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Was Columbus Jewish?

There has been much speculation about the famous and controversial explorer's origins.

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.

There he was received sympathetically by the small group of royal officials, among them…Luis de Santangel. [A converso, Santangel] emerged as particularly vital to Columbus’s expedition. Chancellor of ­ King Fernando’s household, comptroller‑general of Aragon, and an immensely wealthy tax‑farmer on his own account, Santangel was in a unique position to exert influence at court. Personally, he favored Columbus’s­ Atlantic venture and recommended it to his ruler.

When the king was not forthcoming, Santangel arranged three separate audiences for Columbus with Castile’s Queen Isabel. Both men made a strong case. As an additional inducement, Santangel offered to advance 1.4 million maravedis of his own. Finally persuaded, the queen‑-and her husband–then supplied the rest of the funds. Santangel’s crucial intermediary­ role would not be forgotten. It was to him that Columbus sent off report of his discovery after returning from his initial Atlantic voyage.

1492: Columbus Sails, Spain Expels Its Jews

In underwriting the expedition, the royal couple depended upon more than Santangel’s participation. April 29,1492, the day Columbus received authorization to equip his fleet, was also the day the Edict of Expulsion was publicly announced in several of the larger Spanish cities. The timing was not coincidental. For the Catholic monarchs, the anticipated revenues of forfeited Jewish property represented a substantial “down payment” on Columbus’s venture. Indeed, the two events were linked to the final moments of joint departure.

“After the Spanish monarchs had expell­ed all the Jews from all their kingdoms and lands,” Columbus recorded,” they commissioned me to undertake the voyage to India with a equipped fleet.” The scheduled date of sailing, August 2, was also the deadline for Jewish departure. Scores of vessels, with thousands of Jews packed into their holds, congested Palos de la Frontera, the maritime inlet of the Gulf of Cadiz. Here, too, Columbus gathered his fleet of three little caravels.

The tumultuous “ethnic cleansing” provided Columbus with more than his funds. At least a few members of his crew were conversos.

Among them were: Alfonso de la Calle, a bursar, who eventually settled in Hispaniola, and Ro­drigo Sanchez of Segovia, a surgeon, who was a relative of Aragon’s treasurer, Gabriel Sanchez. Another surgeon, Maestro Bernal of Tortosa, only recently had escaped the clutches of the Inquisition. Luis de Torres was a Jew who had accepted baptism just in time to sign on with Columbus’s fleet. As a multilingual “oriental,” Torres was regarded as a likely inter­preter to the “oriental” potentates of the Indies. Later, he sought government ­permission to remain on the island of Cuba as royal agent, and his appeal was granted, along with a pension.

Meanwhile, in gratitude for Columbus’s discovery of the Indies, the Catholic monarchs in 1493 authorized the great mariner to set sail again for the New World. To fund the second expedition, however, the royal court pounced on all remaining Jewish wealth-‑all unsold land and homes and unredeemed certificates, indebtedness; all chattels, precious metals, jewels, gold and silver utensils, even synagogue artifacts. The expropriation would generate 6 million maravedis, four times the amount available for the initial voyage. This time, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea departed in style.

Conversos in New Spain New Castile, and New Granada

It is a fact of history that Columbus’s four voyages achieved only a precarious foothold in the New World. Another half‑century of exploration and conquest was required for others to secure Spain’s vast empire and to structure the sheer magnitude of terrain into the three manageable viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico, Central America, the Philippines), New Castile (Peru, all of South America except Brazil and the Guineas) and New Granada (Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador).

Colonization in those years took precedence over trade as an imperial objective. To foster that settlement, the Crown offered the inducement of great land encomiendas (estates) to loyal soldiers and farmers, and shared profits for the prospectors, engineers and overseers of South America’s boundless silver mines. Ostensibly, the constraints of limpieza de sangre [purity of blood] excluded New Christians from these ventures, or even from settlement in Spanish America.

Yet conversos aplenty found ways to emigrate to the New World. Spain’s notoriously venal bureaucracy was quite prepared to sell permits of exemption. For the right price, ship captains were equally willing to disembark New Christian passengers at secret inlets along the Gulf Mexico south of Veracruz, or on the Honduran coast. [The migration of conversos is important to Jewish history for at least two reasons: 1. Crypto-Jews made up a portion of the converso community. These Jews continued to practice Judaism in secret and often, if the opportunity presented itself, resumed living openly as Jews. 2. Conversos, whether they accepted their new identity as Christians or not, still maintained personal and professional ties with their Jewish families–siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents.]

Indeed, the infiltration of conversos became something of an influx once the Spanish throne assumed its rule over Portugal in 1580…In the early seventeenth century, between three and five thousand Portuguese New Christians may have departed for the New World. They anticipated important commercial inducements overseas, and they were not disappointed.

In New Spain, as many as 2,000 conversos settled in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Vera Cruz, Puebla, and Guatemala City. In New Castile, approximately the same number of New Christians resided in Lima, Poto Tucuman, and Cordoba. By the 1630s, hardly a town in the Spanish Empire did not shelter at least a scattering of conversos, some of whom migrated as far as New Mexico and Florida.

Their vocations were no less diverse than in Europe. Among the conve­rsos there were numerous artisans —shoemakers, spice‑makers, tailors. Others were ranchers. Several New Christians were priests. One was a bishop. There were converso military officers. The mayor of Tecali was New Christian. Yet, as in Europe, most Sephardim gravitated toward commerce. Several became managers of silver mines. Others were gem and food dealers. They played their traditionally decisive role in the im­port‑export market, including the slave trade. Altogether, New Christians were as prominent in the Americas as in Spain, Portugal or the Nether­lands.

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

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