April 15, 1492
To her most royal Catholic highness, Isabella, Queen of Castille and Leon:
The Genoan madman who bears this letter assured me that he will be received into your august presence this very week. Knowing, as I do, how intelligent you are and how efficient you always have been in acquitting your duties as sovereign, I cannot give much credence to the claims of this man whose breath smells of sausage and whose speech consists mostly of arm-waving. But at this point I am desperate and have no other prospect for conveying a message to court.
illustration by Avi Katz
I perhaps may take credit for teaching you to first read the second paragraph of every document as a way of deciding whether it is worth your time, so let me get to the point. I have been incarcerated this fortnight in a so-called open detention facility somewhere in Andalusia, on the grounds that I am an illegal infiltrator into your majesty’s kingdom.
You may recall that at the end of last month I requested your leave to travel to outlying areas of your realm to ensure that your highness’s taxes are being collected efficiently. Just outside of Toledo I was abducted by a gang of gendarmes claiming to be in Your Majesty’s service. They served me with a warrant for my arrest—which I am sure was fabricated by Her Majesty’s enemies, or perhaps by lackeys of your most royal but not always very sharp husband, who could easily have been tricked into signing a document unread—on the grounds that I reside in Spain illegally.
They also showed me a royal proclamation laying out a new immigration policy aimed at keeping Spain Spanish and stemming the influx of alien Moors and Jews.
I was then transported me to this facility, a collection of tents that appear to have been hastily erected. I was placed in one of them, inhabited by nine other members of my people, bereft of all but the most basic belongings and unable to contact their families and friends.
Of course I immediately demanded to see the responsible official, showing the guard outside my tent the royal commission, bearing your signature and seal, which I always bear on my person. The guard yawned and went back to consuming sunflower seeds. The guard who replaced him on the next watch was no different, except that he preferred pumpkin seeds. It was well after dark by then and I had no choice but to huddle under the rough blankets I had been assigned in an unsuccessful attempt to ward off the chill of the night.
Early the next morning the residents of all the tents were rudely woken up by bugle call and required to stand in three parallel ranks for inspection. A haughty looking man in velvet, attended by a clutch of unshaven armed men arrived. One of them had a wild look in his eyes and a shapeless felt hat on his head. Another sycophant pointed me out to the man in velvet, apparently the master or director of this facility. He strutted up to me and stared me up and down.
“I am told,” he said, “that you believe you are here in error.”
“I have for some years now served as a loyal servant and adviser to the queen,” I replied.
He motioned to one a member of his company, who handed him a document, at which he peered.
“It says here,” he told me, pointing at the paper, “that you crossed the border from Portugal to Spain in the year of Our Lord, 1483.” The emphasis on that key word was quite notable. His retinue, to the man, laughed loudly, as if on cue. “Do you deny that?”
“No, of course not,” I replied. “But my life was in danger. I stood accused of treason by the new king in Lisbon.”
“Well, as far as Spanish law is concerned, you belong in Portugal.”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand …”
“I understand perfectly. You lost your job in Portugal and, hearing that our sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella have brought prosperity to our kingdom, you came here to seek work.”
“Indeed, I sought, in addition to refuge, to support my wife and family, since we lost all we had because of the conniving of the Portuguese.”
“Here in Spain,” he said, “We believe that work should go first and foremost to Spaniards. According to the law, you will be repatriated to Portugal.”
A shiver ran through my body. After all, return to Portugal, as you well know, is tantamount to death for me.
“Is there nothing to be done?” I asked, almost to myself.
The man in velvet looked me up and down. “We have a new volunteer program you might qualify for,” he allowed. “Comandante Colón here can give you the details.” And he and his party moved on, leaving me face to face with the maniac with salami-smelling skin. He moved up close to me, uncomfortably close.
“Whera is de land of your heart’sa desire?” he whispered hoarsely in my ear.
I had no idea what he expected of me, so I answered honestly. “The Holy Land, of course. The land of my forefathers.”
“I cana teka you dere!” he said excitedly. “Sail weet me to de Holy Land!” And he flung out his arm and pointed dramatically.
I wondered whether this was some strange torture devised by the Inquisition.
“You are pointing west,” I noted courteously. “The Holy Land is to the east.”
“Yes, but under mya commando you getta dere by sailing west!” He produced a roll of parchment from his coat and unfurled it before me. I saw the Spanish coastline, the great ocean, and beyond it a blob marked “India” and a splotch marked “China.” On the ocean were drawings of three sorry-looking ships.
“We goa disa way,” he said, tracing a line across the ocean to the blob. “Ona my luxurious navi, de Nina, and de Pinta, and de Santa Maria. Outfitted by de Queeneh Isabella herself. Youa getta to India. From der, is hopa, skipa, and jumpa to Yeruzalem.”
I tried to humor him. “That’s a wonderful idea,” I said. “But I’m not a sailor. I’m afraid I would not be much use to you.”
“You scared? You afraid you falla off de edge of de terra?”
“Nonsense,” I said. “The earth has no edge. It’s round.”
His eyes grew large and he put his finger to his mouth. “Shhh!” he said. “Howa you fina outa? It eez my seceret that I tell only toa de queeneh!”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said despite myself. “Everyone knows the earth is round. All the ancients say so.”
“I tella you confidentially,” he said in a loud stage whisper, “what I tella Isabella privately. I tella her dat I bring her tons of gold and rare spices from de Orient, once she grab the trade to China and India from de money-grubbing Venetian brigands. She no longer be dependent on de filthy Jews for her money!”
I have encountered the nemeses of my people so many times I did not even get angry. I simply stroked my beard.
After a pause I said, “Then I assume you would not want a Jew on your journey.”
“Oh, youa not looka Jewish,” he said dismissively, gazing off to the distance. Then he looked at me more closely.
“No problema,” he said. “I knowa priest who can fix dat quick. He make sign of cross on forehead, you say catechismo, we done. Don’t missa de chance. Lotsa men here cowards, missing de chance to get pretty Hindu girl and fine set of teacups.”
“Sorry, I’m not interested,” I insisted.
He reached again into his coat and produced a long contract, three copies.
“You signa hera and hera and hera and you vailing ata de vailing vall prontamente. Two months maximum. Scenic stops in Samarkand and Constantinople.”
I was saved by the return of the man in velvet and his entourage.
“So?” he said. “Are you signing up?”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “I could consult with Her Majesty first.”
“I suspect she’s much too busy planning the construction of Spanish settlements in Grenada,” said the man in velvet. “But if the comandante is willing, he could perhaps convey a message for you. He’s quite the new favorite at court these days.”
This is the situation in a nutshell, Your Majesty. I believe that you and your husband-monarch face a momentous decision. Is the great and new Spanish Empire, fountain of culture and modernity, vanguard of the West, to continue to be what Iberia long has been, a place where cultures and peoples meet and fertilize each other, or will your sincere and sacred commitment to the Spanish nation and the Christian Church lead to you seek a false purity that, even if it produces a great and unified empire in the short run, will plant the seeds of decline? Will you continue to accept refugees into your realm and use them to better your kingdom, or will you cast them to the four winds? Whose advice will you take, that of the madman who offers you wealth and dominion over foreign lands, or of a proven and loyal Jewish expatriate who has, through gentle and respectful counsel, shown you how to better manage the kingdom that God has given you? Time is short. By summer my fate, and yours, will be sealed.
Your humble servant,
Don Isaac Abravanel
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