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Christopher Columbus


COLUMBUS, CHRISTOPHER (1451–1500), discoverer of America, thought by some to have been of Marrano extraction. He was himself mysterious when speaking of his origin, apparently having something in his background which he wished to conceal. However, he boasted cryptically about his connection with King David and had a penchant for Jewish and Marrano society. Spanish scholars have attempted to explain the fact that this great hero of Spanish history was almost certainly born in Genoa, Italy, by the assumption that his parents were Jewish or ex-Jewish refugees from Spain. In fact, the name Colon (or Colombo) was not uncommon among Italian Jews of the late medieval period. A document recently discovered suggests that Columbus was of Majorcan origin, and almost certainly belonged to a Marrano family: but the authenticity of the document still remains to be proved. On the other hand, Columbus' mysterious signature, which he adjured his son always to use, is susceptible to a Hebraic interpretation, which is no more improbable than the many other solutions that have been proposed. It is remarkable moreover that Columbus began his account of his voyage with a reference to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain; that in one document he refers to the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Hebraic term "Second House"; that he dates its destruction as being in the year 68, in accordance with the Jewish tradition; and that he seems to have deliberately postponed the day of his sailing until August 3, while all was ready for the purpose on the previous day, which was the un-propitious fast day of the Ninth of Av commemorating the destruction of the Temple. The mystery regarding Columbus' origins is largely the outcome of his own mendacity: and as a result it is equally impossible to exclude or to confirm the hypothesis that he was descended from a Jewish or ex-Jewish family.

The fact that he ultimately received the patronage of the Spanish sovereigns for his expedition was in large measure due to the enthusiasm and help of a group of New Christians around the Aragonese court, notably Luis de *Santangel and Gabriel *Sanchez as well as to some extent Isaac *Abrabanel . It was in fact to Santangel and Sanchez that Columbus wrote the famous account of his success on his return, which was immediately published and circulated throughout Europe in two recensions – one addressed to the former, the other to the latter. On his journeys, the explorer used the nautical instruments perfected by Jews such as Joseph *Vecinho , and the nautical tables drawn up by Abraham *Zacuto . It was formerly stated that several of the crew on his first voyage were of Jewish birth, but this was true in fact of only one of them – the interpreter Luis de *Torres , who had been baptized immediately before the expedition set sail.

[Cecil Roth]

The motivations behind Columbus' travels were varied. Alongside Franciscan-Joachimite traditions of the coming Third Age, Columbus had been interested for many years in biblical prophecies. He had collected them long before his first journey and later on as well, after his discoveries had verified his expectations. These prophecies are collected in his Libro de las profecías, where he uses well-known Catholic medieval authors. The chiliastic plans included not only the liberation of Jerusalem but the establishment of the Temple. The gold brought from the New World was supposed to serve for the coming crusade.

Unlike his entirely negative attitude to the Muslims, Columbus saw the Jews and Jewish tradition in a more positive light, as part of the religious quest of humanity.

The discoveries of Columbus were echoed in Jewish sources; a collection of correspondence from 16th century Italy (Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurentiana, Ms. Plut. 88.12 p. 13v) refers to the return of the second expedition (1496). A Hebrew translation of a book describing the discoveries in the New World was made in Voltaggio (near Genoa) in 1557, refering specifically to "the new world found by Columbus."

[Roni Weinstein (2nd ed.)]



M. Kayserling, Christopher Columbus and the Participation of the Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese Discoveries (1907); S. de Madariaga, Christopher Columbus (Eng., 1940); C. Roth, Personalities and Events in Jewish History (1953), 192–211; Cantera, in: Atlántida, no. 9 (May–June, 1964), 303–10; R. Llanas de Niubó, El Enigma de Cristóbal Colón (1964). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H.I. Avalos, "Columbus as Biblical Exegete: A Study of the 'Libro de las profecías,'" in: Studies in Jewish Civilization, 5 (1996), 59–80; G. Pistarino, "Christians and Jews, Pagans and Muslims in the Thought of Christopher Columbus," in: Mediterranean Historical Review, 10:1–2 (1995), 259–271; L.I. Sweet, "Christopher Columbus and the Millennial Vision of the New World," in: Catholic Historical Review, 72:3 (1986), 369–82.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.