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Tuesday, July 7, 2009


By Ariela Pelaia, Guide to Judaism
Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean. Ahoy Vey?
Saturday June 20, 2009

Last week I wrote about my discovery of a historical synagogue on the island of St. Thomas, but this week I have something even more unexpected to share with you: the fact that Jewish pirates once sailed the Caribbean sea. That's right, you read correctly. Pirates.

I stumbled upon this surprising bit of Jewish history while looking for more information about the St. Thomas Synagogue. Who knew that searching for "Jewish" and "Caribbean" in Google would return search results that included a 2008 book by Edward Kritzler titled "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean?" The internet never ceases to astound me.

Although journalists like Jewish Journal writer Adam Kirsch have taken issue with Kritzler's creative use of historical "documents," even Kirsch admits that Jews played a major role in the European colonization of the New World: as merchants, spies and, yes, pirates. How can this be? Blame it on Spain. In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain and those who didn't remain behind, practicing their faith in secret, often migrated to other areas of Europe or to the New World. (Tangentially, the Spanish expulsion took place on Tisha B'av, which is an upcoming fast day and a date when many other tragedies have befallen the Jewish people.)

Some Jews making their way to the New World sailed with Columbus, while others traveled aboard everyday ships bound for emerging mercantile centers. Their linguistic, financial and trading skills allowed them to become investors, merchants and ship owners. Most Jewish immigrants chose trades like these, but others became pirates instead, also known as privateers. These mercenaries were licensed by nations to seize and rob enemy ships, sending most of the booty to the sponsoring nation but also sharing in profits themselves.

For instance, Samuel Pallache, who Kritzler calls "The Pirate Rabbi" because his father had served as rabbi in Córdoba. His career started as a trade representative exchanging Moorish jewels for Spanish beeswax, but when King Phillip III of Spain refused to recognize him as a Spanish privateer Samuel turned around and began working for the Dutch. He ran guns for them and harassed Spanish ships along the way, once even leading a fleet attack on Spanish ships in the Mediterranean. Some historians believe that Pallache also acted as a double agent, passing classified information about Dutch-Moroccan relations to the Spanish and vice versa.

Another pirate named Moses Cohen Henriques helped plan "one of history's largest heists against Spain... [seizing] shipments of New World gold and silver worth in today's dollars about the same as Disney's total box office for 'Dead Man's Chest.'' Henriques was never captured and eventually set up his own pirate island off the coast of Brazil.

You can learn more about Jewish pirates in Kritzler's book: "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom - and Revenge."

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