Oy Vey! Was Columbus Jewish?

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“1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” We all learn the catchy poem in elementary school growing up, but few question why he was sailing. It is widely believed, and taught, that Columbus sailed for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, which is true, but the voyage was not financed by them. In fact it was financed by two converted Jews, Loius de Santagel and Gabriel Sanchez. Why would two Jews pay for Columbus to sail in search of the Orient? Because maybe there was an ulterior motive to Columbus sailing in search for riches.

Columbus lived during the Spanish Inquisition, which was a time when Spain was trying to purge out the Jews living in the country. Jews had three options, convert, leave, or die. The Jews that converted to Christianity were called conversos, or converts. There were some Jews that would convert and outwardly practice Chrisitianity, but secretly still follow the Jewish faith, and they were known as marranos, or swine. It is now believed that Columbus was a marrano.

Evidence for this claim comes from his written letters, as well as his last will and testament. His will had two important wishes on it that give away his Jewish faith. One was that one-tenth of his income would be given to the poor and he made an anonymous dowry for poor girls. Both of those acts are part of Jewish customs. Secondly he left money to a Jew who lived near the entrance of the Jewish Quarter in Lisbon. An act like that in a time like the Inquisition should be a tell tale sign of his beliefs.

Also, in all but one letter to Columbus’ son he inscribes the Hebrew letters bet-hei, which translates to “with God’s help.” The only letter which did not contain the letters was addressed to King Ferdinand.

Another interesting clue into Columbus’ religion comes from when he set sail. He was originally supposed to head out to the sea on August 2, 1492, but that date coincided with the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av. So Columbus postponed his launch until the next day because he believed if he left on the holiday it would be unlucky.

With this evidence provided you can begin to look at Columbus’ voyage in a new light. Was he looking for a place where the Jews forced to leave Spain could immigrate to? Was he looking for to orient for riches that he could then spend to transport the Jews to safety, or finance a crusade for the Jews to take bake their Holy Land? Unfortunately we cannot answer those questions right now, but we can say that his “discovery” introduced a large piece of land to Europe to harvest, and ironically enough this land would become a place where religious freedom was on the front of everyone’s minds.


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