Luis de Torres(died 1493), was born as יוסף בן הלוי העברי, Yosef Ben Ha Levy Haivri , (”Joseph the Son of Levy the Hebrew”). As a Marrano, he was Christopher Columbus’s interpreter on his first voyage and the first person of Jewish origin to settle in the New World, in Cuba.
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 this capacity, he mediated between Jewish, Arab and Spanish communities. Once the Jews were expelled, there was no farther use for his services and de Torres converted to Catholicism shortly before the departure of Columbus’s expedition, which was also the deadline for converting or leaving Spain in the Edict of Expulsion. Columbus thought that a skilled interpreter will enable him to communicate with the people whom he expected to find at the end of his voyage, to speak to the Jewish businessmen in Asia or because the believed that he might find the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. He came off on the coast of San Salvador, Bahamas and brought back gifts of wood and tobacco leaves. Not knowing what they were, Columbus disposed of them.
After arriving at Cuba, Columbus sent de Torres and the sailor Rodrigo de Jerez for an expedition inland on November 2, 1492. They did not find the Great Khan but they did report on the native custom of drying leaves, inserting them in cane pipes, burning them, and inhaling the smoke. Rodrigo brought the habit of smoking back to Spain and was imprisoned by the Inquisition for three (some say seven) years. By the time he was released, smoking became common in Spain.
When Columbus set off for Spain on January 4, 1493, Luis de Torres was among the 39 men who stayed behind at the settlement of La Navidad founded on the island of Hispaniola, now Cuba. 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(1), this man may have been de Torres, who had probably not converted voluntarily. One must remember, however, that 5 Marranoes in total sailed with Columbus.
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 wide-spread one, which can be found in the Encyclopedia Judaica and similar reference books, affirms that he became in his latter days a wealthy and honored 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.”
(1) Alicia B. Gould y Quincy, "Nueva lista documentada de los tripulantes de Colón en 1492: Luis de Torres"
The facts in this post have been gathered from various publications and web sites during my research on a related topic.