Christopher Columbus May Have Been a Secret Jew, and Other Stuff Your History Teacher Never Told You
[Original publication date: August 2017]
“In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue”
This month marks the 525th Anniversary of the embarkation of Columbus and his crew upon his famous journey that brought him to the island of San Salvador in North America. Although Columbus and his journey had been revered for centuries, and criticized in recent years had a great impact on world history, there is an untold story of how Judaism was a part of this undertaking, as well as how this also greatly affected the history of food, especially in one country.
Who Was Columbus?
Christopher Columbus, as he has been known in English, has become universally known for his four trips to North America (which he mistook for India), and establishing the first lasting European settlement in the “New World” for the King and Queen of Portugal, taking three ships; the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. For years, he was celebrated in America (and elsewhere) for discovering America and the basic facts about his voyage were taught to school children.
What is not taught in school is that Columbus may have been Jewish. In Spanish, he was known as Cristóbal Colón. Although the theory of Columbus’s Jewish roots is not new, a number of Spanish Scholars recently provided factual back-up to this theory based on Columbus’s own will and testament (dated May 19, 1506). But first, a little history lesson:
Beginning in the 13th Century, the rulers began a series of armed campaigns to rid their lands of the Moors/Muslims. Europe had rid itself of most Muslims by the mid-15th century, and some Kingdoms, like the Spanish Empire, had consolidated into European powers. Although the Jews during this time period were subject to occasional period of anti-Semitism (e.g., the Pogroms of 1391), many Jewish communities flourished. By the mid 1400s, with the Muslims out of the way, the rulers began to consolidate their followers into one religion, Catholicism. Powers, such as Spain began forcing their subject to convert to Catholicism, leave the country, or be put to death. This became even more prevalent, and violent, in the late 1400s when the church began putting a great deal of pressure on the recently married King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They had originally been friends to Jews, and even surrounded themselves with Jewish nobility and scholars. However, the pressure from the church was too great and they banished Jews from their territories in 1492 (the Alhambra Decree), and the Pope sent Inquisitors to make sure that this was carried out. Many Jews converted to Christianity to avoid this banishment or punishment, and the Spanish referred to them as conversos. However, there were many that converted publicly, but still secretly practiced Judaism – these individuals were known as marranos (“secret Jews”).
Although many Jews converted, the Spanish authorities were distrustful of the conversos. They would conduct investigations that included brutal beatings and torture if they suspected anyone of being a marranos. They would do cruel and unusual things to make the conversos admit to practicing Judaism, and to rat out any other marranos they knew about. And punishment by death was sometimes conducted by being burned at the stake. [They never taught you these things about the good king and queen back in school either.] So, being a Jew, even one that had previously converted, was something that a person would need to suppress if they were to survive in Europe at that time. [Fast Fact: The Inquisition was not only limited to Spain. It was also prevalent in Portugal. This even had tried to rear its evil head in Italy, and began in Sicily, but it was unable to expand or take hold in that country. The Inquisition continued in Spain and Portugal until the 1800s. Even after Joseph Bonaparte suppressed the Inquisition in 1808, Ferdinand VII restored it when he came to power in 1814. It was officially ended in Portugal in 1821 and Spain in 1834. [Fast Fact: Don’t just think that the Inquisition was solely for the prosecution of Jews and Muslims, the Inquisitors went after Protestants with the same veracious tenacity. Thousands of Protestants died directly by the tribunals, with tens of thousands more dying due to maltreatment and torture.]
Now that the background has been laid out, it is easy to see why a converso or marrano living in late 15th century Southern Europe would want to hide all traces of their Jewish heritage. This may be what happened in the case of Columbus, and his family according to historians Jose Erugo, Celso Garcia de la Riega, Otero Sanchez, and Nicholas Dias Perez. They back up their hypothesis on several supported and unsupported facts, including his last will and testament.
Some of the reasoning (by the above scholars and others) behind the theory of Columbus being a secret Jew includes the following:
- Although mainstream historians have stated that he was born in Genoa, Italy (and also briefly lived in Savona, Italy, before going off to sea at age 10. However, little is known of his early childhood, and he has always been vague on that subject. There are theories that he may have actually been born in the Catalan region of Spain. The most compelling reason is that he always wrote in Spanish and never wrote anything in his supposed “native” language – Italian. In addition, he referred to himself as Cristóbal Colón. Historians that have analyzed his writing and phonetics, and claim that they are typical of someone living in the Catalan region at that time.
- Author Walter McEntire, in his Book “Was Christopher Columbus a Jew?” claims that his mother comes from a Jewish family (Ponti Rossi). His mother’s name, Susanna, probably was Shushana, a Hebrew name, when she was born. He also claims that when you look at portraits of Columbus, that they show Semitic characteristics. However, James S. Mellet, PhD, states that Columbus did have a Jewish mother, but she was Izabel Gonçalves Zarco, a Sephardic Jew and was illegitimately fathered by Dom Fernando, Duke of Beja – and was born in Cuba, Alantejo, Portugal. Mellet’s theory helps to explain how Columbus was able to associate so freely with those in the circles of high society and nobility.
- In his will, he provided at a tithe (one tenth) of the income from his estate be given to the poor, and also to make an anonymous dowry to poor girls. Both of these are Jewish customs.
- Also in his will was a provision to give money to a Jewish man that lived at the entrance to the Lisbon Jewish Quarter.
- He left money in his will to support the Crusade to free the Holy Land. In Carol Delany, a cultural anthropologist suggests that Columbus’s desire to go Asia was to obtain enough gold to provide the funds to conquer the Holy Land and free Jerusalem from the rule of the Moors in order to provide a safe haven for Jews, and rebuild the Temple. In Columbus’s Libro de la Primera Navegacion, he infers that the reason for his going to “India” made necessary by the Moors being driven out of Spain.
- A notation by Pope Pius II (in Historia Rerum Unique Gestarum) indicates that Columbus used both the Gregorian and Jewish calendars.
- Columbus was taken under the wing of Count De Credo. When Columbus needed some influence with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, he him to his cousin Cardinal De Mendoza. Mendoza and Credo shared the same grandmother, who was born Jewish.
- He used a signature of dots and letters on this document that has also been found on Jewish tombstones throughout Spain.
It is theorized that these letters are a cryptological symbolism for the Kaddish (Jewish prayer of mourning), so that his sons would be able to say Kaddish for him when he died without giving away any reference to their ancestry.
- Most of Columbus’s personal letters were written in a dialect know as Ladino (or Castilian Spanish), which is a Jewish version of the Spanish language; like Yiddish is to German. This was not used by the common Spaniard of the time.
- Columbus would write notations in his books, many times citing the Old Testament. In one instance he referred to the Holy Second Temple as Casa secunda (“Second Temple”) – a reference rarely used by non-Jews at the time.
- At the top left of 12 of the 13 known letters to his son Diego, he added an inscription that some, such as linguist Estelle Irizarry, believe to be the Hebrew letters bet-hei (meaning B’Ezrat Hashem – translating to “with G-ds help).” This inscription is not on any letters to anyone outside the family, and the letter to Diego that did not contain the inscription was also meant to be seen by the king.
- On March 31, 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella made a proclamation that all Jews were to either convert or leave their kingdom by August 1st, or be executed. [Fast Fact: Many other countries in Europe had expelled Jews in their countries years before.] There is evidence that Columbus hired at least one, but probably many other marranos to travel with him so that they could avoid persecution. The known Jewish adventurer was known as Luis de Torres (born Yoseph ben HaLevi HaIvri and “converted” two days before leaving). Torres was specifically hired so that Columbus could communicate with any Jews found living in the courts of the Asian rulers (or if they found one of the lost tribes of Israel). [Fast Fact: The first Jewish Synagogue in the Bahamas (Freeport), was named after Torres]. There are at least four other crew members that are thought to be secretly Jewish, including Alonso de Calle, Rodrigo de Sanchez, Dr. Marco (surgeon), and Maestre Bernal. One anomaly to consider about this voyage is that there were no Catholic priests on board.
- The first Voyage of Columbus was originally planned to leave on August 2nd, which was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av. It has been suggested that Columbus intentionally stalled a day so that he would not leave on the holiday.
There were other Jewish connections to Columbus and his voyages to the New World that are not readily learned in school. For instance, much of the money used to fund the expedition was not from the king and queen, but from many converso Jews such as, Alfonso de la Caballeria, Juan Cabrero, Louis de Santangel, Gabriel Sanchez, and Rabbi Don Isaac Abramanel. In fact, the first letter written by Columbus back to Europe was not to King Ferdinand of Queen Isabella, but to Santangel and Sanchez. Rabbi Abraham Senior (he became a converso in 1492) was a smaller financier, but had huge influence upon the king and queen. [These four men all had interesting lives, and might be the focus of a future article.] Why were so many Jewish financiers interested in sending Columbus on his voyage? A number of historians speculate that due to the edict banishing Jews from Spain, Columbus might be able to find a new place for Jews to escape and live without persecution. While this may or may not have been true, it foreshadowed the fact that Columbus’s voyages provided the spark for the exploration of North America, which spawned the birth of the United States, which fosters and protects religious freedoms to all its citizens.
Although there is only a collateral connection to Columbus’ possible Jewish heritage, there were many additional Jews that were integral in making this, or any sea voyage possible. It was a Jew (before being expelled from Spain) that created the first metal astrolabe and many of the astronomical tables that Columbus used on his voyages. Columbus had also consulted with Joseph Diego Mendes Vezinho, a Portuguese converso, who also created a number of astronomical tables and nautical instruments, including his works on establishing location and direction while at sea were indispensible for Columbus and all other ship captains. Although Jews are not usually thought of as a seafaring people, there more Jews before Columbus that had helped the evolution of maritime navigation such as: Levi ben Gershon (cross-staff/baculus Jacob), Jacob ben Machir ibn Tibbon (quadrant Judaicus), and Rabbi Abraham Zacuto (astronomical charts) [Fast Fact: Zacuto’s tables were written in Hebrew and used by Columbus.]. There were many instruments created by Jayme Ribes (named Jehudah Cresques before he was forced to convert), who eventually became director of the famed School of Navigation founded by Henry the Navigator. [Fast Fact: King Ferdinand’s own grandmother (Paloma of Toledo) was born Jewish, and Isabella was delivered by a Jewish doctor (Maestre Semaya).]
The most disturbing thing (IMHO) about Columbus’s possible Jewish connection, and one that flies in the face of everything provided above, is the fact that he mentions in his writings that his voyages are being financed by the confiscation of Jewish wealth and property due to the banishment of Jews from Spain, but he does not mention any disapproval of this atrocity. In fact, in his Journal of the First Voyage, he begins with a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, which includes the banishment of Jews as one of their accolades:
“So after having expelled the Jews from your dominions, Your Highnesses, in the same month of January, ordered me to proceed with sufficient armament to the said region of India.”
So thus, in a more direct, yet cruel way, it was the desecration of the Jewish communities of Spain — their misfortune, mistreatment, torture, and death of many thousands of Jews, that paid for the exploration of the New World. It is estimated that between 160,000 and one million Spanish Jews left Spain in 1492 against their will. Although the Jews immigrated to various other parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, besides the Netherlands in Europe, it was the Ottoman Empire that took them in and treated them most favorably in comparison to the other locations they took refuge (just like it was a Muslim country such as Albania that gladly took in and helped Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during WWII). [Fast Fact: Queen Isabella was considered for canonization as a Saint in 1974 for her contribution to spreading Catholicism to the New World. However, after very strong opposition from Muslim and Jewish groups, they dropped the idea.] On the other hand, if he had written any disapproval of what the church was doing, in the environment of that time, it would have been considered heresy. For someone that (allegedly) tried to keep his ties to Judaism a secret, he would have been smart enough not to write any such ideas on paper which could be found and used against him – even in his personal journals.
Even if the above discussion throws light upon his Jewish heritage, was he a secretly practicing Jew? Regardless of which story of his Jewish birth is to be believed, how much Jewish education would he have received? There are also historians that believe that he was a Messianic Jew; one who combines elements of Judaism with the belief in Jesus. Because of the bigotry against non-Catholics of any kind at the time and the lack of information on his early personal life, we may never know for sure.
The Columbus Controversy
While some of the Hebraic faith would like to welcome Columbus with open arms, others would rather not have him associated with Jewish history and culture. The explorer and adventurer also had a dark side that is also not taught in school.
Over the last few years, the mention of Columbus, especially on social media, can get one severely chastised. With the current temperament in society, the negatives of historical figures have come under fire, regardless of the good they may have also done. For instance, universities taking down pictures or changing the names of buildings because the person depicted or the building being named after had a dark past beyond their sanitized history we learn in school.
A Dark Side
In school we learned that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. Although this is now being taught as untrue, that myth still continues on today. The fact is, he failed at finding an ocean trade route to India, and stumbled upon an Island in North America. What we were told is that he set up a settlement there (the first long-lasting settlement in the New World; actually the first settlement (called La Navidad) was destroyed, it was after his second voyage that permanent settlements were set up), but not the effects that it had upon the local populace. Columbus set out to convert the local population to Christianity, and also to use them as slave labor. Many of the inhabitants that were not wiped out by the diseases the Europeans were brutalized by their new overlords.
Upon landing, Columbus noted how impressed he was by the hospitality and friendliness of the native (Arawaks). Columbus immediately claimed the land in the name of Spain and put the natives to work in mines. It took only two years for half of the population (about 125,000 people) to be killed off. He even wrote about selling 9 and 10 year old native girls into sexual slavery. Some of the brutality included the cutting off of native’s noses and ears, burning them at the stake, and setting attach dogs upon the natives. Although most of the acts may not have been committed directly by Columbus himself, as Governor he either approved of them or did nothing to stop them from occurring.
The brutality was so bad that he was arrested in 1500 and literally brought back to Spain in chains. One of Columbus’s men (Bartolome De Las Casas) was so mortified by the inhumanities he observed, that he left his service and became a Catholic priest. In his journal he had written “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.” King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella let Columbus go free because their treasury was growing from the wealth of the Island and the newly created slave trade. However, he did lose his Governorship, much of his prestige, and wealth, but he did make a fourth and final voyage. Historians estimated that there about 3 million inhabitants in the Caribbean islands when Columbus arrived. In 20 years, the number was cut down to about 60,000. After 50 years, practically no natives were still alive; it was genocide.
Birth and Death
Just as there is controversy as to how Columbus lived his life, as we have learned, there is also controversy as to where he was born and even where he was buried. Much of his early life is not really known. Even his date of birth is not known – although most believe that it was in 1451.
In connection to his possible Jewish roots, I had mentioned two possible places of his birth, but many countries claim him as their own:
- Genoa, Italy. This is the supposed birthplace of Columbus and has been listed as such for hundreds of years. Most historians still believe this to be his true homeland. Columbus even mentions this in his own letters.
- Catalan region of Spain. Columbus only wrote in Spanish using a Catalan dialect. He also referred to himself as Christobal Colum – which is Spanish.
- Peru, Portugal. There is a theory he was born to a Portuguese Duke, which may explain how he had so many friends in the aristocracy.
- Greece. This is a theory by scholar Seraphim G. Canoutas, based on text written by Columbus’s son regarding his father’s voyages with Colmbo the Younger, with ties to Greece – and there are ties between some Greek families and those in Genoa Italy.
- Poland. There are two theories. One that claims that Columbus is the Son of King Wladslaw III (history records him as dying in 1444, but the theory states that he did not die, but hid on the island of Madeira, where he married a noblewoman named Filipa Moniz Perestrelo and gave birth to Columbus). The other theory is that Columbus was a spy of Poland based on the similarities between the coat of arms of King of Poland at the time and Columbus’s own coat of arms.
- There are also claims that Columbus was born in Norway, France, and even Scotland.
The date of the death of Columbus, May 20, 1506, is not disputed. He died in Valladolid, Spain two years after returning from his fourth voyage. It is the location of his remains that have been a controversy. His body was interred in Seville, Spain. However, the journeyman in life was a journeyman in death as well. In 1542, his remains were moved on his posthumous fifth voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Santa Domingo (modern day Dominican Republic). The journey did not end there. When France took over the island in 1795, his remains were moved to Havana, Cuba. A century later, after Cuba’s independence in 1898, the remains took another transatlantic journey when they moved back to Seville (Cathedral of Seville). HOWEVER . . . . . In 1877, a lead box containing skeletal remains and a bullet with the inscription “Don Christopher Columbus” was found in Santa Domingo, and they have claimed them to be his actual bones. In 2003, A DNA test showed that at least some of the remains in Seville could have been from Columbus himself. However, authorities in the Dominican Republic have not allowed a DNA test to be conducted. [But wouldn’t it be apropos for his remains to be buried in both the old world as well as the new?] [Fast Fact: The heirs of Columbus sued Spain for unpaid sums of monies due to him when he was alive. The suit was not finally settled until 1790.]
Discovery of America
Columbus discovered America. This was an undisputed fact taught to school children for centuries. Not only was he not the first to discover America, he was not even the first European to do so. Below is a list of some other “explorers” that have been purported to have visited the Americas before Columbus (i.e., the “Pre-Columbian” explorers):
- Early Asians. Recent studies show that people from Asia first came to North America between 15,000 and 23,000 Years ago. (Two independent studies in 2015 researching DNA evidence came to differing conclusions as to where in Asia they originated). However, there is DNA evidence of people living on the continent about 14,700 years ago (with the earliest actual burial site dated to 12,700 years ago). These were the first true discoverers of America, the Native Americans. However, some recent evidence shows that these early arrivals may have come here from Asia via boat since the land bridge was probably impassable when the earliest immigrants settled here.
- Ancient Egyptians. Tobacco and Cocoa beans (as well as cocaine and nicotine) only grown in South America at that time have been found buried with mummies buried almost 3000 years ago.
- Ancient Israelites. The Book of Mormon explains that Lehi the prophet came to the Americas about 2800 years ago.
- Ancient Israelites. There is a theory that one of the Lost Tribes of Israel sailed to the New World at sometime around 2700 BCE.
- Irish. There are stories passed down through generations that Saint Brendan the Navigator sailed to North America (possibly Nova Scotia) about 2600 years ago, but no evidence exists to prove this claim. Another tangential claim is that an Irish Monk had visited America (at Groton Connecticut) in the 5th Recent translation of medieval Spanish documents may show an Irish sailing to the Carolinas with possible collaborating physical proof at the Reinhardt Boulder.
- Romans. A small terracotta roman head was found under a pre-Columbian structure in Mexico that has been dated to have been sculpted between 870 BCE and 1270 BCE. Although there is little debate over the age of the head, the veracity of the person that “discovered” and his methodology it is in doubt.
- Mongolians. Based on theories of the origin of the East Bay Walls (mysterious walls in Northern California), the Mongolians may have visited the Americas at some time in the past.
- Polynesians. According to DNA evidence, some Polynesian explorers may have made it to the Americas between the 6th and 8th However, scientists are baffled by this because they did not have the correct ships for long seafaring voyages. One piece of evidence is the existence of sweet potatoes and chicken bones, which originated in the Americas, were found on Polynesian islands in the 1700s, when Europeans first landed there.
- Vikings. There is evidence that the first Europeans to travel to North America were the Vikings, who did so under the leadership of Leif Erikson around the year 1000. Many Viking artifacts from that age have been found in Nova Scotia, Canada.
- Welchs. In the 12th century, Prince Madoc returned from a sea voyage in which he described a strange land in the West. In the year 1171 he went on another voyage, never to be seen from again. Some early explorers to North America mention a native group known as the Mandans, who had lighter skin and spoke a Welsh-like language. However, this theory has been widely discredited.
- Malian. There is a legend that the Emperor of Mali, Abu Bakr II, advocated his crown, gave up his wealth and sailed west with 200 ships in 1311. No evidence has ever been found to give credence to this story.
- Scottish. Admiral Henry Sinclair sailed west to find a “fertile land” in 1390. He planned to return, but died in battle in 1400. Although there is no actual evidence that he landed in North America, when his grandson built a chapel in his honor, sculptures of cacti and corn plants only found in North America were carded into its façade.
- Chinese. Chinese Explorer Zheng He may have stumbled upon the Americas when lost at sea in the 1400s. However, the only evidence of this was an old Chinese map found (possibly from 1418) that shows the American continents. However, most experts claim the map to be a fake.
- Portuguese. It is known that Columbus had used maps of the Atlantic Ocean created by the Portuguese. Some of these maps (by Andreas Bianco and others) from the early to mid 1400s show areas of the North American Coastline, such as Newfoundland, and more importantly, Bianco’s 1448 map shows islands with the names of Brazil and Antilla. In addition, there was a map by Henricus Martellus (from Italy, but map possibly made for Portugal) between 1485 and 1491 that also showed the New World. Columbus may have seen all of these maps before setting sail. Some experts believe that these maps were made from connecture, speculation, and mythology, while others believe them to be from actual voyages by Portuguese sailors. Some historians believe that these maps were commissioned by the King of Portugal as a red herring for Columbus so that Spain would waste its time on a foolish errand, while they secured the known trade routes going Eastward.
- Ancient Aliens. It might be foolhardy to include this, but there are theories of ancient alien races visiting the Earth, and the Americas thousands of years ago (e.g., Puma Punku, Nazca lines, Star Children, ancient iron smelting sites, skeletons of giants, etc., etc.). Believe what you like about Ancient Aliens, but this article would be incomplete without at least this brief mention.
Columbus Day Celebrations
When Columbus returned from his first voyage, he became an instant celebrity throughout Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. Since 1492, people have been singing his praise, celebrating holidays in his name, building statues in his honor, and naming streets and cities after him. [Fast Fact: Columbus’s fame did not spread throughout the rest Europe. It was Amerigo Vespucci, a decade later, who gained fame after he published his reports from subsequent voyages he took to the New World. This new continent was named after him when map-maker Martin Waldseemuller used his findings to create a map in 1507. He Latinized Amerigo’s name, then feminized it (since countries, like ships, are named after females). Also note, there is a great deal of controversy in the academic world as to the works produced by Vespucci.]. Although Columbus Day became a federal holiday in the United States in 1937, it was celebrated in various cities throughout the 18th century. The first known celebration was in 1792, sponsored by the Columbian-Order in New York. Italian and Catholic groups around the country embraced this idea and began to hold celebrations each year. In 1892, President Harrison made a Columbus Day proclamation. However, it was not until 1937, after a great amount of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, that Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day an official federal holiday. It was originally observed on October 12th (to correspond with his landing in the Bahamas), but in 1971 it was subsequently changed to be observed on the second Monday of October.
But with everything else Columbus, this holiday has also caused controversy. There was a big push-back by the anti-immigration movement in the late 1800s because of its pro-Catholic association. As facts about Columbus’s governorship became better known in recent years, Native Americans and other groups began protesting these celebrations for his genocide of the indigenous people in Hispaniola. Some cities and states have created alternate holidays, such as “Native American Day” in South Dakota, Discoverer’s Day (to commemorate the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers), and
In Latin America, many countries celebrate Dia de la Raza (“Day of the Race”). In 1892, Mexico (then ruled by Porfino Diaz) had a huge celebration in honor of Columbus coming to the America on October 12th. This celebration took hold. In 1918, Antonio Caso (a Spanish philosopher) wanted to use the opportunity of this event to celebrate the coming together of the Spanish and indigenous cultures. The “race” being the Mesitzo race; a person being of a mixed race (usually Spanish and Native American). The celebration became official in Mexico in 1928, and has spread to most other countries in Latin and South America. However, in South America the opposition to the glorification of Columbus had been going on for a few centuries. In 1836, a historian named Don Carlos María de Bustamante wrote that Columbus coming to the Americas was “the most villainous day there could ever be in America; the day its slavery was established.” Although it took many years, in 1992, one of the positives to come from this controversy has been the creation of the Latin American Fund for the Development of the Indigenous People of Latin America and the Caribbean, which was established to bring wellbeing and recognition to native populations. Also note that some South American countries have reimaged this celebration into something more meaningful, such as Dìa de la Resistencia Indìgena (“Day of Indigenous Resistance”), to recognize the culture and contribution of Native people. In the Bahamas, they celebrate “Discovery Day,” and Costa Rica celebrates “Day of the Cultures.”
In Spain, the country where Columbus set out for his journeys, celebrates Hispanic Day each October 12th to celebrate Columbus’s accomplishment. Interestingly, Italy does not have a national holiday for Columbus. However, the town of Genoa, Italy (where he may have been born) does put on some celebrations for their famous son.
There are dozens of geographical locations (towns, cities, etc.) that have been named after Christopher Columbus, 54 of them in the United States alone. There are many streets, schools, buildings, and other places named for him as well. In addition, hundreds of monuments have been erected in his honor (Columbus Monument Pages lists 600 of them, including photo and basic information). [Fast Fact: the first statue created in his honor was in the 16th century and it stands in Palazzo di San Giorgio, in Genoa, Italy. The earliest statue of Columbus in America erected in 1792 can be found in Herring Run Park, in Baltimore, Maryland (USA).] Once again, controversy once again surrounds Columbus in regards to his monuments. Just as institutions have recently been renaming buildings and taking down monuments to historical figures and events such as the recent Civil War monuments in New Orleans, the monuments Christopher Columbus is also at risk. This includes the famous 197 foot statue in Barcelona, where a few council members are trying to gain support to tear down it down since it “inappropriately celebrates the explorer’s colonial history.”
[Opinion: I usually try not to interject my own opinion into these articles, especially when it comes to matters of politics, but I will make an exception here. History is important. Remembering history, especially that history which should never be repeated, should never be erased. Taking down statues of slave owners does not erase what happened. Instead of erasing it, use it as an opportunity to teach and to remind others not to repeat such atrocities. Maybe add a plaque to the statue to educate people. As a Jew, one may ask me, what about a monument to the Nazis? If it is a historical statue added at the time of their occupation and is currently displayed somewhere, I would say that these statues should not be taken down, but once again used as an item to educate people. The worst thing would be for the history to be forgotten, so that these things can happen again. However, I would have to consider whether I would be okay with a brand new statue commemorating the Nazis were erected. I would have to weigh the First Amendment rights with the action (regardless of how stupid it is) – and would that action cause anyone actual harm. In the case of Columbus, although he was, by accounts, a cruel person, he did take the chance to travel west, which in turn (for good or bad) fostered the expansion of Europeans into the Americas. As to the Civil War monuments, I would tear them down, especially the one commemorating Jefferson Davis, who willed the deed for his estate to a former slave.]
As a final note on Cristóbal Colón, ironically, although he is known throughout the world in connection to his voyages to the Americas, he believed, even to his dying day, that he had discovered a route to India.
Tomatoes – Columbus’ Gift from the New World
Although historians cannot be sure of whether Columbus was born in Italy, if it was not for Columbus daring to go west, Italy may not have become famous for its tomato sauces. Tomatoes were not introduced to Italy or Europe until the early 16th century. They are indigenous to South America (around the area of Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador), and probably did not become cultivated until the early 8th century by the Aztecs and the Incas.
But, even here, there is debate. Although some credit Columbus for bringing tomatoes back to Europe, there are also theories that it may have been other Spanish Conquistador, Hernán Cortés, in 1591, who brought back the seeds of the yellow variety back to Spain as an ornament. [Fast Fact: Cortes is the person known for bringing the fall of the Aztec Empire.] Another legend credits two Jesuit priests for bringing tomatoes directly from Mexico to Italy, who brought back the red variety in the 18th century.
Tomatoes were not a big hit when they first arrived on the shores of Europe. They were first planted as a decorative plant in gardens. Eventually, Spain began using their “fruits” as food, which subsequently made its way into the kitchens of Italy. The tomato was originally thought to be poisonous. When the tomato first made its way to Europe, it was first served in the houses of the aristocracy. However, many of their plates were made from pewter. The acidity of the tomatoes would remove the lead from the plates, which was consumed leading to sickness and death. So the poor tomato took the blame and was frowned upon, especially in Northern Europe for almost two centuries.
There is also a second reason for the poison tomato myth which stems from even before they made their arrival. Upon reaching European shores, they were classified as part of the atropa belladonna family of plants, more commonly known as “deadly nightshade.” This group of plants also included eggplants, tomatoes, and mandrake. Although all of these plants are related, they are part of the much large solanum genus, which contains a very diverse number of plants, both toxic and edible. [Fast Facts: The roots of the belladonna plant is extremely poisonous, and has been used as such for centuries (it was used to kill Emperor Claudius by his wife); and the mandrake is mentioned in Genesis 30:16 as being used in a love potion.] This poisonous distinction was made by John Gerard in his 1597 book on horticulture, Herball. Much of what was in this book was inaccurate, and supposedly the information on the tomato was added incorrectly due to a printing deadline, which doomed the tomato in both Northern Europe and the colonies of North America for almost two centuries. [Fast Fact: The tomato had another setback in the mid 1800s, when tomato worms over four inches began becoming prevalent. A rumor began to spread that these worms were dangerous, and spray poison out of their mouths.]
I cannot write about tomatoes in an article such as this without mentioning another Jew’s influence on this food. The first female captain of industry was a Jewish woman by the name of Tillie Lewis, who popularized tomatoes throughout the United States beginning in the mid-1950s through the sale of canned tomatoes, which made this vegetable available around the country all year long. [Note that I will be delving into the life Tillie Lewis in an upcoming article I am writing on everyone’s favorite food . . . . pizza.]
Tomatoes not only taste good, but are good for you. They include large amounts of lycopene, an antioxidant that is good for the body and maybe effective to treat certain cancers. Tomatoes also include vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and potassium.
Today, tomatoes are eaten all over the globe, and there are over 7500 different varieties. The United States alone grows over 3 million tons of tomatoes each year. [Fast Fact: In the town of Bunol, Spain, they celebrate the festival of La Tomatina (on the last Wednesday of August), in which over 40,000 people have a tomato fight. It is estimated that about 150,000 tomatoes are hurled at each other.] They are eaten raw, cooked in various ways (healthier when heated), used in a huge variety of sauces from salsa in Mexico to Sunday gravy in Italy to the sauce poured over the pasta at my last Men’s Club Pasta Extravaganza in my town. Tomatoes added to all types of dishes, including some delicious soups, like a basic tomato soup or a tomato-based gazpacho.
Cold Soup: A Gazpacho Tale
“De gazpacho no hay empacho”
[“You can never get too much of a good thing or too much Gazpacho”
– an old Spanish proverb]
Merriam-Webster defines gazpacho as “a spicy soup that is usually made from chopped raw vegetables (such as tomato, onion, pepper, and cucumber) and that is served cold.” The most common being the tomato-based gazpacho. The origin of gazpacho, which dates back to the times of the Roman Empire, was nothing like the dish we eat today. It’s beginnings started out as a blend of stale bread (best if a week old), olive oil, garlic, along with some regionally grown vegetables and nuts. This would be pounded into mortar, and then a liquid was added (e.g., water or vinegar). The dish evolved in each distinct region, each with its own variation.
Gazpacho may have first been created by Roman soldiers that carried dried breads, garlic, and vinegar with them to form the basis of the soup. Historians state that the dish became popular in the southern region of Spain known as Andalucía. Centuries ago, the workers in the hot fields were given rations of bread and oil, and along with some vegetables, and water, they would make this soup-like dish. It was traditionally made in a large bowl called a dornillo. In the 8th century, when the Moors took over Spain, they brought ajo blanco with them, which is a cold soup dish very similar to gazpacho (and also has Roman roots) and sometimes referred to as “white gazpacho.” The culinary infusion of these two cultures transformed this dish into a regional staple.
Now back to Columbus. It is very likely that he ate gazpacho on his voyages. However, he also had an impact on the dish as well. Remember, it was Columbus who opened up the water route to the Americas, which, in turn, allowed the Europeans to return with various “contemporary” vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. These new-found ingredients were infused into the dish, transforming it into the version you are more familiar with today.
The dish was not well known beyond the Andalucían region until the late 1800s or early 20th century, when Eugenia de Montijo (wife of Napoleon III) began spreading it to other parts of Spain. However, the dish did make its way over to the United States by the early-1800s and a recipe for gazpacho appeared in the 1824 edition of The Virginia Housewife. The etymology of the word is not known. One popular theory is that it comes from the Mozarab word caspa, which means “fragments” for the pieces of vegetables and other items in the soup. [Fast fact: Mozarabs are the Christians that lived under the rule of the Moors in Spain. In contrast to the subsequent Inquisition, they were allowed to practice Christianity, although they had to swear allegiance to the caliph, among other restrictions. Christians that converted are known as to as muwalladun.] Interestingly, another possible source of the word comes from the Hebrew word gazaz (גָּזַז), meaning to “shear” or “break into pieces” in reference to the breaking of the bread for the soup.
The Fruit vs. Vegetable Debate
“Knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad” [Brian O’Driscoll]
When we were kids, adults tried to confuse us by calling tomatoes fruits, but then telling us that they are fruits. What gives? Scientifically, according to botanists, tomatoes are a fruit. They are developed from the ovary of the plant and contain seeds. However, because they are savory and not sweet, and have been cooked and prepared as vegetables for eons before science classified them as such, they are vegetables when cooking or food is concerned.
The Supreme Court of the United States in the 1890s made the distinction very murky (Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893)), when the U.S. Customs Agency tried to categorize tomatoes for whether they fit under U.S. Tariff laws as a vegetable or a fruit. The Court held that they are to be considered vegetables for application under the tariff law due to the way they are used by the average person. However, the court did not change the scientific categorization of tomatoes as a fruit. Tomatoes are the state fruit of Ohio, but they are the state vegetable of New Jersey. Arkansas tried to stay unbiased on the issue and named the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato as both the state’s fruit and vegetable. Also note, tomato juice is the state fruit of Ohio.
[NOTE: THIS ARTICLE IS NOT YET FINISHED]
Tillie Lewis (mention now – go into during pizza article next year)
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