Friday, August 3, 2012

Ships that Passed in the Night—Columbus and the Jews

Their Most Catholic Majesties Queen Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, joint monarchs of Spain

On August 3, 1492 to events of world changing significance brushed up against each other in Spain.  Italian  born mariner Christopher Columbus set out from the Atlantic port of Palos on his voyage to discover new trade routes to the Indies.  As his little three ship flotilla left port it passed several vessels laden with Jews.  

Just weeks after Columbus’s patron Their Most Catholic Majesties Queen Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, joint monarchs of Spain, had finally expelled the last of the Moors from Iberia by capturing the fabled city of Grenada earlier that year, they issued the Edict of Alhambra.  Isabella, Columbus’s main sponsor, was fanatically Catholic and under the influence of the Inquisition

Jews had lived and thrived as a significant minority in both Islamic and Christian area of Spain for hundreds of years.  But over the previous 200 years, they had come under increasing pressure in Catholic areas.  In more tolerant Moorish regions, Jews thrived as philosophers, scientists, statesmen, and money lenders—a profession that was forbidden to Muslims and Christians alike. 

The decree ordered that the remaining Jews of Spain either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain with four months.  Many Jews did choose baptism, but they and their decedents, called Marranos, remained under suspicion of secretly practicing Judaism and eventually themselves fell under the yolk of the Inquisition.  

Jews who would not convert were promised the protection of the monarchs while they disposed of their assets and were to be allowed to depart unmolested carrying with them their personal belongings, but no gold or silver.  Forced to sell assets under these conditions, most Jews received only a fraction of their worth.  Others had property seized by Christians while authorities looked the other way, and many more had to simply abandon everything.  

Many voluntarily sailed before the deadline, mostly to North Africa where tolerant Moors welcomed them.  They and their descendents eventually spread over the Muslim world and became known as the Sephardic Jews.  

Jews unable to arrange their own transportation by the deadline were rounded up and placed on ships that scattered them across Europe to uncertain fates.  Given refuge in Portugal on promise of protection, Prince Henry instead robbed and enslaved them.  Many arrived in Italy where some found a begrudging welcome and others were later massacred.  In all an estimated 250,000 Jews were expelled.  

Columbus, himself a devout Catholic, saw nothing wrong.  He, of course, stumbled on the islands of the Caribbean without realizing where he was, and returned to Spain declaring that he had claimed the Indies for the monarchy.  He was rewarded with the position of Viceroy over the new lands and the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea.  

He made more voyages in increasingly desperate attempts to prove that he had actually found the orient.  He also became a despotic ruler.  He was so cruel to the Indians that even the Church was appalled and he was eventually taken back to Spain in chains and stripped of his titles.  

He spent  the last few bitter years of his life trying to regain what he had lost and defending the increasingly dubious claim that he had reached Asia.  

As for Isabella and Ferdinand, they grew wealthy on the gold and silver of the disbursed Jews.  The Spanish empire grew fat on gold looted from the Aztecs and Incas and from new mines of silver and gold worked by Indian slaves.  The losers were the displaced Jews and the conquered native peoples of the New World.

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