The Mysteries of Christopher Columbus
In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enshrined the 12th of October as Columbus Day explaining to our nation that “The promise which Columbus’ discovery gave to the world, of a new beginning in the march of human progress, has been in process of fulfillment for four centuries. Our task is now to make strong our conviction that in spite of setbacks that process will go on toward fulfillment.” There are those today who vigorously dispute the legacy of Columbus’ discovery and early colonization of the New World civilizations that his encounters set in motion. There is no uncertainty though about the time and date of Columbus’ 2 a.m. Oct. 12 sighting of land or his morning encounter on that same day with native American inhabitants of the island chain where his three ships set anchor. Columbus was a rigorous and faithful diarist. We are still able to read his journals for each of his four voyages to the Caribbean. Those entries reveal Columbus to have been a keen observer of the natural world and the human attributes of the first native Americans who swam or rafted out to greet him. Reading his On Board Diary of the First Voyage is be vicariously intimate with his anthropological, botanical, and geographic observations. However, if Columbus, the diarist and adventurer, was an accurate, careful, and sharp observer of his encounters with worlds unknown to himself and his European contemporaries, he was, nonetheless, a man whose personal history was purposefully shrouded in mystery and lack of clarity. I wish to address some of these enigmas and shed light on what I believe to be the true historic origins of Christopher Columbus. Columbus Day in the United States is celebrated as much to commemorate the discoveries of the Admiral of the Seas as well as a source of pride for Italian Americans affirming his purported Italian family origins in the Italian port city of Genoa. There is no dispute that Columbus discovered islands in the Caribbean and mainland Central and South American territories during his four voyages to the New World. However, as Columbus identified and recorded the places and geographical features of the new lands he and his fellow sailors discovered, he set about naming them. In all, 197 place names have been attributed to Columbus. One would imagine that the world of Columbus’ believed-to-be birth city of Genoa and the waters and geographical features of its surrounding Ligurian coast would have been featured prominently in the names he ascribed to the harbors, hills, mountains, and waters encountered. However, there are no names in the Caribbean or the Caribbean Basin area attributed to any geographical regions or natural features taken from that Italian region of Columbus’ alleged birth city or region. There is no New Genoa. There are no Caribbean islands named for the Toscano Archipelago which lies south of Genoa; nor is there a New Corsica or a New Sardinia, both prominent islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea south of Genoa. Instead, most of the names used by Columbus to designate geographical features of the New World can be found in the Spanish Balearic Islands, especially in Ibiza and Formentera as well as the Straits of Gibraltar, Andalusia, the east coast of mainland Spain, the coasts of Morocco, Algeria, and Morocco. If there are no place names referencing Genoa or the Ligurian coast in Columbus’ descriptions of the islands and mainland features he discovered, there is also no evidence of his use of the emerging Italian language of the time in any of his 13 letters, four diaries of exploration, or in his philosophical musings in his Book of Prophecies. While some have suggested Columbus’ Spanish was defective and purportedly showed fossilized evidence of his Italian ancestry and his years in Portugal before arriving in Spain, my own research and that of scholars such as the late Estelle Irizarry and Nito Verdera of Ibiza, Spain, conclusively demonstrate that Columbus’ writings reveal him to have been a code-switching writer of Catalan and Judeo-Spanish, the polyglot language of the Jews of Spain. Spanish historian Nito Verdera, a native of the Catalan-speaking island of the Ibiza, attributes Columbus’ use of Catalan to Columbus’ family origins, tracing its flight from the Catalan-speaking world of Barcelona following the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1391 to Ibiza’s Jewish Quarter. There, in the island’s capital city of Palma, Verdera identified 12 Sant Ciriac Street in the Dalt Vila district of that city near the Carrer dels Jueus (Jewish Street) as the ancestral home of the Nuevo Cristiano (New Christian) Colom (Columbus) family. The Spain of Columbus’ time was a complex hybrid world of three faiths — Catholic, Jewish and Muslim — in which there were also Christians born in Muslim territories; Muslims born in Christian territories; Muslims who remained in Spain after the defeat of Islamic rule; Christians who converted to Islam; and Jews like Columbus’ New Christian family which was forcibly converted to Catholicism. Further unraveling the mystery of the Jewish identity of the historical Columbus, one must refer to his written word and not mere conjecture. In 12 of his 13 letters sent from the Caribbean to Spain, Columbus placed a Hebrew cipher (bet hai) in the upper left hand corner of each of the documents. The strange looking squiggle is actually a code representing the common and still used expression amongst observant Jews, Baruch HaShem, Blessed Be his Name. This seemingly enigmatic mark appeared in all but one of Columbus’ Letters, the one addressed to Queen Isabella of Spain. Columbus, a New Christian, hid his Jewish origins, often resorting to secret, kabalistic messaging. The most mystifying of which was his cryptic signature. Instead of letters which might have spelled out his name, there was a triangular shape with the letters S S A S followed on another line by XMY; and that followed by a third line where :XPOFerens was written. Scholars through the ages puzzled over the signature’s meaning until the 20th century when a rabbi, a researcher, and a linguist working separately were able to untangle the concealed meaning. Given Columbus’ need as a Crypto Jew to hide his true identity, the first group of letters in his signature represented the sacred Hebrew expression Shadai Shadai Adonai Shabatai (Holy, Holy is the Lord On High). The second group of letters XMY represents the Shema, the first lines of the prayer all Jews recite to affirm their monotheistic faith. In 15th century Spanish, the letter X represented the sound of “sh” or ch. Finally, peeling back the last layer of mystery of Columbus’ signature, what appears to be a Greco Latin phrase FERENS has been revealed by researchers to represent the first word of a solemn Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement prayer — a Jew’s confession of faith and cry for forgiveness on that Holy Day. Nosei, is the Hebrew word for the Latin Ferens or Bearer, the O represents Ovon which means unrighteousness. The P stands for Pesha meaning transgression; and finally the X pronounced as either a sh or ch sound in medieval Spanish, meaning Chatai or sin. Columbus was asking for God’s forgiveness, a clear admission of his repentance for having abandoned his Jewish faith and of having become a New Christian. The colon following XPO is called sof pasuq in Hebrew and is a punctuation mark that tells the prayer readers that they have reached the end of a line, Hebrew being written from right to left. Columbus died in 1506 two years after his fourth voyage. We are long past the moment when the history of Columbus — a Jewish Ibizan — should be revised to conform with the linguistic, religious, and personal truths about him; and thus honor his faith and courage.