Few people question the traditional history lesson: In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, set out to sail the ocean blue. He began a voyage for India with the support of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella — and, in the process, stumbled upon America.
Yet, Charles Merrill, a 1968 Hickman High School graduate, doesn’t accept the traditional story. His research has been incorporated into a prime-time documentary that ran this past week on the Discovery Channel.
“Columbus: Secrets from the Grave” was made by Atlantic Productions and explores Merrill’s theory that Columbus might have been from Catalonia, a region that is now in the northeast part of Spain. “We want to know the truth about the past, particularly about important historical personages, and we don’t want to hold as true notions which are in fact erroneous,” said Merrill, an associate professor of foreign languages at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
The hour-long program also follows DNA testing conducted on Columbus’ remains for identification and to explore theories about the explorer’s background, including the possibility that he might have been Jewish.
“Knowing where such a person was from, the language he spoke, the culture he was a part of, is fundamental to understanding him and his time, and hence us and our time,” Merrill said.
After spending two weeks in Spain this past March, Merrill was able to conclude that Columbus’ name has Catalan origins, and that most of his close friends and associates were Catalonians. Merrill also found Columbus never wrote or corresponded in Italian.
“Knowing that Columbus was a Catalonian can lead us to a clearer understanding of the importance of nations that are now stateless, like Catalonia,” Merrill said. “And knowing that he was a Catalan — when for centuries historians called him Genoese — can bring us to re-examine what historians have said about a number of things.”
Merrill’s plans include finishing a book on Columbus’ nationality and conducting more research on one of history’s most famous sons.
Merrill lived in Columbia from 1964 to 1968, first attending Jefferson Junior High School. He is the oldest of five children of John and Dorothy, long-time Columbia residents. John Merrill taught for more than 25 years in the MU School of Journalism and recently returned from a year of teaching in Egypt.
Charles Merrill said his interest in foreign languages was sparked by his Spanish teacher at Hickman, Alice Delmez — whom Merrill called a truly outstanding teacher. He went on to major in Spanish at Dartmouth College and later went to Duke University, where he earned his doctoral degree in medieval studies.