Why 1492 Was Even More Important Than You Learned in History Class

“In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I’m old enough to remember when that rhyme was a required memorization technique for young school-children.  We were taught that 1492 was the year that the Italian Christopher Columbus and his crew, sailing on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, discovered the New World, setting the stage for the America we now know to be created. Of course, as we got older and less naïve, we learned other things. That the newly “discovered” world had civilizations on it going back thousands of years, and that 1492 was the beginning of the displacement, enslavement and near-eradication of the indigenous population, whose numbers would drop over 90% from contact with Europeans that brought disease and warfare.

These dueling legacies of the year 1492 are reflected in the various ways in which the day is marked: Columbus Day, Fiesta Nacional de España in Spain, Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo in Italy, and Indigenous Peoples Day in an increasing number of locations across North America.  Yet, it’s sometimes forgotten that this was not the only important event to happen in 1492.  The year marked the beginning of contact, and eventual conquest, of the New World by Christian Europe, but it also marked the end of the longest conflict in human history, one that has faded from memory.

We don’t tend to associate 1492 with the Crusades – the series of medieval military campaigns conducted by the various Christian states of Europe against Muslim forces in the Holy Lands of the Middle East.  The Crusades, as their commonly understood, began in 1092 with Pope Urban II calling for Christians to capture the Holy Lands surrounding Jerusalem and ended around 1291, some 200 years before Columbus’ voyage.  Yet, in a broader sense, this conflict began much earlier and ended much later than a narrow history of the Crusades would indicate.  In 711, the Umayyad Caliphate, a Muslim empire established fairly soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammed and one of many Islamic empires that would successively gain power in the region over the following centuries, expanded its territory around the Mediterranean by capturing Hispaniola, modern-day Spain and Portugal.

Imperial conquest was a common feature in European politics during this era, but the presence of a Muslim empire in Catholic Europe shocked and offended many Christians, who sought to retake the Iberian Peninsula.  Within a few years (either 718 or 722, there’s some dispute on the date), the Christian militants achieved their first victory, establishing a small Christian kingdom within the peninsula from which further efforts to reconquer the rest of the territory could be launched. And so began the Reconquista, an effort to retake Iberia from Muslim control, a fight that ended up lasting almost 800 years.

A conflict this long has far too many ups and downs to go into here, and the fight waxed and waned over the centuries. So did general relations between various Christian and Muslim states, which could often be quite peaceful and mutually beneficial: Christians and Muslims regularly shared and traded economic goods, knowledge, art, and culture.  Even within Iberia, relations between Muslims and Christians (and the Jewish minority living in the region) mostly lived together peacefully for centuries at a time.

But the goal of Christian forces trying to retake portions of the land never went away.  It was in this context that the Crusades were launched in 1092 as another front in what the Pope and various Christian leaders saw as a broader conflict between Christianity and Islam.  Crusaders and reconquistadors were regarded as one and the same; for example, Pope Urban II offered plenary indulgences – essentially “get out of hell free” cards (and a key plot point of the Kevin Smith movie Dogma) – to Christians who fought against unbelievers in either Iberia or the Holy Land.  While the Crusades in the Middle East eventually petered out, the fight in Iberia continued.  During the 1200s, as the last Crusades were fading away, the tide turned in the Christians’ favor in Hispaniola.  Over the next few centuries, increasingly large portions of the peninsula were seized by Christian kingdoms that had been established there over the centuries – Castilla, León, Aragon, Portugal – leaving only a small Islamic beachhead.

The last Muslim holdouts, defending the territory of Granada on the shores of the Mediterranean, were defeated – in 1492. (The image at the top of this article depicts that final conflict). Iberia, and thus Western Europe, was officially back in Christian hands. Queen Isabella of Castilla and King Ferdinand of Aragon, whose marriage brought together their two kingdoms and more or less created modern Spain, were later deemed “The Catholic Monarchs” for their devotion to the Church and efforts to promote its interests.

These interests, as interpreted by Ferdinand and Isabella, included expelling all Jews from their kingdom unless they converted to Christianity, sadly a revival of European anti-Semitism that had only been made worse by the Crusades and other events in the Middle Ages. Those Jews who left Spain (and Portugal, which issued its own expulsion decree a few years later) largely emigrated to North Africa and the Middle East, where they developed their own styles of worship and culture.  They eventually became known as the Sephardi and today form one of the two largest ethnic groups within the modern Jewish population.  The decree from Ferdinand and Isabella implementing their expulsion was issued on March 31, 1492, just four months before Columbus launched an expedition on the Catholic Monarchs’ behalf.

Columbus, for his part, saw himself as not only an explorer but also a Crusader, who sought to spread Christian influence to the Indies and use the wealth he expected to acquire to fund a new round of Crusades to retake the Holy Land.  The Church blessed these efforts, emboldened by winning the Reconquista to now assert the influence of Christendom on the world. This process would lead to conquest of the Americas and set off a larger colonial project that, over the next several centuries, led to European powers cooperating and competing to conquer much of the rest of the world and create circumstances and institutions that reverberate today.  And so, for all the importance that Columbus’ journey to the New World still holds, 1492 was an even bigger, more momentous moment than that, representing a turning point like few that have existed in history.

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