The statues of Christopher Columbus do not have Syphilis.

Did the Admiral have it?

PART 1. On Statues, Reputation, and Origins.

Columbus statue beheaded in Boston. Photo: Tim Bradbury/Getty Images.

A revisionist movement is sprouting since weeks ago in the USA. And in many parts of the planet. The storm burst amid the enormous social turmoil generated by the death of several Black persons. It is as a flash of lightning surged since the storm’s background. But in fact, it merely is the rise to the surface of underground citizen rage contained for centuries in the basement of ignominy.

Anyone can ‘overthrown’ the Columbus statues, but not history.

Columbus, the great explorer, occupies a privileged place in the never-ending book of history. He was the first civilized European that arrived in the unknown American continent (forget the terrible Viking tourists of the Middle Ages, please).

He —the Admiral— ‘discovered’ the Indies. Or New World, as the terminology of XV Century’s last years, named it. In reality, it was not a discovery as if we found a new extrasolar planet. It was an encounter of two worlds very different. Two kinds of cosmogonies or forms to understand existence.

Christopher Columbus and his sailors found a beautiful land, inhabited by millions of persons. Paradise, as he described in a letter to Castilian Kings. New World was as ancient as the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa). But the exotic Bahamas and other Caribbean islands were places unknown to Europeans, the architects (Spain and Portugal) of an expanding world.

Until October 1492, no one knew anything about the Terra incognita placed at the other bank of the mysterious ocean. The limits of the European cosmographic world arrived only a little beyond its medieval shadows.

Was Columbus a reputed syphilitic?

The Admiral of All the Oceans and Firm Land was a typical model of pre-Renaissance men forged in the bosom of dominant European society. Regardless of whether the Genoese explorer deserves now a successful trial for his decisive role in history, the anger against him is not new.

The blows suffered by the statues, signs, and ephemeris representing or paying tribute to him these days are a form of physical violence against a symbol — a real symbolic lynching.

But, hate is ancient: During five centuries, Columbus’ reputation has suffered moral hits far worse than the spectacular demolition or decapitation of a block of cold stone crowned by the feces of birds.

Reputation has many synonymous: respectability, esteem, fame, honor, celebrity, renown, and noteworthiness, among others. By ‘worse moral hits’ against his reputation, I mean that Columbus has been (and still is) target of many foes. People armed with ideological crossbows shooting fake news against his reputation.

Someone can ask: Was it only envy from those who thrived building the diplomacy relations among countries? Perhaps it is more straightforward: the evidence of silent hate, like American racism against Italians many years ago. In the first case, the infamous ‘Leyenda Negra’ (Black legend) against Spaniards is an excellent example that helps understand it. In the second one, there are many reasons to explain it, in addition to envy. But this is another story out of the present narrative.

Where the hell the infection came from?

If we conduct a macro-survey to inhabitants of Western, more developed countries, the results could be exciting. The supposed investigation would have only one question: “Who introduced syphilis into Europe at the end of the 15th century?”. With a high probability, there would be several kinds of responses.

Many people will have problems in locating the sexually transmitted disease at that time. Not to mention who committed such an outrage.

For the lasts five centuries, hundreds or perhaps thousands of authors (many of them from the Academic world) have defended an ideological idea: Columbus and his sailors were little less than a gang of sexual deviants. According to these writers, the Spanish explorers abused the indigenous women of the Caribbean people. And, as is habitual in the mentality of the time, sin carries penance.

The divine punishment for the moral faults of lust was to acquire a severe venereal disease (venereal come from Venus, the goddess of love). This new infection still was without an official name in Europe.

The literary birth of Syphilis.

Castilian Kingdom (old Spain) was the most potent State of Europe at the end of the XV Century, ruled by Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic Kings. Many chroniclers, and all physicians of this kingdom, called the disease ‘búas’ or ‘bubas,’ because of its resemblance to the ‘buboes’ (swollen inguinal glands) of the classic plague.

Girolamo Fracastoro statue in Verona. Photo:

In 1530, Girolamo Fracastoro, an Italian poet and doctor, wrote the famous poem: ‘Syphilis, sive Morbus gallicus.’ With this literary text, the Veronese writer gave birth to the voice syphilis. Thus, a mythical shepherd, Sipylus, put a name to a historical and pandemic disease.

During the next four centuries (from the sixteenth to the nineteenth), people called the new epidemic ‘French disease’. Doctors, more learned than laymen, said ‘Morbus gallicus’ (in Latin). Finally, in the 20th century, the definitive name of syphilis came back to dominate the literary texts until today, a common denomination.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease attached to the biographies and the works of a lot of writers, painters, composers, and many other artists living in the XIX and XX Centuries. Today, syphilis is a significant epidemiologic and clinical problem. Every year, it affects millions of persons in the world. And the curve follows growing up, as CDC informs.

About the disputed geographical origin: hypothesis, theories, and opinions.

A good number of people, let’s say a bit more informed, who would not hesitate to respond to the question about who introduced the epidemic in Europe. The answer is: “Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards when they returned from their first trip to the Indies.” It was in March of the year 1493.

Finally, an even smaller minority would respond that the New World hypothesis (for it is a hypothesis) is not only unproven, but is uncertain or, if you prefer, radically false. Some more theories are trying to explain this affair.

For example, against the Columbine hypothesis are the advocates of the Old World origin: Syphilis, o any similar treponematosis already existed in Europe and Asia before the first travel of Columbus. In ancient times.

A famous Spanish saying goes, ‘there are no two without three’: other authors propose an intermediate theory that tries to reconcile the two previous ones. It is the so-called Unitary hypothesis. There are other more explanations, but let us leave this matter for the amusement of the scholars.

The discussion about the origin of the disease begun five centuries ago, but it seems that is has not yet finished. It is a never-ending discussion.

In the next parts or sections of this story, I will try to discuss some of the most persuasive documental arguments supporting the New World theory on the geographical origin of Syphilis. There, I will expose some contrary ideas or opinions too.

On the other hand, as far as I know, there are a lot of paleo-pathological and genomic publications explaining and supporting the controversial Columbus’s theory. But these issues will be developed in the following articles.

Photo: Hieronymus Fracastorius (Girolamo Fracastoro) shows the shepherd Syphilus and the hunter Ilceus a statue of Venus to warn them against the danger of infection with syphilis. Engraving by Jan Sadeler I. Wellcome Library.



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Agustín Muñoz-Sanz

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