- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
For 500 years historians have pondered the question
Who was Christopher Columbus?
The answer is simply another question:
Who do you want him to be? — Anonymous Observer, quoted in “The Columbus Affair”
In his standalone thriller “The Columbus Affair” (Ballantine Books, 448 pages, map, illustrations, $27.00) Steve Berry posits that Christopher Columbus was really Jewish by birth, born Christoval Arnoldo de Ysassi in the town of Genova, near Palma, on the Spanish island of Majorca and was a converso, a Sephardic Jew who converted to Christianity but still secretly practices his former faith.
This plot point is necessary because Berry delves into elements of Judaism and a bold plot by Zachariah Simon, an Austrian Jew who purports to be a scholar, but has the zeal of a fanatic in his efforts to restore the glory of ancient Israel in one of the most contested pieces of real estate in modern-day Jerusalem.
Simon has apparently kidnapped Alle Becket, the estranged daughter of disgraced journalist Tom Sagan, in an attempt to gain secrets that were buried with Abiram Sagan, Tom’s father and the spiritual guide of Alle, who converted to Judaism. Tom had married a gentile and, lacking any interest in religion, had been baptized, to please his wife but to the dismay of Abiram.
Conventional wisdom has it that Columbus was a native of Genoa, Italy — not Genova, Majorca — in service to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, but many theories swirl about his origins. In a lengthy writer’s note beginning on Page 421, Berry discusses Columbus’s origins, along with the Jamaica connection and the rumored lost mines on that Caribbean island. Berry, a serious student of history, references Simon Wiesenthal’s “Sail of Hope” theory that Columbus was a Jew (see below). Berry: “What is clear is that virtually nothing is known of Columbus. Accounts as to his birth date, birthplace, upbringing, parentage, education, and life radically conflict. No known portrait of him exists. Both the chart he used for navigation (chapter 8) and his original journal, Diario de a bordo, Outward Log, are gone (chapter 15)….That Columbus sailed before midnight on August 2, 1492, and that all Jews had to be gone from Spain by August 3, are facts (chapter 9). Columbus’ possible real name — Christoval Arnoldo de Ysassi — is more speculation.”
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The Wikipedia entry on Columbus also delves into the murky origins of the explorer: “Some researchers have postulated that Columbus was of Iberian Jewish origins. The linguist Estelle Irizarry, in addition to arguing that Columbus was Catalan, also claims that Columbus tried to conceal a Jewish heritage. In ‘Three Sources of Textual Evidence of Columbus, Crypto Jew,’ Irizarry notes that Columbus always wrote in Spanish, and occasionally included Hebrew in his writing, and referenced the Jewish High Holidays in his journal during the first voyage.
“Simon Wiesenthal postulates that Columbus was a Sephardi (Spanish Jew), careful to conceal his Judaism yet also eager to locate a place of refuge for his persecuted fellow countrymen. Wiesenthal argues that Columbus’ concept of sailing west to reach the Indies was less the result of geographical theories than of his faith in certain Biblical texts—specifically the Book of Isaiah. He repeatedly cited two verses from that book: “Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them,” and “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth”. Wiesenthal claimed that Columbus felt that his voyages had confirmed these prophecies.
“Jane Francis Amler argued that Columbus was a converso (a Sephardi Jew who publicly converted to Christianity). In Spain, even some converted Jews were forced to leave Spain after much persecution; it is known that many conversos were still practicing Judaism in secret.”
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Jamaica as the promised land for Jews? It sounds weird, but it’s an historical fact that many Jews — as well as conversos fearing the Spanish Inquisition — were prominent in the development of Jamaica and aided the Maroons — rebel black and mixed-race Jamaicans — in their struggle against the English colonizers who took over the island from the Spanish. One of the main characters in the novel is Bené Rowe, a wealthy Jamaican power broker, with both legitimate and illegal business interests, and a descendant of the Maroons. Rowe takes a personal interest in anyone tampering with the secrets of his country, as Simon later discovers. With only a remnant of a once thriving Jewish community on the island, the Maroons have taken over the obligations of preserving Jewish heritage, including the island’s many Jewish cemeteries, in the country.
Once a high-flying, globe-trotting reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Tom Sagan was discredited and his Pulitzer Prize taken from him when a story he wrote in Israel and the occupied territories is exposed as a fraud. Now he lives in Florida, earning a living as a ghostwriter for novelists. He’s contemplating suicide when he learns via an electronic hookup that his daughter Alle is being threatened. He helps Zacharia Simon in his efforts to discover ancient Hebrew relics that were purportedly transported by Columbus to the island and remain hidden there.
Plot twists reminiscent of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the novels of Dan Brown ensue, taking the reader to Vienna, Prague and finally Jamaica, making “The Columbus Affair” a page-turning novel that’s filled with historical truths — and plenty of speculation when it comes to the origins of an explorer who is at the same time celebrated and hated. Not everybody in the “New World” shares the enthusiasm of the Italians and Spaniards for the outcomes of Columbus’s four voyages.
About the Author
Steve Berry is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Jefferson Key”, “The Emperor’s Tomb”, “The Paris Vendetta”, “The Charlemagne Pursuit”, “The Venetian Betrayal”, “The Alexandria Link”, “The Templar Legacy”, “The Third Secret”, “The Romanov Prophecy”, “The Amber Room”, and the short stories “The Admiral’s Mark,” “The Devil’s Gold,” and “The Balkan Escape.” He has 14 million books in print, which have been translated into 40 languages and sold in 51 countries, He lives in the historic city of St. Augustine, Florida. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have founded History Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving our heritage. author website: http://www.steveberry.org
Publisher’s website: www.ballantinebooks.com