Season 3, Episode 5
Unsolved Jewish Mysteries: Was Christopher Columbus Jewish?
Proof that Christopher Columbus was Jewish.
Christopher Columbus kept his family origins purposefully murky, giving rise to all sorts of theories about his early life. One of those theories is that he was Jewish, descended from a family of Spanish Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula in the early 1400s. Perhaps they were conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity in order to avoid the repression of Spain’s Catholic kingdom. His voyage to the New World coincided with the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, along with the Spanish Inquisition.
WHY WE CARE
Whether or not Columbus himself was Jewish, Jews played an essential role in preparing, financing, supporting, and crewing his voyage to the New World. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella financed his voyage largely through the wealth they stole from expelled Jews. Other influential Jews, like Luis de Santangel (a converso) and Don Isaac Abarbanel (a Jew) supplied additional funding, and convinced the monarchs of the efficacy of his expedition. The same day he set sail was also the deadline for Jews to convert or leave Spain, and many of his crew were conversos. Some may even have been Crypto-Jews, conversos who were secretly adhering to their Jewish faith, and who saw his westward adventure as an opportunity to leave the persecution of Spain.
THEORIES ABOUT HIS JEWISHNESS
Besides his closeness, as noted above, with the Jewish community of Spain, there is a wide range of circumstantial evidence suggesting he may have been Jewish.
His name in Italian, Columbo, while not specifically-Jewish, was nevertheless not uncommon in the Jewish community.
His father was a weaver in Genoa, Italy — a popular destination with conversos and one of a few trades open to the Jews.
Columbus spoke Spanish as his mother tongue — odd for a boy in Italy. Perhaps he learned it at home, from his converso family?
Columbus was deeply interested in Jewish history, philosophy, the Bible, and especially the Jewish calendar. He frequently dated things by the Hebrew calendar — a system used nowhere else except by the Jewish community.
He was scheduled to sail on August 2, 1492 but postponed until the 3rd without giving a reason. August 2 that year was the Ninth of Av, a significant Jewish holiday.
The Spanish Inquisition was not concerned with punishing Jews for being Jewish, but with punishing Christian heretics — so-called Crypto-Jews who had converted to Christianity but continued to practice Judaism in secret, a crime punishable by death.
Ferdinand and Isabella approved Columbus’ voyage on April 29, 1492. That same day they issued the Edict of Expulsion, forcing the Jews of Spain to choose between converting to Christianity or being expelled.
Rodrigo de Triana, thought to be a converso, was the first crewman to sight land, on October 12, 1492. Columbus’ navigator was likewise a converso, and was left behind to establish the first European colony on what is today Haiti.
© Jason Harris 2019