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As young children, most of us here in the US learned that the year 1492 was a special one. In school, we may have learned the simple poem, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”

It really was a momentous year in history, but not only for Spain, the country that Christopher Columbus sailed for. It was also an incredibly eventful year for much of Europe, the Middle East, and the entire Western hemisphere. The voyage led to incredible wealth and world prominence for Spain. It opened the doors to the Americas for other colonizing countries, but for the Indigenous Americans it was the worst nightmare imaginable.

The events leading up to what happened in 1492 can be traced back to 1469, when Prince Ferdinand of Aragon (Eastern Iberian Peninsula to the Pyrenees), married Princess Isabella of Castile (central Iberian Peninsula to the Bay of Biscay). Their marriage was arranged to unite the two large provinces and it basically created the country we know as Spain.

Columbus

When most people think of the year 1492, they think of Christopher Columbus, so I’ll begin with him. Columbus had previously failed to sell his idea of reaching Asia by sailing West after presenting it to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain.  But finally, in 1489, he was successful in gaining the sponsorship of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

Columbus was probably unaware that the Viking, Leif Erikson, had explored the coast of Newfoundland and established a temporary colony there some five hundred years earlier. Even if he knew of Erikson’s voyages, Columbus certainly couldn’t have known that Erikson’s Vinland was part of a previously unknown continent.

The Voyage

Columbus left Spain on August 3rd and arrived in the islands of the Bahamas on October 12th. What happened during his time in the “New World” would be debated for centuries, but a great book to read about that period is Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages That Led to America. He would make three more voyages to the “New World” over the next ten years but never realize what he had discovered. All that time he thought he was exploring in the vicinity of Indonesia or Japan, but in fact he had found the continent of South America and islands near the North American continent. These places were all previously unknown to Europeans of his time.

It’s a little-known fact that Columbus was a devout Christian who sought treasure to finance another crusade to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land. At the time, many Christians were interested in mounting another crusade, especially since Constantinople, the last remains of the Roman Empire had fallen to the Ottoman Turks as recently as 1453.

That was a very brief overview of Columbus and his first voyage. That voyage overlapped other very important events that year and wasn’t even the most important event for Spain. Due to the snail-paced communication in those days, nothing would be known about Columbus’s discoveries, or even if he was still alive, until he returned on March 15, 1493.

The Reconquista

In 711, Muslim armies from North Africa landed on the southern Iberian Peninsula (the region of Spain and Portugal). After conquering much of the Middle East and gaining control of the Persian Empire, the Arabs had extended their empire across North Africa. From there, they could see Spain. They planned to conquer as much of Europe as possible while they had the momentum. By 732 they had overrun the Visigoth-controlled peninsula and entered present-day France. There, an army of Christians led by the Frank, Charles Martel, ended the Muslim’s northward progression.

The Reconquista is Spanish for “reconquest”. They hoped that the campaign would drive the African Muslims, or Moors, off the peninsula in a reasonable amount of time. The reconquest began with a major Christian victory at the Battle of Covadonga around 720. Unfortunately for the Christians, the rest of the campaign didn’t go as well and in 1491, almost eight hundred years later, the Spanish were still trying to drive the Muslims out.

The Alhambra in Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain.

 

On November 25, 1491, after an eight-month siege, the last remaining Muslim stronghold of Granada fell to the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella. On January 2, 1492, the defeated Moors departed Spain, and the Spanish were finally able to address other issues that they had put on the back burner.

Expelling the Jews

The Jews had a good life in Spain under Islamic rule. They participated in society and Muslim rulers allowed them to practice their religion and live in peace. They didn’t have full citizenship, but they were respected and apparently content. The Jewish people were definitely treated better under the Moors than they were in Christian-ruled territories.

On March 31, 1492, after expelling the Muslims from the peninsula, the Spanish rulers issued the “Alhambra Decree”, also known as the “Edict of Expulsion”. To purify the country of other unwanted influences, Ferdinand and Isabella had decided to expel any Jew who refused to convert to Christianity. The monarchs gave them until July 31 to convert or leave the country.

Some of those families had ancestors who had settled on the Iberian Peninsula as far back as the first century when the Romans expelled Jews from Judea. Some families may have even been living there since the Romans expelled Jews from Rome in 139 BC.

This expulsion wasn’t anything exceptionally surprising since the Spanish had been making a serious effort to rid the region of Jews since 1391. In that year, Christian persecution and massacres had caused half the Spanish Jewish population of around 300,000 to convert to Christianity. Then, in 1415, the Spanish launched another assault to convert the Jews.

They sometimes killed Jews for refusing to convert. A sad and not too well-known fact was that many Jews committed suicide rather than convert to Christianity. That demonstrated both how committed they were to their God and how little of that God they recognized in Christianity.

Columbus changes his port of departure

By 1492, around 40,000 to 150,000 Jews were still subject to the Edict of Expulsion. They flocked to port cities to avoid the punishment that would come from missing the July deadline. Those cities turned chaotic. Columbus, who had initially intended to leave on his voyage from Cadiz, had to change his plans. He instead left from Palos de la Frontera, about 130 miles up the Atlantic coast.

The Spanish Inquisition

In 1478, Ferdinand and Isabella received permission from Pope Sixtus IV to institute an inquisition. That was a Church-administered tribunal to force religious uniformity and punish all Jews and Muslims who had “pretended” to convert to Christianity. The inquisition investigated crimes of un-Christian beliefs and actions. If someone had put on an act of being a Christian but was secretly a Jew, the Church wanted to know about it. If the inquisition found them guilty of relapsing to their former religion, they were severely punished. It was a no-win situation for the Jews, Muslim, and later Protestants. They either had to convert to a religion that they saw as a pale imitation of their own, or be imprisoned, killed, or exiled. In the effort to get rid of the Jews, the Christian authorities rained as much misery on them as they could, making it impossible for them to even pretend to be Christians.

The Jewish exodus from Spain

There were some places that Jews who were exiled from Spain were welcomed. One of those places was the Ottoman Empire. The Turks had sacked Constantinople and driven out much of the Greek population about forty years earlier. In 1492, they were still trying to increase the population of the city. Many thousands of Jews sailed to Constantinople (not yet known as Istanbul), Salonika (in Greece), and Sarajevo (in Bosnia), at that time, all Turkish-ruled cities. Jews also found some refuge in North Africa and Italy. Eventually some even ended up in Amsterdam, England, and the Americas.

This was by no means the first dispersal of the Jewish people. It was something that had been repeated since 722 BC and 587 BC. That’s when they were taken into captivity by the Assyrians and Babylonians. I happened again with the Romans in 70 AD and in 628 AD, and in many other European countries since then.

I want to leave this story of 1492 on a good note if that’s possible. In 2015 the Spanish parliament passed a bill granting citizenship to anyone who could prove their ancestors were expelled from Spain because they were Jewish–that would have been over five centuries earlier. Against expectations, by the end of the grace period four years later, over 132,000 people had applied for the program. Those people were mostly from Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia.

Wrap up

The year 1492 represented the intersection of many Spanish accomplishments. They drove the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. They also washed their hands of their Jewish population. By doing both, they were making the Spanish population religiously and culturally homogeneous. Then, to make sure there were no slackers, they had the inquisition to root them out.

Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus off to who-knows-where with their prayers. Columbus would open the door to a whole new world . The events Spain set in motion that year would lead to the disappearance of not only the Spanish Muslims and Jews, but the long-lasting civilizations in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of North America. It was a truly momentous year in Western civilization.

 

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