On August 3, 1492 two 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 newly united 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 areas of the Iberian Peninsula Spain for hundreds of years and going back to Roman times. 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, physicians, statesmen, and money lenders—a profession that was forbidden to Muslims and Christians alike.The Inquisition successfully petitioned the Joint Monarchs for the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, which they ordered in the Edict of Alhambra.
The new decree ordered that the remaining Jews in the realm to 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 yoke 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 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.Expelled from their homes and carrying with them what they could salvage, Spanish Jews begin the trek to ports like Palos to sail into exile.
Many voluntarily sailed before the deadline, mostly to North Africa where tolerant Moors welcomed them. They and their descendants 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. Some were given refuge in Portugal on promise of protection. Prince Henry instead robbed and enslaved them. Many arrived in Italian city states 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 with any of this. On his voyage he 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.The native Arawak people were among the Carib tribes tortured and annihilated by Columbus in his ruthless reign as Viceroy of the New World.
Columbus 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 Native Carib people—nations he essentially wiped from the face of the Earth in a decade—that even the Church was appalled. He was eventually hauled back to Spain in chains and stripped of his titles and fortune.
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 dispersed Jews. The Spanish Empire grew fat on gold looted from the Aztecs and Incas and from new mines of silver and gold worked by Native slaves.
The losers were the displaced Jews and the conquered native peoples of the New World.