History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Discovery of America.

Island and Peninsula nations are always maritime nations. Spain and Portugal formed no exception to this rule. We have already seen that these two lands under Moorish and also under earlier Christian rule were the culture centres of Europe. Not even later could Inquisitors and friars, while discouraging intellectual activity, quite petrify it. So for this double reason maritime enterprise and scientific invention (both now given such impetus by the spread of international commerce) still found their focus in Spain and Portugal.

Jewish Scientists in the Peninsula.

In this survey we must turn back to the period before the Expulsion.

Because of the high reputation of the Jews in the realm of science, especially in astronomy and mathematics, and because of the important posts of State held by them, we are almost prepared to learn that Jews contributed a large share towards naval projects, not only in financing them but also as nautical inventors, as expert counsellors and even as actual explorers.

Isaac Ibn Said, of Toledo (Don Zag) had already in the thirteenth century published astronomical tables. These Alphonsine Tables were used by the scientists of Germany, France, Italy, and even England. Abraham Zacuto invented a perpetual astronomical calendar of the seven planets. Joseph Vechino, a mathematician, who translated this work from the Hebrew into Latin and Spanish, and also an inventor of nautical instruments, was one of those summoned by Joao II (John) of Portugal, to a nautical congress.

Other Jewish geographers were sent by this king to make explorations in Asia.

When Henry the Navigator, son of Joao I of Portugal, established a naval academy, he appointed as its director Maestre Jaime (whom Kayserling identities as Jehuda Cresques, "the map Jew"), a mathematician, cartographer and maker of nautical instruments.

Portuguese Jews contributed much to the invention and improvement of the astrolabe by which mariners could direct their course across the trackless ocean, and devised instruments to determine the meridian altitude of the sun.

Columbus Aided by Jews.

Be it remembered that in the fifteenth century the Portuguese were the foremost navigators of the world. That is why Christofero Colombo, born in Genoa, 1446, left his country for Lisbon, the central port of maritime enterprise. Here among others, he met Joseph Vechino, who gave him a copy of his translation of Zacuto's astronomical tables. These became of great use to him in the voyages he was about to undertake. For, while prosecuting his studies he became fired with enthusiasm at the projects of the Portuguese navigators to find a safe ocean route to its new possessions in India. This land of gold was said to be the land (Cathay) of Prester John, a presumed "priest-king" of a vague realm in Asia. He took voyages to the Azores, the Canaries, and the coast of Guinea, then the limits of European navigation.

Convinced of the feasibility of the plan to reach a northwest passage, he outlined a project to lead a squadron across the sea (probably along the African coast) and presented it to the king about 1482. But the plan was dismissed by Joao II as too expensive in equipment and his council (Junta) on nautical affairs decided against it. But the king sent some of his own explorers to the East, utilizing the plan of Columbus; Jews participated in many ways. But they did not venture far from the accustomed routes. So, poor and dispirited, Colombo (or as he is better known in the Latinized form of his name "Columbus") left Portugal. After appealing in vain to the kings of Italy and France to take up and finance his project, he came to Spain and laid his ambitious plan before Ferdinand and Isabella.

It was about the year 1486, just when the Inquisition was committing its dreadful ravages among the Maranos, that he was given this royal audience. Detecting their respective weaknesses, Columbus shrewdly appealed to the avarice of Ferdinand—"it was a land of gold"—and to the religious zeal of Isabella, "it was a new field for the spread of Christianity."

Referred again to a commission of nautical scholars, they, like the Portuguese, also discredited his project. But a friend of Columbus, Diega de Deza, of Jewish descent, submitted the plan independently to a group of geographers and mathematicians, among them Abraham Zacuto. Their favorable endorsement induced the king to reconsider the matter. So while Columbus was not yet given the ships and equipment he desired, he was taken into the royal service.

He now met Abraham Senior, Isaac Abarbanel and Gabriel Sanchez, all of whom as State financiers rendered him valuable aid. He needed such friends at court, since the king was all too ready to forget him and his project in furthering other ambitions. The royal coldness may have been somewhat due to the over-reaching demands of Columbus in asking not only that he be made admiral of the fleet, but also viceroy and governor of the territory he hoped to discover.

When about to turn in despair to the French king, it was again a Jew (a Marano) who took his cause to heart and pleaded in his favor. This was Luis de Santangel, whose family had suffered so cruelly at the hands of the Inquisition, but whose valuable services were none the less in great demand by the State. His telling appeal won over the Queen; but she did not proffer to pawn her jewels, as the story goes. It was in fact Santangel himself who offered the five million marevedis necessary.

O the irony of history! On the very date of the announcement of the decree of expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a decree to equip this fleet of Columbus issued from the same royal hand. Aye, on the very day following Israel's departure, i.e., on August 3rd, 1492, Columbus, all his original demands granted, set forth with three ships to find a new route to gold-producing India.

Of the hundred men that composed his crew, some have been identified as Jews. For it was so hard to find volunteers to venture on the perilous voyage to an unknown destination, that even some criminals were pressed into service. But Jewish exiles whose outlook now was as perilous and destination as uncertain, would be likely to accept the alternative and be accepted in turn.

De Torres First to Set Foot in New World.

Of such Jews or Maranos, Luis de Torres, the ship doctors and some others are specifically mentioned. It is even conjectured that the sailor who espied a light on October 12th, after two months of peril on the watery waste, was a Marano. However that may be, certainly it was Luis de Torres, who with another companion was sent ashore as investigator to the island now known as Cuba. He was received with friendliness by the supposed Indian natives and arranged a treaty of peace. Indeed, de Torres ultimately settled here, being the first European to adopt the local custom of smoking tobacco.

Columbus, having discovered as he thought the northwest passage to the Indies, gratefully sent the first news to his friend and patron, Santangel. He sent word also to Gabriel Sanchez, who gave it wide circulation through the press.

On the theory of the spiritual control of the earth, Pope Alexander V issued a bull conceding the territory discovered to Spain for all future time, provided Catholicism be maintained there. The money, property, and valuables taken from the banished Jews or left in trust behind them in the hands of Maranos, amounting in all to about six million marevedis, was seized by the king and used to equip the second more pretentious armada of Columbus. On this voyage he discovered the Caribbean Islands; on a third he landed in South America.

Yet because the new lands did not bring immediate return in the precious metals (then conceived as the only wealth of nations) the short-sighted monarch listened to his detractors and stripped him of his honors. But these interesting facts as well as his death in poverty and neglect, do not belong to this history.

Exploration and Settlement in America.

The fever of maritime discovery now seized all coast nations. The same Abraham Zacuto, whose Almanac and Astronomical Tables had been of such aid to Columbus, now an exile in Portugal, was consulted by its king, Dom Manuel, as to a proposed expedition of Vasoo da Gama to seek a sea route to India round the African coast. Zacuto had already devised, at the royal request, a storm chart for safer guidance of ships round the Cape of Good Hope. This famous explorer, da Gama, was further aided by a Jew named after him (Caspar da Gama), a Portuguese exile whom he picked up at Goa. An experienced traveller and mariner, he aided in the discovery of Brazil and gave such valuable information to Amerigo Vespucci, that King Manuel conferred rank upon him.

Although Columbus would fain have kept the newly discovered lands for the exclusive settlement of Catholics,—Jews, secret or confessed, became the first who succeeded in opening up their trade resources. They exported precious stones from Brazil and imported grain. They transplanted, it is said, sugar from Madeira to Brazil and undoubtedly maintained the largest sugar plantations there.

But the vital importance of America's discovery for the Jews lay in the fact that it was a new haven of refuge for this harassed people. Hither fled Portuguese Jews and Spanish Maranos from inquisitorial flames. At first Brazil was utilized by the Portuguese as a penal colony, and. Jews were transported there as a place of exile. But so persistent was the animosity against them, just as soon as it was noticed that they sought it as a place of refuge, their emigration from Portugal was hindered by heavy fines and later by complete confiscations. Not till the Jews had paid Portugal the immense indemnity of 1,700,000 crusados in 1577 was their emigration and settlement allowed.

Alas, when they reached Brazil, their first place of considerable settlement, and supposed they could openly live the Jewish life and introduce Jewish worship without disguise, they found a branch of the dreaded Inquisition installed.

Spain prohibited Jews from settling in its colonies and it set up tribunals in Lima and Peru for those who did. No wonder that when Holland had wrenched itself from despotic Spain and became an independent land, granting freedom of conscience to all, that the Jews in South America should have sided with the protecting Dutch against the persecuting Portuguese in their fight for the possession of Brazil.

We get visions of Jewish settlement in Mexico only from their funeral pyres. In the Island of St. Thomas we meet them only as baptized children severed from their parents. They were to be found in Peru mostly in Marano disguise.

Their settlement in other parts of South America and in North America takes us into the seventeenth century and is treated in the closing volume of this series.

To the Western Hemisphere came the Jews then, not as exploiters but as settlers; not merely to snatch gold from its soil, but to enrich it with their enterprise. With the establishment of the independence of the United States, the tide of Jewish emigration has moved steadily westward, readjusting its centre of gravity and adding a new and brighter chapter to the dark records of Israel's history.

"When the tale of bricks is increased then comes Moses," is a rabbinical dictum. Whenever Israel's sufferings become insupportable, Providence sends a deliverer. As Poland was opened and Turkey, when the rest of Europe was either imprisoning or expelling them and planning the eradication of their Faith,—so the discovery of America was destined to give them a new lease of life. It was their survival of the "fifteen century tragedy" that suggested the famous dictum, "Israel is the marvel of history."

The Jew has survived persecution; whether he will he able to survive emancipation is a question that the historian of the future alone can answer.


Columbus:—Abraham Zacuto found refuge later in Tunis and died in Turkey. See Christopher Columbus; Kayserling; Index. This entire book, translated by Dr. Charles Gross, will be found delightful reading.

Coinage Table
1 Maravedi 3 mills (American Coinage)
383 Maravedi 1 ducat.
90 Maravedi 1 doubloon.
2210 Maravedi 1 mark of silver.
1 crusado 70 cents (U.S.)

Inquisition in South America:—For names and details of victims of the Inquisition in South America and Mexico see Publications of American Jewish Historical Society, especially Nos. iv and vii. Re-read the Introduction.

Theme for Discussion:—The participance of Jews in the discovery of the Western Continent.