About Hispanic Heritage Month: Christopher Columbus, Was He a Jew?

Multiple questions – including the identity he tried to hide – remain unanimous.

By Angel Christopher

Christopher Columbus, was he a Jew?

Sources and scholars disagree on the answer to this question. However, almost everyone agrees that he was born in Genoa between August and September 1451 within the framework of a modest family of Genoese weavers, without canceling the many questions that still remain on the subject. For example, neither he nor his children unreservedly pointed out where he would have seen the light, nor when and how he acquired the knowledge that allowed him to fluently read and comment on biblical and Greek texts, including the chronicles of Marco Polo, which recounted adventures and experiences in Asia he would have known two centuries earlier.

Until today the religious identity of Columbus is a matter of speculation. Personally, I am inclined to agree with Salvador de Madariaga on his Jewish origin. As is known, this erudite Spanish researcher published an extensive biography of Columbus – he has more than 500 pages – inserted in two thick volumes that also allude to the life of Cortés, the rise of the Spanish empire in Latin America, and Simón Bolívar. (The Hispanic cycle, South American ed., Buenos Aires, 1958).

A mystery man, unknown
It happened in January 1492. The event and the date are important to explain why Isabel and Fernando, absolute monarchs of an empire then in expansion, postponed for years an apparent response to the repeated requests of a restless character who wanted to reach East Asia in another way. He was “a mysterious man, nobody knows who he is, where he comes from, what he is up to.” And according to the portrait of his close friend Fray Bartolomé de las Casas “he was tall in body, more than medium; the long and authoritative face; the aquiline nose; he was funny and well-spoken and certainly Catholic and very devout.”

This Genoese, Madariaga adds, spoke and wrote in Spanish. A language that then combines dialects and words derived from multiple sources. And, in addition, he knew Latin, since the main navigational texts at that time were read in this language. With not a few testimonies he concludes: “the Colombo family was a family of Spanish Jews settled in Genoa who, following the traditions of their race, had remained faithful to the language of their country of origin.”

Sephardic ancestry
The Spanish researcher adds: “Christóforo Colombo was a Genoese Sephardic, that is, a Hispanic-Jewish”. The origin is that at that time when the Inquisition took flight, he had to hide. Certainly, in these pressing circumstances, not a few Jews disguised their true faith and origins, and those who eluded this procedure –it was the case of the celebrated Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto– had to make a pilgrimage from one country to another. Thus, to avoid an ungrateful fate “Columbus became Portuguese in Portugal and Castilian in Castile”, and he changed his name –from Colombo to Colón– to adjust to the new circumstances. A decision that was not and will not be exceptional among the Jews when they experience trouble. Thus, for example, Jehuda Cresques -rabbi at that time- changed Jaime Ribes when he presided over the Portuguese academy of Sagres. Centuries later, a Friedmann would move to Freeman and a Levi to Lewis.

To substantiate his thesis, Madariaga recalls words that the son of Columbus later wrote: “give me whatever name you want, because in the end David kept sheep and was made King of Jerusalem, I am a servant of that same lord who put David in This status”.

In any case, Columbus had to hide his origin in a society that revealed hostility to the Jews.

Certainly, when the Inquisition was instituted in Spain in 1480, the Jews had to consider harsh options such as conversion to Christianity, hiding or not the original faith, or moving to somewhat more tolerant countries. Some of them even assumed radical changes that led them to join the abominable Inquisition.

In these circumstances, Columbus preferred to silence his origin and dodge questions about his true beliefs. The attitude that facilitated his celebrated role in the discovery of a new world. Later he will meet the hostile resistance of the Spanish monarchy to fulfill what he had agreed in his favor and for the benefit of his descendants.

Madariaga highlights the fact that Columbus decided to go to sea with the three caravels the day the Catholic Monarchs decided to expel the Jews. As anticipated, it was on August 2, 1492, when the multitudes crossed or fainted at the borders of Spain in search of better luck. Accidental coincidence or oblique protest? The reader must judge.

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