Little Italy, and the country's first Center of Marine Research and Exploration, bearing the name of the explorer, will hopefully be rising on piers 5 and 6 downtown. A flag-raising ceremony to mark the beginning of work on the center was the highlight of last Sunday's Columbus Day parade.

But during these and additional happenings, what tribute will be paid to Filipa Moniz Perestrello (sometimes spelled ''Palestello''), the lovely senhorita from Lisbon who won Christopher's heart and may well have served as the catalyst for his voyage to these shores?

Virtually all encyclopedias and books on the subject credit Columbus' younger brother, Bartholomew, who kept a shop specializing in nautical instruments and charts, with helping to plan the great voyage. Beginning in 1482 he and Christopher, a native of Genoa then living in Lisbon, approached the kings of Portugal, England, France and Spain with the plan: In exchange for Columbus' finding a short trade route to the Orient, three ships were to be outfitted at the king's expense. Columbus would be rewarded with a sizable share of the trade, the honor of being named governor of the lands he discovered, and ennoblement, including the title of admiral.

Only King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were interested. Columbus was added to the royal payroll, but his proposal was put on hold until the Spanish monarchs completed their war against the Moors, an event marked by the conquest of Granada on January 2, 1492.

It was then that the queen made the magnanimous if perhaps legendary offer to pawn the crown jewels in order to raise the necessary $14,000 to underwrite the project. But the royal treasurer supplied the funds. Isabella kept her jewelry, gained territory in the New World, and became the heroine of the tale.

But wait. Queen Isabella, move over. At least one source has suggested that it was Mrs. Columbus who actually made the voyage possible. An article in a Chicago paper a year before the Columbian Exposition begins:

''There is much talk of celebrating the great achievement of Christopher Columbus, but what about Mrs. Christopher? Who knows that the great discoverer would ever have 'got a move on himself' but for the energy and devotion of his accomplished wife? . . . Her father, a great navigator in those days, left her a valuable collection of charts and maps and important memoranda, and journals of his voyaging. Miss Palestello had frequently accompanied her father and was accustomed to execute drawings for his use, and when she became Mrs. Columbus she brought to her husband a wealth of valuable information which greatly stimulated the adventurous spirit of the young navigator and steered him on his course.''

The author of the 1892 article suggested that the Board of Lady Managers see to it that the memory of Filipa Columbus be given due recognition at the exposition. ''If the truth were known,'' the story concluded, ''it would probably appear that the woman originated the whole scheme of the trans-Atlantic expedition which Columbus, in the spirit of conjugal obedience, so faithfully carried out.''

As plans proceed for the 1992 Columbus celebrations, will Filipa finally receive her due? Will she be honored in some manner at the Center of Marine Biotechnology which will bear her husband's name at the water's edge of the Inner Harbor? A representative for the Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management has stated: ''I don't know of any reference to her being planned at this time.''

Filipa Columbus had died by the time Christopher set sail for the New World (Though they married in 1479, she passed away following the birth of their son). As a result, she had no advocate to speak out for her contribution to the adventure.

There is certainly sufficient time to right the slight before 1992 arrives.

*Mr. Perlman is a Baltimore artist and author.

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