Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon are, without question, the most famous monarchs in Spanish history. They were the sponsors of Christopher Columbus’ famous journey (although they are villains in Jewish history, having brought the Inquisition to Spain and having expelled all the Jews).
History, however, is not always as it seems. The Spanish monarchs did not rush to support the risky proposal presented to them, even though Columbus’ primary goal was to find a short-cut to India and thus give them an advantage in the international spice trade. Indeed, Columbus’ historic voyage might never have taken place had it not been for the Iberian Jews.
While numerous Jews (including Don Isaac Abrabanel) helped find the funding for Columbus’ expedition, two “conversos” (Jews whose families converted to Christianity but secretly maintained their Jewish heritage, also known as marranos/anusim) played critical roles in securing royal support: Luis de Santangel, finance minister of Aragon, and Raphael “Gabriel” Sanchez, treasurer of Aragon. In fact, these two men received identical letters from Columbus in the first dispatch he sent back. (Read Columbus’ letter to Santangel.)
Luis de Santangel is credited with making the final winning argument to convince Queen Isabella to support Columbus – suggesting that in helping Columbus reach India, the Queen would be able to further the spread of Christianity. there are those who speculate that his true motive was the hope that Columbus would find a safe haven for Jews, whose life in Spain was becoming more and more difficult. In fact, in a grand sweep of irony, Isabella’s written orders for Columbus’ voyage were signed on the same day as the edict of the expulsion of the Jews. (His ships sailed the day after Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av.)
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