Columbus Day Dreams
by Stephen Schwartz
Columbus Day has taken quite a beating in recent years. While it remains a federal holiday, it is now called Indigenous People's Day in Berkeley, Calif. I will never forget the riotous behavior in San Francisco, where I lived for many years, when the holiday was observed in 1992. Traditionally, the Italian-Americans of the city's North Beach district held a rather sedate, mildly picturesque commemoration that ended with one of their own, in costume, stepping out of a boat onto a sandy strand, to the cheers of the community's prettiest young women.
But when the 500th anniversary of the fateful event came, I was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and was sent to watch as bedraggled, combative denizens of the Bay Area's leftist enclaves set upon the poor celebrants, ready to go to jail rather than permit any honors to "the beginning of genocide in this hemisphere." I recall one woman, enraged to a point of apparent apoplexy, ranting as she was hauled away by police, "you should be ashamed to join a Columbus Day parade!"
Agendas change, but some habits never die. Columbus' voyages are now an object of manipulation by a different lobby altogether - militant Muslims and their apologists, who have produced a fantasy version of the Spanish-financed maritime explorations, as part of a campaign to establish an American Islamic heritage dating from the beginnings of our history.
An effort has been underway for some time to prove that the colonization of the Americas included Muslims. The political point of such an exercise may not be immediately obvious: but the longer Muslims can be shown to have lived on this side of the Atlantic, the greater weight may be given the claims of Islamist radicals, who allege wholesale discrimination by the U.S. authorities in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. After all, if Muslims have been here all along, and have never before posed a threat, there can be no basis to question their present leadership and institutions, right?
Many inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere would greet such a proposition with incredulity. There is, however, some legitimacy to the argument, at least with regard to the historical trail. Respectable scholars have found Muslim traces in the chronicles of slavery in America, since so many people were brought here from Muslim territories in West Africa. A volume titled African Muslims in Antebellum America, by Allan D. Austin, has inventoried documentary evidence of such a presence.
Nevertheless, historical research always benefits from prudence, and caution is typically lacking when an ideology like that of radical Islam enters the field. An example is to be found in a recent, and quite astonishing, public affairs release issued by nothing less than the U.S. State Department, declaring, "Islamic Influence Runs Deep in American Culture." This offering was produced by State's "Washington File," a governmental news service of which most Americans have doubtless never heard.
"Islamic Influence Runs Deep in American Culture" appeared under the byline of Phyllis McIntosh, dated August 23, 2004, and may be found here. In it, the author goes far beyond suggesting that African American slaves included some Islamic adherents. According to her counterfactual exercise, "It is likely that Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, charted his way across the Atlantic Ocean with the help of an Arab navigator." How such a thing could be "likely" when the history of Columbus' voyages has been established by documentary methods for five centuries, with no mention anywhere of Arab or Muslim participation, is baffling, to say the least.
McIntosh writes, "By the 15th century, it was common for European ships crossing the Atlantic in search of an alternate route to Asia to enlist Muslims as navigators and potential translators, according to the Council on Islamic Education." Did no factchecker or editor at the U.S. State Department, which distributes this story, realize that "the 15th century" is the same as "the 1400s?" The import of this is the really astonishing suggestion that "European ships (were) crossing the Atlantic," aside from Norse longboats, prior to Columbus.
But worse, the claim that Arab and/or Muslim sailors joined the Columbus expedition represents a form of anti-Jewish revisionism. As is well known to all experts on Columbus, his crew included at least at least one Jewish convert to Christianity, the translator Luis de Torres, whose knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic was considered of probable use in communicating with the rulers of Asia, whom Columbus expected to encounter.
Jewish involvement in the Columbus enterprise was not limited to the presence of Luis de Torres. For many years, speculation has flourished regarding Columbus himself, and the possibility that he was a Jewish convert, but it rests on slender evidence. Nevertheless, four other Jewish converts to the Christian faith, aside from Luis de Torres, were present on the voyage.
Further, real history teaches that rather than having recourse to Arab sailors, Columbus used the astronomical tables of Abraham Zacuto, a professing and faithful Jew, in his navigational calculations. Zacuto personally knew and supported Columbus in his proposal for exploration of the Atlantic; but most important among the Jewish helpers of Columbus was Luis de Santangel, a convert to Christianity and leading financier at the court of King Ferdinand.
Columbus and other European seamen of his generation also used maps known as portolans, the best of which were produced by Catalan and Mallorcan Jews. The most famous and authoritative portolans were those of the Mallorcan Jewish Cresques family. While the portolans were based on Greek knowledge preserved and amplified by Arab sailors, who were indeed superb mariners in the Indian Ocean, to ascribe all this maritime knowledge and skill to Muslims is to engage in a gross denial of Jewish, as well as Christian, history.
The idea that Arabs were sailing west from Spain at a time when Muslims controlled the land routes to Asia is also absurd, because that would have been a completely profitless activity from their perspective. Arabs, Ottomans, and Persians held a monopoly of the caravan routes for Chinese silk and south Asian spices, as well as access to the silver of the Balkan mines, and other high-priced commodities. Above all, Columbus sought a route to Asia that would allow European commerce to avoid Muslim taxation, which had driven up the price of luxury goods after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turkish sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. Why would any Muslim assist such an effort to undermine Islamic power?
And what on earth, to return to the contribution of Phyllis McIntosh, is the "Council on Islamic Education"? Its website at www.cie.org reveals that its "affiliated scholars" include paragons of the "Wahhabi lobby" - the constellation of organizations seeking to impose the official Saudi cult on American Islam. Thus we find there the name of Muzammil H. Siddiqi, one of America's outstanding Islamist extremist ideologues, who said on October 28, 2000, at an anti-Israel "Jerusalem Day" rally in Washington, "America has to learn... if you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come. Please, all Americans. Do you remember that?... If you continue doing injustice, and tolerate injustice, the wrath of God will come."
There is another dimension to this matter. In 1992, the Italian Americans were assaulted by politically-correct arguments against Columbus. We should now pity the poor residents of the American Southwest. Not only must they, Hispanic as well as Anglo, contend with competing local legacies, as well as illegal immigration and angry opposition to it, they must also deal with "historical" attempts to turn them into something they are not. For McIntosh writes, "Spanish-Arab mudejars... arrived in the New World in the 1500s. Mudejars were Muslims who remained in Spain after the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula (11th-15th century)." In reality, the descendants of converted Jews and Muslims, to say nothing of professing Jews or Mudéjars, were strictly forbidden to emigrate to the New World by the Spanish authorities.
The Spanish Inquisition was also set up in the colonies, to hunt for Jews (mainly those who might infiltrate from the Dutch, then Portuguese, territory of Brazil), but the inquisitors were singularly unsuccessful in finding Jews or so-called "Judaizers," because so few Jewish converts could even attempt such a venture. Thus, while the Inquisition in the New World did burn some Jews in the 17th century (most of them of Portuguese origin), it mainly concerned itself with Protestants, often exemplified by English "pirates," as well as adherents of various Catholic doctrines deemed heretical, bigamists, and assorted other individuals found to be offensive.
McIntosh continues with a recitation of commonplace observations about Islamic influences in Spanish and Latin American vocabulary and diet, all of which constitutes old, old news, but which few ever before attempted to transform into an argument for Muslim influence in the New World. One must, however, in fidelity to historical truth, admit that some of this nonsense must be blamed on the atmosphere in American intellectual life fostered by "experts" who promote similar theories about the alleged migration of secret Jewish believers to New Mexico and other remote parts of the Spanish empire. No such tales were ever taken seriously by real historians, and none can be proven by documentary methods, which is the main point, because the Spanish authorities never threw anything on paper away. The Spanish experience in the New World, beginning with the legacy of Columbus, whether it is considered a positive or negative one, may be and must be researched by recourse to the great archives in Spain.
I have spent more than 25 years examining this topic, in Spain and Mexico as well as in the U.S. I was the first to publish, in the U.S., the argument that Junípero Serra, founder of the Spanish Franciscan missions in California, was a possible descendant of Mallorcan converts from Judaism (on his mother's side) and Islam (on his father's). This does not conflict with my previous comments, because Serra, like all individuals suspected of possessing "tainted blood," i.e. of Jewish or Muslim descent, was originally barred from joining the Franciscan order, and only did so because of the protection of a powerful Mallorcan cleric. Such patronage might have protected him from the Inquisition in the New World. But the idea that the distant Jewishness of Serra's ancestors might have made him a secret Jewish believer would be taken seriously by nobody.
America was a melting pot from the beginning, and a Muslim presence in our history may well be established. But to do so respectably requires recourse to the established methods of the historian, not politically correct theories conjured from thin air.