Destination: The New World

Columbus consulted with Jews, and transported some to the New World.

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Reprinted with permission from Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered, published by Alfred Knopf.

Was Columbus Jewish?

Jewish filiopietists, as well as several non‑Jewish historians, have speculated that the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" was a Jew. They note that the Spanish name, Colon, was a not uncommon one in Hebrew tradition; that his father was a weaver, one of the few trades open to Jews in his native ­Genoa; that his mother, Susanna Fonterossa, was the daughter of Jacobo Fonterossa and granddaughter of Abraham Fonterossa [also common Jewish names].

The hypothesizing has been extensive, and Columbus himself doubtless was responsible for much of it. His letters in the Archives [the Archives of the Indies in Seville] drop tantalizing hints: "I am not the first admiral of my family, let them give me whatever name they please; for when all is done, David, that most prudent king, was first a shepherd and afterward chosen King of Jerusalem, and I am a servant of that same Lord who raised him to such a dignity."

In his ship’s log, Columbus makes frequent references to the Hebrew Bible, to Jerusalem to Moses, David, Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah. He computes the age of the ­world according to the Jewish calendar: ". . . and from the destruction: the Second Temple according to the Jews to the present day, being the year of the birth of Our Lord 1481, are 1413 years…" In his last will and testament, Columbus asks that one‑tenth of his income be given to the poor; that a dowry be provided for poor girls “in such a way that they do not notice whence it comes"‑-a characteristically anonymous technique of Jewish philanthropy.

Jewish Astronomer-navigators and Financiers Supported the Voyage

Today, however, most scholars dismiss the rather poignant effort to ­judaize Columbus. They prefer to focus on the overwhelming thoroughly documented role of Jews in the great mariner's voyages of discovery. In ­Lisbon, Columbus knew and consulted Joseph Vecinho, Martin Behaim ­and other [Jewish, either professing or converso] astronomer‑navigators of the royal court. It was Vecinho who presented Columbus with a Castilian translation of Zacuto's tables. [Abraham Zacuto was an openly Jewish professor of astronomy and navigation at the University of Salamanaca. His most important achievement was a table of celestial position that allowed sailors to ascertain their latitudes without recourse to the sun’s meridian. Ed.]  Later, Zacuto himself also met Columbus, and endorsed his pro­posed Atlantic expedition….Not the least of those hazards [of the voyage] was the absence of funding. For Columbus, none could be found in Portugal. He moved on to the Spanish court in Andalusia.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.