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The Columbus Conundrum
by Aron and Judy Hirt-Manheimer

ColumbusWhy did Columbus take a detour to a rival kingdom upon his return from America? Why did Jews and converted Jews finance Columbus’s voyage? Why did Columbus’s success depend on a rabbi’s innovations?

From the balcony of our room in the Lapa Palace Hotel, the former hilltop palace of the Count of Valencas, we sight a large white cruise ship crawling along the Tagus River, preparing to dock. Its towering smokestack bears the symbol of Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery: the caravel, a ship with three sails branded with large crimson crosses. Imagine: had we been looking out from that very same hilltop on March 4, 1493, we might have seen Christopher Columbus’s caravel, the Niña, nearing shore. The explorer sailed to Portugal for an audience with King John II before returning to Spain to report his discovery of the New World to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

How curious that Columbus would take a detour to a rival kingdom at this critical juncture in his career.

To unravel this and other mysteries surrounding the Age of Discovery and its impact on the Jews, we traveled to Lisbon to meet journalist Jose Rodrigues dos Santos, author of Codex 632: The Secret Identity of Christopher Columbus (HarperCollins, 2008). In his well-researched novel, dos Santos asserts that Columbus was not an Italian, as is commonly believed, but a Portuguese nobleman of Jewish descent who was implicated in a failed plot to assassinate King John II. Columbus’s son Ferdinand confirms his father’s escape in The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus: “Toward the end of the year 1484, [my father] secretly departed from Portugal, with his little son Diego, fearing the king might seek to detain him.”

Knowing that the two Portuguese dukes at the center of the plot were executed by John II, why did the exiled navigator nevertheless stop in Lisbon on the eve of his triumphant return to Madrid? “That would be like astronaut Neil Armstrong making a stop in Moscow on his way back to the U.S. after being the first human to step on the moon,” says dos Santos. “In those days Spain and Portugal were arch rivals, much like the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”

Columbus would not have dared to enter Portugal without royal sanction—and that is exactly what he had. In March 1488, King John II sent the admiral a letter of safe passage: “Christoval Colon [Columbus’s Portuguese name], our special friend in Seville… We saw the letter that you wrote us and the good will and affection …you show being in our service… And about your coming here…. We, through this letter guarantee to you that for the coming, staying, and returning, you will not be arrested, held, accused, summoned, or indicted for anything either civil or criminal, of any kind.” Columbus and John II proceeded to meet at the king’s villa in Azambuja.

Why would John II be so forgiving of an escaped conspirator? It was a Machiavellian ploy to secure the riches of the spice trade, explains dos Santos. The king already knew that the most direct route to India, the richest known empire in the world, was to sail east from the southernmost tip of Africa, and not west as Columbus insisted. The Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias had proven that Africa could be circumnavigated when he reached the Cape of Good Hope in May of 1488, four years before Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. The prize was within Portugal’s reach, but John II decided to wait, fearing that if he were to claim India prematurely, the Spanish monarchs would demand a share of the anticipated profits from the spice trade and launch a costly war if Portugal refused to pay.

So John II contrived a plan, explains dos Santos, “to distract them [the Spanish monarchs] with something apparently valuable, but…not the ultimate prize. Columbus would be the perfect decoy.” If Columbus succeeded in convincing Ferdinand and Isabella to support a voyage west, John II pledged his secret assistance.

Columbus’s proposal to the Spanish monarchs was initially rejected as too costly. Only when Luis de Santangel, the realm’s comptroller-general, grandson of a converted Jew, agreed to personally finance the venture did Ferdinand and Isabella give their consent. Columbus received additional backing from some of Spain’s most influential Jewish financiers, among them Isaac Abravanel, who, like the admiral, had fled from Portugal to Spain after having been implicated in the plot to kill John II.

With funding and royal consent secured, Columbus sent word to the Portuguese king, who proved true to his promise. Shortly before Columbus set sail on August 3, 1492, John II furnished the admiral with an indispensable nautical almanac authored by his royal astronomer, Rabbi Abraham Zacuto. The almanac’s astronomical tables provided a critical corrective to the imprecision of the astrolabe, the instrument navigators depended on to calculate a ship’s location according to the position of the sun. John II’s Jewish physician, Joseph Vecinho, who had served on the Portuguese commission that ruled Columbus’s plan “an illusion” (because he knew that one could not reach India by sailing west), translated the almanac from Hebrew into Spanish and, at John II’s behest, gave it to Columbus.

Columbus’s three ships set sail August 3, 1492, three days after the last Jews left Spain. As he witnessed shipload after shipload of Jews leaving the jammed port of Palos, forcing the delay of his own departure, Columbus noted in his log book that the expulsion deadline of July 31 coincided with Tisha B’Av (the 7th of Av), the day Jews mourn the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. He referred to the Second Temple as “The Second House” (Bayit Sheini in Hebrew), a term used only in Jewish sources, suggesting to some historians that Columbus himself was of Jewish origin (see sidebar, “Did Columbus Have Jewish Roots?”).

Everything went according to John II’s plan. In 1494, one year after Columbus returned from the Americas, writes dos Santos, “Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the new world in half. The Spanish believed they got the better deal because their side of the Atlantic included what they thought was India—that is, the land recently discovered by Columbus….The Portuguese handed the ‘American India’ to their rivals and kept the real India for themselves. With the risk of war minimized, the Portuguese finally began planning Vasco da Gama’s great voyage.”

Portugal’s quest to become the world’s most advanced naval power did not begin with John II. About eighty years before Columbus set sail for America, the third son of John I, who would become known as Henry the Navigator, established a navigational research center and seamanship school at Sagres, a remote cape at Europe’s most southwestern point. As governor of the Order of Christ (formerly Knights Templar), Prince Henry trained his knights to become navigators whose mission was to expand the kingdom and to spread the Christian faith. For the project’s scientific and technical advances, Prince Henry relied on the kingdom’s top mathematicians, astronomers, cartographers, and inventors of navigational instruments, most of whom were Jews. Year after year, Prince Henry documented and analyzed the information collected by his explorers as they braved the uncharted waters of the Atlantic Ocean on secret fact-finding missions, setting the stage for Portugal’s rise as a global power.

King John II died in 1495, delaying Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India by two years. In 1496, John II’s successor, Manuel I, asked Rabbi Zacuto to coach da Gama and provide him with the tables, charts, and custom-designed nautical instruments he’d need for the voyage. These would be the rabbi’s final contributions to the Portuguese crown. On December 4, 1496, eight months before da Gama lifted anchor, Manuel issued a decree giving the Jews until November of the following year to leave the country. Rabbi Zacuto escaped to North Africa, and Joseph Vecinho to Italy.

What caused this sudden reversal of fortune for Portugal’s Jews? Manuel sought to wed Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, Isabel, in the hope of bringing the entire peninsula under his rule. The Spanish princess agreed on condition that Manuel rid his domain of its 200,000 Jews (about twenty percent of the population), as well as the 50,000 refugees who had crossed into the kingdom from Spain four years earlier. He reluctantly agreed, signing their marriage contract on November 30, 1496 and issuing the decree of expulsion five days later.

Manuel watched with alarm as the Jews—the kingdom’s economic life­blood—flowed from Portugal’s shores, threatening the future of the nation’s coveted enterprise of exploration. After four months he took action. First, on March 19, 1497 he ordered the forced conversion of all Jewish children from ages four to fourteen. And then, in a monumental act of deception, he lured some 20,000 Jews onto ships with the promise of free emigration—but once they boarded, he had them ceremonially baptized en masse and returned to shore.

The king declared the so-called “New Christians” equal citizens of the realm, and gave them a twenty-year grace period to abandon their traditional Jewish practices. Still, the exodus continued, primarily to the Ottoman Empire and to the Netherlands—competing powers that placed great value on the refugees’ knowledge of science, mathematics, medicine, international trade, and advanced crafts. Finally, on April 21, 1499, the frustrated monarch issued a new order: “New Christians” could no longer leave Portugal.

The implications of this edict took their first deadly turn seven years later, on April 19, 1506, during a time of plague and severe drought. Crowds drawn to the Dominican church in Lisbon to witness what they believed to be a miraculous ray of light emanating from a crucifix became enraged when a “New Christian” named Jacob Chaveirol, a tailor, remarked: “How much better it would be if Christ gave us rain instead of fire!” The mob beat him to death—and then, incited by two Dominican friars, proceeded to kill more than 2,000 Jews in a three-day pogrom, burning many of the victims at the stake in Rossio Square. Outraged, King Manuel ordered the monks and about fifty other inciters executed. He then rescinded his order forbidding “New Christians” from leaving the country and outlawed discrimination against them. After Manuel’s death in 1521, however, the mistreatment of converted Jews resumed.

With the arrival of the Inquisition in 1536 during the reign of King John III, violence against the “New Christians” became institutionalized. The torture and autos-da-fé of “New Christians” suspected of secretly practicing Judaism became commonplace in Lisbon’s main square.

The Inquisition in Portugal ended in 1821, but only in recent years has a tiny remnant of “New Christians,” found mostly in Belmonte, who call themselves “Survivors of the Inquisition”—about 200 people—emerged from hiding. Most of the estimated 1,000 Jews in Portugal today are descendants of Jews of Portuguese ancestry who returned to the peninsula from North America and Gibraltar in the early nineteenth century.

Manuel’s decision to end more than eleven centuries of Jewish life in Portugal proved to be a monumental blunder. By outlawing the practice of Judaism and cleansing his realm of Jews, the king essentially exported one of his greatest assets to his competitors. Soon the Dutch and British acquired enough knowledge of navigation and trade to eclipse Portugal as the dominant power in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Perhaps even more devastating to Portugal was the loss of its independence when Spain invaded the country in 1580 and the Spanish Prince Philip declared himself heir to the Portuguese throne—a claim he supported by citing Manuel’s marriage to the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella.

By 1600, Portugal had become a weak and backward country. The great project initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator that had propelled Portugal to power and prosperity had been undone.

Portugal’s best preserved medieval synagogue is situated in the former Judiaría (Jewish Quarter) of Tomar, eighty-five miles north of Lisbon. From the exterior, the synagogue is indistinguishable from any of the homes or stores along the narrow Dr. Joaquim Jacinto Street—even in the best of times Jews here tried to keep a low public profile. Step inside, and the sanctuary’s grandeur is striking—a soaring vaulted ceiling supported by four elegant decorative columns symbolizing the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) and twelve arches representing the twelve tribes of Israel. The bimah, or reader’s platform, stands in the center of the room facing the Torah ark in traditional Sephardic fashion. The synagogue’s architectural richness testifies to the prosperity of Tomar’s Jews in 1460, when the synagogue was completed, due in large measure to Henry the Navigator’s having made the nearby Tomar Castle his residence and economic base, as well as the headquarters of the Order of Christ.

Like all other Jewish houses of worship in Portugal, the Tomar synagogue was shut down in 1496. It was then used as a prison and later as a storage facility. The synagogue remained in private hands until 1923, when the eminent Hebraist and engineer Samuel Schwarz purchased the building and donated it to the state on condition that it be used as a Jewish museum. In 1939, it was inaugurated as the Abraham Zacato Jewish Museum. Today, the Jews in Tomar are too few to form a minyan, but they have devoted themselves to maintaining the synagogue as a museum and guiding visitors through it as well as the medieval mikveh discovered in 1985 during renovations of an adjacent building. The collection ranges from a sixth-century Jewish tombstone to a Torah scroll donated in 1992, when a delegation from London conducted Yom Kippur services in the synagogue—the first time in 500 years.

Our guide, a man in his eighties wearing a Greek sailor’s cap, asked as many questions as he answered. As we prepared to leave, he posed his last question almost in a whisper: “Have your children stayed Jewish?” When he heard our answer, he smiled, relieved to hear that we, too, were doing our part to keep alive the Jewish people and preserve the legacy of our ancestors.

Aron and Judith Hirt-Manheimer are editor and copyeditor of Reform Judaism magazine.

Did Columbus Have Jewish Roots?

Many mysteries surround the origins of Columbus. One recurrent claim is the explorer had Jewish roots. The arguments are based on a number of observations or interpretations: First, Columbus was knowledgeable of Jewish history and traditions, such as referring to the Second Temple as “The Second House,” a term used only in Jewish sources. Second, his financial backers were Jews or of Jewish ancestry. Third, he chose Jews and ex-Jews as crewmen, including the Hebrew-speaking interpreter Luis de Torres. Fourth, Columbus encoded his elaborate Christian signature with kabalistic messages concealing a Jewish prayer. Fifth, Columbus placed a cryptic monogram at the top of the page of two letters to his son Diego—a Jewish practice signifying the abbreviated “baruch hashem,” blessed be God.

Does this evidence constitute a persuasive argument? While it is true that Columbus received invaluable technical and financial support from Jews and Conversos, and he was no doubt familiar with Jewish culture and traditions, every one of the arguments in support of the Jewish origins hypothesis has been countered with an alternative explanation. The admiral’s familiarity with Jewish customs and lore, for example, would be expected of a man studied in religion who had much contact with Jews and former Jews engaged in the enterprises of exploration and trade. And the cryptic monogram on his correspondence and the symbols in his signature have been interpreted in a variety of ways or are simply too ambiguous to decipher definitively.

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal popularized the idea that Columbus may have been a secret Jew. In his 1973 book, Sails of Hope: The Secret Mission of Columbus, he wrote that the purpose of the voyage was to find a new Promised Land for the exiled Jews of Spain, accounting for why Columbus concealed his Jewish origins and loyalties. Historian Jacob Rader Marcus disagreed, attributing Luis de Santangel’s support of Columbus to “financial and perhaps patriotic opportunism.” The preeminent historian of Iberian Jewry, Rabbi Meyer Kayserling, rejected the notion that the admiral had the interests of Jews in mind, concluding in his 1907 book, Christopher Columbus and the Participation of the Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese Discoveries, that Columbus was a fanatical Christian who felt no sympathy for the Jews being expelled from Spain the very moment he was setting out to sea. Columbus actually profited from the Jewish calamity: the reward he received upon his return and the financing for his second voyage derived from money and jewelry expropriated from the expelled Jews.

The leading Jewish historians who have investigated Columbus’s roots would agree with the Encyclopedia Judaica’s conclusion: “The mystery regarding Columbus’s 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.”

Aron Hirt-Manheimer


Union for Reform Judaism.