Coinciding with the 510th anniversary of the 1510 discovery by Europeans of the Archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia by Basque Lope de Olano and his crew, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Greater ColombiaHernán Alejandro Olano García, has published an article about this Basque sailor and his eventful story, as well as the persistent false allegations of treason that still stain his memory today.  This article was published on the Colombian website EJE 21, which we’ve cited before regarding the unfortunate article on the story of a Basque hidalgo written by Víctor Zuluaga Gómez.

The story of Lope de Olano is one of those stories about Basques in the first years of the colonization of the Americas.  It’s a story with good parts and bad parts, and lots of adventures, trips, shipwrecks, fights, and thirst for riches.  At the Enciclopedia Auñamendi, we can find an overview of the biography of this Basque who was a sailor, a pilot for Christopher Colombus on his third voyage to the New World, a relative of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and a member of a family that was quite close to the kings of Castile in those days.

Hernán Alejandro Olano García in his article tells of how this Basque man was the first European to sight these Caribbean islands that today belong to Colombia, about 700 nautical miles from the coast of Colombia and just 150 miles from the coast of Nicaragua.  Of course we shouldn’t be surprised, given other examples like New Caledonia or Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.

With his tale of the New World adventures of Lope de Olano and his discovery of these small Caribbean islands, the author tells us how this Azkoitia-born sailor was, in 1510, falsely accused of treason by Diego de Nicuesa, who had, in 1508, been named the governor of Castilla de Oro (Panama).

The accuser even tried to have Olano hanged, but was prevented from doing so by the opposition of his captains, who defended Olano.  But he refused to desist and in addition to trying to humiliate and punish him publicly, requested a royal charter to have him sent to Castile to be tried.  That never happened, because soon after, in March 1511, his accuser would die in a shipwreck.  Olano was freed by the Mayor of Santa María Antigua del Darién, Bilbao-born Basque Martín Sánchez de Zamudio, and the new governor of Castilla de Oro, Pedrarias Dávila, charged him to found the town of Acla in 1515, naming him its first Mayor.  He would die there in 1516 during an attack by the indigenous population.

Later, chroniclers and historians accepted Nicuesa’s accusations of treason as true, and even added that Lope de Olan had participated in the rebellion led by Mayor Francisco Roldán Ximénez against Diego de Colón in 1497.  This is of course impossible, as Olano didn’t arrive in the New World until 1498.

This poor image of Lope de Olano worried the author of the article.  And we understand that, not just because he shares a surname with the protagonist of today’s story, but also because one’s honor is all that matters as the years go by.

That concern led him to write a letter to the king of Spain in 2009, begging clemency for this Basque.  In that letter, he asked that Captain Lope de Olano be posthumously pardoned, as he had been unjustly accused by Governor Diego de Nicuesa.

And that we do not understand.  Olano does not need anyone’s clemency or forgiveness, especially from a king of Spain.  No one has to ask for forgiveness when no crime has been committed, and they certainly don’t have to beg for justice.  At least not today.  That was commonplace in absolutist monarchies, like the one over Castile in the 16th century, when subjects had no rights.  But even in those times of arbitrariness, Olano was protected by his status as an hidalgo, which gave him rights at a time when the vast majority of the population had none.

So the king of Spain has no need to pardon Olano, since he is a king with no ability to make decisions on such matters, but more to the point, one cannot pardon a crime that hasn’t been committed.

Restoring the dignity of Olano, falsely accused and condemned, cannot be achieved with a “pardon” or by begging for justice.  It can only be restored by sharing his story, putting his name on streets and plazas, giving talks, or, as we’re doing right now, writing articles to explain who he was and what he did.  That article in a Colombian newspaper goes far further in restoring Olano’s honor than all the letters sent to kings who have nothing to say in the matter.

Those interested in the thrilling life and adventures of this Basque sailor and explorer born in Azkoitia who rubbed shoulders with Colombus, Balboa, and Pizarro, should check out a book written by Oñati-born Edward Rosset titled “El Capitán Olano“, which will help you to understand him better.  We’re also including an interview with his biographer, Dr. Jaime Gómez-González, originally published on the Euskosare website in 2008 (which we can’t find there anymore) and is now on the Boletín Olano blog.

Eje XXI – 16/9/2020 – Colombia

510 años del descubrimiento del Archipiélago de San Andrés y Providencia, 1510-2020

Muy pocos saben que el capitán Lope de Olano descubrió el Archipiélago de San Andrés y Providencia. La mayor parte de los autores lo atribuye a Colón. Unos pocos han leído un viejo libro del General Francisco Javier Vergara y Velasco sobre San Andrés y Providencia publicado en Bogotá en 1888, en el cual, el eximio cartógrafo e historiador se basó posiblemente en documentos encontrados por su amigo y compañero de armas General Antonio Cuervo en el Archivo de Indias en Sevilla, que no fueron incluidos en la edición de Documentos inéditos para la Historia de Colombia editado por Vergara y Velasco después de la muerte del General Cuervo.

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Boletín Olano  – 25/11/2008 – 

De explorador a traidor, Lope de Olano en la zona insular colombiana

En América es ya conocida la participación de los vascos en las empresas de conquista que tuvieron lugar en el siglo XVI durante la fase continental. Éstos conquistadores, marineros, regentes, militares o religiosos vinieron desde tierras lejanas y se toparon con un mundo nuevo jamás imaginado. El Dr. Gómez González, se ha interesado por la figura de uno de ellos, el conquistador vasco, Lope de Olano.

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PDF del artículo de Boletín Olano


imagen de cabecera: Lope de Olano. Mapa del siglo XVI de la Capitanía de Castilla de Oro