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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

July 1998

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I may be the only living person who actually told Christopher Columbus to go discover America. When I make that assertion, I usually get some funny looks; but it’s true.

Here’s how it happened. I was stationed at the Embassy at Madrid from 1956 to 1960. Our ambassador was John Davis Lodge, former governor of Connecticut, former congressman, and former Hollywood movie star. He and his lovely wife, Francesca Braggiotti, got along extremely well with the upper levels of Spanish society, and with other levels too, as I came to know as his "traveling aide." He liked to have big receptions at the palatial residence, the former home of Prince Pio. Members of the Embassy staff as usual were expected to mingle, socialize, and get useful information.

At one such reception, I think in 1958, I found myself in a fairly extended conversation, in Spanish, with a pleasant gentleman whose name I had not caught when we began talking. He told me he was a career naval officer, a capitán de corbeta, or lieutenant commander.

Very early in the conversation, at his initiative we had fallen into the use of the familiar form of address (in Spanish, tutear). This was quite common, since the Spanish upper class accepted diplomats as "their kind of people," even though many Americans had trouble forgetting that their high school and college Spanish teachers had told them never to use the familiar tu unless you had known the person for many years.

As we were talking, another Spaniard walked by and greeted
my new friend as excelencia. I asked, still in Spanish, "Why
did he call you 'excellency?'

"Because I’m a duke," he replied, "and all dukes are 'excellencies'."

I then said, "I'm sorry I didn't get your name when we first started talking. I'm Ed Williams, second secretary of Embassy."

"Glad to know you, Ed. I'm Cristóbal Colón de Carvajal, Duke of Veragua."

"We Americans learn in grade school," I replied, "that Cristóbal Colón was the Spanish name of the man we know as Christopher Columbus."

My new friend explained that he was the heir to the name and all the titles, not only that of Duke of Veragua, but also Duke of La Vega, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Governor of the Indies, etc. He immediately exhibited a good sense of humor, pointing out a particular guest on the other side of the room.

"You see that fellow? He's the minister of the navy and therefore my boss. But every October 12, I get to wear a uniform with one stripe more than he wears, and he doesn't like it at all."

I asked whether he had ever been to the United States. He said that he had not, that he had always been stationed in the Ministry or in the Mediterranean fleet.

Well, of course I couldn't resist the opportunity. I exclaimed, "Cristóbal, you've got to go discover America!" Afterward, we occasionally saw each other at receptions, and each time I would repeat my exhortation.

Now fast-forward to early 1976. I was on home leave from my post as consul general at Auckland, as far from Spain as you can get. I happened to be sitting in the office of a friend in the Department of State in Washington when he got a call from someone about choosing a well-known naval person to be the marshal of the Parade of Tall Ships, to be held in New York in July that year as part of the bicentennial celebrations. I suggested that someone in Spain named Cristóbal Colón might fill the bill and explained who he was. My friend thought it was a brilliant idea and said he would pursue it. I went back to Auckland and didn't hear anything more about the matter.

In 1983, I read in a newspaper that Admiral Cristóbal Colón de Carvajal had been assassinated by a Basque terrorist group. No specific reason for his murder. Just a political protest.

In 1995, I came across some photos of me with Cristóbal at an embassy reception. I became curious to know whether he had, in fact, ever discovered America. I found the address of his eldest son, the new Duke of Veragua, and wrote to ask him. He replied that his father and mother had, indeed, gone to the United States, in 1976, accompanying the King and Queen of Spain on their state visit.

Glad you made it, Chris.


Author Ed WilliamsRetired U.S. Foreign Service office J. Edgar Williams is a member of the editorial review board of American Diplomacy and a frequent contributor to the journal.

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