Can the Catholicism of Christopher Columbus be Questioned?
One of the great adventurers and explorers of Spain’s Golden Age of discovery was Cristoforo Colon, Christopher Columbus. His exploits, centering on the discovery of new lands across the Atlantic, gave rise to an incredible personality cult that bestowed upon the man an almost ‘extra-human’ identity in western civilization history books. And, in spite of all that we now know of his exploitative and oftentimes destructive activity with regard to the native societies he encountered, this cult-like following persists.
Ancestry and Faith
In recent years, Columbus’ background and identity have been questioned. The history books have him born in Genoa, Italy. However, his early life has not been fully explained or documented. Some theories suggest his ‘known’ life and name is a cover, with 2012 theorist, Fernando Branco suggesting his ancestry is Portuguese, rather than Italian. This theory is soon to be tested using DNA evidence and if proven, the life history recorded for Columbus will need a re-write.
Due to the holes in the Columbus story, his true faith is a matter of conjecture. The assumption would be that his beliefs would follow those of the Catholic Spanish monarchs that he served. For many, the possible revelation of an alternative for his true spirituality could threaten all that they have held dear - nationality, faith and allegiance. But why might his religion be questioned?
According to popular lore, three Jews came with Columbus on his first journey as he explored the northeast coast of Cuba (landed on 28 October, 1492): Luis de Torres on the Santa Maria, Juan de Cabrera on La Pinta, and Rodrigo de Triana on La Nina. All three were Marranos, or forced Jewish converts to Catholicism.
So was Columbus himself Jewish?
Christopher Columbus lands in America (Public Domain)
Following the Bible?
Simon Wiesenthal felt that Columbus was a Sephardi, a converso, concealing his Judaism - yet eager to locate a place of refuge for his persecuted countrymen. Wiesenthal argued that Columbus' concept of sailing west to reach the Indies was less the result of geographical theories than of his faith in Biblical texts—specifically the Book of Isaiah. He repeatedly cited two verses from that book:
"Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them," (60:9); and "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth" (65:17).
Wiesenthal claimed that Columbus felt that his voyages had confirmed these prophecies.
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The Disembarkation of Christopher Columbus with Companions on Three Launches, on Friday 12th October 1492. (Ivan Aivazovsky, 1817-1900). (Public Domain)
A Hebrew or Catalan Pen?
Estelle Irizarry, in 2006, argued that Columbus was a Catalan, claiming that he tried to conceal his Jewish heritage. In "Three Sources of Textual Evidence of Columbus, Crypto Jew," Irizarry notes that Columbus always wrote in Spanish, and occasionally included Hebrew in his writing, and referenced the Jewish High Holidays in his journal during the first voyage. In addition, he used specific punctuation marks in his writing to indicate pauses in sentences.
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Use of the virgule (slash) is seen here in Columbus’ handwritten margin notes. (Public Domain)
That symbol, called a virgule, wasn’t used in Castilian documents, but only in records and letters from the Catalan-speaking areas of the Iberian Peninsula, present-day Catalonia. She stated, "The virgules are sort of like Columbus' DNA. They were a habit of his. Columbus was a punctuator and was one of the few of that era."
With all of this in mind, Irizarry came to the conclusion that Columbus came from the Kingdom of Aragon, and his native tongue was actually Catalan.
A Reluctant Convert?
Jane Francis Amler argued that Columbus was a converso (a Sephardi Jew who publicly converted to Christianity). In Spain, even some converted Jews were forced to leave Spain after much persecution; it is known that many conversos were still practicing their Judaism in secret.
Many scholars argue that, were it not for the conversos, the rich and vibrant tradition of Iberian Peninsula Judaism might well have been lost. They continued to practice many Jewish traditions even when facing certain persecution. One of the most notable was Renee Melammed, who wrote Heretics or Daughters of Israel.
Christopher Columbus at the gates of the monastery of Santa María de la Rábida with his son Diego, by Benet Mercadé. (Public Domain)
Columbus died on May 20, 1506 and was buried in Valladolid, Spain. However, his body was moved to Seville. His son, Diego, died in 1526. Columbus’ daughter-in-law asked that both bodies be transferred to Hispaniola to be buried side by side. They were buried in the cemetery of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, a very Catholic resting place.
In 1795, the French occupied Hispaniola. It would be a perceived blasphemy to have the bodies of Colon and his son remaining in ‘French soil”; so the Spanish took the bodies to Havana.
A century later, under the leadership of Jose Marti, Cuba proclaimed its independence, so once again the Spanish took Columbus back to Seville to be buried in the Cathedral there. But there is still argument about where his true remains ended up. With everyone vying for bragging rights regarding his final resting place, it is no small wonder that the search for his tomb continues.
The latest DNA testing offers the hope of revealing whether the true remains of the explorer lie in the Cathedral in Seville. With this at least some of his life story can be confirmed. However, his love of Cuba was deeply embedded in his psyche. Perhaps he made a ‘final stop’ on his way back to Spain. Imagine the impact if he was ‘rediscovered’ after all these years.
Simon Wiesenthal, "Sails of Hope"
Estelle Irizarry, "Three Sources of Textual Evidence of Columbus, Crypto Jew"
Jane Francis Amler, "Christopher Columbus's Jewish Roots"