Over five centuries after the famed explorer's death, historians are taking a fresh look at what motivated Christopher Columbus to make his voyage across the Atlantic -- and how his faith may have played into those motivations.
Some scholars, after analyzing Columbus' will and other documents, have devised a new theory about the explorer. They believe he was a Marrano, or a Jew who pretended to be a Catholic to avoid religious persecution. These historians also theorize that Columbus' main goal in life was to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control, and that he decided to take his historic quest to North America in order to find a new homeland for Jews who had been forced out of Spain.
During the time of Columbus' voyage, Marranos were a targeted group. Tens of thousands of them were tortured during the Spanish Inquisition, so keeping one's true religious identity secret was a crucial priority for many.
As CNN reports, Columbus' will contained five provisions that some scholars believe to be evidence of the explorer's true faith:
Two of his wishes -- tithe one-tenth of his income to the poor and provide an anonymous dowry for poor girls -- are part of Jewish customs. He also decreed to give money to a Jew who lived at the entrance of the Lisbon Jewish Quarter.
On those documents, Columbus used a triangular signature of dots and letters that resembled inscriptions found on gravestones of Jewish cemeteries in Spain. He ordered his heirs to use the signature in perpetuity.
According to British historian Cecil Roth's "The History of the Marranos," the anagram was a cryptic substitute for the Kaddish, a prayer recited in the synagogue by mourners after the death of a close relative. Thus, Columbus's subterfuge allowed his sons to say Kaddish for their crypto-Jewish father when he died. Finally, Columbus left money to support the crusade he hoped his successors would take up to liberate the Holy Land.
Scholars also point to the real financiers of the voyage as evidence of the trip's purpose. While most schoolchildren grow up learning that the expedition was financed by Queen Isabella, historians say it was mostly paid for by two prominent Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism, Louis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez.
While these claims may be difficult to verify, the new portrait of Columbus painted by these scholars adds a complicated layer to the already convoluted sentiment toward the famed explorer. While he is lauded in the United States with a federal holiday and a receives a great deal of credit for discovering North America, his legacy has been tainted by charges of genocide and exploitation. But if Columbus' true intent was not imperialism, but freedom from religious trial, public perception of the man may shift yet again.