Christopher Columbus Lawsuits: A legal assessment

By Daniel J. Voelker

Litigators and experienced litigants alike can easily agree on one thing, and probably only one thing, it takes too long, far too long, to resolve disputes. It is not unusual for litigation to take years to resolve, and, in some cases, a decade or more. In some instances, the resolution of a dispute can even outlive a litigant. Litigation is time consuming, frustrating and, at times, exhausting, No one could have echoed this sentiment more sincerely than Christopher Columbus and the generations of his heirs who continue in great number to this day.

Born in the Republic of Genoa (now Italy), he sailed for Spain and became an American icon. Yes, "Christo" himself, as he was affectionately called by his family, and his heirs experienced the same infirmities of litigation as we experience. While he never set foot in the United States, he is as much revered as our own George Washington, and even has a national holiday named in his honor. Forgive me, but I must digress.

It all started in 1450. Born into a wealthy family, Christopher, in mid-life described as “a robust man, quite tall, of florid complexion with a long face,” developed a love of the sea and exploration at a very young age. He learned quickly and made his first sea voyage in 1471. While it was a short trip, it was treasure he sought, foreshadowing things to come. In 1492, after many years of soliciting various royals of Europe, he was offered the opportunity, as any schoolchild knows, to attempt to find a shorter route to India, as the spice trade was booming and a short-cut would have been invaluable. And find a new way he did, it just was not shorter. The earth’s circumference was far greater than anyone had imagined and much land stood in Columbus’ way.

Anxious to use his royal charter to elevate his personal wealth and that of his family, Columbus negotiated a lucrative agreement with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that would bring even Donald Trump and Warren Buffett to their knees. Indeed, on April 7, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed, in writing, at the Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain, in what is known as the “Capitulations of Santa Fe,” to give Columbus and his heirs into perpetuity "ten percent of all the wealth he discovered and claimed for the Crown on his voyages made on their behalf" as well as land grants, extravagant titles and untold potential powers in the New World. Having just retaken Granada and anxious for wealth to reload their coffers for future conquests, the Spanish Crown would have agreed to anything, and, frankly, it did. Four voyages to the New World later, Columbus discovered the route to riches from the Caribbean and South America conservatively valued in today's dollars at 100 trillion dollars or more. Just the gold and silver lost at sea by Spain on return to Europe over the next two hundred years is estimated to be worth a trillion dollars or more today.

Unlike history, the Crown was not kind to Columbus. On his third voyage, he returned to Spain in 1501 in shackles in a controversy regarding his alleged mistreatment of natives. When his shackles came off and he was released from prison six weeks later, Columbus somehow convinced the Crown to finance another of his voyages to the New World. But when he returned from his fourth and final voyage, the Crown dealt Columbus a knock-out blow when it reneged on its promise of untold wealth, titles and power. Depressed, destitute and sick, Columbus wrote in his diary, “I have not a roof over my head in Castile. I have no place to eat nor to sleep, excepting a tavern, and there I am often too poor to pay for my scot.” Nevertheless, he gathered supporters and initiated arbitration against the Crown for his share of the spoils of his labors; present and future. It is ironic that one of the supporters Columbus selected to present his case to the Crown was none other than Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is named.

The litigation that followed spanned three centuries, involved over ten generations of heirs of Columbus and is no doubt the longest litigated dispute in recorded history. This litigation is not well-known in the United States. Referred to as the Pleitos Colombinos, or the Columbian Lawsuits, the Crown argued that it was not Columbus who discovered the Americas. The Crown, desperate to unwind the deal, argued instead that Martín Alonso Pinzón, the captain of the Pinta, was the true Discoverer of the New World. The Crown’s counsel pursued this allegation based upon the testimony of several sailors who made the voyages with Columbus. Columbus had not done himself a favor as he never acknowledged that he had discovered a new continent, always contending that his voyages had landed him at the east coast of Asia. Nevertheless, had Columbus been alive to defend himself, he would have no doubt disagreed and reminded all that he and only he had the grant of authority to claim land for the Crown on these voyages.

Columbus died in 1506, at the age of 54 far from the closure of his dispute with the Crown. In 1508, Columbus’ son, Diego, brought suit seeking specific performance of Columbus’ contract with the Crown.

While Columbus’ heirs prevailed in 1511, after appeals, a new trial was granted in 1527. In 1536, the heirs of Columbus were awarded land in the Caribbean, but only on Jamaica and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and other powers, titles and a modest compensation, at least in comparison to what was owed to Columbus for his discovery of such vast riches.

The primary litigation was settled in part in 1556, over 30 years after Columbus’ son Diego’s death. A separate, but related, and very colorful action was brought in the form of a declaratory judgment to declare the rightful primary heirs to Columbus’ legacy of money, power and titles. This litigation continued – on and off – for over two more centuries.

While Columbus' descendants only prevailed in small part, their perseverance is to be lauded. The saga is one of the most curious pieces of legal history. So, when the pace of litigation gets you down, remember that you are not alone. Hopefully, you will have better luck than Columbus and his progeny.


Daniel J. Voelker is the founder of Voelker Litigation Group, a Chicago-based litigation boutique law firm. Dan has been litigating disputes for well over thirty (30) years. This is not Dan’s first foray into history and uncovering facts buried in history. Dan co-authored the ground-breaking article on the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 that first appeared in the September 2009 issue of Chicago Lawyer Magazine (September 2009 issue). Dan’s article went on to receive national and international recognition and was described by the Wall Street Journal as a “fascinating bit of sports journalism.” Dan can be reached at dvoelker@voelkerlitigationgroup.com.

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