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CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS' VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY:
JEWISH AND NEW CHRISTIAN ELEMENTS
by Joseph Adler


Midstream 43: 25 November 1998

The most dramatic and best known of the voyages of exploration was, of course, the one made by Columbus in 1492. The journey was spectacular not only for its length and daring, but because it led to one of the biggest surprises in history - the discovery of America. All of the biographers of Columbus recognize this great feat, but many are rather reticent concerning the discoverer's early years and ancestry. Indeed, many scholars shrink from the possibility that the great explorer may have had Jewish ancestors. There is however, little controversy that the epoch-making expedition was largely made possible by Jews, New Christians (i.e. Conversos) and Marranos (nominally Conversos who secretly retained their allegiance to Judaism). There were many of them.

In Lisbon, Columbus knew and consulted with Joseph Diego Mendes Vezinho (1450-1520), a Jewish scientist and cosmographer at the Portuguese court. Vezinho, who was later to convert to Christianity, headed a committee of savants and experts on nautical matters chosen to consider Columbus's proposed expedition of discovery. In his work for the Portuguese monarch, Vezinho had helped develop a new and improved astronomical calendar, star tables, and more efficient nautical instruments. Although Vezinho did not favor Columbus's plan, his work for establishing direction and location at sea would prove of inestimable value to the future discoverer of the New World.

Columbus also derived valuable information from Avraham Zacuto (c.1450-1515), a product of the "juderia" of Saragossa, who would be forced by the expulsion of Jews from Spain to flee to Portugal. While still a professor at the University of Salamanca, Zacuto had achieved fame as a scientist, mathematician, and inventor. He is credited with constructing the first metal astrolabe as well as the development of astronomical tables that gave the exact hours for the rising of the planets and fixed stars. His table of ephemeredes was translated into Latin by Vezinho and published under the titile 'Almanach Perpetuum'. This invaluable guide to navigation was used by Columbus on his voyage across the Atlantic. Zacuto met Columbus prior to his first voyage and endorsed the venture, but considered the expedition to be an extremely hazardous undertaking.

Columbus's navigational skills also owed much to the inventiveness of a handful of Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages. Outstanding among the latter was Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344), Biblical commentator, mathematician, and astronomer. Levi was the inventor of the cross - staff, better known as "baculus Jacob" (Jacob's staff). This simple instrument enabled mariners to measure angular separation between two celestial bodies. Still another nautical instrument available to Columbus was the "quadrant Judaicus", the brainchild of Jacob ben Machir ibn Tibbon (1236-1307).

Indeed, virtually all the nautical aids used by Columbus were the products of Jewish minds. Many of the discoverer's maps, for example, were the creation of Jehudah Cresques (c.1360-?), at one time head of the National Academy of Palma on Majorca (a center of Jewish cartography during the 14th century). In the persecutions of 1391, Cresques was forced to convert to Christianity and was given a new name - Jayme Ribes. He entered the service of the king of Portugal and became the director of the School of Navigation at Sagres - the institution founded by Henry the Navigator that marked the beginning of the Age of Discovery.

In 1485, Columbus suddenly left Portugal for Spain. Almost immediately, he began a search for a sponsor for his proposed voyage of discovery. After several frustrating false starts, he appealed to a nobleman of Andalusia, Luis de Cerda, the count of Medici-Celi. De Credo's hospitality was legendary, and he took Columbus under his wing, sheltering the mariner for almost two years. The count also offered to outfit three ships for Columbus's contacts, Luis de Cerda recommended him to his cousin, Cardinal Pedro Ganzales de Mendoza, bishop of Toledo. The cardinal and the count were related through the same Jewish grandmother, and both men had been subjected to attacks because of their descent.

De Mendoza, in his capacity as chairman of a special commission that met to consider the merits of Columbus's plans, heartily endorsed the mariner's proposals. His cousin, Luis de Cerda, also continued to lobby on behalf of Columbus; he sent a strong letter to the Spanish monarchs urging them to reconsider their opposition to Columbus's proposals and, at the very least, to grant the mariner an audience. De Cerda's appeal yielded results, and in 1486, Columbus was granted a royal audience at Cordoba. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were not entirely convinced by Columbus's presentation but agreed to submit his project to a commission of scholars. To head the commission Isabella chose her confessor, Hernando de Talavera (1428-1507), prior of the Prado and later archbishop of Granada. Hernando de Talavera was the grandson of a Jewish woman and in his declining years, would be accused of being a Marrano and was brought before the Inquisition. Humiliated, and unable to counter the vicious proceedings of the court headed by Rodriquez Lucerno, the inquisitor of Cordoba, the proud Hernando would die of mortification. Columbus himself suffered patiently for several years, as the so-called experts of the de Talavera commission debated endlessly the feasibility of his proposals (they eventually rejected his plan.)

It was during these early years of tribulation in Spain that Columbus gained the support of two highly placed and influential Jews - Abraham Senior and Isaac Abravanel. Senior (1412-1493), during the reign of Isabells's predecessor, King Henry IV of Castile, had served as chief tax collector of the kingdom and was appointed by the monarch to head the Jewish community of Segovia. Along with a number of other influential Jews, Senior had played a key role in arranging the marriage of Isabella to Ferdinand of Aragon. Some years later, in the power struggle between Isabella and her brother, King Henry 1V, Senior, together with a few other notables, succeeded in convincing the commander of the fortress of Segovia to hand over the city to Isabella and her consort. This act opened the way for the unification of Castile and Aragon and, eventually all of Spain.

Once in power, the grateful Catholic monarchs rewarded Senior by appointing him "rab de la corte," i.e., court rabbi and supreme judge of the Jews of Castile. He also received a large pension and was exempted from the restrictions in dress that had been imposed on Spanish Jewry. In 1468, Senior was made treasurer general of the Hermanded, a semi- military organization formed for the maintenance of law and order. In addition, as factor general to the Spanish army, Senior played a major role in facilitating the conquest of Grenada, the last remaining stronghold of the Moors in Spain.

Tradition has it that Senior met Columbus at Malaga, at which time the future admiral outlined his plan to the Jewish courtier. Columbus was well aware that his proposed expedition would require large financial commitments and welcomed the promise of the support of Senior.

Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508) a close associate of Senior, was another supporter of Columbus at the Spanish court. Born in Lisbon, Isaac was a child prodigy. His many talents eventually attracted the attention of King Alfonso of Portugal, and he became the latter's advisor, as well as the kingdom's financial minister. However, Abravanel's life took an unexpected turn with the death of his royal patron. The new king suspected Abravanel of being involved in an insurrection against his regime led by the duke of Braganca. Abravanel, fearing for his life, fled to Spain (Toledo). When Ferdinand and Isabella learned of his presence in their realm, they invited him to join their court. Some time later, Senior enlisted his aid in tax farming the kingdom's revenues. Abravanel gradually amassed a great personal fortune and loaned enormous sums to the Catholic monarchs in their war against the Moors of Granada. Indeed, it was shortly after the fall of Malaga that Abravanel, in the company of his friend, Senior, met Columbus and was first exposed to the latter's plan for a voyage of discovery across the Atlantic. Although Abravanel favored the mariner's plan, his support would come to an abrupt halt following the issuance of the edict of expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492.

Abravanel, in spite of pressure from Ferdinand and Isabella to convert to Christianity, remained steadfast in his beliefs and immigrated to Naples. When the Kingdom of Naples, in 1494, fell to King Charles VIII of France, Abravanel accompanied the deposed Neapolitan monarch, whom he had served as treasurer, into exile in Sicily. After the death of the former Neapolitan ruler, Abravanel moved to Corfu and, in 1496, returned to Naples. Some years later, at the urging of his son, Joseph, he settled in Venice, where he served as a diplomat for the republic until his death in 1508.

Abraham Senior, who had served the Catholic majesties so faithfully for many years, was at first given permission to leave Spain with whatever personal possessions he wished to take along with him. However, steady pressure was exerted by Isabella and Ferdinand for Senior to convert. The queen, in particular, threatened to impose further reprisals against the departing Jews, and Senior, too old and tired to fight any longer, accepted baptism and was allowed to remain in Spain. Taking the name Fernando Munez Coronel, he was further rewarded for his apostasy by being appointed "regidor of Segovia" (governor) and made a member of the royal council, as well as chief financial administrator to the crown prince. He died shortly afterwards in 1493.

Among Columbus's highly placed patrons was Luis de Santangel, a member of one of the wealthiest and influential families of Aragon. An ancestor, Azarias Chinillo, had converted to Christianity in the early years of the 15th century in the wake of the persecutions against the Jews led by the fanatical Dominican friar, Vincent Ferrer. Azarias would become bishop of Majorca.

Luis de Santangel began his career as a tax farmer and courtier. A favorite of King Ferdinand, he was appointed in 1481 'escribano de racion', a kind of comptroller general, to the royal house of Aragon. He would also later hold the post of 'contador mayor' (paymaster general) for Castile.

Although nominally New Christians, the Santangel family's attachment to Catholicism was at best lukewarm, and its members were among the early targets of the Inquisition. Indeed, a kinsman of Luis was accused of complicity in the murder of Pedro de Arbues, canon of the Cathedral of Saragossa and the heart and soul of the Inquisition in Aragon. The kinsman was also charged and condemned for being a secret Jew (i.e. a Marrano.)

In July of 1491, Luis de Santangel was also accused of being a Marrano. King Ferdinand intervened on his behalf and managed to stop the Inquisition's proceedings.

Luis de Santangel first met Columbus in 1486 and was greatly impressed by the latter's personality and plans for a voyage of discovery. When, some years later, word reached him that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had once again rejected Columbus's project and had sent him on his way, Santangel immediately requested and received an audience with Her Majesty. With great eloquence, he pleaded for Columbus's voyage of discovery and prevailed upon the queen to have the mariner brought back to the court for further discussions. The queen agreed, and a bewildered Columbus was brought back to the court to once again present arguments for his proposed expedition of discovery.

Anticipating the royal couple's anxiety on how to finance a voyage across the Atlantic, Santangel reminded the monarchs that the Santa Hermandad, of which he was one of treasurers, had a large endowment that could be borrowed against. He also indicated to the Spanish rulers that he was willing to back the Columbus expedition with a considerable sum from his personal fortune. (He would later also call upon his Converso friends to contribute toward the financing of the expedition.) The tax farmer also reminded Ferdinand and Isabella of an overlooked debt to the Crown. It seems that the community of Palos on the southern coast of Castile had been found guilty of smuggling, and a fine had been levied against it that had gone uncollected. The town owed the Crown three months of service and two caravels. Santangel's arguments proved to be the decisive factor in swaying the Spanish sovereigns to back Columbus's project. A grateful Columbus would not forget his benefactor. It was to Luis de Santangel that he addressed the famous letter announcing his discoveries. Indeed, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand would first hear of the successful undertaking from the lips of Santangel.

An identical letter was sent by Columbus to Gabriel Sanchez, one of the three influential New Christians that Luis de Santangel had gotten to help finance the explorer's initial voyage. Grabriel Sanchez (d. 1505) was the high treasurer of the Kingdom of Aragon, and a member of a distinguished family of Conversos who traced their origins back to a Jew named Alazar Goluff of Saragossa. After the murder of the inquisitor Pedro de Arbues, three of the brothers of Gabriel Sanchez - Juan, Alfonso, and Guillen - were accused of having participated in the conspiracy to eliminate the Inquisitor. Juan managed to escape but was condemned to death in effigy. Alfonso, who was also accused of being a Marrano, managed to flee Aragon before the Inquisition could lay hands on him. The third brother, Guillen, was allowed by the Inquisition to repent. The father-in-law of Gabriel Sanchez, also implicated in the murder plot, was less fortunate than Guillen. He was charged with Judaizing and sentenced to death.

Grave charges were also brought against Gabriel Sanchez. He was accused of having participated in the conspiracy that led to the murder of Pedro de Arbues. Since the allegations could not be proved, and Sanchez continued to have the support of King Ferdinand, he was able to survive the efforts of the Inquisition to tar him as a heretic and backslider.

As in the case of Luis de Santangel, Columbus regarded gariel Sanchez as one of his staunchest supporters. The letter the discoverer sent to Sanchez describing the findings of the first voyage to the New World was reproduced by the high treasurer, and a copy was forwarded to his brother, Juan, in Florence. The latter passed it on to his cousin Lenardo de Cosco, a Marrano, who translated it into Latin and had it published. Within a year, the Latin translation ran through nine editions, thus spreading the news of the New World throughout Europe.

Still another of Columbus's highly placed patrons was Alfonso de la Caballeria. He was the descendant of a Jewish family that had achieved prominence in Spain as early as the 13th century. During the course of the 15th century, a family schism occurred, and eight of the nine sons of the head of the household converted to Christianity. In the succeeding generations, many members of the family achieved fame and fortune in the service of the state and the Church. At the same time, by marriage, the de la Caballeria clan became closely allied with almost all the major Converso families in Spain.

Alfonso, like his father before him, started his career as a counselor at the court of Aragon and rose rapidly through the ranks of the bureaucracy. In the 1480's, he was appointed vice-chancellor of aragon. Nevertheless, in spite of his high office, he was not immune from investigation by the Inquisition. He was accused of having been involved in the Pedro de Arbues conspiracy. Allegations concerning other members of Alfonso's family, many of whom were suspected of being Marranos, were also introduced by the tribunal. Thus, Alfonso's father, Pedro, although long deceased, was described by one Inquisition witness as having posed as a Christian who frequently reverted in thoughts and deeds to his ancestral traditions. Still other members of the de la Caballeria clan were accused of still maintaining close ties with the synagogue and the Jewish community.

The judicial proceedings initiated by the Inquisition would drag on for 20 years. Finally, in 1501, the papacy confirmed Alfonso de la Caballeria's Catholic orthodoxy, and he was completely exonerated. However, the toll of the prolonged trail had been high. He was unable, for example, to prevent the Inquisition's exhumation of the bones of his grandmother, or his wife's appearance as a penitent in an 'auto-da-fe, or the burning of his brother Jaime in effigy.

Completing the list of powerful Conversos who rendered financial support to Columbus when it was most desperately needed, is that of Juan Cabrero, royal chamberlain of King Ferdinand. He was regarded as one of the king's most faithful and trusted retainers. Carero had fought at Fernando's side in the war against the Moors and was an intimate friend as well as advisor to the monarch. However, even this high-placed New Christian official's family could not escape the tentacles of the Inquisition. Juan's grandfather, Sancho de Patenoy, the grand treasurer of Aragon, was accused in the Arbues conspiracy and sentenced to death. Juan Cabrero, using all his influence at court, managed with great difficulty to have the verdict changed to life imprisonment.

In addition to Luis de Santangel, Alfonso de la Caballeria, and Juan Sanchez, two other individuals merit attention as supporters of Columbus at the Spanish court. They are Marchioness de Moya, and Juan de Coloma. De Moya, a close friend and confidant of Queen Isabella, it is widely believed, was a member of a Marrano family. Although hard evidence is lacking, it is known that the marchioness associated with Marranos and Conversos and on several occasions, intervened to save such individuals, from the Inquisition.

Juan de Coloma, a royal secretary, had a hand in drawing up the contract between Columbus and the Catholic monarchs. Although one of the few high officials of "Old Christian" stock involved with the initial expedition of Columbus, his wife was a New Christian - a member of the Caballeria family.

Columbus's connections with the Jews, New Christians, and Marranos, was not limited to court officials. There is the controversial matter that some of his shipmates were of Jewish stock. Five crew members are generally singled out for this distinction; Alonso de la Calle, a bursar, who eventually settled in Hispaniola and whose very name indicates that he was born in the Jewish quarter; Rodrigo de Sanchez of Segovia, who was related to Gabriel sanchez, the high treasurer of Aragon; Marco, the surgeon; Maestre Bernal of Tortosa, a physician who had been reconciled by the Inquisition in 1490, but was forced to witness his wife's death at the stake of an auto-da-fe, and Luis de Torres, the official interpreter of the expedition, who had been baptized a few days before the fleet sailed. Torres had been specifically appointed by Columbus as interpreter because he knew Hebrew, Chaldean and arabic. This knowledge was expected to prove useful if the voyagers came across 'Asiatic" descendants of the Ten Last Tribes of Israel.

Prior to his conversion, Luis de Torres had been employed as an interpreter by Juan Chacon, the governor of Murcia (a province with a large Jewish population). Since Columbus's first voyage coincided with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Luis's job with the governor was obviously over. There were no longer any Jews for whom he might have interpreted in their audience with the governor.

When Columbus discovered Cuba, he was convinced that he had found Marco Polo's Cinpangu (Japan). The "admiral", however, was puzzled that there were no silk clad sages, or palaces tiled with gold to be seen anywhere. Accordingly, he decided to dispatch an embassy into the interior of the island, where he believed the cities were located. Tolead the mission, he chose Luis de Torres. The interpreter was given a Latin passport, which he was to present to the chief of the natives ("the Great Khan"), as well as gifts. He also carried letters of credence from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. An able-bodied seaman named Rodrigo de Jerez was chosen to accompany Torres. Two native Arawak Indian guides rounded out the embassy.

The mission into the island's interior proved disappointing to Columbus, for the group found nothing resembling an imperial city, or gold. However, Torres did bring back a fairly comprehensive report of the native people he and Rodrigo had encountered, their customs and manners, as well as a description of some of the island's fauna and flora. Among the wonders that Torres had noted was a strange practice of the natives to put thin rolls of dried leaves (tobacco) into their nostrils or mouths, lighting them, and blowing out smoke.

Although Luis de Torres's linguistic skills proved useless in carrying out his mission, the resourceful interpreter, not understanding the Amerindian dialect, fell back upon sign language to carry out his instructions. Torres would later seek permission to settle in Cuba as a royal agent. His request was granted with an annual pension from the Crown. By cultivating his friendship with the native ruler of the island, Torres would, in time, aquire large tracts of land and carve out for himself a small empire. He was the first European to visit the inhabitants of the New World in their native setting, and the first to describe their life before it was corrupted by contact with the white man.

Scholars have long squabbled over the question as to why high-placed New Christians and Jews were willing to take on the enormous risk of financing Columbus's initial expedition. One possible explanation that has been suggested is that the discoverer and his patrons had a deep and ineradicable impulse to help their fellow Jews, or in the case of the Conversos such as Luis de Santangel, Alfonso de la Caballeria, and Juan Sanchez, their former co-religionists to whom they still felt linked.

A biographer of Columbus, John Boyd Thatcher, putting it more succinctly, has written; "that the triumph of Columbus ---- was the triumph of the Converso Luis de Santangel, visionary and champion of the perennial lost cause of history --- the cause of the Jews." Other writers (notably Salvador de Madariaga and Simon Wiesenthal) have speculated that the longings of the Conversos who supported Columbus may have run parallel to the dreams of the discoverer himself, namely, an obsessive dream to find a refuge for the Jews in the lands that he hoped to find across the Atlantic.

What ever the truth, it is a fact that many Marranos and Conversos listened to the tales emanating from the New World following Columbus's epic voyages and flocked to the lands that he had claimed for Iberia. They had board ships secretly, for officially they were strictly forbidden to set foot in the new territories. However, disregarding all the bans and harbor controls, they made their way across the ocean, where they hoped to make a new life.

Joseph Adler, an historian, is the author of 'The Herzl Paradox' and articles that have appeared in the Herzl Yearbook

Sources:

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16 Simon Wiesenthal, Sails of Hope: The secret Mission of Columbus. New York: Macmillan
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Published in Midstream - November 1998