Luis de Torres

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Luis de Torres (died 1493), perhaps born as יוסף בן לוי העברי, Yosef ben Levi Ha-Ivri, ("Joseph, Son of Levi, the Hebrew") was Christopher Columbus's interpreter on his first voyage and the first person of Jewish origin to settle in America.

While still a Jew, de Torres served as an interpreter to the governor of Murcia due to his knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Portuguese. In order to avoid the expulsion edict against the Jews of Spain, de Torres converted to Catholicism shortly before the departure of Columbus's expedition. Columbus hoped that the interpreter's skills would be useful in Asia because they would enable him to communicate with local Jewish traders, and he may also have believed that he would find descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

After arriving at Cuba, which he supposed to be the Asian coast, Columbus sent de Torres and the sailor Rodrigo de Jerez for an expedition inland on November 2, 1492. Their task was to explore the country, to contact its ruler and to gather information about the Asian emperor described by Marco Polo as the "Great Khan". The two men were received with great honours in an Indian village, from where they returned four days later. They did report on the native custom of drying leaves, inserting them in cane pipes, burning them, and inhaling the smoke: the first European encounter with tobacco.

When Columbus set off for Spain on January 4, 1492, Luis de Torres was among the 39 men who stayed behind at the settlement of La Navidad founded on the island of Hispaniola. Coming back by the end of that year, Columbus learnt that the whole garrison had been wiped out by internal strife and by an Indian attack, which had occurred in retaliation to the Spaniards' abducting native women. The Indians remembered that one of the settlers had spoken "offensively and disparagingly" about the Catholic faith, trying to dissuade anybody from adopting it. According to Gould, this man may well have been de Torres, who had probably not converted voluntarily.

On September 22, 1508, de Torres's widow Catalina Sánchez, living then in Moguer (Andalusia), received a grant from the Spanish treasury in recompense for the services of her deceased husband.[citation needed]


The Luis de Torres Synagogue in Freeport, Bahamas is named after Luis de Torres, and there is a great amount of traditions on his life. The most widespread one, which can be found in the Encyclopaedia Judaica and similar reference books, affirms that he became in his latter days a wealthy and honoured landowner in the West Indies. This version goes back to Meyer Kayserling's book Christopher Columbus and the participation of the Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries (1894). In fact, Kayserling confused de Torres with another Spanish explorer who in 1514 was granted an estate and Indian slaves in Cuba.

The story of de Torres addressing an Indian crowd, who sometimes smoked tobacco through their noses, in Hebrew after Columbus's first landfall on San Salvador is a product of novelists' imagination. De Torres is also believed to have discovered the turkey and named it after the Hebrew tukki (parrot) of the Bible. Still another legend has him return to Spain and smoke tobacco there, which led to his being accused for witchcraft by the Inquisition.

Without mentioning de Torres's Jewish origins, some Islamic websites have claimed the participation of "an Arabic-speaking Spaniard" in Columbus's Atlantic crossing as a proof for the antiquity of Arab American history. The legendary San Salvador speech is said here to have taken place in Arabic. These conjectures have been given credentials in an article by Phyllis McIntosh in the U. S. State Department's publication Washington File (August 23, 2004): "It is likely that Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, charted his way across the Atlantic Ocean with the help of an Arab navigator."