Recent research suggests that Christopher Columbus was a Jew who fabricated his background as a Genoan, but whose writings to his oldest son contained a sign of the Kaddish and whose grand passion was to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims . Why is it important or noteworthy that Christopher Columbus was a “marrano” who pretended to be a Christian but maintained his ultimate loyalty to Judaism? For one, it puts Columbus and his explorations in part of a larger social and religious context that we often ignore when we examine the motives that people had for leaving their kith and kin and traveling (sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes not) to settle other lands.
When I was reading up on Chilean history for my capstone paper doing background research, I found it rather intriguing that Chile’s early presidents were largely related by blood or marriage to each other as a part of a Basque political dynasty. The Basque are an indigenous (so far as we know) people best known for their violent struggle against Spanish domination. I myself carry very little Basque blood myself from an Anglo-Basque fishing family that left England in the 1620’s for religious reasons and went to Massachusetts. You might know them as the Pilgrims and Separatists. I call them my ancestors. I myself am part of this story of people who for social and religious reasons leave their homeland, sometimes just for a journey or an expedition, and sometimes for good, and so I find this story deeply meaningful, if often ignored.
All too often explorers like Columbus are demonized for the slavery and oppression that resulted from European colonialism and imperialism. But consider Columbus, a man driven into the underground because of his religious beliefs and driven to find an escape route from an increasingly rigid and controlled society that was becoming intolerable to himself and to his co-religionists. Jews and Muslims, in 1492, after the fall of Grenada and the “mission accomplished” moment for the Spanish Reconquista, were facing increasingly difficult choices between forced exile or involuntary conversion (with a great deal of mistrust). Why condemn Columbus and other men of his time for seeking to find an escape from a situation most of us would find intolerable?
So, let us admit at the outset that a great deal of colonists had social and religious motivations for “exploration” and settling new lands. One of my ancestors (a Dutch Jewish one, no less) was a prisoner of war in an anti-monarchical revolt in Germany in the early 1700’s and in lieu of execution was transported to the American colonies. His grandson fought on the side of those same American revolutionaries. Neither action was itself a coincidence, even if that ancestor of mine was not a voluntary explorer, but an entirely involuntary one. His removal from Europe to the Americas was done to preserve social and religious systems in those European countries. Many others chose to leave because new lands opened up the opportunities to advance or enjoy freedom that simply were not present at home.
Let us therefore briefly examine the resulting situation from three perspectives. From the point of view of the rulers, if religious and political minorities leave a country and expand the rule and glory of that country abroad, especially with minimal expenditure and the potential for profits from taxation and exploitation, it is the best of both worlds. Internal pressures are released, there is the possibility of external gain (which will be earned largely through the efforts of others), and one’s control over the home area is greatly increased. Small wonder that the increasingly tense world of early modern Europe led to the voluntary and involuntary transportation of tens of millions of people, mostly from Europe and Africa, to new homes for the glory of Atlantic empires. Colonialism and imperialism surely served the interests of those empires so long as it was sufficiently cost-effective through protecting nascent industries and power structures back home.
For the voluntary and involuntary explorers, a variety of different motives impelled them to leave. Some were economically superfluous given drastic changes in land management, where the profit of landowning gentry and nobles mattered more than the concern for the well-being of the people at large. Some were political and religious minorities or hostile tribes whose neighbors and rivals saw as a threat to their own well-being. Some were idealists looking for a better place to practice and spread one’s ideals. Some were greedy and adventuresome and ambitious people for whom the safe and boring ways of home held no charms. Some came by choice, others had no say in the matter. For them, they hoped for dignity and freedom and success, but bore the risk of failure themselves. The governments that ruled over them cared little for their well-being, only what their efforts could bring to the glory and profit of the nations back home, and so they had to form their own communities to preserve their own dignity and well-being, often modeled (wherever possible) on those institutions and ways they knew and loved best, or thought the wisest, or had the ability to achieve.
And, finally, we must come to the peoples facing this massive transfer of population into settler colonies. For them, the conquest and colonization of these lands can only be considered an absolutely disaster. Many lost their lives, their freedom, their dignity, their resources, and their land. Despite their best efforts they were unable ultimately to stem the tide of colonization, because the motives pushing people out of their home countries was too strong to be resisted by the strength those outmatched peoples had at their disposal. Even those of us who think the world gained on the balance must openly admit that some lost, and that some of the ways in which they lost were certainly not entirely just and fair.
But we cannot give all the blame to those who left their countries and colonized new ones. After all, not all of them were driven by greed or hate or ambition. Many of them were driven by fear, or by the simple desire to be free. Sadly, often our freedom and profit and dignity require that others pay some price or suffer some losses. In a world of scarcity and injustice we can scarcely expect our attempts to seek our own well-being to work out perfectly and justly, however best our efforts. At times, our own sense of panic and urgency at our own situation overwhelm our ability (and even our inclination) to spend time and worry thinking about the effect of our efforts at self-preservation on others. ‘Tis a pity that it is so, but ’tis so. And given our own short-sighted behavior in the here and now to secure our present well-being at the risk of future social collapse as a civilization, we have no moral standing to point fingers in condemnation at Christopher Columbus for doing exactly the same thing we are doing ourselves–trying to find any possible escape from the insoluble problems of our times.