In 1492, Spain Forced Jews to Flee the Country or Convert to Christianity


Tomas de Torquemada, grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, is illustrated with King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella in 1478. Torquemada was extremely hostile toward Jews and likely influenced  the issuance of the Edict of Expulsion. Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Tomas de Torquemada, grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, is illustrated with King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella in 1478. Torquemada was extremely hostile toward Jews and likely influenced the issuance of the Edict of Expulsion. Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

The day before Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World (or whatever it was he was hoping to find), another ship carrying a heavy historical legacy left Spain. On Aug. 2, 1492, a ship of Sephardic Jews — those living in and expelled from the Iberian Peninsula — made its way out of Spanish waters. The ship held the last Jews legally allowed in Spain, after they endured a terrible forced exodus from their homes.

On an episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class, hosts Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson tell the story of how King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile decided they would whisk away an entire ethnic minority from their kingdoms.

Predictably, this move was prompted mostly by stereotypes and fear. Many Catholics in Spain were resentful of Jewish moneylenders who charged interest on loans, and believed that Jews had killed Jesus. Jews were also scapegoats for conflict and disease, as is common for minority groups. They were accused, for instance, of starting the Black Death in Toledo, Spain, in the mid-14th century.

So, Spain put a tighter leash on Jews in the country. They were required to live only in certain neighborhoods and wear a yellow badge to distinguish themselves, and they were forbidden from certain professions. Due to the stifling laws that guarded Jewish communities, many Jews had already converted to Christianity. But that only stoked the fire, as some Jews grew suspicious of those who had converted. Many Christians simply didn't believe that the conversos (the converted Jews) were truly Christian or had given up their Jewish religion. And the reasons people did convert and assimilate were complex.

But the leash soon tightened even more. In March 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Edict of Expulsion, which was publicly announced on April 29. The decree allowed Jews to stay in Spain only if they converted to Christianity, basically limiting them to Catholicism, the dominant religion in Spain. If Jews chose not to convert, they had four months to leave the country or face execution by the Spanish Inquisition.

The Jews who departed Spain — anywhere from 100,000–300,000 left — couldn't take gold, silver or coins with them. They could sell their possessions to fund the journey, but they could only get letters of credit for the value of the items. Naturally, the ostracized population wasn't terribly well-off, so getting out of the country proved arduous.

The reasons that Ferdinand and Isabella declared the expulsion are unclear. Listen to the podcast episode below to learn about the debate over why Ferdinand and Isabella chose to issue the edict, and what its impact was on Jews and Spain.