1492, Columbus and the Jew

1000509261001_1951472476001_BIO-Mini-Bio-Christopher-Columbus-SFDo you really know what happened in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue?  Was it to come to America and ‘take whatever he could?’  Or was there some greater meaning behind his finding a ‘new land’ that was nowhere in North America? Could  anti-semitic attitudes be behind all the misconceptions and deceptions behind celebrating Columbus day?

The following are quotes from two different sources, The Other 1492 by  Norman H. Finkelstein and Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Edward Kirtzler.

“Within three months there must not remain in my kingdom a single Jew.” King Ferdinand of Spain

“In the spring of 1492, within a three-week period, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain issued two seemingly unrelated but fateful decrees.  In the first, issued on March 31, 1492, the royal couple ordered all Jews to leave Spanish soil within four months; they could take nothing of value with them.  The second edict, on April 17, bestowed the exalted title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea upon a persistent Genoese sailor, Christopher Columbus, and directed him to undertake an expedition in search of a new route to the rich Indies.

“Throughout Spain, Jewish families were busily winding up their affairs, saying tearful good-byes, and making plans for their departures.  The plight of the Jews affected nearly every Spanish village: no one could ignore the upheaval.  Even Columbus, whose thoughts were now intently focused on his upcoming voyage, began the diary of his momentous journey by noting what was happening to the Jews.   …There are some scholars who suggest that Columbus himself may have had Jewish roots.  Whether this is true or not, there is no doubt that Columbus knew many Jews and that his celebrated voyage was made possible by their contributions and efforts.  The noted Astronomer Abraham Zacuto designed the astronomical charts that assured Columbus a safe voyage.  Important Jewish mapmakers, like the Crecas brothers, were much sought after by other explorers of the time.  Among the ships’ crews were at least three Jews including Luis de Torres, the interpreter.  He became the first European to set foot upon the soil of the New World because of his knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic, languages Columbus thought the natives of the Indies would probably speak.

“Support at the royal court for Columbus and his plan had come from two  important Jewish advisers to the king and queen, Luis de Santagel and Don Isaac Abravanel.  Santangel, the royal treasurer, was a Marrano – that is, a baptized Jew who in public behaved like a Christian, but inwardly considered himself still a Jew” (Marranos, the Spanish word for pigs, was the contemptuous term given these “New Christians” by the established Catholics, and the name has endured). 

“There were many like Santengel in Spain: Jews whose families over the years had been forced to renounce their own faith and accept Catholicism.  Many New Christians advanced quickly in professions not previously open to them as Jews.  By 1492 many of the descendants had reached the highest positions available in government, business and even the Church.  It was said that there was hardly an aristocratic family in all of Spain – including the king’s – that did not have at least a little Jewish blood flowing in its veins” (Finkelstein, p. 1-2).

“In the last decades of the fifteenth century, there began what came to be called the Holy Terror.  Queen Isabella vowed she would root out all heretics from her kingdom once the Catholic reconquest of Spain from the Moors [Muslims] was complete.  Meanwhile, she would begin by ferreting out heretics in Seville,  a city known for Jews pretending to be Christians.  Her means was the auto-da-fé (act of faith), the church’s idea of Judgment Day on earth, with a Grand Inquisitor playing God” (Kritzler, p. 3).

Both Santangel and Abravanel saw beyond the immediate benefits to the monarchy of a successful voyage by Columbus.  They realized the tremendous implications the settlement of a new land had for the increasingly harassed Jews of Spain.  … They offered to finance the voyage themselves ….  Their lengthy behind-the-scenes maneuvering finally paid off when the monarchs granted Columbus permission and funds to sail” (Finkelstein, p. 3).

“On August 1, 1492, when Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, ethnic cleansing was the order of the city: 100,000 Jews left Spain, expelled as mandated by the Royal Edict of Expulsion of Jews.  Those who remained behind, or crossed the border to Portugal, converted to Catholicism.  The more adventurous went on to the New World” (Kirtzler, p. 1). 

“…On the very day Columbus set sail, Spain’s monarchs banished her Jews to purify and thereby unite their nation.  Jews settled everywhere they were permitted and, disguised as Portuguese New Christians, where they weren’t.  …They thought themselves safe, but the white-hooded Inquisitors soon followed.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of New Word conversos were arrested, tortured, and tried.  Found guilty, they saw their wealth confiscated, and they were first flogged, then imprisoned, strangled, burned or condemned either to work in the salt mines of Venezuela or to row galley ships across the Pacific, a sentence from which none returned. 

“Inquisitors were thorough in their questioning of heretics, and the trial transcripts offer an intimate look into the condemned Judaizers’ secret lives.  During the day, they went about as exemplary Catholics, attended Mass, went to confession and had their children baptized.  But on certain nights they met secretly in one another’s homes, reverted to Hebrew names, and read from the Torah.   History would come to call these secret Jews, Marranos, meaning pigs.  Though this term has generally lost its pejorative meaning, I prefer to call them what they called themselves in the sanctity of their homes: Jews” (Kirtzler, p. 3-4).

“On the morning of March 31, 1492, Columbus was in his room in Santa Fe overlooking the main square when the sound of trumpets brought him to his balcony.  Below, the town crier, flanked by mounted guards, read the expulsion order of the Inquisition: Jews had four months to leave. …It is thought that Columbus himself was a descendant of Spanish Jews, the Colón family, who had converted and moved to Genoa a century before on the heels of the Massacre of 1391.  Whatever his genealogy, he was in sympathy with the People of the Book, and they with him. In his early years, in Portugal and Spain, he lived in a largely Jewish and New Christian world of navigators, cartographer, astronomers, and mathematicians.  While others looked askance at this wandering sailor and laughed at his dream, Iberian Jews and conversos assisted Columbus in developing his Enterprise of the Indies.  In their learned circles, they dealt with a round world.  [Catholic] Church geography did not apply to them” (Kirtzler, p. 15-16).

On April 17, Columbus agreed to the Capitulations of Santa Fe, which limited his rights to lifetime rule.  Two weeks later, this ruling was reversed, and Columbus was granted hereditary rule.  …Columbus would sail with his right to rule  [given by royal Spanish edict] any new lands he discovered, to be “enjoyed forever by his heirs and successors” (Kirtzler, p. 17).

“From the time that Santangel financed Columbus’s Enterprise of the Indies and persuaded the royal couple to grant the explorer’s family hereditary rights to any new land he might discover, Columbus sailed with a hidden agenda: Along with his stated goal of gaining the riches of the East, it was hoped he would acquire a new land where Sephardim [Sephard is the Hebrew name for Spain; Sephardim are Spanish Jews] could live free from the terrors of the Inquisition.  … For more than a century his heirs kept Jamaica off-limits to the hooded Inquisitors.

After Columbus returned from his successful first voyage, he made three more trips across the Western Sea.  He never reached Asia, and he didn’t live long enough to fulfill his pledge to Santangel and the court Jews to provide a homeland for converted Jews.  But it would be kept by his family in the ‘new land’ the Crown did bequeath to Columbus’s descendants, the island of Jamaica” (Kirtzler, p. 18). 

“Despite the fact that no practicing Jews were left in Spain, Columbus’ second voyage was financed by Jewish funds that had been confiscated by royal decree before the Expulsion.  Columbus died in 1506, just a year after Luis de Santangel, the man who made the first voyage possible” (Finkelstein, pg. 58). 

It is our fervent wish that you treat the Jewish Nation on a basis of equality with all other residents …” Directors of the Dutch West India Company to the Supreme Council in Recife, 1646” (Finkelstein, p. 58).

“The first openly Jewish settlement in the New World was in Brazil.  In 1624, the Dutch captured Brazil’s capital, Bahia, from Portugal with an invasion force that included “several dozen declared Jews.”  The invaders were assisted by local conversos who had gotten word than an Inquisition office was to be established in their province, where two hundred of them were living as counterfeit Christians” (Kirtzler, p. 7).

“What made the Expulsion from Spain so devastating was that Spanish culture, tradition, and civilization were so much a part of the lives of the Sephardim.  They carried this heritage with them into exile” (Finkelstein, p. 45).

“The Expulsion from Spain in 1492 was but one of many tragedies to befall the Jewish people.  Yet the memory of that disaster scarred the Jewish mind forever.  In spite of the sadness and personal anguish of that event, one direct positive outcome was the the eventual establishment of the first thriving Jewish community in the United States” (Finkelstein, p. 89.)

For those who celebrate Passover with the ‘If only … it would have been enough ….’

“If Luis de Santangel and Don Isaac Abravanel had not bee influential members of Ferdinand and Isabella’s court.

“If Spain had not expelled the Jews from its territory.

“If religious bigotry had not forced the conversion of Jews.

“If the Portuguese had not claimed Brazil.

“If the Dutch had not welcomed the Jews to Recife.

“If the Portuguese had not reconquered Brazil. 

‘If the Valk had made a successful journey to Holland in 1654. 

“If the twenty-three Jews had given in to Governor Stuyvesant’s bigotry and left New Amsterdam [New York].

“And, finally, if Columbus had not made it possible for Jews and Marranos to find an “escape hatch” to the New World.

“The year 1492 was an eventful one.  For the Spaniards, it signified joy – the unification of their country under Catholic rule.  For Columbus, it signified – his discovery of the New World.  For the Jews, it signified disaster – expulsion from a land they had called home for centuries. 

“At the time no one could realize how the three seemingly unrelated events of 1492 would dramatically become important chapters of the same story.

“Later Jewish immigrants to America were no less thankful to Columbus than were the original refugees from Recife.  The title of a popular Yiddish song sums up the gratitude felt by the generations of American Jews: Leben Zoll Columbus! – Long Live Columbus” (Finkelstein, pg. 91-93).

These are documented historical facts: Columbus did not sail to North America.  For  several generations, through the right given him by the King and Queen of Spain, he ‘owned’ modern-day Jamaica until his descendants gave it back to the Jamaicans.  Columbus, whether or not he had Jewish roots, had a heart for the Jewish people and their plight during the Spanish Inquisitions.  It was his desire to find a place for them to live in peace as Jews and not as Marrano pigs or forced catholics.  Many Latinos and Latino culture in Central and South America have definitive Jewish roots and many Jews have lived as counterfeit catholics without realizing their complete heritage and history.  After reading these two books, my view of Christopher Columbus did a 180 degree turn as did my understanding of the anti-semitism once again gathering around degrading and denouncing a man whose courage and stand with God’s Chosen People had a profound affect on Jews worldwide especially American Jewry.  Today, the Jews have a homeland called Israel where they are free to practice their faith in peace. We all need to make sure they do not lose it to new Inquisitions and Intifadas rather than stand against those who did what they could to preserve Jewish lives and Biblical culture.

For the complete picture, read The Other 1492 by  Norman H. Finkelstein and Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Edward Kirtzler.

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