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On Columbus day and Thanksgiving, I often discuss the ambivalent nature of these holidays. Both represent the opening of the Americas to European colonization. This led both to the creation of opportunities that would not have been there otherwise. The example I always use is the fact that had the US not been founded, my family would undoubtedly been killed in Europe during the waves of anti-Semitic violence between 1900 and 1945. The events celebrated by Columbus Day and Thanksgiving day unquestionably saved my family. Of course those same events led to the extermination of many Native American families as well. Hence the ambivalent nature of these holidays. This year I want to discuss another issue, the origins and motivations of Christopher Columbus himself, showing that the ambivalent nature of his accomplishments were evident from the beginning.

Among the articles I have written on this subject are:

All we take for granted has been built on genocide

Columbus Day Through the Eyes of Native American Democrats

Columbus Day

And on a related note: America Before Columbus: 1421 and 1491

This year I have some different thoughts on Columbus Day, ones that link directly to the saving of families persecuted in Europe. What gets ignored in the celebrations of Columbus Day (which either are overtly pro-colonialism and/or oddly a reflection of Italian Nationalism) is the interesting story of Columbus himself and his family.

Columbus was NOT Italian. Despite what Italian Americans believe when they adopted Columbus Day as an expression of their own cultural pride, Columbus had little to do with Italy. Instead, there is evidence that Columbus was, in essence, a Spanish Jew by origin and his family had only recently settled in Italy, escaping Spanish anti-Jewish violence.

The following draws from three main sources: a.) The book Jews in Places you Never Thought Of, by Karen Primack; b.) An article in the winter 2008/2009 Kulanu newsletter on the Genetic "Pintele Yid" in Iberia (drawing from a Jerusalem Post article...see also here), and c.) the book Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler.

It should first off be noted that both Colombo and Colon (two versions of the Columbus name) were common Jewish names in Italy, however were also used by non-Jewish families. Columbus' life, and, in fact, particularly his voyages to the New World, took place in the context of increasingly violent anti-Jewish activities in Spain, culminating in the Expulsion Edict of 1492 which took effect the same day Columbus sailed westward to try and reach the Far East. During the persecutions in Spain that started in 1391, many Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism (the Conversos). Many Converso families were visibly, and many genuinely, devout Catholics. However many others (the Marranos) continued to practice Judaism in secret. The Inquisition looked with suspicion at all Conversos, suspecting them all of being Marranos and hence heretics. This led to a great deal of prejudice, persecution and violence against both Jews and Conversos in Spain. This drove many Converso families out of Spain and many of them settled in Italy. Interestingly, some Conversos who fled Spain turned to piracy against Spain, including some of the infamous Barbary Pirates. Some of these Converso pirates remained practicing Catholics, others revealed their Judaism openly. Other Conversos also took to the sea, but in the service of Spain or Portugal, maintaining devout Catholic practice either genuinely or as a facade. A great deal of navagational knowledge and technology was in the hands of Conversos.

How common were the Conversos and Marranos? Well, recent genetic evidence has revealed that a full 20% of all modern Iberians (people living in Spain and Portugal) have Jewish ancestry in their male lineage. This is based on Y-chromasomal analysis, so only applies to the male lineage. It would be interesting to know how many are descended from Jews in their femaile lineage but that would take a separate analysis using mitochondrial DNA. That is a huge percentage of the population and shows that the Conversos were a significant part of the Iberian population. So if Columbus was of Converso origin, it would really not be all that surprising.

There is no definite record of where Christopher Columbus was born. Many places and dates for his birth have been claimed and none have any definite proof. Here is a list of some of the claims (from Mysteries Behind our History): (this source is on a "ministry" website, but it does seem to be a good condensation of info I have found elsewhere)

Italy asserts that Cristoforo Colombo was born in Liguria of humble means. They claim his father, Domenico Colombo, was a tower sentinel in Genoa and later a weaver in Savona.4

Spain insists that Cristobal Colon was the son of Domingo Colon, a wool trader, and Susanna Fontanarossa, both of Pontevedra, Spain.

Other sources present the view that Columbus' family were Spaniards who lived in Italy but later returned to Spain, resuming their original family name of Colon.

The language that Columbus and his family both wrote and spoke was Spanish. The few examples of Columbus writing in Italian showed deficiencies that suggest it was not his primary language, while his Spanish writing was far superior. Although he may have been born in Italy, his family was almost certainly not Italian and never considered themselves Italian. But even more interestingly, the Spanish spoken and written by Columbus and his family was a somewhat archaic type of Spanish, similar to if your family spoke English like they did in 1900. This is also typical of exiles who are forced out of their country but still retain their original identity. It suggests Columbus' family left Spain a couple of generations before he was born and still considered themselves Spanish despite their exile in Italy. It is certainly NOT typical of native Italians. I should also note that is also suggests Columbus WAS born outside of Spain since if they spoke an outdated Spanish, they probably had been living outside of Spain for at least a generation.

In essence, Columbus and his family fit the profile of Conversos who fled Spain for Italy during the post-1391 persecutions, and ultimately turned to the sea for their profession.

Columbus and his brother eventually settled in Portugal and it was in Portugal Christopher started his quest to sail westward to reach the "Indies." But Portugal refused his requests, so he tried his luck with Spain. Interestingly, and seldom mentioned in the histories who attribute his success to Queen Isabella, it was really the influence of powerful Conversos in the Spanish court who were responsible for Columbus getting the backing to sail. Top among these was Don Isaac Abravanel who, despite being openly Jewish, was in charge of all royal revenues at the time Columbus was seeking Spanish funding for his voyage. Interestingly, at the same time Columbus was sailing, the Expulsion Edict (which had been opposed by Abravanel) took effect and Abravanel chose exile from Spain, joining the bulk of the Sephardim. Juan Cabrero, Luis de Santangel, and Gabriel Sanchez were also influential Conversos who worked to get the king and queen to sponsor Columbus' voyage.

Why would Conversos be so interested in a voyage of discovery? It could be because the Edict of Expulsion and the Inquisition were immanent threats to their safety. Colonies were starting to spring up, and often, at least in early years, colonies provided a chance for people under such threats to escape. The date when Columbus sailed is also telling. It was first set on a day that coincided with the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av. Columbus postponed sailing by one day to avoid what, to Jews but not Catholics, would have been a very ill-omened day to sail. This also meant his sailing corresponded, coincidentally or intentionally, on the very day Jews were, by law, given the choice of converting, leaving, or being killed. Among Columbus' crew were many Conversos (not unusual), at least some of whom are now known to be Marranos, and their Jewish practices would have subject them to the Inquisition's attentions and forbidden them to sail by Spanish law.

Given the number of open Jews, Conversos and Marranos associated with Columbus' voyages, it does seem like there was considerable interest by Jews, former Jews and secret Jews for Columbus to sail and establish colonies.

Columbus himself seemed cognizant of the need for colonies as refuges for persecuted people. Columbus' colony on Jamaica became a place where many Conversos (and presumbaly Marranos) settled. In 1540 Columbus successfully insisted that Jamaica be controlled not by the crown, but by the Columbus family itself and, critically, the Inquisition would have no jurisdiction over Jamaica. Clearly, intentionally or not, Jamaica then served as a refuge for those who feared the Inquisition. And, in fact, many who settled there became open Jews over time and many of the secret and open Jews turned to piracy for revenge against Spain. Among the known Jewish pirates were  Samuel Pallache and Moses Cohen Henriques. Samuel ran guns for the Dutch and led an attack on a Spanish fleet in the Mediterranean. Moses seized entire shipments of Spanish gold and silver and even had his own pirate's nest off the coast of Brazil. Jamaica particularly became a pirate's nest after Spain took control of Jamaica from the Columbus family and gave the Inquisition jurisdiction on the island. When, in 1655, the British invaded Jamaica, they recorded that Jamaican Jews assisted their invasion, preferring British rule to Spanish persecution.

As an aside, I may have a connection by marriage to Jewish pirates of either the Barbary coast or the Caribbean. My wife, Joy, knows of a vague family legend that one of her ancestors was a Jewish pirate. Of course when I first heard this it seemed absurd. But now I know that such pirates did exist. It would suggest, though, that Joy's Jewish heritage is not just Ashkinazi but also included Sephardim.

Was Columbus himself Jewish? This actually contains two questions. The first is simply was he Jewish, as in was he really a Marrano, a secret Jew. Maybe. But he could also have been a genuine Catholic, a Converso, who also felt a deep sympathy for other Conversos and wanted a refuge for anyone the Inquisition suspected of Jewish practices.

There are clear signs that Columbus was aware of and valued a Jewish heritage and might even have been a practicing Jew. From Mysteries Behind our History again (similar info from the other sources as well):

Columbus employed peculiar dates and phrases unique to the Hebrew people. Instead of referring to the "destruction" or "fall of Jerusalem," he used the phrase "the destruction of the second house." He also employed the Hebrew reckoning of 68 a.d. instead of 70 a.d. A marginal note dated 1481 is immediately given its Hebrew equivalent of 5241, etc.

He boasted that he was related to King David, some of his letters were described as written in an "unknown script" (Hebrew?), and he is said to have used a unique triangular signature similar to inscriptions found on gravestones of ancient Jewish cemeteries in Spain and Southern France.

Again, this could indicate actual Jewish practices or it could merely be a pride in his Jewish ancestry...or just a fascination with Judaism. But it is clear that Columbus, when he established his first colony, did set the stage for BOTH the role of the Americas as a refuge for persecuted people AND as exploitation and murder of the native population.

Originally posted to mole333 on Mon Oct 12, 2009 at 10:27 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  to me the persecution (5+ / 0-)

    of the natives is enough not to celebrate this date.
    And I don't.  My company gives me this as a holiday but I am working.  I'll take another day off.

    The very reason they were leaving Europe, just to foist it on the real Americans.

    Dennis Kucinich was right.

    by lisastar on Mon Oct 12, 2009 at 10:35:23 AM PDT

  •  Interesting diary, thanks... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mole333, Alec82, Ojibwa

    I do have to say one thing though...if Europe had not discovered the New World, how can we assume that events in Europe would have led to the Nazis?    Or any of the other events...like Tsarist Russia.   One could say that Europe would have moved east or south in their goal to attain the Asian commodities..

    This does not lessen the anti-semitism of Europe..in fact, in an alternate timeline the extermination of the Jewish peoples from Europe may have occurred earlier in a different form.  or a completely different scenario could have occurred...perhaps the exploitation offered by the discovery kept Europe from adcaning.  We will never know.  

    But to think that the Nazi's would have existed without the worldwide change brought by the discovery of the New world seems a bit off.  

    What's done is done...but always remember that the opportunities that were created for those fleeing Europe and other places, were done on the graves of millions and millions of people.  

    •  Grrr.......advancing not adcaning. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa
    •  I am not just saying Nazis (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      capelza, Ojibwa

      I am including all forms of anti-Semitism. My assumption is more that there WOULD have been comparable events but no refuge. The New World was a unique place (other than isolated islands) for colonialism because the Native Americans succumb to Eurasian diseases, allowing whole new political entities to come into existence. Without that, I don't think there would have been refuges for the Hugonauts, the Jews, etc. I don't think these populations would have been exterminated, but their fate would have been worse.

      It is terrible to think that one genocide can be mitigated by another genocide, but when I view world history, I think that was the indirect effect of the colonization of the New World. What this year's diary discusses is that the connection isn't even as indirect as I might have thought since Columbus, certainly an instigator of atrocities against Native Americans, may well have been deliberately creating a save haven for refugees from European persecution. That makes me even more uncomfortable, but it seems to be true.

      •  Like I said, what's done is done... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mole333, Alec82

        But you have to realise that from the perspective of those surviving Native Americans, what was going on in Europe was certainly not their problem, though they paid the price for it...

        That said, I do like your diary.   From Columbus' perspective, and his time, he was not a monster...I realise this.

        •  Oh I completely agree (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          capelza, Alec82

          I do not offer this as any justification of anyone's actions. It merely illustrates the moral ambiguity and rich detail of history, something I love to explore.

          Read my earlier diaries. Their focus is quite different. I do the same kind of over analysis on Passover as well. It is great fun to try and tease out obscure details of major holidays because those seemingly obscure details can change, at least for a time, our perception of that holiday. Columbus day comes off as either a pro-America vs. anti-Indian holiday. Or a pro-Italian vs. anti-Indian holiday. Bringing in the fact that it could almost be a Jewish holiday as well, and the fact that Tisha B'Av, which already mourns the two destructions of the Temple could also mourn the Expulsion Edict from Spain which cast a major shadow over Columbus's crew, changes the nature of both holidays and, something few would imagine, brings them together in a way. If that doesn't show how interesting and interconnected all our stories are (Jewish, Spanish, Native American, black, Italian, American all mixed together).

          •  An Italian holiday.... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mole333, Alec82

            You know, I did not even realise this until the past few years.    Growing up in the 4 corners of OK,MO, AR, and KS...the public schools really did it up for Columbus Day,  the whole myth...with construction paper and paste.  Same with Thanksgiving...which always cracked my smart ass Native American father right up.   Of course at the time, our tribe had been terminated (not to be "reinstaed" till many years later.)...but the irony was not lost on us..it just wasn't something mentioned in that part of the country.  It made the white folks pissy.  He also thought the Knights of Columbus were a bit weird, even though we were Catholic.  But that may have been the hats.  :)

            Even later, when i was a bit older, Columbus Day was still not seen as an Italian holiday...and this in northern California, with a rich Italian heritage.   Interesting.  Is the focus, now that the holiday is under fire, turning back to the Italians as a day celebrating their heritage, rather the generic American one I was raised with.

            No real mention of Italians...I see the changes of how it is viewed now.   In Oregon it is no longer a legal holiday...(if memory serves, it was traded for MLK Day, but I'm too lazy to look it up.)

  •  No matter which European reached America first... (0+ / 0-)

    ...the historical circumstances were such that it was going to be very bad for native Americans.  To foist all of this on Columbus makes little sense.

    Columbus Day is not an endorsement of genocide and it makes the Left look like a bunch of clucking killjoys to dis a popular national holiday (and a day which honors the achievements of Italian Americans, regardless of Columbus's actual ethnicity).  There will be similar comments and diaries around Thanksgiving and they always make me cringe.  

    Really, by this logic we should have no holidays at all.  Washington was a slave holder, so we shouldn't celebrate Presidents Day because that would be an implicit endorsement of the buying and selling of human beings.  Christmas?  An obvious celebration of anti-Semitism, given the number of Jews killed in the name of Jesus.  National Book Month?  Well, we all know where paper comes from -- why honor the wholesale destruction of our forests by the lumber industry?

    I say keep Columbus Day -- but also come up with a national holiday honoring a great native American.  Chief Joseph would be my choice.  He was born on March 3rd.  Mark it down.

    •  Uh there are some Italian Americans... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      capelza

      ...who don't really care for the association.  I'm not really wedded to the idea.  

      •  Granted. (0+ / 0-)

        I have roots in Ireland, and the trivialization of the Irish experience that takes place every St. Pat's Day is appalling to me.  For the record -- no, everyone is NOT Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, except for those who are Irish every other day of the year.

        That being said, Columbus Day IS a day set aside by many Italian-Americans to celebrate their culture.  Considering the Left's shaky standing in recent generations with BCEC voters, dumping on a holiday popular with many is bad politics.

        •  What's BCEC? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Alec82
        •  That is one point (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          capelza

          Italian Americans celebrating national pride on Columbus Day makes about as much sense as cherry growers celebrating Washington's birthday as their own national holiday. It is based on myth.

          Do I care if they celebrate? No. But I also, as a scientist and amateur historian, will discuss the realities behind the holiday. If their celebration was of Italy as a refuge for those persecuted by the Inquisition, then they would have some justification. But to celebrate because he happened to have lived in Italy at one time, even though he wasn't fluent in Italian and favored Spanish, seems a bit strange to me...about as strange as the celebration of St Patricks Day in America, which I have been told the Irish in Ireland consider something of a travesty. If people want an excuse to party, I never have problems with that as long as they invite me. But I still find the historical warts and details are more interesting.

          •  Most holidays have ahistorical elements... (0+ / 0-)

            ...as they tend to celebrate myths more than history.  The fact that it makes little factual sense for Italians to celebrate Columbus as an Italian icon is perfectly true, but rather beside the point -- the point is the celebration not the excuse for it.  Of course there should be honest discussion of "the realities behind the holiday" -- there are few things more dangerous to a society's political health that the confusion of myth with reality  (as we learned yet again during the previous administration).  But I think it is entirely possible to know the truth about Columbus and still observe Columbus Day as a national celebration. At the very least, I think the leftists who make a big fuss about it suffer from political tone deafness.

            •  As opposed to a patronising wink? (0+ / 0-)

              Some of us "leftists" find it very insulting, even us BCEC (heh, I am one, though my ethnicity is Native American).

              Expecting more form the BCEC is too much?   We can't ask them to consider an alternative, but must just turn our heads because it might alienate them?   Fucking Columbus Day?

            •  Well (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              capelza, Alec82

              I might say that ALL holidays have an element of myth. And again, I don't mind any excuse for a party. But when the myth outweighs the fact, I guess  I do have a problem. Is that politically tone deaf? Maybe at times (say in 2004). But not always (say in 2008). And it is intellectually more honest, which is my preference.

              Your point is valid. Popular culture, which is by definition popular, can be based on very stupid myths. And it may be unpopular to burst those myths. But does that mean we shouldn't burst those myths? Personally I think we should. Long term it is better. But it is worth keeping in mind the popular fallout we might face.

              •  By all means bust those myths... (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                capelza, Alec82

                ...and then enjoy the Columbus Day Parade as the communal event it is.  I am NOT saying that promulgating the truth about Columbus is politically tone deaf -- I am saying that telling people they should not celebrate Columbus Day because of that truth IS politically tone deaf.  Like you, everybody likes an excuse to party.

        •  Well I like St Patrick's Day (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          capelza

          Despite not being Irish.  St. Patrick's Day doesn't celebrate a proto-conquistador.  This is beginning to remind me of an I/P thread.  Anyway, it's a day set aside by many, yes.  Not everyone has embraced it.  

          Anyway....I don't associate it with being Italian American.  And now I'm reminded of that Sopranos episode.  

          BTW, although you can't exactly convert to being Italian for a holiday (although why not?), not many Italians I know turn away Italophiles.  

          As far as BCEC, or blue collar ethnic and Catholic, we're not all Catholic these days.  And a lot of us never were.  

          Visions of the Alito hearings are dancing through my head.  

        •  Then make a holiday for Italians... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          mole333, Alec82

          One that expands on their contributions to the United States.

          A little education thrown in and not relying on a myth.  

          Same with the Irish, the Greeks, the Poles and other Slavs...hell give everyone a day.   But one based on their actual people, not a myth.

          •  NYC (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            capelza, Alec82

            In NYC there seems to be a parade and/or festival for every ethnicity. Sometimes it seems silly to me, sometimes really cool.

            Recently we had a Polish parade and a Turkish cultural festival almost on top of eachother. Loved it!

          •  Get ready for the cries of anti-Italianism (0+ / 0-)

            Mind you, I've never seen an actual example of this phenomenon that wasn't linked to some sort of tasteless joke.  But there are plenty of Italian Americans who are convinced it exists!  And that it is rampant! And that criticism of Columbus Day is some sort of reflection of that.

            The Sopranos had a field day with that nonsense.  And maybe I'm being a bit unfair.  I would guess that there are stereotypes that persist in the Northeast and elsewhere.  Certainly NAIF documents them.  

            It's always seemed antiquated to me.  

            •  Please note: I am NOT AT ALL saying... (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              mole333, Alec82

              ...that those who attack Columbus Day because of what the historical Columbus was like and the horrors that followed him are being anti-Italian -- I DO think one could suggest they are being somewhat less than sensitive to the significance of the day to many Italian-Americans.

              As for real anti-Italian prejudice, there of course was a time only a few generations back when anti-Italian bigotry was as virulent as anti-Latin bigotry is today among certain people who I won't mention who are called Republicans. And the consequences of that do live on --  among whites in urban areas, Italians are often on the lowest rung of the economy.

            •  Yep (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Alec82

              I was accused of being anti-Catholic and anti-Italian because I opposed a conservative, anti-choice candidate in a liberal district in Brooklyn. Of course I think the candidate himself (who I know personally) didn't think so, and the fact that I was one of the first people in the country to endorse Perriello for Congress in Virginia may have helped my view in the end.

          •  That ship has sailed. (0+ / 0-)

            Sure you can come up with a day pegged to an event or personality that more logically connects with the Italian-American experience -- but Columbus Day is the one that took (indeed perhaps precisely because of the potency of legend) and I doubt an effort to change that would meet with much success.  As I say, the suggestion that to celebrate Columbus Day is to endorse genocide is a bit much, especially given the fact that the true history of Europe's near annihilation of the first Americans is now widely taught to school children and the many mythical aspects of the traditional Columbus story are openly acknowledged as myth.

    •  Well (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      capelza, nonnie9999, Alec82

      I take a different tactic. I explore both aspects of the holiday.

      Honestly, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are as much foundation myths of our culture as they are celebrations of historical events. In fact, most things that people learn about these two holidays are pure myth. The whole idea that sailors had no concept of the curvature of the earth is silly! What is really being celebrated is colonialism...both its good and bad aspects. Our history, like that of any culture, IS ambiguous. Genocide and slavery were wrapped up in the formation of almost every culture on earth. Many cultures never face up to the ambivalence of their past. You still find textbooks that claim slavery wasn't so bad for blacks in the US. People still believe in George Washington's cherry tree. And they believe that Columbus was an Italian who was a visionary, unique in his belief that the world is round. All bosh.

      I have never negated the value of these holidays. Merely explored their more interesting, historical details. I find nothing wrong with that. Passover celebrates the death of the first born Egyptians. But it also is a celebration of real events (no matter how distorted) and of the concept of freedom and the persistence of the underdog as well. That is a holiday I also over analyze in all its historical detail year after year. To me it adds to the holiday.

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