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by William H. Benson

October 12, 2002

     On January 1 and 2, 1492 the last of the Muslim officials abandoned Granada and chose permanent exile in North Africa.  All of what is now modern-day Spain was from then on ruled by the Monarchs–Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon.  A sense of euphoria swept through the Iberian peninsula, for after seven centuries of Muslim rule on Iberian soil, the Moors had chosen to leave.  Christianity had triumphed.

     On March 31, 1492 Isabella and Ferdinand decreed that all of the Jews in Spain had three months in which to convert to Christianity or leave Spain.  Called the Edict of Expulsion, it affected some 80,000 practicing Jews.  About 40,000 chose to leave for Portugal, Italy, or North Africa, while the remainder converted and were thereafter called Conversos.

     Hated and accused of secretly practicing their Jewish faith, the Conversos received the full force of the Catholic Monarchs’ agency for discovering the truth–the Spanish Inquistion. The screams of the tortured resounded throughout the Chambers, where new and old methods of inflicting excruciating pain were used; execution was often a blessed relief.  The Inquisition executed more than 5000 Conversos, most in a state of confusion about what religion to believe.

     At the time, Christopher Columbus’s first voyage was almost a non-event.  (Of far greater importance was Vasco da Gama’s voyage around Africa and into the Indian Ocean.  This circumvented the longer and more arduous overland spice trade and was great news in Europe.)  Because Queen Isabella had little to lose, she agreed to finance the voyage, and on October 12, 1492 Columbus landed on a Caribbean Island.

     Over the last decade Columbus’s place in history has been downgraded.  His venture is not considered as innovative as was once believed.  His actions in the Indies remain open to question, especially his treatment of the islands’ natives.  However, he was a man filled with ambition, and aboard a ship he was a superb sailor.  And yet, he failed miserably as a colonial administrator.

     What is not so widely known is that he was also a religious fanatic.  Professor Teofilo Ruiz at UCLA has found that Columbus was motivated by an almost apocalyptic religious fervor.  He collected prophetic sayings, was deeply interested in apocalyptic writings, and may have seen himself and his voyages as ushering in a new age.  When he gazed on the delta of the Orinoco River, he believed that he had discovered the site of an earthly paradise.

     Columbus returned to Spain and presented to Queen Isabella some of the islands’ inhabitants plus some colorful tropical birds.  Isabella was less than impressed, but agreed to finance a second voyage.  And this was of more importance because Columbus took several ships with about 1500 men and set up a colony.

     What happened in the Caribbean is now considered “an ecological and human catastrophe”, for  the Castilians introduced institutions that allowed them to exploit the natives and secure their work in return for the promise of Christianity.  Within one generation, by 1510, disease and overwork virtually had exterminated the islands’ people.  The Spaniards repeated the pattern of conquest.  From the Caribbean they launched an invasion of the Aztecs in central Mexico and the Incas of South America.

     For the Muslims, the Jews, and the Catholic Christians of Spain in 1492, it was an intertwined history, marked by suspicion, animosity, violence, judicially-mandated torture and execution, an Edict of Expulsion, and a move toward a single pure and triumphant religious faith.  But for those natives standing before the Queen of Castile, as well as their families back on the islands, the future appeared bleak, if not ugly.  For they faced annihilation and a program of genocide. 

     The human record is not always one of inevitable progress working its way into a promising future.  More often than not, it is a record of human folly, of misguided actions with unwitting consequences, and of outright human devastation, at times religiously-motivated.  Consider the other side of 1492.