Was Christopher Columbus a Sephardic Jew? By Paula Rose Michelson

Columbus is an absolute puzzle. Because some of the stories are so deliberately misleading, one would think that there had been many efforts to obscure his descent and lure investigators away from the truth. Columbus himself may have wanted to keep the world, and to some extent his family in the dark. If so, he succeeded.

Around the age of 25, Columbus turned up in Lisbon and said he was a cartographer, which would imply an extensive knowledge of nautical matters. The question of how he got there has not been settled. However, he said he had been shipwrecked on the coast of Portugal. Since he drew maps and dealt in printed books, some Spanish scholars assert that he must have been born on the island of Majorca for that was the center of cartography and cosmography. Here we see Columbus involved in a science that was practiced by Jews; only on occasion was a Moor or Christian practitioner to be found. Since a lower middle class weavers son (which is how Columbus identified himself at 18) generally did not attend university unless they studied for the priesthood or had a wealth sponsor that paid for private tutors, one wonders how he learned Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Genoese, perhaps Italian, and even Hebrew. Scholars are mystified.

More baffling, at another point, he said that he went to sea at the age of 14 as a cabin boy. A cabin boy received no education in languages or science yet Columbus possessed this knowledge. While in Portugal, Columbus pursued the professions of cartography and calligrapher which were seldom held by anyone other than those who were "Judaized" (Jews that had returned to the Law of Moses as they called the Torah). An even greater mystery surrounds Columbus marriage to a Portuguese noble woman, far above his station in society. Several times in his writings, he mentioned that Castilian was his mother tongue. However, it was said that while on voyages whenever he was dissatisfied with the work of his crew, he reviled the men in Italian. Yet others claim that he spoke Castilian with a Portuguese accent.

The marginal notes in his books make it plain that Columbus was well acquainted with the Old Testament. He cited the Prophets and was privy to information belonging to the intellectual world of Judaism. How did he come by such knowledge? In, "Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum" written by Pope Pius II, his notes reveal that he was familiar with Jewish chronology. He dates a marginal note with the year 1481 and promptly gives the Jewish equivalent, the year 5241. In truth, nobody knows where his learning may have been acquired.

Many scholars have been struck by the way Columbus seems to belabor his religion. In this respect, his behavior was like that of the Converso (Jews who became Catholic to marry or ensure their survival) of that period. They, too, publicly displayed their Christian faith at every possible opportunity. The proof that religious elements played a great part in Columbus's thoughts and actions is evident from all his writings. His concept of sailing west to reach the Indies was less the result of geographical theories than of his faith in certain Biblical texts. He cited two verses from the Book of Isaiah, which he was repudiated to repeat often: "Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them," (60:9); and "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth" (65:17). He felt that his voyages confirmed these prophecies. Isaiah seems to have been his favorite book of the Bible and he was known to quote from the Book of Ezra. In general, he demonstrated a sound knowledge of the Old Testament. This might have been true of any cultivated man of the age. Yet what are we to make of the presence in the Admiral's library of the "Jewish War," the account of the downfall of the ancient Jewish state by Josephus Flavius, or "De Nativitatibus" by the Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Ezra. Then again, his library reveals that he studied a book on the Messiah by a Jewish renegade, the former Rabbi Samuel ibn Abbas of Morocco, from which work he even copied out several chapters, the better to master them. Was Columbus trying just a bit too hard to act, sound, and appear "like a Christian" through studied words and actions?

While the crown debated the voyage that Columbus finally took, he set his eyes on the office of Viceroy, the title of Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and a share in whatever treasures were found. When Granada fell, he intensified his efforts at court. Negotiations stalled because the queen knew that the country could not bear the costs of the expedition. Four men of Jewish descent intervened: Juan Cabrero, Luis de Santangel, Gabriel Sanchez, and Alfonso de la Caballeria offered to put up the money for the expedition. If the crown had not known Santangel, the offer of these Jews would have been rejected and Columbus's voyage would not have taken place. The royal couple needed his help so badly that on May 30, 1497, Ferdinand and Isabella handed Santangel a special charter that protected both him and his descendants for all time from being summoned by the tribunal of the Inquisition. They were accorded a kind of honorary "Aryan" status; their charter was a special "limpieza de sangre" which was so important in Spain at that time.

During this period, the Inquisition was raising and burning Jewish towns and fomenting riots. One would have thought that people of Jewish descent had other matters to attend to rather than aid Columbus, whom they viewed as a foreigner who had come to Castile with some hare-brained notion of touring the Indies. The experts had pronounced his plans risky and unsound. Yet those very Jews and Christianized descendants of Jews, who were reputed to be astute, put themselves behind a man whom the king's scientific advisory council had rejected. Why? This journey involved seafaring and lands about which they knew nothing. Although it was not in their character to give an enormous loan without security, Salvador de Madariaga argued that Columbus was himself a Converso and thus received support from his co-religionists in high places. Since they were descended from Jews, they were threatened just as if they were Jewish themselves. It was only a question of time and men like Luis Santangel knew it. That was why they were ready to throw their weight behind the expedition.

The majority of Spanish Jews did not understand the extent of the hatred that was around them, and denied its existence because it was incompatible with their innate optimism, which for centuries had formed the basis for the survival of Jewry. Turbulent Spain, religious fanaticism culminating in the Inquisition’s victimization of Spain's Sephardic Jews; the forced baptisms; pureblood laws; arbitrary tortures and liquidation; confiscation of property; ended in the final, irreversible decree of expulsion, which coincided precisely with Columbus's momentous voyage of discovery.

All Jews had to leave Spain. They began making their preparations for departure while Columbus prepared to sail. Since the regulations allowed the Jews to take only hand baggage, if they could find a buyer, they sold their property for pennies on the dollar because they needed the funds to pay their way out of Spain. The charge was called an emigration fee. If they did not have the money, they had to stay. If they were on Spanish soil at the stroke of midnight on March 31, 1492, they were killed. With death emanate, while Columbus prepared to sail, Jews were baptized into the Catholic faith. Columbus sailed on August 3, 1492. Before midnight, these hidden Jews secretly board his vessels. Columbus set sail one-half hour before sunrise. The reason for his secrecy was the crown's move years before the Inquisition, which forced Jews who were now being watched by the office of the Inquisition to reside in ghettoes and stay in after nightfall. This might sound like a small matter but to the Jews it meant that if they were discovered to be practicing the Jewish faith, they were dead!

If you are wondering if Columbus were a Jew ask yourself why he mislead people about his country of origin, his personal history, why he made certain that those aboard his ships were Jewish, and why he studied what others did not. Furthermore, considered why he took a Hebrew interpreter with him, which at the time must have seemed decidedly odd since Hebrew was not the language of any country in the known world. The only possible explanation must be that Columbus expected to be reach countries where Jews lived and governed. And why would he be sailing there unless he were a Jewish man trying to aid his disenfranchised people? Although we do not know why he did what he did, we do know that Columbus sent a Jewish interpreter, Luis de Torres, to communicate with the natives. Therefore, we can conclude that after landfall in America the first words addressed to the natives were words of Hebrew.

Columbus did not discover the way to India, although after his landing he was convinced that he had done so and he remained convinced to the end of his life. The natives whom Luis de Torres addressed in Hebrew had not understood the language. The dream of the Jews and Conversos, that Columbus would show them the way to the ten tribes of Israel, was not fulfilled. Yet Columbus was dedicated to exploration and made four trips in all and discovered, America, the Bahamas archipelago, at a locale he named San Salvador on his first voyage. Over the course of three more voyages, Columbus visited the Greater and Lesser Antilles, as well as the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and Central America, claiming them for Spain. Was Columbus a Jew? You decide. However, before you do, consider that the passenger manifests for the three other voyages which reveal as many Sephardic surnames (the last names of Spanish Jews) as the first voyage did.

Bibliography: Wiesenthal, Simon, Sails of Hope, Macmillan
Publishing Co., Inc., 1973
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