There is a popular image of Christopher Columbus kneeling before the cross, sword outstretched, on the shores of the New World, proclaiming these newly discovered lands part of the Spanish Empire by the real discoverer of America, and not, as was first believed, Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the continent was named and who, by doctoring his logbook, gave the impression that he had reached the continent before Columbus.
Behind this image lies a fascinating detective story that has enthralled the world since that moment in 1492 when he and his crew stepped ashore for the first time.
The fact that Columbus was probably neither Spanish by nationality nor Christian by religious persuasion is only part of the mystery about to unfold.
We do not know for certain where his family originated, his real nationality, even the very name he bore or what he looked like. He is claimed as a national hero by Spain, by Italy, by Portugal and sometimes by the Jews, and in later years Spaniards would recognize his Jewish background to support their claim to him as a national hero, while in modern times Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in his book Columbus and the Conquest of the Impossible, and Titus Heydenreich, in his Estudios Hispanicos, would fiercely deny any such secret origin.
According to his own statement, he was Genoese by birth - "thence did I go forth and there was I born," the son of a modest weaver, yet his Italian was almost nonexistent so that even when he wrote to his bankers in Genoa he used Spanish, which he called "our mother tongue."
The very name by which he has come down to us is equally doubtful. There exist in writing six variations of the family name - Colombo, Columbo, Colom, Colomb, Colon and Colonus, in addition to Columbus that he never used. Even his first name is likewise shrouded in mystery. It has always been accepted that this was a variety of Christopher until in 1930 a document hidden in the spine of a book in the library of Barcelona University came to light which contained the following assertion:
"I, Giovanni Dei Borromei, having pledged myself not to reveal the truth I have learned in secret from Signor Peter di Angliera [Peter Martyr of Angliera, ambassador to Ferdinand and Isabella] yet so as to ensure that the memory thereof be perpetuated, I now confide to history the fact that Cristobal Colon is of Mallorquin and not Ligurian origin. And the said Peter di Angliera added that what led Juan Colon to practice this deception was the advice he received to do so for political and religious reasons, in order to request the assistance of the ships of the king of Spain" (quoted from El Enigma de Cristobal Colon).
So if this document is true, the discoverer of the New World should be known as Juan and not Christopher. And it is interesting to speculate on the political and religious factors that caused him to make the change.
We do not even know what he looked like - no authentic portrait has come down to us, though there are no fewer than 70 such "portraits" which often bear no resemblance to each other. But in this tangle of conflicting evidence, some basic facts do emerge. It is widely accepted today that Christopher Columbus was the third-generation son of Marrano parents who fled from their native Spain (or Mallorca) to escape the 1391 massacres that decimated Spanish Jewry after centuries of peaceful coexistence dating back to 711 CE, though it has sometimes been claimed that the family fled from France during the persecutions of the 13th and 14th centuries.
WHATEVER HIS background, it is certain that he was born around 1450 in Genoa and that he spent many years (he claims in his biography 23 years) at sea and that his voyages took him along the African coast and as far north as Iceland.
At some time in his life he conceived the idea of a westward route to India, and in turn visited England, France and Portugal seeking support for such a voyage.
But in England and France he met only rebuffs, while in Portugal he feared that the ideas on which he based his faith in the success of his venture, once known, would be used by others, and even though he was now Cristavao Colom, a good Portuguese name, they would reject him and utilize the knowledge he had gained for their own profit.
The secret he was so anxious to keep from others was simple enough, but original - knowledge he had acquired in his study of the trade winds during his voyages, from which he concluded that they were powerful enough to blow ships across the Atlantic (the Ocean Sea of those days) to India.
While he was in Lisbon, he met and married Dona Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, daughter of the first governor of Porto Santo in the Madeiras, past marriageable age and living in a convent. After the wedding in 1477 the couple moved to the Madeiras where his first son, Diego, was born.
But the marriage lasted only four years, and when his wife died in 1481/2 Columbus, disillusioned by the treatment he had received in Portugal, took his son to Spain, there to seek the sponsorship of their Catholic majesties of Aragon and Castile.
To create a good impression, he changed his name again to the Spanish form Cristobal Colon, and among his many Marrano acquaintances met a wealthy owner of corsair ships who listened to his tale and was impressed enough to offer to build and equip the ships he would require for his enterprise.
But for Columbus this was not sufficient for the secret design he nurtured. The building of ships required royal sanction and he was convinced that only royal patronage would guarantee him the honors that he craved and the assurance of a fair share of the profits that were likely to accrue from such a mission.
He therefore declined the offer and continued his search for royal support, and in due course was introduced to the duke of Medina Cela, who offered to arrange a meeting with Queen Isabella.
The queen listened, and was suitably attracted to the idea, but at that time she and Ferdinand were engaged in their final desperate struggle to complete the unification of the country by the overthrow of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain.
The war had impoverished the country and the exchequer was empty, so in 1486 Isabella handed over Columbus's scheme to a special scientific commission for their consideration, and granted the petitioner a small pension on which to live while awaiting the decision of the council.
That decision was to take four long years. To comfort him in his lonely exile, Columbus set up home with Beatriz Enriquez de Harana, almost certainly Jewish, and therefore to have married her openly in the teeth of the Inquisition would have been suicide, as he explained in a section of his will in which he requested his son Diego to provide for the mother of his second and illegitimate son, born in 1488 and named Fernando in honor of the king, reminding him that he had not married her "for reasons well known to you." He remained faithful to her for the rest of his life and in his last moments was concerned for her welfare.
And when, eventually, the commission's decision was made known, the vote was against support for Columbus's proposed voyage, and downcast and dispirited, he left the court to try his luck with other monarchs.
Tradition has it that when the announcement of rejection was made by the commission, the king's own financial adviser and the wealthiest noble at court, the Marrano Luis de Santangel appeared distressed "as if a great misfortune had befallen him personally." He offered the king to pay the cost of the voyage himself with a sum of 17,000 ducats (possibly as much as Â£2 million at today's values) without interest and not repayable if the voyage was unsuccessful.
The reason for such apparent generosity is not hard to fathom.
The Santangel family was slowly being exterminated by the Inquisition - many of its members had been burned at the stake or imprisoned with loss of all their possessions. The only request made by Luis to Ferdinand was that in return for this huge loan his family and descendants would be guaranteed immunity from the Holy Office for ever.
The request was approved in 1494 and, according to a current account, Columbus, on his way from court, was overtaken by riders and persuaded to return.
IN SPAIN the situation had changed radically. With the conquest of Granada completed in 1492 and the readiness of Santangel to finance the entire cost, the victorious royal couple were now in a mood to listen and dream of power and wealth untold if the voyage were crowned with success. But this time Columbus was no longer the suppliant of his first meeting with Isabella. His terms were unbelievably high - appointment as Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor-General of all lands he might discover, 10 percent of all transactions between Spain and the new colonies in addition to his rewards as Grand Admiral and Viceroy, and the award to himself and all his heirs in perpetuity of the aristocratic title of Don.
These terms, or Capitulations, were approved at Santa Fe on April 17, 1492, and a Carta de Privilegio was drawn up 13 days later which specifically stated that "he shall be our Admiral, Admiral Viceroy and Governor of all new-found territories, and shall entitle yourself Don Cristobal Colon, a title to be passed down to heirs and successors forever."
It was a bold stroke indeed, and armed with this charter, Columbus set off for the port of Palos to begin his first voyage with three ships, the Pinta, the Nina and the flagship Santa Maria.
We shall consider later the special circumstances of that departure at midnight on August 3 in a later assessment of his secret background.
The first voyage was highly successful, as he reported, not to his sovereigns but first to Santangel, and the other Marranos who had supported the venture. He was feted at court, where he gave an account of the islands he had discovered and brought to the royal couple gold, silver, plants and some "Indians."
The second voyage in 1493-6 was similarly
financed from the money and property sequestrated from Jews who had fled the country after 1492, and was so highly regarded by Ferdinand that he offered Columbus a dukedom or marquisate and a huge slice of the new island of Hispaniola, which the Admiral politely but firmly declined.
But by 1498, when his third voyage was undertaken, signs of deep unrest, even open rebellion by both settlers and natives erupted, and messages of discontent began to reach the king in Castile, Columbus's enemies, who were not few in number, persuaded Ferdinand in 1500 to send out a commission of inquiry under one of those who were hostile to Columbus, Francisco Bobadilla, a converso, who, on reaching the island, took note of the chaotic state of affairs (Columbus was no administrator, and the men he left in charge ill-treated the natives and plundered the colonists), Bobadilla investigated the chaos and the open rebellion, clapped both Columbus and his brothers in irons, and sent them back to Castile on a multitude of charges of ineptitude, cruelty, concealing gold and silver from their sovereigns and even fomenting rebellion against them.
One account states that the kindly captain of the ship which was transferring them back to Spain in disgrace, was overcome by emotion at the sight of the captives, and offered to remove the fetters, but that Columbus replied that since they were ordered by the king he would continue to wear them until his majesty chose to have them removed, and that afterwards he kept the irons with instructions that they should be buried with him in his coffin.
Whatever the truth of this account, his return evoked much sympathy, particularly by Isabella, and he was cleared of all the charges and compensated for the ill-usage he had suffered, though he never again regained his original favour at court.
Though he was restored to royal favour, his health had been undermined by the arduous life he had led, the privations he he had suffered at sea and on land, and the treatment meted out to him by Bobadilla, so that when his fourth and last voyage took place in 1503-4 he was so ill on his return to Spain that he had not the strength even to appear at court.
He retired to his house spent and melancholy at the inauspicious end to a remarkable career, and died on May 29 at the early age of 55.
But even in death he was not allowed to rest in peace. Buried originally in a monastery in Seville, his remains were transported to San Domingo in 1542, to be exhumed and taken to Havana when Hispaniola was ceded to the French at the end of the century and finally came to rest in the cathedral of Seville in 1898.
And though his magnificent tomb lies in the cathedral, an urn, said to contain his ashes, is displayed in the Palazzo Tursi in Genoa bearing the armorial arms of the city, and a memorial tablet can still be seen in the cathedral in Havana.
AND WITH the death of the Navigator to the Indies, the rush was on to claim him for their own.
Spain and Italy contend today for that honor, while as late as 1988 a Portuguese anthropologist-historian, in a lengthy volume, proclaimed to the world that Columbus was Portugal's master-spy! Jewish writers soon began to pay attention to Columbus and his discoveries - the Jewish Encyclopedia notes that as early as 1587 Abraham Farisol of Avignon refers to his discoveries, and he was followed by a number of others in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In America today they have made amends for misnaming their country by choosing for the district in which the capital is located the name District of Columbia; there are towns named Columbus in Georgia and Ohio, a university of that name, a Columbus Square and in New York Columbus Avenue.
Columbus Day is annually celebrated and, as if to assert their claim to Columbus as a true son of Italy, the Italian colony in New York observes that day with the greatest enthusiasm.
But apart from the few references noted above, the Jews came late into the fray.
They had much to do in their struggle for survival in the face of persecution and pogrom, and in establishing the movement that would ultimately bring them a state of their own, while in Spain and Portugal the conversos who continued to live there had little desire to make public any private feelings they may have had about the Jewish origins of Columbus in the shadow of the Inquisition, which still continued to terrorize them down to the middle of the 19th century.
But they were far from being the only ones to recognize in the mysterious life of Columbus an element which had presumably been deliberately neglected by those who claimed him for their own.
Even during his lifetime, a Spanish bishop had raised doubts as to his religious zeal. "No doubt," he had reported, "Columbus was a Catholic of much devotion," as though he were trying to convince himself, and much later, Salvador de Madariaga, the Spanish non-Jewish professor of English literature at Oxford University, stated outright that Columbus was trying to shield his Jewish background from hostile eyes. (We know of course that in 1494 Borromei had made it clear in his note found in a volume in Barcelona University Library that it was claimed that Columbus had changed his name "for political and religious reasons."
Let us now review the evidence for this assertion of his secret religious background.
His frequent choice of the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, in naming his discoveries -Abraham's Cove, Isaac Point, St. David Cave, Mount Sinai, Cape Solomon, his use of Jewish terms like the Second House (la Segunda Casa) for what Catholics would call the Temple, seraphim (a Jewish term for angels) and his constant references to Moses and David invite such an immediate reactionâ€¦ Here he is when first refused the title of Admiral: 'I am not the first Admiral in my family. It doesn't make any difference what name they give me. David, the King most prudent, was a shepherd and later was named King of Jerusalem, and I am a servant of the same Lord who raised David to that position," and in a letter to the king in 1502â€¦ "I said it was neither reasoning nor mathematics nor maps that I used to reach the Indies; I did only what was written in Isaiah." In his log , after a terrible storm at sea which threatened their ship and their lives he wrote, "Such a thing had not been seen, save in the time of the Jews when they of Egypt came out against Moses who was leading them out of captivity." Or again, in another letter to Ferdinand, "What more did He do for Moses, or for David His servant?â€¦ What more did He do for the people of Israel, when He led them out of Egypt? Nor for David, who from a shepherd He raised to be king in Judea? Turn thy face to Him, and know thy error at last. His mercy is boundless."
A man seeking proselytes could hardly be clearer. His very first log contains the following as a preface to a letter to King Ferdinand: "And so, after having expelled all the Jews from your kingdom and possessions, and in the same month of January your Highness sent me with a fleet to the above-mentioned parts of India [read America], you have given me many privileges, including a title, so that I am now called Don and Admiral and Governor of all the islands and the continent which I have discovered." The reader is tempted to ask why a pious Catholic should refer to the expulsion of the Jews in a personal letter to his sovereign about a voyage of discovery.
These few examples must suffice to illustrate the real mind-set of Columbus and the thoughts that always seemed uppermost in his dealings with others.
YET IF these examples of his thinking are impressive, even more convincing evidence exists.
Bobadilla, the enemy who had supplanted him as governor-general in 1499 and placed him in irons, was said to have sent the king and queen letters written by the admiral "in unknown characters" to his brother.
What could those characters have been?
Columbus spoke and wrote only Romance languages, but it is known that Marranos and Jews sometimes communicated with each other in cursive Hebrew (square letters would have been instantly recognizable). Could the unknown characters have been some form of Rashi script? We shall see another example of this device later when we examine Columbus's signature and letters. And it is a well-known fact that quite often Spanish-Jewish newspapers are written in the national language but using Hebrew script.
In 1902 the Duchess of Berwick and Alba, a relation of Columbus, published 13 letters written by Columbus to his son Diego.
At the top of 12 of them, in the left-hand corner is a squiggle which has been interpreted as a vague memory of the letters bet heh, be'ezrat Hashem, (with the help of God) that pious people still use in their correspondence.
But on the 13th letter no such mark is seen and its contents reveal a possible explanation. The letter contains the following statements: "I am sending two marks of very large gold nuggetsâ€¦ to hand over to the Queenâ€¦. When she finishes her dinnerâ€¦ kiss her royal hand for me and give her this letter [my italics] as it is meant to go with the parcelâ€¦. I am writing you and all another letterâ€¦." If the squiggle were indeed a common form which Jews employ at the top of their letters, it could have been disastrous on a letter to be seen by Isabella.
And this brings us to the famous cryptogram with
which Columbus always signed his correspondence. The form was always the same except for the signature Xpo ferens - or on occasions El Almirante (the Admiral).
There have been many attempts to decipher this mystery and perhaps we can begin with efforts of the Christian world to give the signature a Catholic religious connotation, such as "I am the servant of the most high Savior," or "am an attendant at the Holy Sepulchre (!)," but all beg the question why so devout a Catholic would want to hide his piety.
In 1927 M.B. Amzalac of Lisbon offered the following solution.
Noting that in Sephardic prayer books letters with a dot at each side were used as abbreviations, he suggested that the first four letters stood for Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Adonai - Holy Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, part of the kedusha (Simon Wiesenthal in his book Sails of Hope in 1973 would substitute Shaddai, Almighty, for Sanctus.) It was noted that the fourth line had no such dots and was obviously three separate words, and Madariaga commented that the Y, with its stem turned to the left, looked hauntingly like the Hebrew letter ayin.
In the early Spanish of the time the letter X often represented the sound "sh" as in noxes for the Andalucian noches (pronounced "noshes"). If this interpretation is accepted, the three letters X M Y represent shin, mem, ayin, the word Shema, and together with the first line complete two of the most important parts of Jewish prayer.
The last line, with its alternative form, proved the most intriguing.
Taken to be his first name Cristoforus, it was common usage to write the form XPO for Cristo, with the second part written "forus," together making up the name Cristoforus, the saint of that name who was said to have borne Christ on his shoulders.
Samuel Tolkowsky, in his book They Took to the Sea, quotes Maurice David of New York who came up with a possible solution. He noted that the word ferens used by Columbus instead of forus is a Latin translation of the Greek word phoros, meaning bearer or carrier. Its Hebrew equivalent is nossai, also meaning bears or carries, but in the Hebrew Bible the word nossai can also mean forgiving, as in Exodus 34 which includes the phrase "forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." Based on this assumption the last line could be read as forgiving (ferens), iniquity (o for oven), transgression (p for pesha), and x for hata'a, sin, a phrase repeated many times during the services for Yom Kippur.
The whole signature then becomes a confession of faith and a cry for forgiveness for the sin of their compulsory baptism.
Not everyone would accept this explanation, but whatever the cryptic meaning, it is clearly more logical to assume that Columbus was hiding his Jewish faith rather than the far-fetched Christian version "I am the follower, devotee and servant of Christ, Mary, Joseph [with a Y]," and other similar versions which suggest that Columbus was hiding his true faith as a Catholic!
And one last point in confirmation of this thesis.
The colon (:) before Xpo ferens would naturally be taken as the navigator's family name in Spanish, which was Colon. But to a Jewish reader the two dots would represent a secret sign which in Hebrew denotes the end of a sentence read from right to left.
There exists one more reason for accepting the Hebrew version. In his lifetime Columbus used this version only in personal letters, substituting El Almirante, the Admiral, when writing to others, and this is plainly evident in his will, in which he reiterates in the strongest terms that when Diego succeeds to his title and estate, "he shall continue to bear my coat of arms which I shall leave at my death, without changing anything of it, and shall sign with my signature as I am accustomed to sign, which is an X with an S above it, and an M with a Roman A above it, and an S above that one, and then a Greek Y with an S above it, with its dashes and small rods as I am doing now; it shall resemble my signature of which there are found many.
And he must not sign more than El Almirante in the signature."
What a lot of fuss if the reason behind it was not something like the one proposed above! And why in his will should an observant Catholic leave half a silver marco to the Jewish beggar "who usually sits at the entrance to the Juderia"? Was this his final act of tzedaka, charity, to his people?
As for his coat of arms, it is astounding that Columbus should have been allowed to incorporate the royal lion of Aragon and the castle of Castile in it, conferred on him by Ferdinand and Isabella. In this choice could there have been in his mind the lion of Judah and the tower of David?
TWO MORE matters remain to be cleared up. In 1492, when the Edict of Expulsion was issued, the king sent orders to Palos to have the ships prepared for the departure of Columbus and his crew, but for two months nothing was done. All Jews were required to leave the country by July 31, but owing to the crush of ships in the harbor, a grace period of two days was allowed.
The three ships of Columbus were ready by August 2, and Columbus, in accordance with normal practice, allowed the crew to go ashore for their last night on land, but gave specific orders that they had to be back on board ship by 11 p.m.
And the ships sailed just before daybreak on August 3, which happened to be the evening after the ninth of Av, the great fast day of the Jews, a day on which no observant Jew would undertake so perilous an enterprise ("One who works on Tisha Be'av," say the rabbis, "will never see a blessing therefrom"), and it raises the question of whether or not Columbus was following this ancient Jewish tradition.
And finally, that indefatigable researcher Cecil Roth, who discovered that in the Historia rerum ubique gestarum by Pope Pius II Columbus had written in the margin "and from the destruction of the Second House according to the Jews to the present day, being the year of the birth of our Lord 1481, are 1413 years. (The Second House was to Jews the Temple.) Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, but old Jewish chronology wrongly gave the date as two years earlier, the year 68, which is precisely the figure used by Columbus - 1481 minus 1413 equals 68, not 70.
In other words, long before he came to Spain Columbus used the inaccurate Jewish, and not the modern Spanish reckoning, a matter that impressed Madariaga so much that when told of this in the Bodleian Library by his fried Roth, exclaimed "That clinches it!" i.e. the Jewish background of Christopher Columbus is settled.
Needless to say, non-Jews of many nationalities persist in claiming Columbus for themselves -Spaniards, South Americans, Portuguese and of course Italians, and perhaps the matter will never be finally laid to rest, but the many indications of his acts, his words and his instructions to his heirs must leave a very strong impression that Christopher Columbus was a secret Jew whose family fled from Spain or Mallorca sometime after 1391 to Genoa to escape the outburst of persecution that flared up at the end of the 14th century.
And as for his twofold mission and his role as a messenger from on high, to employ the words of Madariaga that we quoted in the opening paragraph, we may note that the Encyclopedia Judaica notwithstanding, the earlier Jewish Encyclopedia and many later publications list the unusually high number of professing Jews and Marranos who made up a significant part of the crew, including Juan de Torres, the "interpreter" who knew both Hebrew and Aramaic, and was the first European to step ashore on American soil, the ship's surgeon, the doctor and others.
It is also important to recall the appeal of Columbus to Ferdinand and Isabella to liberate Jerusalem from the Turks, himself offering an army of tens of thousands of infantry and cavalry, and at the end, in his will, beseeching his son and successors to undertake this task if the king was unwilling or unable.
The role that Columbus carved out for himself and remained his obsession all his life was to provide a sanctuary for his persecuted and hard-pressed brethren either in the new lands he discovered or in far away Eretz Yisrael.
Could there be any clearer answer to the question what was the secret of Christopher Columbus?
This lecture was first published in 2003 by the Henry Koor Judaica Library, Rehov Macdonald 7, Netanya, under the title "Ten of the Best."