1492: A Novel of Christopher Columbus
1. What inspired me to write 1492? Reading my client's present of two volumes on the Columbus family's litigation to enforce Columbus' contract with Ferdinand and Isabella (which entitled him to one-eighth of North, South and Central America), I realized this contract was signed the same time the King and Queen of Spain signed their decree expelling from Spain, on 90 days' notice, all Jews though Jews lived in that land for over a thousand years. As a lawyer, it had been my experience that leaders of large organizations didn't sign such major documents at the same time without there being a connection between them. So, the question was: what was the connection between Columbus' contract and the expulsion of the Jews? And another question was: how could it be that people who had lived and prospered and been accepted for so many years be so cruelly treated?
From these initial questions, the rest fell into place. I visited the main New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and found that the first letter Columbus wrote when he returned to Europe, even before he wrote to Queen Isabella, was a report he sent to the financial backer of his voyage of exploration, Don Luis de Santangel, the Jewish-Converso banker who financed his voyage, telling his investor, in essence, "we did it." Don Luis' nephew, Vicente de Santangel, assassinated one of the Inquisitors for torturing his family. Don Luis' deal with Queen Isabella was that he would put up all the money for the voyage but the Queen would not have to pay him back unless the voyage was successful. But he also hoped he King and Queen would spare the life of his nephew. That bet, he lost. Vicente was executed though the rest of the Santangel family was spared.
From these two discoveries, plus encouragement from a book written by Simon Wiesenthal on the subject, and many, many other works on the influence of Arabs, Jews and Christians on Columbus, I went to work. Eight years later, after living in Israel and Spain and visiting Italy, 1492 was done.
2. What is 1492 about? 1492 is the story behind the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. It weaves the Jewish, Christian, Arab influences on the discovery and also describes the life and times that, in many respects, were not so different from today. When I started my work, the Arab oil embargo threatened the prosperity of the West just as Arab control of the trade routes to the East threatened the prosperity of the West in Columbus' time. The challenge then and now: how can the West reach the East and not be thwarted by Arab control of the oil and trade routes. Columbus' answer was to sail to the West by first sailing South, and when he reached Africa, then sail ing West. To return he would first sail North, and then, catching the winds that blow due East there, sail back to Europe.
So, getting around the Arab blockade, as it were, was the initial challenge then and now. And the came the Inquisition by the Church into the bona fides of Jews who converted to Christianity to save themselves and their families from being tortured and burned at the stake. But it quickly became clear that religious purity was not on the Inquisitors' minds. Rather it was convicting Jews, confiscating their property and finaing the Christians' war against the Arabs. As with today, the East was on one side, the West was on the other side, and Jews were in the middle.
3. What do I think will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish my book? I hope they will realize that the magical event of discovering America emerged from a nightmare. I hope they also will realize that after a thousand years of living together through difficult times and good times, Christians, Jews and Arabs were torn apart and destroyed by the hatred sewn by greedy, fanatical leaders. Yes, Columbus was successful in discovering America, but no, Spain and Portugal did not succeed either. After a brief period of wealth and power from looting the gold of the Incas and the Aztecs, both countries went into decline. In destroying, torturing and expelling the Jews they eliminated their urban middle class with its doctors, lawyers and businessmen. Likewise, in destroying and expelling the Arabs, they eliminated mathematicians, scientists and craftsmen, not to mention traders. It took Spain and Portugal 525 years from 1492, but finally each country has just passed laws admitting their mistake in persecuting and expelling Jews. They have now offered all the descendants of the Jews citizenship.
4. What advice to I have for writers? Persevere. When I left law practice after I built a firm with my two partners into a 16 man Washington success, I hoped to write historical novels. I saved every penny so I could support my wife and children over what I thought would be a long haul, but I didn't realize the hail would be quite so long. I'm happy recognition has at last arrived. The Shakespeare Mask has been awarded the Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal for best historical novel. 1492 had been described by Publisher's Weekly as "captivating and extraordinarily vivid," and translated in Spanish and Dutch as well as published in America But be prepared to struggle and always remember the real success comes every day when you get up, sit down at your computer and write. Two of my four grandchildren have announced to Grandpa that they are writing historical novels, too.
5. Where do I think the book publishing industry is heading? I wish I knew, but it doesn't look good. It seems to me people spend more time looking at television than reading books. I hope I'm wrong. My son and daughter and their spouses and children read intensely. They also put limits on the childrens' watching tv as my wife and I did. But I don't know about other people. Bookstores seem empty. Maybe peoole browse via Amazon and Goodreads. I hope so. Martha and I try to buy books from Bookstores to keep them alive.
6. What challenges did I have in writing my book? For 1492, and for The Shakespeare Mask, too, the biggest obstacle is peoples' willingness to believe in myths rather than seeing the truth. Re 1492, people actually believed that Queen Isabella pawned her jewels to finance the proposal of a nice young fellow from Genoa when there was absolutely no evidence for that. It just sounded sweet. If they had only known Queen Isabella was not "sweet" and the money was put up by a Jewish-Converso banker desperate to save his nephew and the rest of his family from burning at the stake, they might have been open to the truth. As it was, it took publishers years to accept the truth.
The same goes for The Shakespeare Mask. The myth that an uneducated young man could write the most sophisticated works of literature in the English language without any knowledge of Latin, Greek, Spanish, French and Italian when so the plays the poems of Shakespeare required such knowledge as well as travel to the countries where they were spoken boggles the mind. Five U.S. Supreme Court Justices believe, as I and thousands of others do, that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare, "beyond a reasonable doubt," and yet much of the academic community stonewalls the idea. It's only a matter of time before younger scholars who have not made a career based on the acceptance of the myth take over universities and publishing houses but, until then. many wallow in the myth.
7. If people can buy only one book this month, why should it be mine? 1492 is very timely because the historical events it describes are applicable to what we see happening all around us now, the same struggles and challenges exist even today, and it reminds us that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Newton Frohlich is the award-winning author of 1492: A Novel of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish Inquisition & a World at the Turning Point. A former lawyer in Washington, D.C., he devoted eight years to the research and writing of 1492. He has lived in Washington, D.C., the south of France, and Israel and now makes his home on Cape Cod with his wife, Martha, a musicologist. For more information please newtonfrohlich.com
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