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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Alonzo de La Calle
A Jew Invents the Sea-Quadrant.
Among the various discoveries of the fifteenth century, none is more intimately connected with the Jews and their history than the discovery of the New World. Indirectly and directly, the Jews contributed to the success of Columbus' voyage of exploration: indirectly, by means of several astronomical works prepared by them, such as "De Luminaribus et Diebus Criticis," by Abraham ibn Ezra; and directly by the invention of instruments for astronomical observation. The instrument for observing the stars called Jacob's Staff, a sea-quadrant, was the invention, not of Regiomontanus, as has long been considered, but of Levi ben Gerson, who was the first to describe it, as is proved by Steinschneider and Günther. Abraham Zacuto then applied this instrument in navigation to the determination of latitude without depending upon the sun's meridional height—sometimes unobtainable—using the altitude of the polar star at night to ascertain the ship's position. His Latin perpetual almanac (afterward translated into Spanish), with its astronomical tables, rendered Columbus incalculable service; indeed, on one occasion it saved the lives of his whole company.
A conspicuous part, too, in the discovery of America was taken by the Marano Luis de Santangel, against whose relatives the Inquisition waged a war of extermination, he himself being subjected to much inconvenience because of his Jewish origin. He was the farmer of the royal taxes and head of an important commercial house in Valencia; and, owing to his being a confidant of King Ferdinand, he became chancellor of Aragon. Together with a relative, the royal treasurer, Gabriel Sanchez (whose father was burned in effigy as a Jewish heretic at Saragossa in 1493), and his friend, the royal chamberlain, Juan Cabrero, who was likewise of Jewish stock, Santangel entered very energetically into the far-reaching plans of Columbus. He represented to Queen Isabella the advantages that would accrue to the crown and to Spain from the discovery of a sea-route to the Indies—immeasurable riches, accession of lands, and immortal fame. Under the influence of such glowing representations, she consented to Columbus' undertaking, and, since the state treasury was exhausted, was ready to pawn her jewels to procure the necessary funds to fit out his expedition. At this stage, Santangel sought permission to advance the necessary sum out of his private treasure and accordingly loaned without interest, to the royal treasury, for the venture, 17,000 ducats (about $20,000, or £4,100; perhaps equal to $160,000 at the present day).
Jews with Columbus.
On April 30, 1492, Columbus received both the contract (concluded only thirteen days before, between him and Juan de Coloma on the part of the royal pair) and the royal commission to fit out the fleet for its voyage to India. A month earlier the edict expelling the Jews from Spain had been published in all public places in the dominions of the united kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. On August 2, about 300,000 Jews (some writers consider the number much greater) left the country; and on the next day, Friday, August 3, Columbus sailed with his three ships in quest of the unknown. Among the members of the expedition several were of Hebrew blood. Of these there may be mentioned Luis de Torres, who understood Hebrew, Chaldaic, and some Arabic, and who was to serve the admiral as interpreter; Alonzo de la Calle, who took his name from the Jewish quarter (calle), and died in Spain in 1503; Rodrigo Sanchez, of Segovia, who was a relative of the chancellor of the exchequer, Gabriel Sanchez, and joined the expedition in compliance with the special request of the queen; the surgeon, Marco; and the ship's doctor, Bernal, who had lived formerly in Tortosa, and had been punishedin 1490 by the Inquisition, in Valencia, as an adherent of Judaism.
Luis de Torres was the first European to tread American soil, and the first to discover the use of tobacco. He settled in Cuba, and, having won the confidence and good-will of one of the chiefs, received from him large grants of land and many slaves as presents. From the king and queen he also received an annual pension of 8,645 maravedis (about $36, or £7). He died in Cuba. Luis de Santangel was the first to receive a detailed statement of the voyage and discoveries of Columbus, contained in a letter written by the admiral, February 15, 1493, in the Azores, where he stopped on his way home. From Lisbon, Columbus wrote a similar letter to Gabriel Sanchez, who published it in Barcelona. These letters have often been published in later times, both in Italian and in English.
Jewish Treasure Equips Second Expedition.
The expenses of the second expedition, which sailed from Cadiz, Sept. 25, 1493, were covered by the funds procured from the sale of the gold and silver vessels taken from the expelled Jews, or from those who had wandered into Portugal, or from the converted Jews who remained behind, from whom the property was seized under pretext that it formerly belonged to the emigrants. Even Christians suspected of possessing any of the Jewish treasure were not allowed to retain it. All valuables of whatever sort, clothes, and other goods belonging to the exiles, notes of hand which they could not cash, the damask, velvet, and silk draperies of the Torah, were collected and sold to further the voyage. Of the treasure thus collected, Columbus received 10,000 maravedis, promised to the one who should first see land, and 1,000 golden doubloons (about $5,000, or £1,000) as a special present.
By his haughtiness and harsh treatment, Columbus had made many enemies, and had also incurred the ill-will of Bernal, the ship's doctor. The conspiracy fostered by Bernal and Camacho was disastrous to the admiral, who in his desperate condition was compelled to call upon his old patrons, Gabriel Sanchez and Luis de Santangel, to intercede for him with the king and queen. For the services he had rendered to the state, Luis de Santangel obtained many privileges; perhaps the most important of them being a royal decree, issued May 30, 1497, by which he, his children, and his grandchildren were to be protected from any further molestation by the Inquisition.
Emigration to the newly discovered lands, upon which Columbus had set the seal of the Church, was strictly forbidden to those Maranos whom the Inquisition from time to time still persecuted. Nevertheless, Gabriel Sanchez was the first person to obtain a royal grant to export grain and horses to America. Spanish and Portuguese Maranos, well-to-do merchants and learned physicians, emigrated to New Spain in such numbers that the authorities of Castile felt themselves impelled, so soon after the discovery as 1511, to take steps against the Maranos and the children and grandchildren of those Jews who had fallen victims to the Inquisition, and to this end caused similar inquisitorial courts to be erected in the New World. One of the first victims in New Spain was Diego Caballero, a Marano from Barrameda. The edicts of June 30, 1567, and March 15, 1568, were intended to prevent any further emigration of the Jews.
Mention in Jewish Writings.
Jewish writers soon began to devote their attention to Columbus and his discoveries. The first to mention them was Abraham Farissol of Avignon, who, according to the "Stories of the Discoveries of Columbus," which appeared in a collection, "The Journeys in the New World," Vicenza, 1567, refers to them in his geographical work, "Iggeret OrḦot 'Olam," written in 1524 (Venice, 1587); translated into Latin by Thomas Hyde in 1691. More particular attention was devoted to these discoveries by Joseph Cohen, also of Avignon, who translated into Hebrew, in 1557, the "Historia General de las Indias," by Francisco Lopez de Gomara (2 vols., 1535), and included them in his Hebrew work, "Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of France," etc., Venice, 1552-53, Amsterdam, 1733; translated into English by Bialoblotsky, London, 1834-35.
- M. Kayserling, Christopher Columbus and the Participation of the Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese Discoveries, translated from the German by Charles Gross, New York, 1894;
- Leonello Modona, Gli Ebrei e la Scoperta dell' America, Casale, 1893;
- reprinted from Vessillo Israelitico, 1893. Richard Gottheil, Columbus in Jewish Literature in Publications of Am. Jew. Hist. Soc. No. 2.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Alonzo de La Calle'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/a/alonzo-de-la-calle.html. 1901.