Five centuries after his death, Christopher Columbus remains a mysterious and controversial figure. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece all claim the celebrated navigator and explorer as one of their own, yet there are few accurate records pertaining to Columbus' personal life and identity. Years of speculation suggest that most stories about him are probably based on legend. However, one theory seems particularly persistent: For many years, it has been rumored that Christopher Columbus was Jewish or of Jewish descent.
Proponents of the theory point to a variety of known details about the famous explorer, particularly his choice to set sail for the New World on August 2, 1492, the exact date ordained for the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Can we conclude that Christopher Columbus was Jewish?
"It's an interesting story, although most of the evidence is circumstantial," says Tobias Brinkmann, associate professor of Jewish studies and history at Penn State. But the clues are certainly compelling, Brinkmann adds.
Most historians agree that Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa, or modern-day Italy, yet Columbus spoke Spanish fluently, perhaps indicating that the Columbus family was originally from Spain. Spanish-speaking refugees were numerous in mid-15th century Genoa as Jewish families fled the Spanish Inquisition. It's also known that the family profession was weaving, a traditionally Jewish profession at the time, Brinkmann says, and that Jewish given names like Abraham and Jacob were common in the family of Columbus' mother.
Letters and journals attributed to Columbus are studded with references to Jewish scripture and dates from the Jewish calendar, and it is noted that Columbus selected many Jews and conversos—Jews forced to convert to Catholicism to escape persecution—as astrologers, navigators, and translators in his crew.
Despite these intriguing clues, says Brinkmann, there simply isn't enough evidence to draw any firm conclusions. "The mystery will likely never be solved," he notes, adding, "We're talking about events that occurred 500 years ago. I'd be surprised if there was any firm evidence."
But there's another angle to the story. "As a historian, sometimes what actually happened is not as important to me as the stories of how people reacted to events," explains Brinkmann. In this case, he and other historians are most interested in understanding how the idea of a Jewish link to Columbus gained popularity and why the story has persisted.
Theories about the Jewish link are on record as early as 1905, Brinkmann notes: the year of a celebration commemorating the 250th anniversary of the first settlement of Jews in North America. During that celebration, several speakers pointed to the evidence supporting Columbus' Jewish origins, and heralded Columbus as the first American-Jewish hero. Says Brinkmann, "This came at a time in the early twentieth century when American Jews were facing increasing exclusion in the public arena, often being labeled as foreigners. Columbus' Jewish links helped the Jews claim a part in the story of America, almost as if to say, 'We were here all along, and deserve to be recognized.' "
Building settlement stories or "home-making myths" into folklore was common as different ethnic groups became a part of American culture. Explains Brinkmann, Norwegian-Americans claimed Viking Leif Erikson as the first discoverer of America and one of their own, and Italian-Americans also put their claim on Columbus.
Often, these home-making myths become so powerful that they can challenge and transform the facts. On balance, Columbus' Jewish roots are "probably no more than a powerful myth," Brinkmann says—"as most good stories in American history are."