On Thanksgiving, we not only celebrate pilgrims and Native Americans, but give thanks for the Goldena Medina we call “America.” All of us have heard of Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand and the Italian, Christopher Columbus, who, under the Spanish banner, is credited with stumbling upon America during his four voyages to find a westward route to Asia and its wondrous spices. (Others preceded him, but Columbus is credited with setting the stage for the European exploration and colonization of the Americas.) But did you know that he may never have made the journeys without We Jews? Names, such as Levi ben Gerson, Abraham Zacuto, Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez, are largely forgotten, yet directly or indirectly, each and more had a profound effect on Columbus’s journeys. Let’s look. (Note: Some were Conversos, as the day before Columbus set sail on his first voyage, on August 2, 1492, when the Inquisition started, more than 300,000 Jews left the country, while others nominally converted.) Let’s look.
The Materials Columbus Used:
How did he know where he was going? (Then again, he didn’t.) He used several astronomical works prepared by Abrahan ibn Ezra in “De Luminaribus et Diebus Criticis,” and directly by the invention of instruments for astronomical observation. Jacob’s Staff, a sea-quadrant, was the invention of the Jewish Levi ben Gerson, who was the first to describe it. Abraham Zacuto (c. 1452-1515), then applied this instrument in navigation to determine latitude using the altitude of the polar star at night to ascertain the ship’s position. Zacuto wrote his major astronomical work, Ha-Hibur ha-Gadol, in Hebrew, and served as court astronomer to kings John II and Manuel I of Portugal. He prepared the charts used by Vasco da Gama on his journey to India. His astronomical tables rendered Columbus incalculable service; indeed, on one occasion it saved the lives of his whole company. A copy of those tables with Columbus’s notes is preserved in Seville.
Guess Who Gelted?
Converso Luis de Santangel, whose relatives were exterminated during the Inquisition, was a financier and, as a confidant of King Ferdinand, he became chancellor of Aragon. Together with a relative, the royal treasurer, Gabriel Sanchez (whose father was burned in effigy as a Jewish heretic at Saragossa in 1493), Santangel and a friend, the royal chamberlain, Juan Cabrero, also of Jewish stock, were proponents of Columbus. Santangel convinced the crown of the advantages to Spain from the discovery of a sea-route to the Indies. Isabella consented, but alas the state treasury was bare. He loaned 17,000 interest-free ducats to the royal treasury (equal to $160,000 at the present day). Santangel was also the first to receive a detailed letter from Columbus about the voyage on February 15, 1943. Columbus wrote a similar letter to Gabriel Sanchez, who published it in Barcelona. Later on, for his services, Luis de Santangel obtained a royal decree, issued May 30, 1497, by which he, his children, and his grandchildren were to be protected from any further maltreatment by the Inquisition.
They Set Sail …
While it’s not clear how many Jews (or Conversos) journeyed with Columbus, Luis de Torres was his official interpreter. Others may have included Alonzo de la Calle, who took his name from the Jewish quarter (Calle), and died in Spain in 1503; Rodrigo Sanchez (a relative of exchequer Gabriel Sanchez), the surgeon, Marco; and the ship’s doctor, Bernal, who had been punished in 1490 by the Inquisition as an adherent of Judaism.
Of the group, Luis de Torres (born Yosef ben Ha Levy HaIvri) was the most prominent. Torres spoke Arabic, Hebrew and some other ancient languages Columbus thought he would encounter. Looking back now, it’s humorous, given the fact that all four voyages seriously missed their mark. Torres was given the job of “translator” in “India,”—which we now know as China – which was actually the Americas.
Though accounts differ, it is believed he made his home in Cuba, wowed the chiefs who gifted him with large land grants and slaves, and he died in Cuba. Torres was, however, the first European to set foot on American soil by some accounts making him the first “pilgrim.” As legend has it, Torres saw the bird; thinking it was a kind of parrot, he assigned it the Hebrew name “Tukki.” While this is probably folklore, his expedition, 100 years earlier than the Mayflower voyage is reminiscent of the story of Thanksgiving.
Sailing again on Jewish Gelt
Columbus’s second voyage, which sailed from Cadiz on September 25, 1493, was financed by the spoils of expelled Jews, those who wound up in Portugal, Conversos, and even Christians suspected of holding Jewish treasures such as gold and silver, clothing, velvet and silk.
In total, Columbus made four trips, from 1492-1504.
The Newly Discovered Lands
Once again Gabriel Sanchez enters the scene – and benefits. While emigration to this new frontier was strictly forbidden to Conversos (who were still persecuted), Sanchez, exempt from the edict, was the first person given a royal grant to export grain and horses to America.
The Shocking Truth Behind Columbus’s Voyages? True Or False?
The prize of the Columbus expeditions – exotic riches – has recently been questioned. In a 2018 article by Sean Martin Columbus discovered America while scouting a possible settlement for banished Jews during the Inquisition.
Personally, I wouldn’t bet my “tukki” on it.