Relevant History welcomes Elizabeth Zelvin, a New York City psychotherapist whose latest contemporary mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is the third in the series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. Her short stories about a young marrano sailor on Columbus's first voyage have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Her YA novel about the second voyage is currently making the rounds. Three of Liz's short stories have been nominated for the Agatha Award and another for the Derringer Award. Liz has just released a CD of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. For more information, check her author web site. Liz participates in group blogs at Poe's Deadly Daughters and SleuthSayers.
I never expected to write historical fiction, but I woke up in the middle of the night about four years ago with a character knocking on the inside of my head and demanding to be let out so insistently that I had to tell his story. This was Diego, a young marrano sailor on Columbus's first voyage in 1492. I eventually wrote two stories that both appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine: "The Green Cross," which was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Short Story, and "Navidad." But Diego wasn't through with me, and he and his younger sister Rachel are the protagonists of Voyage of Strangers, a Young Adult novel set during the second voyage, from 1493 to 1495, that is still seeking a home.
How can I explain how Diego got into my head (unless you conclude I was channeling a real person, which I sometimes almost believe)? I knew what anybody knows about Columbus: a Genoese sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, he sailed west across the Atlantic, seeking a trade route to Asia, and found the Americas. He had three ships: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Because I'm Jewish, I knew that the Jews were expelled from Spain on the very day that Columbus sailed: August 3, 1492. I knew that the marranos were the secret Jews who converted in order to save their lives and homes, otherwise forfeit to the Inquisition and the Crown. I knew that Europeans didn't believe the earth was flat, as I'd learned in school in the 1950s, and that there has been some recent speculation that Columbus and some of his crew might have been Jewish. In terms of the emotional truth of the characters I created, although I have fortunately experienced minimal anti-Semitism in my own life, I know how it feels to live as an outsider in a Christian society.
I had a stroke of luck in that the primary sources on Columbus and his voyages are few. We have portions of his own log book of the first voyage and a letter he wrote to the King and Queen to report his discovery; his biography, written by his son; a book by a Spaniard, Bartolomé de las Casas, an early settler in the New World who became violently opposed to the enslavement of the native Taino population; a letter from a childhood friend of Columbus (the only other Italian involved in the discovery) on the second voyage, with a smug, self-congratulatory description of how he raped a young Taino woman; and a description of the Taino beliefs by a friar who also participated in the second voyage.
Here are some of the things I learned in the course of my research for the stories and especially the YA novel:
- Columbus lied. He kept two records of the fleet's day to day progress, one that he believed was accurate and a more optimistic one that he told the sailors, so they would not get too discouraged. Modern navigation has revealed that the lies were in fact closer to accurate.
- Although Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus Day, this story is not about Italians. There were no Italians other than Columbus on the first voyage and his brothers and his buddy the rapist on the second. The story of the discovery is about Spain, its desire for wealth and expansion, and its determined persecution by expulsion, enslavement, and genocide of all who were not Christian, including the Jews, the Taino, the Moors, the Guanche of the Canary Islands, and the Roma.
- The Santa Maria never made it home. She ran onto shoals on a calm, moonlit night off Hispaniola on Christmas Eve, 1492, when the whole crew was asleep after a drunken three-day party with the Taino.
- No way was Columbus Jewish. His own writings are infused with his devout Catholicism. Nor were the crew. Eighty-seven of the ninety men on the first voyage are known to history by name. Most came from the fishing village of Palos. Only three were even close to jailbirds (another apocryphal tale). One proponent of Columbus's Jewishness were a respected Jewish scholar who claims Columbus was seeking a homeland for the Jews (not likely for several reasons); the other was an anti-Semitic Spanish fascist writing in 1939 (in the context of Franco's alliance with Hitler), who argued that Columbus's greed for gold indicated he must have "Jewish blood."
- It's not primarily disease that killed off the Taino, as is often said. They were systematically slaughtered and enslaved from the second voyage on. By 1496, one-third of them were already dead. Many committed suicide (with cyanide extracted from their staple food, the yuca) rather than be killed or captured by the Spaniards. Early in 1495, 1,500 of them were rounded up, 500 of the "best" loaded into the holds of the returning ships, and the others handed over to the settlers as slaves. By the time the ships made landfall, 200 were dead.
What makes me so self-confident in my conclusions and interpretations? A whole body of speculation and opinion has been built on the slim foundation of the handful of primary sources. Each historian chose what to believe and what not to believe, and so do I. A recent PBS special trotted out the story that the navigational genius on the first voyage was not Columbus, but Martín Alonso Pinzón, the captain of the Pinta. The primary source for that is legal documents prepared for a suit the Pinzón family brought against Columbus—which they lost. So says historian and naval man Samuel Eliot Morison, who in his own sailboat followed the course of all four voyages, using Columbus's log as a guide. He says Columbus was the navigational genius, and I choose to believe him.
A big thanks to Elizabeth Zelvin. To someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week, she'll give away an advanced review copy of her contemporary mystery Death Will Extend Your Vacation in trade paperback format or a copy of the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine issue that includes her Agatha award-nominated short story about Diego and Columbus, "The Green Cross." Winner's choice! I'll choose the winner from among those who comment by Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. and Canada.
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