Columbus and the Jews - Meyer Kayserling

The same year that Columbus set forth for America, thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain and these events were more closely related than is generally known. His voyages were financed primarily by Jews and Individuals of Jewish descent contributed as counsellors, provisioners, map-makers, navigators, and crew members. Though written from a strongly pro-Jewish, anti-inquisition viewpoint, the author provides many details of Jewish involvement in trade and discovery in the years before and after the age of Columbus, in Portugal and Italy as well as Spain.

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Few mortals have been honored by posterity as much as Christopher Columbus, though during his life-time the discoverer of a New World received little credit for his achievements. Monuments of Columbus have been erected in Genoa, proud to call him her son; in Barcelona, where after his first voyage to America the Spanish sovereigns received him with great rejoicing and with princely honors; in Valladolid, where he died; in Seville, Madrid, Huelva, New York, San Domingo, and in many other cities of Italy, Spain, and America. His praises have been sung in odes and ballads, and his name has been glorified by dramatist and novelist.

And in our day, four hundred years after the discovery of America, his achievements have been most worthily commemorated by the academies and learned societies of all nations. To honor his name Spain has just held the great Exposition Historico-Europea in Madrid; and America has just closed the Chicago Exhibition, which attracted millions of visitors. The Church has canonized him. In synagogues and temples his services in promoting the social and commercial intercourse of nations, and especially in advancing nautical and geographical science, have been recognized and lauded. In the just appreciation of his great services to mankind, all political, religious, and social differences have vanished.

The commemoration of his achievements has also materially enriched historical literature. His descent, his education, his voyages and discoveries, all the events of his life, have recently been investigated and described. In doing this, writers have regarded his life from different points of view. Some of his biographers have even seen in his career not the triumph of science but that of religion; and a learned Spaniard has in all seriousness asserted that without his strong religious faith Columbus would never have discovered America.* For a long time Isabella, the pious Queen of Castile, received credit for being the chief or sole promoter of his expeditions and discoveries. In recent times Aragonese writers have, however, disputed the justice of this claim, and, to maintain their national honor, have ascribed to their king, Ferdinand the Catholic, an equal share in the promotion of Columbus s plans. More or less justice has also been done to the other persons who helped him and who directly or indirectly participated in his discoveries.

The question whether the Jews assisted in these discoveries has already heretofore been propounded, but it has never before been carefully investigated. The credit of having given the first impulse to the present work belongs to one of the most public-spirited citizens of America, the venerable Mr. Lazarus Straus, and to his son, Hon. Oscar S. Straus of New York, formerly minister of the United States in Turkey and since 1892 president of the American Jewish Historical Society. Entrusted with this honorable but difficult mission, I determined to visit Spain in order to complete my collection of material by exploring the Spanish archives and libraries. Such documents as I found there, I transcribed. They have been used with care in the text, and are printed in extenso in the Appendix.

My investigations in Spain were greatly facilitated by the kindness of Spanish officials and savants, and by the praiseworthy liberality with which the authorities of the archives at Alcald de Henares, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and other places allowed me to use their manuscript treasures. My warm thanks are due particularly to certain Spanish investigators, who are well known far beyond the boundaries of Spain to the learned and ever-obliging R.P. Fidel Fita (who has made many valuable contributions to the history of Spain), the excellent historian D. Victor Balaguer, the distinguished student of Columbus literature D. Cesareo Fernandez Duro, the amiable D. Jerdnimo Lopez de Ayala, Vizconde de Palazuelos, D. Ram6n Santa Maria, and to several other gentlemen in Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and Saragossa.

It only remains for me to add a few words of explanation regarding the Marranos, or secret Jews, and their status. The terrible massacres of 1391 and later persecutions had compelled or induced vast numbers of Jews to submit to baptism. The great majority of these converts adhered to Judaism more firmly than is commonly supposed. Though they had succumbed to force (anussim) and had become Christians in appearance or outwardly, they lived according to the precepts and laws of their ancestral faith. In the city of Seville, a Jewish chronicle informs us, an inquisitor thus addressed the king:

"Sire, if you wish to ascertain how the anussim, or secret Jews, observe the Sabbath, let us ascend this tower. Behold there the house of a pseudo-Christian, yonder is another, and here are several more. However cold the weather may be, you would not see smoke rising from any of these dwellings, for it is the Sabbath, and on that day the secret Jews allow no fire to be kindled. They also have a man who slaughters animals for them according to Jewish rites and brings the meat to their houses, and another who performs circumcision."

That Jewish writers have not exaggerated the loyalty of the Marranos to their ancestral religion is proven by the countless victims of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal and in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies who during the three centuries of its existence died in dungeons or on the funeral pile. Their religious loyalty will not be fully recognized and appreciated before the enormous mass of documentary evidence in the state archives of Alcala de Henares and Simancas and in several archives of Portugal has been sifted and utilized. Until quite recent times this material was wholly or in great part neglected.

I trust that I have succeeded in making a contribution to the history of the discovery of America and to the history of the Jews, to whom America has been a land of refuge, a land of freedom and of equality.

BUDAPEST, October, 1893.

[Traslator's Note: The translator is greatly obliged to Mr. and Mrs. Emanuel Cohen of Minneapolis, Minn., for assistance in reading the proofsheets of this volume.]

[HH Editor's Note: The appendices for the original text of this book are all in Spanish and have been ommitted from this version. Also, the chapter names provided were created to ease navigation and did not appear in the original text.]

[Contents, 1 of 3] from Columbus and the Jews by Meyer Kayserling
[Contents, 2 of 3] from Columbus and the Jews by Meyer Kayserling
[Contents, 3 of 3] from Columbus and the Jews by Meyer Kayserling