Was Columbus Jewish?
This question is famous and grabs our attention. If you heard some alleged proofs but never had the time to examine them for yourself, this article is for you! I will try to show you the proofs and allow you to answer the question yourself once and for all.
Throughout his life, Christopher Columbus never discussed his parents or relatives. We only know from a reference to Genoa that this was most likely his city of birth. He spoke Spanish eloquently. His family name was Columbo, the Italianized form of Colón. Colón was a Jewish name. A baptized Jew name Colón was reported to have been put on trial in 1250 in Southern France for performing Jewish religious rights. A Joseph Colón was among the leading rabbinical authorities of the fifteenth century. In Spain, the earliest trials of morranos (or conversos [a Spanish Jew who publicly converted to Christianity]) in 1461 ended in the burning of Thome Colón, his wife and his son. The list continues, causing us to suspect something based upon his name.
Columbus asked the King of Portugal to entrust him with a fleet to search for a sea route to India by sailing westward since the earth was round. The King refused and so Colón went to Spain to try his luck with King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabel of Castille. In the summer of 1485 he arrived in Palos where he met a famous astronomer named Antonio De Marchena. Antonio became a strong supporter of Colón’s plans. It should be noted that Antonio was himself a morrano, and his own brother had been burned at the stake for becoming a relapsing Jew. Colón next moved to Salamana where he succeeded in getting the support of Diego De Deza, the powerful bishop who was personal tutor to Prince Juan, the Heir to the Spanish throne. Diego was also a morrano. He introduced Colón to the Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto, whose Tables and Almanac were to aid Colón greatly on his many voyages.
In the same year, Colón approached Don Luis de la Cerda, Duke of Medinalceli, one of the wealthiest nobles of Andalusia. The Duke, who had a Jewish grandmother, was so impressed with Colón’s idea that he declared he would pay for the expedition from his own pocket. However, in order to build ships, the King’s permission was required, and it was not forthcoming. The Duke then wrote a personal letter to Queen Isabel and Colón was invited to present himself before the King and Queen. The audience took place at Cordova in May 1486. Colón stressed the possibility that his voyage would be useful in spreading the Christian faith and obtaining gold. Not thoroughly convinced, they appointed a commission of scientists to examine his plan. In 1490, the commission issued an unfavorable report. In despair, Colón went back to Palos, planning to leave Spain for England or France in order to offer his plan to the kings of those countries.
Queen Isabel had not fully decided against Colón’s plans and her hesitancy led to the intervention of a group of influential Jews and morranos. Of all the names of the eight people involved, it must be noted that every one of them had a relative killed for performing Jewish rituals. In fact, two of them had the “Sanbenito” done to them. (The Sanbenito was a punishment where one was forced to appear publicly in a Sanbenito cloak and humiliatingly forced to swear never to practice the Jewish faith again.) They all saw the inquisition moving in. It is quite intriguing that Jews and morranos were the only people in Spain who came out in support of an undertaking whose object was to earn glory and wealth for the Spanish crown and to spread Christianity. Three of the men were Juan Cabrero, Luis de Santangel, and Gabriel Sanchez. Aside from their being conversos, these were not ordinary Spaniards. Santangel was a member of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Spain, as well as the King’s personal advisor. Juan Cabrero was Ferdinand’s intimate friend who had fought by the King against the Muslims. Gabriel Sanchez was the Chief Treasurer of Spain. They offered to finance Columbus’ project and it was accepted. Some scholars believe that Santangel and his associates were willing to finance Columbus in the hope of finding a new Promised Land to which they might emigrate and escape the pressure of the church.
Based on the fact that Colón had first taken his plan to Portugal, then to Spain, and when Spain turned down his proposals, he was ready to turn to England or France, one must question the notion that he was moved by the desire to serve his country and the Christian religion! He obviously had an ulterior motive, a secret aim, which he revealed to none but a small number of morranos with whom he needed to convince the king. This all seems quite thought provoking. But there is more!
On April 17, 1492 the king of Spain signed an agreement known as The Capitulations. It granted Colón the title which he so stubbornly fought for: “Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea”. Why did he want this title so badly? Perhaps it was because he did not want to be remembered by his Christian first name. We will discuss this further when we talk about his signature.
In his writings, speeches and daily conversations, Colón often quoted the views of rabbis and other Jewish learned men. In a letter to the King and Queen in 1501, he wrote, “I maintained relations and have spoken with Jewish and other men of science.” This leads one to ask, if he was such a devout Christian, why was he so fond of the company of Jews, and especially rabbis!
He would often compare himself to King David and Moses the Jewish leader. In many of his penned letters, his sentences and statements seem to be taken directly from Tanach, especially from Isaiah and Ezekiel. This leads one to ask, did Colón know the Bible in translation or the Hebrew as well? In 1499, the secretary of the King discussed a letter which Colón wrote to his brother which contained some “unknown characters”. The problem is, Colónsupposedly only knew Spanish!
He boasted that he was even related to King David. Some of his letters were described as written in an “unknown script” (perhaps Hebrew?), and it has been suggested that his unique triangular signature is similar to inscriptions found on gravestones of ancient Jewish cemeteries in Spain and Southern France.
Colón was more driven by prophecy than astronomy. He compiled a collection of Biblical passages in his Libro de las Profecias, Book of Prophecies. It contained Proverbs 8:27, which speaks of the earth’s surface as being curved; Isaiah 40:22, the spherical earth; and the ocean currents in Isaiah 43:16. He would later describe his discovery of the New World as “the fulfillment of what Isaiah prophesied, from Isaiah 24:15, “Isles beyond the sea,” (and Isaiah 60:9)”.
A famous Columbus researcher, Jane Frances Amler, stated that her research concluded that Columbus was a converso. In Spain, even some converted Jews were forced to leave after much persecution; it is known that many conversos were still practicing Judaism in secret. The correlation between the Alhambra Decree, which called for the expulsion of all of the Jews from Spain and its territories and possessions by July 31, 1492, and Columbus’ embarking on his first voyage on August 3, 1492, (Interestingly, according to the Hebrew calendar, August 2 was Tisha’ah B’Av.) has been offered as support for this claim. Colón rushed to set sail as soon as he received permission. Perhaps he rushed because he wanted to find a new home for the exiled Jews. (Parenthetically, Columbus writes in his personal journal that his embarking was delayed for a few days as there was too much traffic of Jews being evicted to allow for him to set sail!)
Discovery Channel‘s Columbus: Secrets from the Grave purports that Columbus could not have been of Jewish descent because certain genetic markers characteristic of people with converso descent were not present in Columbus’ DNA. Many scholars have stated that this is inconclusive.
Columbus employed peculiar dates and phrases unique to the Hebrew people. Instead of referring to the “destruction” or “fall of Jerusalem”, he used the phrase “the destruction of the second house”. He also employed the Hebrew reckoning of 68 A.D., instead of 70 A.D to date the event. A marginal note dated 1481 is immediately given its Hebrew equivalent of 5241, etc.
Colón’s signature proves that he knew Hebrew prayers. His signature is found in two variants. Both are made of seven Latin characters arranged to form an equilateral triangle and below it, in one line, three letters and one word.
The difference between the two is only on the lowest line. In one it reads “Xpo FERENS”, while the other reads “El Admirante”. Many attempts have been made to decipher this strange cryptogram (including some supposed talk of kabbalistic basis, but I could not find anything on this). None proved satisfactory until M.B. Amzalak of Lisbon succeeded in 1927 to unravel the mystery of the seven letter triangle. Maurice Davis of New York, managed to discover the hidden meaning of “Xpo FERENS” in 1933. In Colón’s time, in prayer books, they would abbreviate recurring words as an initial between two dots. Thus for example, the symbol .A. would be Hashem‘s name of Ad’nus. In light of this, Amzalak suggests that .S.S.A.S. stands for: “Santo Santo Santo Ado-noy S’baot” – “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:3). These are the words that the angels on high say about Hashem and we recite in the prayers Uva Li’tzion and Kedusha.
As for the XMY, they are the Spanish letters which resemble three Hebrew letters. X equalsShin (both look similar). M equals Mem. Y equals Ayin. Handwritten they appear quite similar as you can see in the copy of his signature. He slanted the Y very much so that it looks like anAyin without requiring much imagination. There are no dots because these letters representnothing, rather they spell out a specific word, a word which begins a very fundamental Jewish phrase: Shin-Mem-Ayin – Shema. This is the first word of the affirmation of the Jews monotheistic faith: Shema Yisra’el Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, Hear O Israel that Hashem our God is One. Together, the seven letters stand for the Jews ultimate expression of faith.
“Xpoforus” was a commonly used word, short for “Christophorus.” “Xpo” stood for “christo” and “forus” meant “bearer.” But Colón’s word is different. The word “Xpo” is separate, inferring that it may constitute the first letters of three separate words. “FERENS” means “carrier” in Greek. Its Hebrew equivalent is “No’say.” Maurice Davis therefore suggests that “Xpo FERENS” stands for: “Nosei Avon Va’pesha Vi’chata’ah” – “Forgiving iniquity transgression and sin”, the appeal for God’s mercy, which Jews repeat no less than thirty-two times during the prayers on Yom Kippur. Notice that there is a Colón (:) immediately before “Xpo FERENS.” In Hebrew the Colón means stop or the end of a sentence and in Spanish it means that there should be a surname, perhaps “Colón” before it. For Jewish readers it signifies that it should be read from right to left. This way reveals a secret Hebrew meaning, namely FERENS = Carries (Nosei), O = O’von, P = Pesha, and X = Chata’ah. He was begging God’s forgiveness for his formal adherence to the foreign religion. It seems that Colón used this signature to avoid using his Christian name and perhaps in hope that someday someone would find its hidden message and realize his true religion. As soon as the title “Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea” was given to him, Colón signed “El Admirante”, instead of “Xpo FERENS” in all of his letters except the ones sent to his son. In his will, in which he tells his children that his title is to be kept in perpetuity, he tells them never to omit the seven letter cryptogram and “not to sign more than El Admirante”. In other words, “don’t sign your Christian names!”
We have copies of thirteen letters written by Colón to his son Diogo, from November 12, 1504 to February 24, 1505. On twelve of them, there appears in the top left corner as a monogram in cursive script, the two characters “Beis” and “Hei,” which are the initials of the Hebrew words “Baruch Hashem“, which pious Jews have the habit of writing on top of their papers. These twelve letters are signed with “Xpo” and the thirteenth letter, which doesn’t contain the cursive, is signed “El Admirante.” This is because the thirteenth letter was to be shown to the Queen, and it would have been foolish to show the Queen a document with Hebrew letters on it, or a signature with a disguised confession of Jewish faith.
This peculiar sign or cipher, according to Simon Wiesenthal (1973), appears on all of those letters in the upper left corner. This cipher consists of two Hebrew characters “bais” and “hey”, which stand for baruch hashem, an expression used by Jews. The letters bais and hey are intertwined like a monogram.
The right to use the title “Don” had been one of Colón’s demands from the very onset. He was extremely pleased when his request was granted. There could have been no other reason why he fought for this title so stubbornly, other than the fact that under a 1412 law still in effect, Jews were forbidden to call themselves “Don.” Perhaps he took silent satisfaction in his title, he had undermined them!
Colón made many reference in his diary throughout his journey, that he felt that he had a mission from God. In his biography by his son, Fernando Colón, he writes that “the third motive the admiral had was the hope of finding some island and land of great unity whence he might the better pursue his principal design”. What was this “principal design”? Many times Colón expressed his hopes to be able to conquer Jerusalem.
Before Colón set sail for America, the situation for the Jews was terrible. They were being thrown on trial and executed very frequently. If one was a false morrano, he would try his hardest to escape, because if he was caught he would lose half of his property and could be executed. The majority of the people who successfully escaped were the low-class citizens. The most prominent of the morranos, such as all of Colón’s largest supporters, wouldn’t stand a chance if they attempted to flee. Yet if Colón were to discover a distant land and be in charge of it, as he had demanded from the King and Queen, then this would be the perfect escape for the morranos, every one of the people who supported Colón. In a land distant from the Spanish crown, they would be free to move with their families and most of their movable wealth. There with the width of the ocean between them and no spies of the inquisition, they would set up new homes, under the protection of one of their own, a secret Jew like themselves, as viceroy, governor, and admiral, with powers to appoint and remove all officials with complete civil and criminal jurisdiction over them. When the time came, they would continue to push on west, until they reached Israel, then discard the foreign religious garbs forced upon them and openly return to their father’s faith.
If indeed this was Colón’s plan, it is no wonder that he so carefully kept his Jewish identity a secret. For the Spanish morranos, Colón was indeed a man of destiny, a new “Moses” who would lead his people out of captivity. Hence their steadfast support of his ideas even though the “experts” doubted him. One of Colón’s most avid (Jewish) supporters had made an impassioned plea with the Queen and offered to lend her the money for the voyage. Also, Colón proposed, and the Queen finally agreed, to finance the voyage from proceeds from the confiscated property of the expelled Jews and the gold and silver from their synagogues.
The day before Colón’s death on May 20, 1506, he signed his will, after his illness took a sudden turn for the worse, with the signature last used in 1492, “Xpo FERENS”. His last silent prayer for divine forgiveness.
Colón may have failed to reach Israel, but he did lay down the foundations of a new home for a large number of morranos in his time. Although Colón never had the opportunity to confess his true religion, indeed it is his discovery that has lead to the vast amount of Torah and Judaism which is learned and practiced freely today. For that, whether or not I have you convinced you that he was Jewish, he definitely deserves some thanks!
[Much of this article is based on a chapter by Samuel Talkowsky from “They Took To The Sea” (1964). The author wishes to thank Chaim Meiselman for his assistance in typing and suggesting improvements for this article.]