Who Was the Mysterious Columbus?

Christopher Columbus has become a controversial figure: He is simultaneously honored by the Italian-American community as their foremost symbolic personage and reviled by Native Americans as the bringer of near-genocide.

In Providence, Columbus Square features one of the nation’s most recognized statues of Columbus, refabricated in bronze a year after the display of an identical statue in silver designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, whose most well-known sculpture is the Statue of Liberty, for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892, intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America in 1492.

Not so fast, some say: America was not “discovered” because there were already people here before Europeans arrived. Rhode Islander Steve Ahlquist summarized the objections in his 2014 article: “Christopher Columbus was a monster. He saw people as commodities to be bought and sold. He destroyed lives for personal gain. His crimes include rape, murder, torture and genocide.”

There is ample historical documentation for Ahlquist’s claim, and Columbus was unquestionably a 15th century man who acted according to 15th century principles and morality. Only a generation after Columbus, European mistreatment of natives in America and Africa, including slavery, would come under its first attack as unethical and cruel by Bartolomé de las Casas – whose father sailed with Columbus and who was himself friendly with Columbus’ sons.

What is surprising is how little we really know about the historical Columbus before he became famous. The uncertainty even merits its own Wikipedia article, “Origin theories of Christopher Columbus.” The most common view is that he was from the Republic of Genoa in what is now Italy, but in the 15th century “Italy” was a vestigial political concept that had become nearly irrelevant since the Middle Ages and the language we know today as “Italian” barely existed. Liguria, the region around Genoa, was a focal point for conflict and competition between Spain, France and Milan, all of which had their own problems as well. In other words, if someone was looking to obscure their identity in a mass of confusion – and there is evidence this is exactly what Columbus tried to do – Genoa would have been a good place to do it.

While there are many documents attesting to the presence of a Colombo family in Genoa, the question is whether those named are connected to the explorer – who changed the form of his name to mesh with local custom whenever he moved, for example calling himself “Cristóbal Colón” in Spain. Anyone looking at the surface of Columbus’ life would conclude that he was at least culturally Spanish: He wrote only in Spanish, his expedition was carried out under the flag of Spain, and he was rewarded with the high honor of “Admiral” by the Spanish monarchy. When Columbus’ son Ferdinand writes a biography of his father, it includes genealogy both plausible and obviously fanciful; worse, the Spanish-language original has been lost and all that survives in a 1571 translation into Italian. It is even possible that Columbus hid his true background and his name, whatever it was, from his own sons.

We also know that Columbus did many strange things that are difficult to explain. On his first voyage, he brought along Luis de Torres as a Hebrew translator, but why? Columbus thought he was sailing to Asia, and most of what Europeans knew about that distant foreign land was derived from the writings of Marco Polo 200 years earlier and a few subsequent accounts by other traders – and they certainly never described anyone speaking Hebrew. The best explanation, bizarrely, is that Columbus was hoping to encounter the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, even today a favorite of lunatic conspiracy theorists, but at the time it was often popularly believed that the Native Americans were somehow descended from the Jews of antiquity captured by invading Neo-Assyrians in 722 BCE – more than 2,200 years before the voyage of Columbus. One of the arguments by de las Casas in favor of better treatment for the Native Americans is that he believed they were the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes.

Jews faced enormous obstacles: A recent scholarly paper employs a database of 1,366 acts of European anti-Jewish persecution between 1100 and 1800. After long campaigns of forced conversions – including de Torres – finally Spain expelled all of its Jews in 1492, a fact noted in the opening sentence of Columbus’ diary of his voyages.

Many Jews and Muslims made common cause against the states that expelled them, and seafaring became inherently political. Heyreddin Barbarossa was a slightly younger contemporary of Columbus: to the Muslim Ottoman Empire he was a loyal naval admiral, but to the Christians of Europe he was a pirate; Barbarossa’s chief naval strategist, the Spanish exile Sinan Reis, was Jewish.

Much of the technology of navigation of the era was the work of Jews, especially the then-famous Abraham Zacuto who was born in Spain, fled to Portugal in 1492 to become royal astronomer, fled again in 1496 when Portugal expelled its Jews, and spent the last years of his life in Tunis in North Africa and eventually in Jerusalem. Zacuto’s innovations included instruments for taking measurements of the sun and stars while at sea and the publication of tables for calculating corrections for magnetic compass without the need for astronomical observations. Columbus is known to have carried a copy of Zacuto’s tables, and according to his diary used them to predict the lunar eclipse of February 29, 1504, scaring the natives.

One of the important controversies of the day in astronomy and navigation was the length of a degree of longitude: if short enough, as Zacuto and others believed, it would be possible to reach Asia from Europe by sailing westward across the ocean. The whole reason for the voyage of Columbus in the first place was to reach Asia and ease the trade in spices and other valuable goods: it turned out to be pure dumb luck that Zacuto and others got it wrong, with the result that an entire continent previously unknown to Europeans was exactly where Asia was predicted to be. Nor was Columbus funded by the government of Spain: Three Jewish merchants and financiers (Louis de Santangel, Gabriel Sanchez, and Don Isaac Abrabanel) made interest-free personal loans in hope of opening a lucrative Asia sea-trade route.

As far as I know, Salvador de Madariaga in 1940 published the first seriously credible examination of the possibility that Columbus was a secret Jew trying, like many other Spanish Jews of the time, to escape the clutches of the Roman Catholic Church and its Inquisition. Nominated for both the Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel Literature Prize, de Madariaga was no flake: He served in numerous cabinet and diplomatic posts before leaving the Spanish government as a diehard opponent of fascist Francisco Franco.

Many recent historians have noted some of the same odd aspects of Columbus’ life, especially several strange provisions in his will. He provided for one-tenth of his estate to benefit the poor and provided money for anonymous dowries for poor girls, both particularly Jewish customs. He made a specific bequest to an unknown Jew who lived at the entrance to the Jewish Quarter in Lisbon, Portugal. He left money to support an eventual crusade to liberate Jerusalem, especially strange in light of the capture of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1453 that definitively ended 1,500 years of Christian governance in the Middle East; the Christian victory over the Muslims in Granada in 1492 is what made the expulsion of the Jews possible the same year.

Finally, Columbus in his will charged his descendants to use a cryptic addition to their signatures composed of a triangular arrangements of lines and dots, generally understood as a symbol of the “Kaddish,” the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead – possibly providing a cryptic way for his sons to say the traditional Jewish prayer for him after his death.

Columbus may not have been a secret Jew of Spanish origin, but if he was then there is a palpable irony in a man who was a member of a harshly persecuted minority paving the way for the horrific treatment of the indigenous people he encountered on his voyages of discovery – and there would be a lot of shocked Italian-Americans.

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