In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue…
The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave and he was bright…
(Winifrid Sackville Stoner)
August 3 1492, to be precise. That was the day Columbus embarked from Spain on his epic voyage across the Atlantic to discover the ’New World’, and write himself into the pages of American history.
But August 3 1492 was also notable for something else. It was the date when all Jews in Spain (about 800,000 of them) were forced by law to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain, on pain of being arrested, tortured or killed. As a result thousands of Jews were driven from Spain, or suffered terrible persecution at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.
Is there any connection between those two events?
There may well be.
A secret Jew?
Many historians now believe that Columbus was a ‘marrano’, a secret Jew. Study of his surviving letters and diaries show that he wrote and spoke in Ladino, the ‘Yiddish’ of 15th Century Spanish Jews.
His letters to his son Diego each carry in the top left-hand corner the Hebrew letters bet-hei, meaning b’ezrat Hashem (‘with God’s help’), a blessing commonly used by observant Jews – an equivalent perhaps of ‘God willing’ in a Christian culture. The provisions of his will imply a very strong Jewish connection.
It has been suggested that the motivation for his voyages was in part the desire to find a ‘safe haven’ for his Jewish brethren, where they could flourish free from the horrors of the Inquisition.