The Age of Discovery and its Financiers

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Pablo Edronkin

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Starting in the XV century, the age of discovery was a period of extensive European exploration of the world that included Columbus' trip to America, the feats of Vasco da Gama, Cabral and many others, but someone had to pay for the whole thing, and – perhaps you guessed – there were Jewish financiers backing it all up.

"Aspire to great things if you want to attain even small ones." - Proverb.

There are many reasons that explain why Europe, after being numb during the middle ages, started exploring and expanding during the XV century. Some of those reasons have to do with the necessity of military and social expansion, while others are related to commerce.

Since Portugal had reconquered its territory by then, and Spain was about to achieve the same, those countries sought to expand their commercial horizons in order to finance themselves, but in order to achieve that, their strategists had to find ways to bypass Muslim-held territories in North Africa.

Then, in 1452 the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and so, most land-based commercial routes were suddenly and effectively closed.

It was time for a solution, and the Portuguese were ready to intervene. The, Spain did the same a little after.

By 1418, the Portuguese were exploring the African coasts under the leadership of Henry the Navigator[1.5][81], who was the brother of the king and so had a lot of resources at his disposal. Henrique de Pinto de Portugal, Duque de Viseu, who was in fact related to some Jewish financiers as well - our family -, and that was helpful too.

Philippa of Lancaster was his mother; she was the fifth great grandmother of Ana de Lancastre[1.6] (Lancaster, in its Portuguese spelling) who married Bartholomew de Sampayo y Belmonte[1.60]; the Sampayo – Belmontes that later migrated to Amsterdam and adopted the names Belmont and Schoenberg are one of those Jewish families dedicated, among other things, to finances until the present time. At the time of Henry the Navigator, Jewish bankers were also active financing such deeds as well.

Within the primary and secondary royalty in Portugal (i.e. the monarchs vis-á-vis their more or less immediate relatives) which was ostensibly very Christian indeed, there was Jewish blood splattered everywhere, a fact graphically explained by the story of the Marquis de Pombal and the three yellow hats[24.40]. The Sampayos, descendants from Lopo Fernandez Pacheco, the 7th Senhor de Ferreira de Aves[1.87], were also Jewish (later "Marranos," forcibly converted) and thorough Lopo, related to the family of Pedro Álvares de Gouveia Cabral[1.93], the discoverer of Brazil. The Cabral family married with names such as de Castro[1.88], Coutinho[1.90], de Noronha[1.91] and Mascarenhas[1.89]; these families were related to the Sampayo – Belmontes[1.1][1.2], to the House of Aviz[1.6] and this means, to Jews, if they were not Jewish themselves.

The Pacheco family was also Jewish, at least in part, and later on, as the Sampayo – Belmonte family migrated to Amsterdam and London there were marriages between them and some descendants of Isaac Abrabanel[63.3][1.92], the Jewish financier who was one of the investors of Columbus' trips.

João Rodrigues Mascarenhas, killed during the Easter massacre, in 1506, was a financier and a tax collector working for the king in Lisbon. He was an uncle of Maria Andrea Mascarenhas[1.1], the wife of Dom Iago de Sampayo y Belmonte[1.2], and himself a converso. The Lancastre and Mascarenhas families had also familiar links with Jews and royalty[24.39].

As it happens often thorough history, Jews become a predominant group in certain activities such as banking, commerce and finances. Portugal and Spain during the XV were not the exception: Wealthy Sephardi families were in an excellent social and financial position and provided assistance, advice and funding for many activities of the courts. That is why they found their way into the nobility and royalty[63.3], and – like it happened also thorough history – that caused anger and resentment among the lower populace that saw with deep suspicion the activities of the aristocracy and the Jews.

This feeling, ultimately, led to the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, and to the establishment of the Inquisition[75.3].

Organizing expeditions such as that of Columbus, with three ships, or that of Cabral, which required an armada of thirteen, was indeed expensive and complicated. At that time, it was common that kings would assign to relevant posts in those expeditions commanders or leaders not based on skills and experience, but status within the nobility. This led sometimes to disastrous consequences. Hence, funding such projects was a risky undertaking because not only the sea voyages were hazardous, but leaders could potentially make them more dangerous by acting wrongly.

The only people in a condition to assume such risks were the Jewish financiers and bankers, already accustomed to working in high-risk investment ventures. They had the capital, the knowledge and the intention to do so, because one of the reasons to seek to expand commercial horizons is not just to get more gold, but to follow a maxim that has helped financiers such as the Belmonte (Schoenberg) family for centuries: Invest in things that other people will not understand in order to protect your assets from theft.

However, the ostensible fanaticism and militarism of the Portuguese and Spaniards, at least in part, was tamed by exactly the opposite forces underlying the Iberian peninsula, as Ida Altman describes:

"The question of adaptability also bears on the conquest and settlement of the New World. The conquest is often pictured in terms of Spanish rigidity and fanaticism, the ethnocentric drive to dominate cultures and societies deemed inferior. Yet the ability to absorb and subsume difference was fundamental to the success of the whole colonial enterprise. Certainly fanaticism and militarism were underlying factors of the reconquista as well, but it must be recalled that the centuries of reconquest produced not only conflict but the unique pattern of convivencia, in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative tolerance and learned from and influenced one another. The Spaniards who went to the New World were heirs to the traditions of both conquest and convivencia."[238.1]

Anyway, fanaticism, however tamed, in many regards won and indeed, in many occasions, one of the goals of pogroms and generally speaking, attacks on Jews, was to liquidate debts. You kill the creditor and his family, and there is no one to claim any due payments. Another goal was to rob valuables, and most people could identify only two kinds: Gold and silver. But by developing routes, commercial networks, and later, mature financial institutions such as banks and stock markets, Jewish financiers and bankers actually began creating value and capital that others couldn't understand and hence, they couldn't see and much less, steal.

A commercial route has an inherent value; with today's accounting techniques, intangible assets such as the exclusive rights over a maritime or airline route can be valued. Back in the XV century, without the development of accountancy tools and modern financial principles, it wasn't possible, and only the trained eye could perceive that there was some value in such things. So, owning them was like getting a lot of of invisible gold coins.

Having the right social networks is another case: How valuable can be a close relationship with the government? Well, families such as the Sampayo – Belmonte, Lancastre and Mascarenhas were actually part of the Portuguese, Spanish and English royalty, so they could really toy with insider information. Illiterate anti – semitic types would never grasp such a notion and hence, they would never perceive what was going on.

The interaction between Jewish financiers, royal courts and the age of exploration persisted right to its end, with the advent of the industrial revolution: it is documented how one of the members of our family negotiated the purchase of eight galleons for Spain around the year 1700.

The pinnacle of that process was reached during the second half of the XVIII century, when the Rothschild family developed a technique to move money from one country to another ahead of the greedy intentions of governments. Today it would be called money laundering. Then it was just survival.

That, of course, meant creating some of the biggest fortunes in history.

The Cantino Planisphere, 1502.
The Cantino Planisphere, a top secret map stolen and sent to Italy, showing the lands discovered by Spanish
and Portuguese explorers during the XV century. This kind of knowledge meant money, a lot of it.
From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, public domain[82].

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