The Jewish connections to the voyage of Columbus


Nos Peines
Nos Joies

The Jewish connections to the voyage of Columbus

Thyme S. Siegel

There would have been no 1492 without the persecution and confiscation of the wealth and properties of the Jews and Muslim of Spain.
In this present year 1492 after your Highnesses have brought to an end the war against the Moors (Muslims of Arab and Berber descent, in this very month your Highnesses determined to send me. Cristobal Colon to the said regions of India. Thus after having driven all the Jews out of your realms and dominious. Your Highnesses in the same month commanded me to set out with sufficient armada to the said countries...I hope in Our Lord that Your Highnesses wind determined to send priest of great diligence in order to unite the Church...
Thus begins the account to his patrons of the sea journey west of Christopher Columbus who always insisted on the Spanish version of his name, Cristobal Colon.
The time sequence between the defeat of the Muslims, the Expulsion of the Jews, and his own voyages were clearly connected in his mind. Columbus had received the royal commission to equip a fleet on the same day, April 30, 1492 and Columbus set sail the next morning. Were these coincidences?

The famous navigator recorded the Expulsion impassively, leaving the impression that he approved of the sequence of events and looked forward to the christanization of an unknown world.
But Cristobal Colon lived in treacherous times. The families of high-Nranking court patrons who helped him were being decimated by the fires of the Inquisition which accused them of being secret judaizers. The unconverted scientist whose navigational aid was essential to him was being expelled. Money from confiscations of Jewish and Muslim property paid for his voyages.
Sailors aboard his ships were hastily baptized so they could enjoy the risk of the unknown rather than exile or death. Colon was treading his way amidst an atmosphere of intense repression, cloaking himself in piety, a New Christian holier than you, appearing to approve expulsion of diversity from Catholic Spain.

The Jewish community of Spain was the oldest and largest of any in Westren Europe. Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula continously from Roman times until banishment in 1492. For centuries the co-Nexisted with Muslim and Christians, playing a prominent role in commerce, administration and science as well as scholarship and lyric poetry.
Rising anti-semitism at the end of the fourteenth century had compelled vast numbers to submit to baptism. These were called conversos or New Christians, or marranos. Marranos was derogatory, meaning swine in Spanish, but history books have favored a neutral use of this term. The Jews referred to the converts as anussim, the forced ones, and distinguished between them and the genuine apostates in their mids. The Christian majority increasingly resented and mistrusted the New Christians, as much for their succes in society as their fear of them not taking Christianity seriously.

By the time of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late fifteenth century, religious tribunals of the Inquisition, promoted by the clergy and approved by the monarchs, were attacking some of the richest and most prominent New Christians families. Extreme physical and mental torture were used to extract confessions of secret judaizing.
Whether they had sincerely converted or not, the tribunals forced them to be Jews in order to convict them. Accusations were based on such activities as refusal to eat pork, eating kosher meat, etc. The confiscations of property of the victims, who were imprisoned or burned at the stake, enriched the royal treasury considerably. This was handy because the public funds were being depleted in the war against the Muslims.
The people were over-burdened with taxes. Even the clergy was being taxed. As soon as the first tribunal in 1480 was established, the order went out to transfer all the property of the condemned into cash.

Paradoxically however, Ferdinad and Isabella had surrounded themselves with New Christians. (Ferdinand himself was the great grandson of Paloma, from the Jewish community of Toledo). Ignoring church protest, the Christian kings had for a long time protected court Jews and used their services. Outstanding Jews who had submitted to baptism could officers, and leaders.
Columbus wrote in his journals that I have had constant relations with Jews and Moors.
The great astronomers, geographers and cartographers of the day were Jewish and he depended upon their calculations. These members of the elite were not as vulnerable at the great mass of the conversos who were in all walks of life and of all classes.
A racial/religious conflict was brewing and it became politic for Ferdinand and Isabella to give in to it, although it deeply affected their closet associates and high-ranking officers.
The pope was urging them to eliminate all Jewish elements. They were using the help of the Jews to defeat the Muslims, but three months after the victory of the Reconquista, they issued the edicts of Expulsion.

The secular arm of the government was placed at the service of religious fanaticism. The Inquisition and the Expulsion greatly harmed the economies of the large commercial centers like Seville and Barcelona, and many families from affluence to beggary, throwing the economic life of the country in disorganization. The Inquisition was raised into a corporation of vast wealth which specialized in procuring the convictions of the rich.
This was necessary because the king and queen were always short of funds. The destabilizing effects of destroying a successful caste were compensated for by the simple act of pillage. The Catholic monarchs had become convinced by the clergy that the Jews and the New Christians were intent on wrapping themselves like strangling snakes around the body politic of Christian Spain.

When Columbus came to Spain, the wars with the moors had already begun. But he could not obtain acceptance of his plan and financial support until after their defeat in early 1492 when the conquest of Granada enabled Ferdinand to be called His Most Catholic Majesty.
Now was the time to expel the Jews and finance Columbus. The sovereign linked the outfitting of his ships with the property confiscations in royal commands later found by researchers in Spanish archives.
Columbus mentions this connection in his journals without a word of disapproval. The tragic Expulsion which affected the welfare of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, must have produced an impression upon him which he concealed. His most useful friends were the most fanatical Christians'.

On April 30, 1492, trumpets were sounded as it was announced everywhere that all unconverted Jews must leave Spain on pain of death by the end of July.
After that date no Spaniard was to harbor a Jew or render any assistance. On the same day, Columbus was ordered to equip a fleet for voyage to the Indies. His contact granted him the title of admiral, and stipulated that he could keep one tenth of all the wealth he obtained. He was also granted governorship of all lands he might discover.
The Jews meanwhile, under ban of expulsion, made preparations to leave. They tried to sell their property but only succeeded in very few cases. By the second of August, 300 000 to one million Jews migrated to Portugal or left for Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, or the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
Only the Ottoman Empire offered a reasonably tolerant place for Jews to settle.
Christobal Colon was himself probably descended from Spanish Jews who fled to Italy on a previous generation. His letters to his brother were in Spanish, as were the notes he made to himself in book margins. He was deliberately vague about his background and his relatives colluded with him in obscuring his origins.
The cryptic initials which he placed over his signature have been identified as representing Hebrew words of a prayer for forgiveness for having deserted the faith of his fathers. He asked in his will that his sons always use the se initails in a triangle over their signatures, thus perpetuating this prayer.

Columbus fleet was prepared to leave on August 2, 1492, the same day the last boatload of Jews was leaving from a nearby harbor in Cadiz. He wainted until the next day even though all was ready.
This has been interpreted as Columbus possibly knowing that August 2, 1492 was Tisha B Av which on the Jewish calendar is the day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.
Perhaps he knew that the rabbis says that no work begun on this day will be blessed. Did he not want to sail on a day symbolizing defeat and exile?
His voyage was the counterpoint to despair, an escape clothed in the excitement of high adventure. The well as those Jews on board his ship as power such as Sanchez, a patron of Columbus, and Santagel, who had promoted Columbus dream, were consciously acting out a drama of most accounts. In fact their roles have been mostly occurred.

Delighted with the success of his first expedition and with the vast new lands discovered, Columbus began his return voyage in 1493.
This time it was easier to get the money together because the royal treasury was now swollen from the wealth of property confiscated in the Expulsion of the Jews.
According to a royal order of May 23, 1493, officers were to secure immediate possession of all the property that had been taken from Jews, and all that had been entrusted for safekeeping with conversos friends or relatives, plus all debts Jews had not been able to collect before they left, and all property appropriated by Christian.
All cash was to be turned over to a merchant in Seville who was entrusted with equipping the second fleet.
The order itemizes everything in vast detail, including all valuables such as gold and silver utensils, silk and linen coverings for tables in synagogues, damask, velvet, and silk mantels used as covers for be turned into cash to equip the ships.
The order of May 23, 1493 links the two events directly commanding the cash to be taken to secure such ships, seamen, and provision as are needed. Thus it was not Isabella jewels (as romantic rumor had it) but Jews who paid for the glory of Spain with their blood and lives.

This was not the first time or the last that Jews paid with their lives for the financing of a government project. It is impossible to compute the enormous sums wrested various confiscations over the past 2000 Years.
Neither were Jews nor Moors nor even New Christian allowed to settle on the colonized lands. A certificate of Christian purity going back for several generations called the limpienza de sangre (purity of blood) was required to migrate, but many numbers of fugitive from the Catholics did relocated until the Inquisition caught on and moved to lima, Mexico City, and Peru where hundreds more Jews/ New Christians were burned at the stake as heretics.
The Jewish were burned at the stake as heretics. The Jewish identity of this generation became submerged into the Christian population outwardly while secret Jewish practices were kept by some for hundred of years.

Queen Isabella was nominated for sainthood last year in a petition to the Vatican supported by the church in many Latin American countries.(NO one would dare propose Ferdinand).
The Argentinean priest arguing her case called Isabellas contributions to the unification of Spain and spread of Christianity immense and worthy of recognition.
She protesting Jews and Muslim called her a symbol of intolerance and said that the Vatican petition would renopen old wounds we thought were closed forever.
Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said that the reign of Isabella destroyed a unique example of fruitful cooperation among Jews, Muslim and Christians.
A move toward beatification will only encourage extremists. He Sam el-Essawy, chairman of the Islamic Society for the Protection of Religious Tolerance was quoted in The Times of London as saying: Muslim and Jews were forced at the point of a sword to convert or die. She is more of a demon than a saint".
The movement towards Isabellas canonization was stopped. Fortunately so, since her sainthood being declared would be like declaring war on us Jews and Muslim all over again, in addition to sending a signal to the descendants of the indigenous peoples of the Americas that the catholic Church still think it was acceptable to devatse their way of life and decimate them through disease and war.
Perhaps 1992 should be declared a time of apology/Reparations to all who have been wronged by religious intolerance and dogmatism, and a time of celebration for the coming new age of tolerance and diversity.

Thyme S. Siegel is an instructor of Womens studies and Jewish studies and lecturer specializing in Jewish women of whom she could find no mention for this article except for king Ferdinands grand-mother, the fabled Paloma of Toledo.

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