Is the Columbian hypothesis about the much-disputed origin of Syphilis a remote fake news?

A man with “fake news” rushing to the printing press. Extract of “The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor”. Wikimedia Commons

In the history of medicine, some issues caused great controversy when they surged. It usually occurs in science in general. Time is a great sculptor of life’s avatars. It usually resolves the conflicts, but, occasionally, some disputes are perennial. An excellent example of a non-resolved argument is Syphilis’s geographical origin. In synthesis: there are two great groups of opinions, with a third more undefined and diverse.

We will focus our brief analysis on two antagonistic positions because of a question of limited space. A couple of ideological positions have generated the most debate: 1) The Columbian, American, or New World hypothesis; and 2) The Pre-Columbian, European, or Old-World hypothesis.

1. The Columbian Hypothesis

This theory claims that Syphilis, or a similar infection due to the genus Treponema’s bacteria, has existed on the American continent for millennia. In the fifteenth century, the disease arrived in Europe.

Columbus and his crew’s encounter with the Caribbean natives, in October 1492, led allegedly to the contagion of the ‘fiery’ Spanish sailors. The chronicler Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote: ‘They [Columbus’s men] snatched women and beat them bubas’ (bubas was the Spanish first name of the new disease, probably Syphilis).

On their return to Spain (March 1493), the explorers brought the infection of bubas, according to this theory’s supporters. Later, the disease spreads throughout the Iberian Peninsula and Europe like a fire in a dry field. It reached Naples (Italy) immediately, a kingdom besieged by King Charles VIII of France.

The war between the French and Neapolitans, this latter supported by the Spanish army, skyrocketed the epidemic throughout Europe from 1496. The associated war’s movement (French troops, defeated, returned home) with thousands of multinational mercenaries, prostitution, lousy hygiene, overcrowding, and promiscuity were contributing factors.

The war conflict gave rise to two of the most famous and pejorative names for the illness: the French disease (in Latin, Morbus gallicus) and the Neapolitan or Naples’s disease. Later, many accusatory denominations surge everywhere, depending on the country — many clear examples of blaming the Other.

The Ideological Basis of the Columbian Hypothesis

One can attribute the origin of this hypothesis to two authors: a chronicler and a physician.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, the chronicler: He was the author of the Historia general y natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra Firme del mar océano (Seville, 1535). A book published no less than forty-three years after Columbus’s return. However, nineteen years earlier, he edited the Sumario (Toledo, 1526), or a short form (Summary).

Front page of Fernández de Oviedo’s book.

Fernandez de Oviedo established the ideological seed about American origin. It was an idea that permeated the time’s political world. He said, for example: “…one of this is the bubas [probably, syphilis], transferred to Spain and from there to other parts of the world.”

Oviedo wrote without hard evidence. The ideological message immediately spread and was accepted in Europe. Moreover, it led to the surge of many controversies afterward. As he wrote many inaccuracies, fray Bartolomé de las Casas, the apostle of the Indians and a saint for the devotees of the nefarious anti-Spanish Black Legend, hardly criticized him.

Las Casas said that Oviedo’s book had ‘more lies than pages.’ The academic and Professor Alejandro San Martín, in a memorable lecture at the Ateneo de Madrid, in 1892, described Oviedo’s work as a ‘buffoonery.’ Finally, Sheldon Watt (Epidemics and Power, 2000) is even more sulfurous: he labels Oviedo a ‘genocidal’ and ‘perfidious Spanish terrorist.’

Recreation of the XVI Century Lisbon’s Hospital de Todos os Santos. Image credit: APS

Ruy Díaz de Ysla, the doctor: The second column where the Columbian hypothesis’s defenders supported its arguments was Rodrigo (Ruy) Díaz de Ysla (1462–1542). He was an Andalusian surgeon. Born in Baeza (Jaén), he worked in the famous Hospital Real de Todos os Santos (Royal Hospital from All Saints) in Lisbon. This Hospital was the largest European center in terms of syphilis patients’ assistance. Although there already exist in Spain for fifty years before, the famous School of Medicine and Surgery and the docent hospitals of Guadalupe’s Hieronymite Monastery, in Extremadura).

Guadalupe’s Monastery: XVI Century ‘s School of Medicine and Docent Hospitals. Image credit: J.M. Plumed

Ruy Diaz de Ysla wrote an inquisitive book entitled (in ancient Spanish) Tractado côtra el mal serpentino (Seville, 1539–1542). The surgeon was a bit confused with the epidemic beginning’s dates: in his manuscript (1535), he dated it in 1492 without specifying the month (blank space on the page); in the 1539 ‘prínceps’ edition of the book, it says 1493; finally, in the book’s second edition (1542), it is reaffirmed the year 1493. On the other hand, Fernández Oviedo was worst: for him, the epidemic began in 1496. Three years after Columbus’s returns!

Diaz de Ysla also claimed to have treated many patients with bubas at the Hospital de Todos os Santos. However, King João II of Portugal put the Hospital’s first stone in October 1491. The center did not begin functioning until 1504 (ruling the king Don Manuel III). When the Hospital opened its doors, Ruy Díaz de Ysla was still working in Seville as a surgeon. Some documents prove he did not work in Lisbon before 1509 (he probably practiced in Lisbon from 1510 to 1520). Then, he returned to the Tagus river city twice more: 1528 and 1535.

The manuscript of Ruy Díaz de Ysla, XVI Century. Image credit: Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Other testimonies

In addition to Fernandez de Oviedo and Diaz de Ysla, other later writers have also drawn to the New World origin idea. Let us go to see some: Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566) did not witness the event. He wrote about it many years later. The writing of Hernando Colón (1487–1539), the Admiral’s son, influenced the friar’s personal view. Thus, Las Casas was not original. It can be said the same about the chroniclers Francisco López de Gómara (Historia General de las Indias, 1552), Bernardino de Sahagún (Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, 1540–1585), or Ramón Pané (Relaciones acerca de las antigüedades de los indios, 1571). Pané accompanied Columbus on the second expedition (September 1493-June 1496).

Many XIX and XXth Century authors of great prestige and researchers from various disciplines have also supported this hypothesis. An idea that is in force for five centuries.

2. The Pre-Columbian Hypothesis

This theory maintains an opposite opinion: Syphilis (or, better said, the bubas) has existed in the Old World (Europe, Asia) since long before the Columbus voyages. Therefore, neither Columbus nor his sailors were the carriers of evil to Europe in 1493.

The list of defenders of the proposition is comparable, in number and qualification, to that of the Columbian theory. Although they did not write about the Indian origin, we quote some of the oldest for their unquestionable authority. Moreover, also, for being pioneers in writing about the historical epidemic. Those writers were Gaspar Torrella (1497), Pere Pintor (1499), Joan Almenar (1500), Diego Álvarez Chanca (1506), or Luis Lobera de Ávila (1544).

To defend their arguments, the numerous supporters of the Pre-Columbian hypothesis rely on many and consistent studies of paleontology and in documents of the time (chroniclers, doctors, historians, writers).

Our personal opinion

After analyzing numerous documents, we applaud the very reasonable idea of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s book’s propagandistic and exciting role. He promotes vehemently the ‘palo santo’ (the guaiac or guaiacum’s Spanish name) in two chapters of his Historia General. Guaiac is a vegetable of supposed therapeutic value against bubas.

The influential and wealthy German family Fugger (Emperor Carlos V’s lenders) obtained the guaiac’s worldwide commerce’s monopoly in compensation for the imperial projects’ financial aid. Fernández de Oviedo was a mere publicist lack of pharmacological or medical knowledge. Some scholars accused him of having apparent private interests and political concerns. In any case, the public effect of his message was enormous.

Regarding Ruy Díaz de Ysla, in 2007, we analyzed a copy of the original manuscript and the first (1535) and second (1542) editions of his book. We published a small study, expanded now in a current historical essay pending publication (Syphilis. Voices and Echoes). In both, we try to demonstrate the following propositions:

1. The surgeon Ruy Díaz de Ysla, so often quoted by the defenders of the Columbian hypothesis, did not work in Lisbon at the time of Columbus’ return from the first voyage (March 1493).

1. At that time, the Hospital de Todos os Santos in Lisbon still did not exist, so Diaz de Ysla could not attend to the alleged sick sailors.

2. He neither treated bubas’s patients in Barcelona (spring 1493) during the Catholic Monarchs’ visit to the Catalonian city. Columbus and seven indigenous Caribs also visited the Catholic Kings at this time.

3. No documents prove that Christopher Columbus, or any of his sailors, returned sick with bubas on the historic first voyage. Similarly, no chronicler or witness of the event left any written record showing patients with bubas in Lisbon, Seville, or Barcelona.

The bibliography to support the previous assertions is, in our opinion, irrefutable. On the other hand, recent genetic studies find that the dating of molecular clocks would assure the pre-Columbian origin of Treponema pallidum in Europe.

Christopher Columbus, with some Caribbean natives, visits the Catholic Kings in Barcelona. A painting (1874) by Ricardo Balaca (1844–1880). Credit image: Wikimedia Commons.

Conclusion

The so-called ‘fake news,’ or the lies or distortions of the facts from ever, are nowadays in fashion. But the phenomenon is not new. It is as old as humankind itself. In general, history is full of exciting interpretations (for example, some Roman historians’ testimonies about the emperors are useful to remember).

In our opinion, saying and spreading the assertion that Christopher Columbus and his men imported the bubas (probably, the disease was venereal Syphilis) from the New World to Spain in March 1493 is a historical invention.

In the 16th century and the following, this falsehood served as ideological ammunition to some European countries’ supporters of the Black Legend against the mighty Spanish Empire. The dear enemy. What would some be without the existence of their beloved enemies? An unjust opinion about the ‘perfidious’ Spain, still in force in the 21st century among some scholars and academics.

PD: This collaboration is a previous commitment exposed in an article published in MEDIUM on July 10, 2020 (Christopher Columbus’s statues do not have Syphilis).

Medical Doctor (Infectious Diseases specialist/Professor of Medicine) and writer (narrative, theater).

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