Saturday, February 9, 2013

March 31, 1492 - Alhambra Decree Begins Scheme to Send Jews West

The Reconquista of Spain completed with the Battle of Granada on January 2, 1492.  Muslims had controlled the Iberian Peninsula after their invasion in 711, but gradually the Christian kingdoms of the north expanded southward.  In-fighting slowed the Christian efforts, but the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469 united two of the largest kingdoms to a single force.  In twenty years of warfare, they pushed back the Muslims to Granada, where they affirmed rule of the peninsula fully in the hands of Christian monarchs.

Following the battle, Ferdinand and Isabella settled on to new projects.  With the conquest of Granada, the Catholic Monarchs had acquired vast lands but also now ruled a new population of Muslims and Jews.  Jews, as fellow "People of the Book", were initially treated with respect under early Muslim rule.  Jews from all over the Mediterranean immigrated to what was then known as al-Andalus, creating banking and centers of education.  Religious zeal increased on both sides of the peninsula as Christians called to retake lands lost by the Visigoths, and tolerance of Jews fell.  The Spanish Inquisition began in 1480, giving religious authority to the crown rather than the Pope.  Their agent, Dominican friar Tomás de Torquemada, served as Grand Inquisitor as well as confessor for Isabella.  Along with others, he encouraged the monarchs to expel non-Christians from the country to purify it.  Those who did not leave would have to convert (and the Inquisition would make certain they did not secretly practice forbidden faith) or face torture and death.

While religious fervor marked much of the reasoning behind expulsion, the matter was also economical.  Torquemada stressed that much of the economy of Spain was held by influential Jews.  With their power, they could subvert the authority of the Church or even the monarchs.  He called for their expulsion long before the conquest of Granada, but Ferdinand and Isabella did not want to risk the crash of their economy during wartime.  With the war over, they could restructure their economy as well as seize the valuable property of the Jews who chose to flee.

Meanwhile, Christopher Columbus, an Italian navigator campaigned at court for funding of an expedition that would reach the Orient by sailing west.  He had attempted to win favor from John II of Portugal, but the king had turned him away after his advisers stated the calculations for the circumference of the Earth were far too short.  Columbus had argued at court since 1486, noting the potential wealth from a new trade route.  He was given no positive answer, but he was furnished with food, lodging, and a salary, keeping him on retainer rather than seeking support from any other monarch of Europe.

When it slipped that Columbus would eventually be turned down on the advice of Torquemada, Columbus decided to change his position.  He took one item of Torquemada's agenda, the removal of the Jews, and tied it to his own.  Managing an interview with Torquemada, he pointed out the danger of letting the Jews "escape" to build up power elsewhere.  Instead, they should be sent to the East, where their wares would have to pass through Spain to market.  Torquemada approved the plan, and the monarchs soon announced the "Alhambra Decree", stating that in four months Jews would be forced to live in Granada alone.  That summer, hundreds of thousands of Jews moved to the city, allowed to keep their possessions but selling homes and businesses far under value.

In 1493, Columbus returned successfully from what was soon to be realized as the New World.  His next expedition left that September, and along with it went a large fleet of forced Jewish immigrants.  The Spanish established settlements on Hispaniola, using Jews and local natives as labor.  Over the next decade, the Jews of Spain converted, sneaked out of the country, or were deported to the New World.  During the rule of the Spanish Empire, several Jewish revolts began, but the might of the Conquistadors and the Spanish navy put down the rebellions.  Many Jews settled into their work on plantations and were joined by African slaves, creating a lucrative economy exporting to Europe.

By the seventeenth century, new hope for the Jews arrived as other nations began to colonize the Caribbean.  Piracy flourished, and, in the chaos, Jews escaped from Hispaniola by the thousands to neighboring islands.  Many settled on the far coast of Hispaniola under French rule, helping to make Saint-Domingue the most prosperous colony in the region.  The Caribbean became a popular destination for Jews fleeing oppression in other areas of Europe, particularly Germany and Italy, where corporations funded ships to transport colonists.

Antisemitism continued in the Caribbean, where for centuries the Jewish people were held as second-class citizens along with natives and Africans.  As they gained economic clout by the early twentieth century, however, the Jews won their recognition, and the Caribbean today is well known for its banking, produce, and tourism.  In modern times, many Jews hold to ideals of Zionism, wishing for a Jewish state in Palestine, where some Jews have established communities.  However, with the large Jewish population of the Caribbean, there has not been fervent international action answering the call for a geographic "Israel."


In reality, the Alhambra Decree simply expelled the Jews from Spain. Torquemada convinced Isabella to deny Columbus's request, but, as he was riding away, he was stopped by messengers from Ferdinand who had asked the queen to reconsider.  Meanwhile, the Jews of Spain fled by land or sea, where many perished as brigands sliced them open looking for swallowed jewels or captains threw them overboard after charging exorbitant fees for passage.  Many Jews escaped to the Ottoman Empire, where Sultan Bajazet boasted, "How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?"

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