Friday, November 6, 2009

Vindication (for me): Columbus May Have Been Jewish and the First Jew in New France

In elementary school, upon realizing that Columbus reached the Americas in the same year as the Spanish Inquisition, I proposed to my teacher that perhaps Columbus and his crew were Jews, for if the State and the Church believed the earth to be flat, then surely it would be no loss for the Inquisition to have Jews fall off the edge of the earth, they would not allow Christians to take such risks. I was laughed at for that question. Hard.

Apparently, however, I may now be vindicated!

Estelle Irizarry, a linguist at Georgetown University has published a book which argues that not only was Columbus likely Catalan (not Italian) but he was probably also a Jew. This, she argues, is due to similarities in Colombus' writings with Ladino, a language spoken by the Jews of Spain.

It's not the first time Professor Irizarry has proposed that Columbus was Jewish, but the evidence does seem somewhat dubious: a comment made without the benefit of reading the book. Still, others point out that both the financier of his voyage and his interpreter were both Jews (and were baptized at a later date.) Other arguments, such as Colombus' use of Hebrew letters and refusal to baptize slaves are refuted with relative ease.

Still though, the story is interesting and dramatic, but, perhaps not as dramatic as the story of Esther Brandeau, a name probably unfamiliar to most Canadians. In September, 1738, Esther became the first Jew to arrive in New France, and possibly in any part of what is today Canada.

To make the voyage, alone and at a time when non-Catholics were not welcome in the French colony, Esther actually disguised herself as a man, and got away with it for a while, until she was discovered. When attempts to convert her failed, apparently the King himself took an interest in having her removed from the colony and returned to France.

There it is, two stories of (potential) Jewish History in the New World!


Anonymous said...


The story of Jews, and Muslims, in the New World, is a lot more complex and great then this. The following passage is pulled from Maria Rosa Menocal's book "The Ornament of the World", Back Bay Book, 2002:

She writes, at pages 264 to 265:

"In equally complex and even more hidden ways, this half-garbled and half-hidden medieval world enters into the story of the American empire [Spanish American empire], first explored and peopled by untold numbers of first generation immigrants from all over all the old provinces of al-Andalus. The trunks taken to the New World were filled, necessarily , with what those Andalusians were - and what they wore and what they ate and what they assumed buildings should look like. This is, of course, why the courtyards in Cuba and southern California look much like the courtyards in Cordoba, themselves complex echoes of Abd al-Rahman's homesickness [of Syria under Ummayad rule]: turned inward and tiled in blue and white, and if a palm tree can be managed among the lush flowers that surround the water basin, so much the better. The Americans of the Spanish New World are descendants of all manner of good Andalusians."

Note that the sections between the brackets [...] in the above text I've added for context. Also, when she writes "good Andalusians" she is talking about the thousands of Muslims and Jews that were forced to convert to Christianity after the Reconquista, and who were nonetheless forced to leave. Well when some left to North Africa and the Middle East, a lot went West to America, and influenced the emerging culture there in fundamental ways, from architecture, to music, to family, to horse riding.

For example, in another portion of her book, Maria Rosa Menocal explains that the iconic horse saddle of the American Cowboy is similar in design, shape and function as the Arab horse saddle used in the Middle East. They are the only regions of the world where such saddles are used (That fact is pretty well established, I've read it in many other places). Well that saddle came with these first immigrants and settlers of America, the forced converts from Islam and Judaism, and who were expelled from Christian Spain because of their divided loyalties and persecution, and who built Haciendas like they did back in Andalusia, themselves copied from those that were built in the Middle-East during Ummayad rule.

Another interesting fact is that Luis de Torres, Andalusian, Jewish, and spoke flawless Arabic, was translator for Christopher Columbus on his voyage of discovery. Maria Rosa Menocal writes that he was needed because Christopher Columbus thought that where he was going he would meet Arabic speaking peoples (although how that works with him thinking he would get to China I don't understand). I've also read, on a couple of occasions (although I have not found the sources yet), that the translator was needed because Christopher Columbus needed to be understood by his crew, himself not speaking a word of Arabic.

A friend

Anonymous said...

Maria Rosa Menocal is Director of the Whitney Humanities Center and R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University.

A friend.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Thanks for the quote. Very interesting.

I've heard and read very similar things before. Though I've never been to south America, it's clear to me that there are similarities between the colonial style of architecture there and the architecture of places I have seen, like Cordoba, and Seville. I agree that it makes perfect sense that the South American buildings were inspired by Middle Eastern/Arab influence, though I'm not as sure that these people were actually Arabs or Muslims or Jews. My guess would be, as the extract you provided says, that the buildings in South America are simply reflections of the buildings the Spanish left behind them, which to my mind makes perfect logical sense.

I am not really convinced that Columbus was Jewish. I think it's a very long stretch and is likely a product of an Academic looking for some groundbreaking theory she can argue. Could he have been influenced by Jews or Arabs? That seems reasonable to be, but I don't think he was one himself.

I heard that the reason Columbus needed a translator (who I read somewhere spoke Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic) was alternately because he expected to meet with Jewish traders who had made their way to India or that he had hoped to discover the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

I don't know if Columbus' intention was to find China or India. If it's the latter, perhaps he felt he had to have an Arabic translator because he knew there were Muslims in India and he merely assumed that Muslims would speak Arabic? I don't know when Islam reached India though.

The theory of him needing to speak Arabic to his crew, however, is also an interesting idea. I still think that if the church held so strongly to the idea that there was nothing out there, and that the expedition would perish, then perhaps the only people not--or less-influenced by these ideas would be non-Christians.

It's an interesting idea.

Dom said...

Samuel Eliot Morison, who had absolutely no reason to be anything but completely objective, wrote the following in Chapter II of his book "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," pp.7-8.

"There is no mystery about the birth, family or race of Christopher Columbus. ... There is no more reason to doubt that Christopher Columbus was a Genoese-born Catholic Christian, steadfast in his faith and proud of his native city, than to doubt that George Washington was a Virginia-born Anglican of English race, proud of being an American.

"Every contemporary Spaniard or Portuguese who wrote about Columbus and his discoveries calls him Genoese. Three contemporary Genoese chroniclers claim him as a compatriot. Every early map on which his nationality is recorded describes him as Genoese. Nobody in the Admiral's lifetime, or for three centuries after, had any doubt about his birthplace.

"If, however, you suppose that these facts would settle the matter, you fortunately know little of the so-called 'literature' on the 'Columbus Question.' By presenting farfetched hypotheses and sly innuendos as facts, by attacking documents of proven authenticity as false, by fabricating others (such as the famous Pontevedra documents), and drawing unwarranted deductions from things that Columbus said or did, he has been presented as Castilian, Catalan, Corsican, Majorcan, Portuguese, French, German, English, Greek, and Armenian."

Morison noted that many existing legal documents demonstrate the Genoese origin of Columbus, his father Domenico, and his brothers Bartolomeo and Giacomo (Diego). These documents, written in Latin by notaries, were legally valid in Genoese courts. When notaries died, their documents were turned over to the archives of the Republic of Genoa. The documents, uncovered in the 19th century when Italian historians examined the Genoese archives, form part of the "Raccolta Colombiana". On page 14, Morison wrote:

"Besides these documents from which we may glean facts about Christopher's early life, there are others which identify the Discoverer as the son of Domenico the wool weaver, beyond the possibility of doubt. For instance, Domenico had a brother Antonio, like him a respectable member of the lower middle class in Genoa. Antonio had three sons: Matteo, Amigeto and Giovanni, who was generally known as Giannetto (the Genoese equivalent of 'Johnny'). Giannetto, like Christopher, gave up a humdrum occupation to follow the sea. In 1496 the three brothers met in a notary's office at Genoa and agreed that Johnny should go to Spain and seek out his first cousin 'Don Cristoforo de Colombo, Admiral of the King of Spain,' each contributing one third of the traveling expenses. This quest for a job was highly successful. The Admiral gave Johnny command of a caravel on the Third Voyage to America, and entrusted him with confidential matters as well."

I would like to add that the medieval scholar Diana Gilliland Wright "casts doubt on Irizarry’s belief."

mrzee said...

Simon Wiesenthal also put forth the theory that Columbus was Jewish in his book "Sails of Hope" I must admit I found it less than convincing.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...


I'm sorry for responding so late to your very interesting comment. There really isn't much I can say, otehr than: yes, it seems quite clear that Columbus was exactly what most people always though he was. I imagine that this won't stop scholars from probing other theories for any number of reasons (seeking attention, some bizarre clue or perhaps even just fun) but the case seems (especially based on what you point out) a slam-dunk.

I should add: I checked out the link you provided. I don't know if that's your blog, but it's really interesting!


I can't say I've read sails of hope, but in light of so much evidence to the contrary, it's a wonder that people even try. Especially people like Mr. Wiesenthal. He has a great deal of credibility, why would he squander it on so flimsy a theory!?

Dom said...

In "Christopher Columbus," Univ. of Okla. Press (1987), pp. 10-11, Gianni Granzotto lists the following information from documents written by contemporaries of Columbus:
1. Pietro Martire d’Angera (Peter Martyr) was the earliest of Columbus's chroniclers and was in Barcelona when Columbus returned from his first voyage. In his letter of May 14, 1493, addressed to Giovanni Borromeo, he referred to Columbus as Ligurian ["vir Ligur"], Liguria being the Region where Genoa is located.
2. A reference, dated 1492 by a court scribe Galindez, referred to Columbus as "Cristóbal Colón, genovés."
3. In "History of the Catholic Kings," Andrés Bernaldez wrote: "Columbus was a man who came from the land of Genoa."
4. In "General and Natural History of the Indies," Bartolomé de Las Casas asserted his "Genoese nationality."
5. In a book of the same title, Gonzalo de Fernández de Oviedo wrote that Columbus was "originating from the province of Liguria."
6. Antonio Gallo, Agostino Giustiniani and Bartolomeo Serraga wrote that Columbus was Genoese.

In 1498 Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish envoy in London, called John Cabot "another Genoese like Colón."

The "ample evidence" supporting the Genoese origin of Columbus is also discussed by Miles H. Davidson, a Columbus scholar from the Dominican Republic, in "Columbus Then and Now: A Life Reexamined," University of Oklahoma Press (1997) pp. 3-15. Davidson dismisses all other theories as "futile speculation ... mostly attributed to parochialism." [p. 7] Davidson also debunks the fanciful claims about the high social rank of Columbus's wife.

Michele da Cuneo, Columbus's childhood friend from Savona, sailed with Columbus during the second voyage and wrote: "In my opinion, since Genoa was Genoa, there was never born a man so well equipped and expert in the art of navigation as the said lord Admiral." [Felipe Fernández-Armesto, "Columbus," Oxford Univ. Press, (1991) pp. 103-104]

Columbus named the small island of "Saona ... to honor Michele da Cuneo, his friend from Savona." [Paolo Emilio Taviani, "Columbus the Great Adventure," Orion Books, New York (1991) p. 185]

Before leaving for his fourth voyage, Columbus wrote a letter to the Governors of the Bank of St. George, Genoa, dated at Seville, April 2nd, 1502.
in which he wrote "Although my body is here my heart is always near you."

Dom said...

The biography written by Columbus's son Fernando, "Historie del S. D. Fernando Colombo; nelle quali s'ha particolare, & vera relatione della vita, & de fatti dell'Ammiraglio D. Cristoforo Colombo, suo padre: Et dello scoprimento ch'egli fece dell'Indie Occidentali, dette Mondo Nuovo" [English translation: "The life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by his son Ferdinand," translated by Benjamin Keen, Greenwood Press (1978)] is available, in Italian, at:
At the top of page 4 of Keen's translation, Fernando listed Nervi, Cugureo, Bugiasco, Savona, Genoa and Piacenza as possible places of origin. He also stated: "Colombo ... was really the name of his ancestors. But he changed it in order to make it conform to the language of the country in which he came to reside and raise a new estate." (Colom in Portugal and Colón in Castile).
The publication of "Historie" provides irrefutable, indirect evidence about the Genoese origin of the Discoverer. Fernando's manuscript was eventually inherited by his nephew Luis, the playboy grandson of the Discoverer. Luis was always strapped for money and sold the manuscript to Baliano de Fornari, "a wealthy and public-spirited Genoese physician". On page xv, Keen wrote: "In the depth of winter the aged Fornari set out for Venice, the publishing center of Italy, to supervise the translation and publication of the book."
On page xxiv, the April 25, 1571 dedication by Giuseppe Moleto states: "Your Lordship [Fornari], then, being an honorable and generous gentleman, desiring to make immortal the memory of this great man, heedless of your Lordship's seventy years, of the season of the year, and of the length of the journey, came from Genoa to Venice with the aim of publishing the aforementioned book ... that the exploits of this eminent man, the true glory of Italy and especially of your Lordship's native city, might be made known."