Lost Tribes and Promised Lands

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Lost Tribes and Promised Lands by Ronald Sanders is an exciting, thought-provoking, perplexing, and often infuriating book. This volume is the author’s contribution to the growing body of writings on the origins of American racism. Sanders traces those origins to the period from the late fourteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century and concentrates his attention on the major colonizing powers—Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland.

Most of the book is the recounting of a familiar story: Portuguese exploration of Africa, the search for Prester John, the establishment of the African slave trade by the Portuguese, the efforts of Columbus, the Spanish conquest of the Indians of Central and South America, the work of las Casas, the beginnings of French colonization, English colonial undertakings, the legend of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, the story of Squanto, and many other events of the colonization of the New World. All of these tales are told with great skill and enthusiasm by the author, but in hopping from one scenario to the next, Sanders conveys a looseness of organization throughout his book. What is unique about the Sanders treatment is a unifying theme with which Sanders attempts to weave together and explain the many episodes of his book.

Sanders believes that American racism had its origin in Spanish intolerance during the Age of Exploration, and he focuses throughout the book on the Jew. He attempts to show that in a sense, the Age of Exploration, the colonization of the New World, and the origin of American racism were all footnotes to the history of the Jew in the period. However, the author is unable to sustain this fascinating thesis throughout the work, and he frequently loses sight of it, sometimes for very lengthy portions of the book. While the author’s thesis, although historically debatable, can be supported somewhat in examining Spain and Portugal, it can hardly be sustained when applied to English and French colonization efforts in the New World. Nonetheless, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands is a well-written and interesting account whose thesis merits serious consideration.

Sanders’ argument portrays Spain in the Middle Ages as “the most tolerant land in Christendom.” From the late fourteenth century onward, Spain became “fanatically intolerant” and “the history of the Iberian peoples was to be dominated by this development in the Old World and then in the New.” This fanaticism generated the racism which the book attempts to explain. In A.D. 711, Islamic armies conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula, leaving Christians in control of the northwest, where they gathered strength over the next three centuries for a reconquest of Spain; that reconquest was partially successful by the mid-thirteenth century, but a part of Spain remained in Moorish control for more than a century longer.

Down to the late fourteenth century, Spain was characterized by an accommodation and synthesis among Islamic, Jewish, and Christian cultures living in the Peninsula in a harmony which produced the highest level of intellectual and cultural activities. In such an atmosphere of toleration, Jews found a haven in the Peninsula during the medieval period, and the gradual domination from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries of the Christians over the complex, heterogeneous society brought little change in the toleration of Jews. However, as a consequence of growing intolerance, racism, and prejudice directed against Jews throughout Christendom, Spanish Christians during the course of the fourteenth century were infected with the disease of anti-Semitism.

On June 4, 1391, an outbreak of anti-Jewish rioting in Seville marked the beginning of a series of pogroms all over Spain. In Cordova, Toledo, Madrid, Majorca, Cuenca, Burgos, and other cities, Jews were killed, synagogues were looted or turned into Christian churches, Jewish communities were destroyed, and Jews were given the options of death, conversion, or flight. Such anti-Semitism accompanied the last phase of the Reconquista which culminated in the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews from Spain and the triumph of militant Christendom throughout the Iberian Peninsula.

As the final phase of the Christian conquest of Granada swept through Spain, it developed a fanaticism and a messianism that, fusing together religion and nationalistic reconquest, proved irresistible. The earliest victims of this fanaticism were the Jews, who became the objects of racism because Spanish Christians believed that they possessed tainted religious views; this belief, in the spirit of heated fanaticism, was then transformed into a conception of the Jews (and later other peoples) as a tainted people. Thus, religious difference became the source of racism as the Spaniards sought “limpieza de sangre” or “purity of blood.” This racism was supported by both the Catholic Church and the Spanish monarchy.

The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile united the major kingdoms of Spain, reinforced the fanatical nationalism of the Reconquista, and strengthened the role of the Spanish Catholic Church in its advocacy of orthodoxy and limpieza de sangre. Working with the Spanish monarchy, the Church zealously maintained orthodoxy by means of the Inquisition. As a consequence of these agencies working together, the fifteenth century Spanish Jewish community was destroyed, and Jews were either expelled from Spain or forced to convert (sometimes with no alternative except death). Some converted Jews (conversos or New Christians) fully adopted Christianity, others adopted Christianity outwardly but remained secret practitioners of Judaism, and others abandoned Judaism temporarily until its practice could be resumed.

The Inquisition was employed mercilessly and brutally against conversos who were caught practicing Judaism. Moreover, in order to guarantee the purity of office holders, the test of limpieza de sangre was employed to require that Christians seeking promotion and office must prove that they had no taint of Jewish blood. Conversos became a...

(The entire section is 2537 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Book World. August 27, 1978, p. E6.

Commentary. LXVI, August, 1978, p. 78.