On 12 October 1492, when land is sighted from the Pinta, one of the three ships in the expedition led by Christopher Colombus on behalf of the Spanish Crown, the “new world” is “discovered”.
With this momentous event, the year 1492 is usually celebrated as a landmark year in history. It must be remembered however for other developments which also happened in Spain and the consequences of which still resonate in today’s world.
On 2 January 1492, Granada, the last Muslim city left in Spain, surrenders to the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Fernando. Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon lead a royal procession into the Alhambra, thus completing the reconquista, a period of almost 700 years during which Christian kings reconquered the Iberian peninsula from Islamic rule. Immediately, crosses and other Catholic symbols are placed in various part of the site, signalling a drastic change of religious obedience.
Between 25 November and 30 December 1491, Isabel and Fernando, had discussed, signed and ratified the Treaty of Granada with Muhammad XII, Sultan of Granada (known in Spanish as Boabdil). In addition to recognizing the sovereignty of the Catholic monarchs over Granada, the treaty, also known as the Capitulation of Granada, granted rights to the Moors as well as Jews, most importantly, the right to practice their faith.
Que sus altezas y sus sucesores para siempre jamás dejarán vivir al rey Abí Abdilehi y á sus alcaides, cadís, meftís, alguaciles, caudillos y hombres buenos y á todo el comun, chicos y grandes, en su ley, y no les consentirán quitar sus mezquitas ni sus torres ni los almuedanes, ni les tocarán en los habices y rentas que tienen para ellas, ni les perturbarán los usos y costumbres en que están.
Less than three months later, on 31 March 1492, the Alhambra Decree is issued which reverses the rights awarded in the Treaty of Granada and gives Jews and Muslims four months to convert to catholicism or leave Spain. According to the Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion, anyone remaining after 31 July who would not have converted would be killed.
Many Jews - with numbers varying between 130,000 and 800,000 - left Spain: about half went to Portugal, while others moved to North Africa and South-Eastern Europe. The Decree allowed them to take their belongings, but no gold, silver, or minted money. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Spanish Jews chose to remain and convert to Christianity.
The move to conversion had started a century before, as the only way to escape death following the 1391 pogroms that took place in Sevilla, but also in Valencia, and Barcelona. Converted Jews, known as conversos, over the years attained important positions such as physicians, bankers, and senior posts in the Catholic Church.
A Dominican friar from Seville convinced Queen Isabel that there were some crypto-jews among the conversos; those were called marranos. The Catholic monarchs turned to the Pope and asked for his assent for the creation of a tribunal called Inquisition to be created, that would be controlled by the Spanish Crown, the main object of which being to deal with the conversos. A papal bull was published in November 1478, and on 6 February 1481 the first auto de fe (act of faith) took place in Seville, with six people burned at the stake.
Queen Isabel’s confessor, the Archbishop of Granada Hernando de Talavera, is said to have been a converso. It is the same Talavera who first introduced Columbus to the Queen, and who was appointed to head a commission whose mandate was to make a recommendation on the validity of Colombus’ proposals. The Commission sat for a few years, but eventually Colombus was granted the authorization to go ahead with his project to discover a new route to India traveling West. Talavera was later accused of having a synagogue in his palace to be finally acquitted by the Inquisition; he died soon thereafter.
Two of Columbus’ most supportive patrons, who not only helped get the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel’s approval but also finance the expedition, were also conversos, Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez. Following the success of the mission, the two patrons received identical letters from Colombus announcing his discoveries, and it is Santangel who brought the news to the Catholic sovereigns.