Columbus and the Jews

Most of us likely recognize the ode, “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” but what was that year like? How might the world have appeared to Christopher Columbus as he sailed away from the Spanish shore? 

Join us as we explore the year marked by many as the unlocking of modern America, and one of the men who led that journey—as well as the connection between Columbus and the Jews.

The Year was 1492

To understand Christopher Columbus and what he encountered the day he set sail, it is important to examine the months leading up to the voyage.

Spain was ruled at this time by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Many today refer to it as the golden era of Spain, but that view is perhaps more focused on actual gold than on general prosperity and Godliness. The royal pair oversaw what is called the Spanish Inquisition that began in 1478 but went on for decades. This was a rough time for Jews—even Jews who had converted to Christianity prior—with torture, death, and ghettos being commonplace. As a result, many fled Spain at this time. Yet, this was not the end of what the king and queen would do. For in their often-violent desire to convert the world to their brand of Christianity, they signed an edict… a decree requiring Jews to enter into a strict, forced conversion, or to leave Spain speedily with only a portion of their possessions. 

While the Inquisition had prompted tremendous violence against Jews and already led to many forced conversions, the expulsion order forced remaining Jews to choose between their faith or home and possessions. Sources vary widely in the estimated number of Jews living in Spain who tried to leave. Some say as few as forty thousand attempted to make a new life elsewhere, while others have the numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Either way, it was a mass exodus.

The edict became official on March 31, 1492, and all Jews had to have either been fully converted or left the country by July 31, 1492—though some could not sail out until a few days later in early August. Only four months for tens or hundreds of thousands of people to sell their properties and seek passage out of the country. Between the flood of homes and businesses on the market, and the general antisemitism built up through the Inquisition and the edict… Jews who decided to seek sanctuary in other nations sold their possessions for next to nothing.

This created several problems:

  • Lack of basic necessities
  • Lack of monies to travel out of Spain
  • Lack of monies needed to rebuild in a new country, or even afford housing and food

Between the mass exodus, the massive number of Spaniards who hated Jews, and the limited places in which one could seek asylum—if the means was available to get there—many Jews died, and even more were forced from a comfortable living into a struggle to survive. There are even records that those Jews who could afford the ridiculously high price of passage many captains greedily forced them to pay, were then thrown overboard once the ships were out to sea. And this was the world and moment in time at which Columbus’ journey began.

Was Christopher Columbus Jewish?

In recent decades, the theory that Christopher Columbus may have been of Jewish origin has spread. While perhaps not a new theory, the theoretical and historical evidences for it have grown…

Key points which support this theory are:

  • A vague familial and personal background that even today is only partially revealed; historians presently agree that Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, but that, due to his incredible Spanish, his family likely had moved there from Spain.
    • Many Jews fled Spain prior to 1492 due to the Spanish Inquisition of 1478, yet earlier still, many Jews converted to Christianity or fled due to persecution.
  • Columbus’ maternal side of the family having many typically Jewish first names, such as Abraham and Jacob.
  • Weaving being a family profession within Columbus’ family; at that time weaving was traditionally a Jewish profession.
  • Rumors of papers, documents, and even a journal belonging to Columbus written in Hebrew being present on the voyage.
  • Columbus being unable to attain financial backing or loans from virtually anyone but two Jews who had ‘converted’ to Christianity, Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez, and perhaps a third prominent Jew.
  • Columbus delaying the voyage launch from August 2, 1492 to August 3, 1492; that year, August 2 fell on Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning and fasting amongst Jews in remembrance of the destruction of the Temples.
  • Columbus hiring an interpreter for the 1492 voyage, Luis de Torres, who had recently ‘converted’ from Judaism to Christianity.
  • Columbus utilizing the navigational expertise of two Jews, Abraham Zacuto and his pupil, Joseph Vecinho; while likely more in the form of their charts and not direct conversations, Columbus is purported to have received Zacuto’s charts from Vecinho, which would mean that Columbus at least knew the pupil, if not Zacuto himself.
  • Some sources state that Columbus was known to have regularly used the Hebrew Calendar and that he had an interest not only in the Bible, but in Jewish philosophy and history.
A painting of Christopher Columbus.

Other support for this theory exists, but even with this alone, it is easy to see why some believe Columbus’ Jewish heritage to be fact and not theory. 

Considering it was during a time when Jews and Judaism were rejected by Spain, its people, and many surrounding countries—if only due to the danger of being labeled a Jew or heretic—for Columbus to not only do business with Jews, but also employ them is intriguing. Even remarkably dangerous given the lingering Inquisition, seeking to expose heretics and believed heretics…

Yet, though his uncertain heritage and background on their own neither prove nor disprove Christopher Columbus having Judaic heritage, when combined with other facts, it sets a stage. One where Jews who had ‘converted’ to Christianity during the time of the Inquisition and edict often created a false history in order to protect themselves and their family.

The delay in his voyage certainly could have been due to many things, but were Columbus a ‘converted’ Jew, he would not have sailed on Tisha B’Av. In fact, some sources say that on August 3, 1492, from the port of Palos de la Frontera, Spain, a large fleet of ships set sail that were not part of Columbus’ own fleet. These ships were full of fleeing Jews. Which also begs the question, did Columbus depart August 3, 1492 as a show of solidarity? Of a Jew mourning the exodus of his people?

But what of the papers? A document written by the hand of Columbus in Hebrew would surely be proof of his being Jewish… but currently one is not known. If there were papers in Hebrew aboard the ship, could they have belonged perhaps to the interpreter, Torres? It is impossible to know if there were any papers written in Hebrew from the voyage that were not made known to the public. Yet, the lack of such papers from a Spanish voyage made over 500 years ago does not mean that they never existed—or do not now. After all, Hebrew was not a language anyone would want left on display at that time.

Still, while none of these facts and circumstances conclude that Columbus was Jewish, together they make an interesting argument. One which perhaps in future years will have more evidence to support or deny.

“…‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.’”

—Genesis 12:1
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Turmoil and a New World

Beginning with the Inquisition and ending in a harsh edict, the latter years of 15th century Spain were tumultuous. Yet, of all those who suffered at the time, the Jewish people certainly felt the brunt of its force.

As far as we know, Christopher Columbus wanted to begin his voyage long enough to have had his desire for financial backing turned down by multiple countries. Even Queen Isabella, who was once thought to have financed the voyage, is now considered to have played little to no role…

Jews ultimately financed/loaned Columbus the monies needed—which may explain the theory that Columbus sailed to search for a new Jewish homeland. A Jew served as his translator. And Columbus consulted star charts crafted by Jews to guide him in his voyage…

Whether or not Christopher Columbus was of the Jewish faith, he certainly was not shy about working with Jews or trusting their judgment. His business dealings and plans to sail surely would have caused him to take note of the mass of Jews near the harbor during those first days of August… and of the other ships which sailed out as he did on August 3, 1492, stuffed with a cargo far different from his own. A cargo of escaping Jews.

Did Columbus grieve their plight? There is no way to know. But one thing is certain… out of the ashes of 1492 came beauty. There was suffering, warfare, and more than 100 years of waiting before the fullness would be revealed; however, beauty emerged, nonetheless. Because God had a plan to create a nation that would not only serve Him through faith, but through action.

While in many ways we too are in a time of turmoil, we are also at the dawn of the greatest harvest of souls the world has ever seen. But our faith needs to be put into action! We need to pray for the nation God created, the United States of America, that we would once again be “one nation under God.” We need to pray for the leaders, the people, and the laws. And we need to pray that the eyes of the Jewish people all over the world would be opened to Yeshua Messiah, so that the fullness of Jew and Gentile as One New Man might be made manifest on the earth!

The enemy may be working to bring turmoil and ashes to this world, but OUR GREAT GOD will turn those ashes into beauty! God will restore His people to Himself and all the earth will see the glory of our God! Let us stand on Isaiah 61, not only for Israel, but for the United States of America!

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
because the Lord has anointed Me
to preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn,
to console those who mourn in Zion,
to give them beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
that they may be called trees of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”

“And they shall rebuild the old ruins,
they shall raise up the former desolations,
and they shall repair the ruined cities,
the desolations of many generations.
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
and the sons of the foreigner
shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.
But you shall be named the priests of the Lord…”

—Isaiah 61:1-6

[Sources include articles from Jewish Virtual LibraryHISTORYTimes of Israel, and National Geographic, amongst others. The Timetables of Jewish History, written by Judah Gribetz with Edward L. Greenstein and Regina S. Stein, was also consulted. Slight discrepancies between sources do exist—for instance, some sources claim the edict was signed March 30, 1492, while others claim March 31, 1492—this blog does not claim to be a definitive account or record.]