Columbus Day'His past is murky -- apparently purposefully so'

Christopher Columbus — the hidden Jew?

With a murky past, theories abound for the origin story of the intrepid explorer — from pirate to crypto-Jew

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Portrait of a man thought to be Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.(public domain)
Portrait of a man thought to be Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.(public domain)

Two fleets set sail from Spain’s Port of Palos on August 3, 1492, floating together down the Rio Tinto. On one vessel was the final batch of expelled Jews, who, rather than repudiate their faith and become conversos (Christian converts) in the face of death if they remained in their home country, set out for an unknown fate in a new world. Leading the other ships, named the Pinta, Niña, and Santa María, was a little known explorer named Christopher Columbus.

Whether fact or legend, there are those who say that Columbus set out with the expelled Jews because he had stalled his voyage, originally set for August 2, by one day; that year, August 2 was the commemoration of Tisha B’Av, a fast day of mourning for the fall of the Jewish Temples.

For some scholars, the shared launch date is more than coincidental. Is it possible that Columbus too was a Jew in search of a better future?

Since the late 1800s, Columbus historians have diligently worked to unearth the true origin story behind the man who set sail for India in 1492 and instead unwittingly found a new world.

The man most believe to have been born in Genoa has been variously described as an heir to nobility or a pirate. Some early 19th century Spanish scholars claimed he was actually born Cristobal Colon in Pontevedra, a large Galician port in northern Spain.

Others writers, including Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who wrote a popular book “Sails of Hope” on the explorer, think he was a Jew.

Christopher Columbus statue in Arrigo Park, Chicago, Illinois (photo credit: CC-BY 2.0 davidwilson1949, Flickr)
Christopher Columbus statue in Arrigo Park, Chicago, Illinois (CC-BY 2.0 davidwilson1949, Flickr)

Unfortunately, there is no physical historical evidence of Columbus’s roots, according to Prof. Ram Ben-Shalom, director of Hebrew University’s Center Hispania Judaica. That paucity of proof, he said in a phone call on Monday, Columbus Day, is probably intentional on the part of the explorer.

“His past is murky — apparently purposefully so,” he said. Despite the consensus of opinion, there is no official documentation that Columbus hailed from Genoa. “There are indications that he was even Spanish,” he said, due to Columbus’s better fluency in the language in his writings.

During the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand, Columbus could have many reasons to rewrite his own personal history. Perhaps, Ben-Shalom said, the would-be voyager was from a poor trading family (one theory is he comes from a family of weavers), and he wanted to impress potential patrons with a better lineage.

But did he obfuscate his past because he was a converso?

“There is no direct evidence, but the idea of him blurring his past because he was of Jewish ancestry is very possible,” said Ben-Shalom. By the time Columbus reached court in the 1480s, the Catholic monarchs’ Spanish Inquisition was in full swing, and the scrutinization of conversos was particularly cruel.

According to a 1934 JTA article discussing then-breaking edge research indicating Columbus’s Sephardic Jewish origins, “In Spain, it was fatal to admit being a Jew, because there was more chance of being favorably accepted in Madrid as a foreigner rather than as a native from Galicia, which at that time was not in the good graces of the ruling provinces of Castile and Aragon.”

Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in about 1469, the year of their marriage.
Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in about 1469, the year of their marriage

However, it is from a group of conversos who had reached the highest echelons of Christian society in the church and court — the “oligarchs” of the day, said Ben-Shalom — that Columbus received his chance for greatness.

“Columbus’ voyage was not, as is commonly believed, funded by the deep pockets of Queen Isabella, but rather by two Jewish Conversos and another prominent Jew. Louis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez advanced an interest free loan of 17,000 ducats from their own pockets to help pay for the voyage, as did Don Isaac Abarbanel, rabbi and Jewish statesman,” writes a 2012 CNN article, “Was Columbus secretly a Jew?

According to the 1934 JTA article, that support from members of the conversos community is proof enough of his Jewish roots.

“The help afforded him by Jewish scientists and financiers of that time can be explained only in the light that he was of the same race,” the writer concluded and cited the 1892 work, “Columbus and his Discovery of America,” in which Herbert B. Adams wrote: “Not jewels, but Jews were the real financial basis for the first expedition of Columbus.”

A detail of a page of an authentic 15th century copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus, as displayed at the Vatican, June 14, 2018. The United States is returning a letter, written by Christopher Columbus in 1493 announcing his discovery of the New World that was stolen and replaced with a forgery, to the Vatican Library. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)

It is perhaps then fitting that Columbus’s first announcement of his voyage’s discoveries went to the treasurer of Aragon, the former Jew, de Santangel.

In the 1493 letter, Columbus describes the many islands he has discovered and the indigenous peoples living on them, whom Columbus writes he hopes to convert.

“To the first island I discovered I gave the name of San Salvador, in commemoration of His Divine Majesty, who has wonderfully granted all this,” Columbus writes. All of Christendom should rejoice, Columbus writes to the former Jew, “with fervent prayers for the high distinction that will accrue to them from turning so many peoples to our holy faith.”

Dr. Aliza Moreno-Goldschmidt, Judaica librarian, National Library of Israel. (courtesy)

This missionary language is in keeping with the chartered purpose of Columbus’s voyage, said Dr. Aliza Moreno-Goldschmidt, head of the Judaica reading room collection at the National Library of Israel, who specializes in conversos culture in the New World.

The fact that Columbus wrote of promoting Christianity “doesn’t prove anything whether he was a Jew or not,” she said.

“One of the main stated goals of the Spanish colonization was to convert the new continent into Christianity, much before the inquisition was instituted, especially through the natives of the territories,” said Moreno-Goldschmidt.

Columbus would have been well aware of this goal — and the atmosphere in Spain for those who did not comply.

“There is no doubt that there were at the time many conversos, some of them Crypto Jews. Before 1492, there were several waves of Jews converting to Christianity; it was a very vivid reality in Spain at the time,” said Moreno-Goldschmidt. Even after converting to Christianity, those with Jewish roots were discriminated against and their ancestors were “very busy” proving the purity of their blood.

At the same time, said Moreno-Goldschmidt, “The truth is that in the scholarly world, it’s not very accepted [to say] he was a Jew. I tend to believe he was not.”

Likewise, laughed, Ben-Shalom, “I’m not going to be able to solve the mystery — there’s no birth certificate stating that he is Jewish.”

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