Christopher Columbus and William Shakespeare have something in common. They are two historical figures who have been the focus of unbelievable amounts of historical research and who, in spite of all the attention paid, remain mysterious figures – who were they really?
Shakespeare left not only his plays and poetry, but all sorts of other documentary evidence of his life – yet he remains such a mystery that there are still those who believe that he was not the author of those plays published under his name during his lifetime, and about which his contemporaries commented.
Columbus, too, remains a mystery. Who was he? Sailing under the Spanish flag, the Spaniards claim him. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Portugal, there are those who will tell you he was Portuguese. Being born (apparently) in Genoa, the Italians certainly take credit not only for Columbus, but for Columbus Day with parades and celebrations especially in New York. And then there are those who disagree with all of this, and claim that Columbus was born in the Genoa Jewish community, a community which dated back about one hundred years, when there was one of the first migrations of Jews from Spain.
Now, Christopher Columbus (not really his name, of course, but an Anglicized version of his actual name, Colon) was clearly a man of great intelligence and determination. But his record was not a good one. Yes, even if he didn’t “discover” America (in fact, he died still maintaining he had reached the East Indies, not a new continent), he set the stage for European colonization of the New World. But as governor of these new Spanish territories (which he was appointed by the crown), his record (at least as reported) was an abysmal one, as he introduced torture and virtual slavery to the newfound islands of the Caribbean, and was arrested by the Spanish authorities and imprisoned as a result. So, his legacy is not all for the better (quite the contrary), and one wonders why so many national or ethnic groups want to claim him.
In reading about Columbus over the years, I have noted that there is a lot of ethnic pride demonstrated by his biographers. Those biographies which claim he is Spanish are often written by Spaniards, those claiming him to be Italian are likely as not to have been written by Italians. True to form, I believe it is likely that Columbus’ ancestry was Jewish – although clearly Columbus acted as if he was a religious Catholic, as he most likely was.
But why do I think that the Jewish story might have a large degree of truth to it?
First (again I am speaking only of what I understand to have been the case), there is no evidence that Columbus ever spoke, wrote or understood Italian. I believe that, although Columbus wrote quite a bit, and also notated his extensive library in the books’ margins, he never did so in Italian (I think Latin was his scholarly language of choice). Second, I understand that Columbus’ Spanish was an archaic Spanish, not the language of the late 15th century, but the language of one hundred years earlier, the very language that the Spanish Jews who left for Genoa in the mid 14th century continued to speak. And, yes, there was a large formerly Spanish Jewish population in Genoa at the time. And yes, if it is true that Columbus’ father was a weaver, he had an occupation which was one of the most common of Genoese Jews. And yes, Colon was a very common Spanish-Jewish last name.
And there is more, including some of the references Columbus made in his marginal notes on his various books of exploration, some of which were biblical in origin. And there are discussions of various abbreviations used, and symbols, which were common among Jews of the time. And more. Including, of course, the fact that Columbus first voyage west commenced at the very time that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had ordered the departure of Spanish Jews from Spain (those who did not convert to Catholicism) to have been completed and that it is beyond question that Columbus, on his first voyage, had Jews and Hebrew speakers and a Hebrew bible on board the Santa Maria, his flagship.
And that a substantial portion of the cost of the voyages were financed by Spanish Jews or former Spanish Jews (Conversos).
What was Columbus attempting to do? He said that he was looking for a short cut to the Indies – the spices of south-east Asia, and he thought that he had found it. He was not looking for a new continent, or a new world. When he arrived on the various Caribbean islands, he thought he was in the Indies. Hence, our terms – West Indies and Indians. But of course, he was wrong.
But perhaps he had another goal in mind – rather than simply finding away that the Spanish crown could increase its eastern trade.
As many of my friends are aware, the book that I have read over the past ten years or so which excited me the most was Graham Hancock’s “The Sign and the Seal”. This book attempts to reconstruct the journey of the biblical Ark of the Covenant, that accompanied the Israelites through the desert, and came to rest in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, only to disappear from the biblical narrative some time before the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in the sixth century, B.C.E.
According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ark of the Covenant rests to this day in the historic Ethiopian city of Axum, in the Church of St. Mary, where it is guarded twenty four hours a day by priests of the church. Ask any Ethiopian that you meet on the street (or in an Ethiopian restaurant), and they will confirm this. Hancock posits that the story might be one with an historical basis (whether the Ark is still there, he does not speculate), that the Ark could have been secreted out of the Temple during dangerous times to keep in from falling into the hands of enemies, that the one safe route open at the time would have been south through Egypt, that there were Jewish colonies living along the upper Nile near today’s Aswan and that taking the Ark in that direction would have made sense, that there were Jews living with, trading with and mixing with natives even further up the Nile (in today’s Ethiopia), so that when Jewish – Egyptian relationships worsened (political changes in ancient Egypt), it would have made sense to carry it further south. The Ethiopians claim that for hundreds of years, the Ark rested in a monastery on an island in Lake Tana, and was eventually carried to Axum.
Of course, this information was hidden from the Jewish/Christian world because of minimal communication between the areas, and that with the growth of Islam, minimal communication became lack of communication as Christian (or Christian/Jewish) Ethiopia was completely cut off from the rest of Jewish and Christian society. For a short time, with the conquest of the Holy Land by the crusaders at the end of the 11th century, communication between Ethiopia and the Christian world was restored – this is when the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem was founded, for example. Hancock tells of Christian soldiers from the Holy Land accompanying an Ethiopian prince back to Africa (to the city of Lalibela, to be precise) to help secure his throne (and build some churches in the bargain), at which time they became aware of the story of the Ark.
The Christians who accompanied the Ethiopian prince were members of the Order of the Templars, a very powerful Catholic group formed t (o secure the Holy Land for religious travelers, but grown into a large mercenary, banking and transportation concern, the largest in Europe. In the early 14th century, the pope, fearful that the Templars were in fact becoming a threat to Vatican interests, outlawed the organization (much violence ensued of course), and for the most part it disappeared.
One big exception was in Portugal, where the Order of the Templars morphed into the Order of Christ, which became the intellectual, religious and financial power behind the Portuguese explorations and Prince Henry’s famous school of navigation. It is Hancock’s thesis that one of the primary goals of the Order of Christ might have been to recover the Ark of the Covenant from Axum (otherwise, for example, why would the son of explorer Vasco de Gama, high ranking in the Order, have been killed in Ethiopia fighting off the Muslims on behalf of the Christian king).
Christopher Columbus, who lived for years in Portugal before sailing under the sponsorship of Spanish royalty, be he Jew or Christian, or former Jew/now Christian, or Jew posing as Christian, was clearly part of this inner circle in Portugal. He married the daughter of the then head of the Order of Christ, and he became a student of the detailed and extensive maps (often drawn in code) that the Order turned out. If the Order of Christ was aware of the possibility that the Ark of the Covenant was in Ethiopia, you can assume that Columbus was privy to this knowledge.
Is it possible, therefore, that Columbus (this is me, not Hancock speaking) traveled across the ocean not only to increase the material wealth of the Spanish crown, but also to locate and perhaps bring back, the Ark of the Covenant?
Consider the following: Columbus would, as we have seen, had the possibility of learning about the Ark and about Ethiopia. Columbus takes biblical experts and Hebrew speakers, as well as a Hebrew bible, with him on the ship. Columbus does not have on his sails normal Spanish crosses of his day, but has his sails painted with unique Templar crosses. Columbus names his flag ship, the Santa Maria – the Ark of the Covenant is presumably sitting in the Church of St. Mary. And, oh yes, Ethiopia then was considered to be part of the “Indies” – this was then a term given to all areas that abutted or were close to the Indian Ocean – the northern part of Africa had been considered a part of the “Indies” since Roman times.
I have not seen this theory of Columbus propounded by any scholar, although perhaps it has been. But it goes to show you. No matter how much an individual’s life is studied, no matter how prominent the individual was, it remains a mystery.
Perhaps there is something to this narrative. Perhaps not. But it certainly provides substance for a Columbus Day reflection.