The Converted Jews Who Played Their Part in Europe's Love of Tobacco

Columbus’ interpreter Luis de Torres knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, French, Spanish and Portuguese. He also shmoozed with the natives about that strange plant

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The landing of Columbus in America in an 1840s Currier & Ives print.
The landing of Columbus in America in an 1840s Currier & Ives print.Credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

Does the anti-Semitic stereotype about the Jews as the contaminators of humanity originate with Jewish interpreter Luis de Torres, who is largely responsible for the arrival of cigarettes in Europe? No, it doesn’t, but the story is still interesting.

The purveyors of modern anti-Semitism were referring more to literal epidemics, and back then the damage caused by smoking had not yet been discovered. Still, in the history of smoking, Luis de Torres merits a special chapter.

His story begins with his boss, Christopher Columbus, yes, in 1492. Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed two crucial documents.

The first, which was signed on March 31, was the expulsion edict that required all Jews who had not converted to Christianity to leave Spain by July 31. The order, which was published at the end of April, gave the Jews only three months to leave. Most of the Jews, about 200,000, managed to leave by August 2 – the fast day the Ninth of Av.

Historian Charles Alperin, relying on testimony from the period, describes the final days of the expulsion. He writes that the roads to the ports and borders were packed: the old and the young, the ill and the lame, and children of all ages – most of them on foot, a few lucky ones in wagons, a few on horses and mules.

Columbus, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, in an 1843 by the German American Emanuel Leutze. Credit: Brooklyn Museum

Alperin adds that up to the last moment, priests tried to persuade the Jews to consent to baptism. But the rabbis encouraged the tired and desperate on, and as the lines moved, women and children sang, danced and played the drums to keep the community’s spirits up.

According to Alperin, when the Jews finally reached the shore, they wept and prayed for a miracle that would change the edict. For hours they stared at the waves, but no miracle occurred. From the moment they boarded the ships they were looted, murdered or sold to pirates, and many countries refused to let them in. Those were the consequences of the first document.

Many of Jewish origin

The second crucial document was signed by the king and queen on April 17; the subject was the approval of an ambitious project to find a western sea route to Asia. The project was headed by Columbus, a captain of Italian descent – or at least that’s how he declared himself. Columbus embarked from Palos de la Frontera in southwestern Spain on August 3, the day after the last of the Jews had left.

The proximity between the expulsion and the voyage has fired the imagination of many historians – mainly Jews. They have insisted, based on both findings and assumptions, that Columbus was of Jewish descent, and that the purpose of sailing west was to find a place of settlement for his brothers and sisters, the expelled Jews.

Christopher Columbus arrives in America, in an 1893 painting.Credit: Library of Congress

One thing is certain – the people close to Columbus were of Jewish origin. The most outstanding were the man who financed Columbus’ first journey, Luis de Santángel; the treasurer of the Spanish kingdom, Gabriel Sánchez; and the head interpreter on the trip to discover America – Luis de Torres.

When the expulsion of the Jews was announced, De Torres converted to Christianity in order to save himself; he thus became a converso. De Torres, who knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, French, Spanish and Portuguese, had served as the interpreter for the governor of the province of Murcia, who recommended the talented man to Columbus.

At the time, as well as throughout the journey, Columbus believed that he was headed for the Far East. He believed that De Torres’ knowledge of Hebrew would help him make contact with the local Jewish merchants in Asia. That’s how the Jewish interpreter came to take part in history’s most famous sea voyage.

Burning time way back then

Three months later, on November 2, 1492, the Santa Maria anchored near the shores of a large island – present-day Cuba. According to the records, Columbus sent De Torres and another Spanish sailor named Rodrigo de Jerez to check out the island. The two spent a long time getting to know the territory and were welcomed by the natives, who also showed them how they “burned” time with the help of “smoking dry leaves that emit a special smell.”

The natives explained that the leaves were placed on palm leaves and dried until they looked like paper. They then were lit and the smoke that arose was inhaled. De Torres tried smoking the tobacco and apparently became the first European to smoke a cigarette. He and his fellow sailor liked the stuff, and when they returned to the ship brought many samples with them.

Columbus returned to Spain in 1493, but De Torres and about 38 other Spaniards chose to remain behind in the Spaniards’ first settlement in America – La Navidad, in Hispaniola (today’s Santo Domingo).

Details about De Torres’ life have since been lost, though the legends about him are many and varied. Some claim that the first words by these visitors uttered on the American continent were said in Hebrew by De Torres, others believe that he became a wealthy estate owner in the New World, and others even attribute the discovery of the turkey to him.

And what about the tobacco? After De Jerez returned to Spain with the tobacco that he and De Torres had brought aboard the ship, he let his friends and neighbors inhale the strange grass. The rumor reached the institutions of the Inquisition.

His accusers ruled that smoking was sinful and insisted that “only the Devil could give a man the power to exhale smoke from his mouth.” They sentenced the Spanish sailor to seven years in prison for smoking the dry leaves – apparently the most severe punishment ever handed down for smoking a cigarette.

It didn’t help. At the time smoking had already picked up speed and spread, yes, like wildfire in a tobacco field. First Spain became addicted, then all of Europe.

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