A new world

There are no known portraits of  Columbus. This painting by Sebastiano deo Piombo is said to be of him.


Isabel and Ferdinand watched the Moors leave before entering the city and raising their flag. During the surrender negotiations the year before, Isabel and Ferdinand had agreed to guarantee the Moors religious freedom under the Treaty of Granada. Nevertheless, Ferdinand burned over ten thousand Arabic manuscripts in a religious purge of the city.   

With the King and Queen when they entered the city was a man who had been courting favour with them, and had been invited to share in their triumph. He had petitioned King John II of Portugal seven years earlier to fund a voyage to the west across the Atlantic to reach China. His terms were a little unreasonable; if successful, he would be awarded the title of “Admiral of the Ocean,” appointed governor of all the lands he discovered, and paid ten per-cent of their revenue. The King refused. Three years later, he tried again and met with a flat refusal because a Portuguese navigator, Bartholomeu Dias, had found a route to the Orient via Cape Horn.  He had made the same plea to King Henry VII of England and received the same negative answer. He tried Genoa and Venice, to no avail, and now he was making the same offer to Isabel and Ferdinand. Advisers to the King and Queen decided that his ideas were too far-fetched, and his guess at the distances involved fell woefully short. However, to stop him taking his ideas elsewhere, they gave him an allowance of 1200 Maravedi, and a letter granting him free lodgings and food wherever he went. 

After Granada had fallen, Columbus was summoned to a final meeting in Cordoba with the King and Queen. After a terse exchange, they refused the money he wanted. He left disconsolate, but had not gone far when Ferdinand sent for him to return. He had persuaded his wife Isabel to fund his voyage and Christopher Columbus immediately left for Huelga to hire the ships he needed.

Isabel was flushed with pride at her victory over the Moors, and the Church applauded her, but her finances were stretched after ten years of war. Columbus was a fool and would probably get himself and all his crew killed on his insane voyage. She did not give him a second thought, and instead looked to the assets that she had in Spain. The anti-Semitic fervour had reached a peak and the Jews in España were the lowest social group. The Mudéjar were treated better and had more rights than the Jewish population, but the Jews had more money; and money was what Isabel needed most.

Just ten weeks after the fall of Granada, Isabel issued the Alhambra Decree. It seems to have been all Isabel’s idea, and the theory is that her confessor had changed from the tolerant Hernado de Talavara, to the fanatical Francisco Jiménez de Cisternos. The edict was pinned to synagogue doors and posts in the town plazas all over España. In some areas, the Jews were given just four months to convert or leave, and were not allowed to take gold, silver or minted money. If they did not leave or convert by the deadline, they would be executed, which usually meant being burned alive. 

By now, over half the Jewish population of España had been forced to convert to Christianity by persecution and pogroms led by zealots in the Church. Even before Granada fell, Isabel and Ferdinand had ended the “convivencia” agreement that had allowed the religions to “live and let live” for five hundred years. Those who were expelled from España fled into Portugal, or the coast of North Africa. Those who chose to live in Africa mingled with the Mizrahi Arabic or Berber people. Their descendants became Jewish communities in Morocco, Algeria and Libya.

When he heard of the Spanish expulsions, Sultan Bayzed II of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle-East dispatched the Ottoman Navy to rescue them. He gave them sanctuary in Thessaloniki, and Izmir in Turkey, whilst others were settled in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia. The Sultan was reported to have said that “Those who say that Ferdinand and Isabel are wise are fools, for they give their enemies their national treasure; the Jews.”

There was to be no rest for those who settled in Portugal. Five years after the Alhambra Decree, Portugal issued the same terms to its Jews; flee, convert, or die. In the end, something like 200,000 Jews converted, and between 40,000 and 100,000 left, and all their possessions and lands were confiscated by the crown. The Jews who converted were known as Marranos, meaning swine in modern day Spanish.

Insanely, because of their skills in architecture and construction, many of the Muslim workers were retained as Mudéjar craftsmen, and continued practicing their religion among Catholics and converted Jews.

Those Jews who fled to North Africa suffered at the hands of their hosts and many decided to return to España. To accommodate them, in November 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand issued a new decree which legalised the returnees if they were baptised on arrival or could prove that they had been baptised before arrival. Furthermore, their property could be recovered at the same price it had been sold. In 1493 in a bizarre u-turn, the Royal Council set harsh sanctions for any who slandered these new Christians or called them Tornadizos. Later in their reign of terror, Isabel and Ferdinand ushered in a new phase with the Inquisition, when a paranoia over the validity of forced conversions led to the torture and brutal killing of thousands accused of carrying on practicing their religion as crypto-Islamists or crypto-Judaists. 

This painting by Eugene Delacroix shows the return of Columbus, but Delacroix's most famous painting is Liberty Leading the People and depicts the French Revolution. It is said to have inspired Victor Hugo to write Les Misrables. 


It was in January 1493, almost exactly a year after the surrender of Granada, the forgotten Christopher Columbus returned with tales of dozens of islands with native populations. He named the island he had first sighted Hispañola; the old name for Spain.

España’s fortunes and those of the world had just changed forever.

Columbus made four more voyages, but he never received all that Isabel had promised him. He spent the rest of his life fighting in the courts to claim the rest.


The Sephardi Jews

The slaughter of Jews in Barcelona in 1391 by Josep Segrelles, painted around 1910.


Spain was not the first country to expel its Jewish populations. England had done the same in 1290, as had many of the kingdoms of Europe during the intervening years. Indeed, between 1015 and 1535, 20 European nations would expel their entire Jewish populations.

 As a result of persecution and pogroms during 1491 and 1492, over 100,000  Spanish Jews had converted to Christianity and around 60,000 had been forced to leave after a thousand years of freedom of worship on the Iberian Peninsula. Some had returned afterwards, and thousands of those suffered torture and brutal execution during the Inquisition.

 Many had been scattered to Europe and the Americas. As the centuries passed those who had left formed their own communities, and had become known as the Sephardi Jews, (Hebrew for Iberian Jews.) a distinct ethnic branch of the Jewish faith. Then in 1868, Jews were once again allowed to follow their faith and worship in Synagogues under Spain’s Laws of Religious Freedom.

The regime of Primo de Rivera in 1924 granted Spanish citizenship to the entire Sephardic Jewish diaspora, and in 1968, following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church finally revoked the Alhambra Decree.

As a final atonement to their historic treatment of the Jews, the governments of Spain and Portugal passed a law in 2014 allowing dual citizenship to all Jewish descendants who apply to "compensate for shameful events in the country's past." Thus, Sephardi Jews who are descendants of those Jews expelled from Spain due to the Alhambra Decree, and can prove it, can "become Spaniards without leaving home or giving up their present nationality."

The Last Jew, written by Noah Gordon, tells the story of  a young boy who lived in Toledo whose family of goldsmiths was expelled by the Church. His travels, and description of the hidden Jewish communities worshiping in secret give a chilling insight in to those times. His stay with the gypsies who are hiding him in Granada leave a sad impression of the last days of the Emir Boabdil.


The period before the expulsion is considered by many historians to be outstanding for the fact that the three main western religions lived in relative peace together for centuries, something they seem unable to do now. But the laws were not always equal for the different religions, and the treatment of their believers by others was often unjust and brutal.