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Luis de Torres - Jewish Explorer/Interpreter

Crew member on Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage to the New World and also the first Jew to step foot in the Americas

Born: Unknown
Died: Unknown

Luis de Torres was employed by Christopher Columbus as an interpreter on his first voyage to the New World. Prior to this de Torres held a position with Juan Chacon, Governor of Murcia (a province where there was a large numbers of Jews), as a Hebrew interpreter. Because he was Jewish and this was during the era of the Inquisition, it was necessary for him to convert to Catholicism, which he did, the day before the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria set sail on August 2, 1492. The voyage also coincided with the expulsion of all Jews from Spain.

Because he was versed in Hebrew, Aramaic, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Latin and some Arabic, Columbus had thought he would be helpful upon their arrival—especially useful would be his knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic as Columbus fully expected to encounter Asian descendants of the Last Tribes of Israel.

After reaching Cuba, Columbus, believing they had arrived in Asia, sent de Torres on a mission to locate the great cities and riches he had anticipated would be there and to find the "Great Khan of Tartary."

After traveling for some 60 miles de Torres and his companion found an Indian village with fifty huts and approximately 1,000 inhabitants. They were greeted with great friendliness and by native women who kissed their hands and feet. De Torres noted a strange custom of the Indians, who would place one end of a burning leaf in their nostrils and inhale the vapors or place dried leaves into large cane pipes and inhale the smoke—this was the Europeans first encounter with tobacco.

At this point there are radically conflicting versions of what became of de Torres: One such version relates that he was granted land and several slaves (five adults and a child) by a native chief and married several daughters of local chiefs in order to cement alliances. Eventually he was granted a yearly pension by the King and Queen of Spain and named a Royal Agent, living a long and prosperous life in Cuba. The other version states that when Columbus set sail back for Spain on January 4, 1493, de Torres was left behind with 39 other crew members, all of whom were massacred at the hands of the natives, purportedly as retaliation because the Spaniards had abducted native women.

Regardless of his final outcome, Luis de Torres was without dispute the first Jew to set foot in the Americas.

See also: Gaspar da Gama, Nathaniel Isaacs

Interesting Facts
  • Simon Wiesenthal, in his 1973 book, Sails of Hope: The Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus, speculates that "after the landfall in America, the first words addressed to the natives were Hebrew."
  • The Luis de Torres Synagogue in Freeport, Bahamas is the only synagogue in the Bahamas.
Further Reading
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