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Top: Jewish Leaders Folder: Christopher Columbus

Columbus'sMedinah? [1] top of page

October 14 is commemorated by our neighbours to thesouth as Columbus Day. Now this fact would not normally deserve mention in a Jewish newspaper. As we shall see in amoment, however, there has been some weighty scholarly debate over the possibility that Columbus, though undeniably adevout and zealous Catholic, might also have been the proud descendant of Spanish Jews. Ironically, this view has been championedby some patriotic Spaniards, who would rather have him a Spanish Jew than an Italian gentile.

Here are a few of the interesting facts that have been raised in connectionwith this question:

*There is evidence that Columbus spoke Spanish while still living inItaly, an unusual situation unless his family had originated in Spain. Spanish-speaking Jewish refugees from the Inquisition were numerousin the Genoa area.

*The form "Colón" which Columbus adopted as the Spanishequivalent of his last name was not the expected form (which would have been"Colom" or "Colombo"). It was howevera common Jewish variation on the name.

*Columbus was known to frequent the company of Jews and former Jews,among whom were some noted astronomers and navigators, as well as his official translator. Marranos figure prominentlyamong Columbus's backers and crew. Throughout his life he demonstrated a keen knowledge of the Bible and the geography ofthe Holy Land. In fact in one place he calculates the date from the destruction of the "Second House" [=Temple], countingfrom the traditional (and erroneous) Jewish date of 68 C.E., rather than the generally held 70.

*Columbus began the official report of his first voyage to America, addressedto Ferdinand and Isabella, with the following words:"And thus, having expelled all the Jews from all your kingdomsand dominions, in the month of January, Your Highnesses commanded me that...I should go to the said parts of India." This isa strange fact to mention in this context, and it is not even correct: The order of expulsion was not signed until March 31st!

*The connections between the timing of Columbus's voyage and the expulsionof Spanish Jewry are indeed curious. Historians have noted that, though Columbus was not scheduled to set sail until August3rd, he insisted that his entire crew be ready on board a full day earlier. The timing becomes more intriguing when we considerthat August 2nd 1492 was the day that had been ordained for the last Jews of Spain to depart the country. Hundreds of thousandsof Jews were departing Spain on that black day.

*When this coincidence of dates was first noted by the Spanish biographerS. de Madariaga, the English Jewish historian Cecil Roth supplemented it with a further "coincidence": August 2nd1492 coincided with the Ninth of Av, the Jewish fast of mourning for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples! It was as if Columbushad arranged to remain on board ship for that ill-omened day, and to depart only afterwards.

It would be impossible, in the context of a short newspaper article,to enumerate all the evidence that has been adduced on this question. De Madariaga devoted a five-hundred page tome to proving thisthesis. Some of the most important arguments are however summarized in the relevant entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica, writtenby the encyclopedia's editor-in-chief Cecil Roth. While Roth himself expresses some scepticism about the explorer'sJewish origins, it is significant that the entry is not preceded by the special sign that normally indicates articles about non-Jews.

Perhaps Columbus Day is, after all, a Jewish holiday.


[1] First Publication: JFP, Oct. 14 1991.


Cecil Roth, "Who Was Columbus?" in: Personalities andEvents in Jewish History, Philadelphia 1953. Salvador de Madariaga, Christopher Columbus, Being the Life of theVery Magnificent Lord Don Cristoból Colón, 1939. top of page

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