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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

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Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

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  • Thursday, October 15, 2009

    Columbus Day

    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.

    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.

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