Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Beatriz Enríquez de Arana and Cristóbal Colón

Beatriz Enríquez de Arana (son born 15 August 1488)


A few words today about Beatriz Enríquez de Arana, about whom not much is known. She had a brief sexual relationship with Christopher Columbus, gave birth to his son, Fernando, cared for Columbus's elder son, Diego, and Fernando during their father's first voyage, did not claim the inheritance Christopher Columbus left her upon his death, and then died, in 1521 or 1536, take your pick--in either case, years after the explorer's death.

Beatriz Enríquez de Arana,
an imagined portrait,
from the Mary Evans Picture Library (UK)
And that is really pretty much it, as far as history is concerned. If you try to investigate further, you find odd contradictions--most sources indicate that Beatriz Enríquez de Arana was the daughter of Pedro de Torquemada and Ana Núñez de Arana, who were peasant farmers, but frequently this very same point is followed by noting that she was from a family of noble origins. What??? (It won't surprise you, perhaps, that Wikipedia juxtaposes these two points, but this site is far from alone.)

Nor will it surprise you that there is some "confusion," shall we say, about the duration of her relationship with Columbus, with some online sources indicating that their sexual relationship was short, ending after the birth of Fernando, and others suggesting that Columbus spent the last years of his life with her. Who knows?

But this much seems clear enough. Born about the year 1465 in the small village of Santa Maria of TrassierraBeatriz Enríquez de Arana moved with her mother to Cordoba after her father's death, and there received a certain amount of education from her grandmother and her aunt--she could read and write, uncommonly for women of her background.

There, in Cordoba, she met Columbus, who was seeking the support of the Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, for his proposed "enterprise of the Indies." Beatriz Enríquez de Arana gave birth to Fernando on 15 August 1488. 

Columbus seems to have left both of his children, Diego and Fernando, in the care of Beatriz Enríquez de Arana for the next few years while he campaigned to raise the money for his proposed venture. According to the biographical essay in Diccionario Biográfico Español of the Real Academia de la Historia (which seems to be the best online resource available), Columbus also left both boys with Beatriz Enríquez during his first voyage, in 1492. She seems to have been commended by the queen for her care for both boys.

When he returned to Spain in 1493, Columbus retrieved Diego and Fernando and took them with him to court. Beatriz Enríquez de Arana's son was made a page in the household of Prince Juan, and after his death he was transferred to the service of Queen Isabella.

Pilar Bartolomé, in her article on Beatriz Enríquez de Arana in El Día de Córdoba, indicates that there is no evidence that Columbus and Beatriz Enríquez met after 1493. After his return, Columbus did make sure she received a pension, however, and in 1502, as he is about to leave on his fourth voyage to the New World,  he instructs his older son, Diego, to care and provide for her, reminding him that she had cared for him as a mother:  "a Beatriz hayas encomendado por amor de mi, atento como tenías a tu madre."

An eighteenth-century engraving of
Christopher Columbus and his two sons,
Diego and Fernado, and, I kid you not,
"a woman"--no identification!

A great deal has been suggested about why Columbus never married Beatriz Enríquez--was it because of his own ambitions and her low social class? That his promotion to the rank of nobility barred their marriage? The possibility that her family had Jewish roots? There are no clear answers.

In a 1506 addition to his will, Columbus acknowledges his debt to Beatriz Enríquez, "mother of Fernando, my son"--and the fact that her pension has not always been paid--and wishes that she should be paid all that is owed to her, "that she may be able to live honestly, being a person to whom I am under a very great obligation." 

He adds, cryptically, that he does this as an act "of conscience," because "it lies heavily on my soul"--though what "it" is, he does not specify, saying, "The reason for it is not lawful to write here." (In the original: "Digo y mando a Diego mi hijo o a quien heredare [...] que haya encomendada a Beatriz Enríquez, madre de don Fernando, mi hijo, que la provea que pueda vivir honestamente, como persona a quien yo soy en tanto cargo. Y esto se haga por mi descargo de la conciencia, porque esto pesa mucho para mi ánima. La razón de ello no es lícito de la escribir aquí."

Although she lived in poverty, Beatriz Enríquez de Arana never claimed her inheritance after Christopher Columbus's death. 

Although Ferdinand Columbus writes a biography of his father (1536-39)--and mentions Columbus's well-born Portuguese wife--he includes no mention at all of his own mother. 

I've linked here to the most credible sources for information on the life of Beatriz Enríquez de Arana. If you look at biographies of Christopher Columbus, her name is not to be found (at least not in most of the ones I have been able to check).

As an interesting note, while writing this post, I came across Doris Weatherford's 2015 "The Lack of Historical Curiosity about Women" (a not surprising piece), but found she had some great information about Christopher Columbus wife, who also mainly goes unmentioned. 

She's just finished reading Laurence Bergreen's 2012 Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504, published by Penguin and a New York Times bestseller, and on page 8, she's already noticed a serious problem with the book: 
. . . 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.
According to Weatherford, Bergreen "doesn’t bother with dates or locations for either [Columbus's] wife or son." Nor does she name Columbus's wife. But Weatherford herself fills in a great deal:
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."
An imagined portrait of
Filipa Pestrello e Moniz.
In her piece, Weatherford also mentions other women associated with Columbus, including Dona Ines Peraza de Garcia,  goboernadora, or governor, of the Canaries, with whom Columbus spent time during his second voyage, and many indigenous women. It's well worth a read!