On May 30, 1497, King Ferdinand of Spain issued a decree bestowing on Luis de Santangel and his family, present and future, immunity from investigation or prosecution by the Inquisition. For a New Christian (a converso) with relatives who had been implicated in carrying out the assassination, in 1485, of the inquisitor of Aragon, Pedro de Arbues, this was a not insignificant guarantee for Santangel to receive from the monarch.
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Hard facts about Luis de Santangel are hard to come by. His date of birth is unclear, but it is known that he was the grandson of one Azarias Chinillo, who like many other Spanish Jews, had converted to Christianity in the wake of the Disputation of Tortosa, in 1414. At the time, Chinillo changed his name to Luis de Santangel. His eponymous grandson held several positions of increasing responsibility in the court of Ferdinand of Aragon before becoming comptroller general – roughly, senior accountant – of the royal household, in 1481.
In 1486, Santangel the grandson met and was favorably impressed by, Christopher Columbus, the Italian-born mariner who proposed to the royal couple, Ferdinand and Isabella, sponsoring him in an expedition to seek a new sea route to the "East Indies," by sailing west. The royal couple turned down Columbus’ request, but did award him with an annuity intended to keep him from taking the idea to another state. Several years later, however, when it was clear that Columbus intended to approach King Charles VII of France with his plan, Santangel decided to intercede on his behalf.
Santangel argued to Queen Isabella that, if Columbus was successful in finding a shortcut to China, it would give Spain easier access to a land that offered vast numbers of potential converts to Christianity – not to mention significant trade opportunities. Apparently, Santangel made a convincing case, as the queen now decided she wanted to finance Columbus’ expedition, and was even willing to pawn the crown jewels for the required cash.
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Luis de Santangel stepped in to save the queen from selling her jewelry. He offered to loan the monarchy 17,000 ducats (according to some sources) of his own money, at no interest.
Columbus sailed in August 1492, and returned from his first voyage to what turned out to be the Western Hemisphere in March 1493. Written in February, his first letter describing his travels – to Cuba and Hispaniola – was sent to Luis de Santangel. Very quickly, it was translated from the original Spanish into Latin, in which language it was distributed around Europe, bringing the explorer significant publicity. In it he claimed that the islands he had reached were at the edge of the Indian Ocean, and suggested that China did not lie far beyond.
Luis de Santangel died in 1498. With his own immunity from the risk of harassment by the Inquisition, he is remembered for the assistance he gave to conversos who had to defend themselves from accusations of heresy. He also is said to have hired vessels to transport to their new homes Jews who were exiled from Spain in 1492.