History of the Jews of the Caribbean
by Ralph G.Bennett
Ralph G. Bennett, M.D., is a physician whose practice encompasses Dermatology and Allergy in Hayward, California (a suburb of San Francisco). He first became interested in the history of the Jews of Surinam when he discovered that his wife's ancestors were some of the first Dutch Jews who settled there in the 1660s.
Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean
by Professor Steven Plaut (University of Haifa) Jewish Press,Oct 15 2008
The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of the landing of Columbus in the New World. It also marked a less publicized anniversary, that of the beginning of what is known as the Second Diaspora, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and re-settled throughout the world. These two events are related by more than chronology: settlements in the New World offered an opportunity for many Jews to settle in a new land, where they hoped to escape the persecution they had been subjected to in Europe. In turn, the Jews of the Caribbean contributed both to the growth of that region and to the settlement of Jews in the United States. To provide background, this article will begin with a brief account of the Jewish settlement of the newly discovered Americas. Then, the history of Jews in the individual colonies of the Caribbean will be examined, grouped according to their European mother country. The surviving historical records from some islands is more complete than others, depending on factors such as how large the Jewish community was, whether documents have been kept locally or buried in archives of the mother country, and even on such factors as whether an individual in the community cared to preserve the records. Finally, we will see the effect these Jewish settlers in the Caribbean had on Jewish history in the U.S.A.
After Columbus claimed the New World for Spain, the Pope was asked to decide how the land was to be divided. He drew a line down the Western Hemisphere: everything east of the line, (most of Brazil) would belong to Portugal, and everything west of that was given to Spain. This ignored, of course, claims of other European countries, whose ships also voyaged to the New World. Holland, England, and France would all eventually fight against the Spanish and Portuguese to seize parts of these new lands for themselves.
The colonies could provide much-desired agricultural and mineral imports and serve as a market for European goods.When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many fled over the border to Portugal. But in 1497 the Portuguese government banished Jews from that country as well. Many of the Jews fled to other more hospitable European countries, such as Holland, but some sailed to Brazil to start over in this Portuguese territory. They set up trade routes between Portugal and its colony, started farming, and became wealthy plantation owners. With the Inquisition still in effect, they were forbidden to practice Judaism but set up secret societies so they could continue their faith. Back in Portugal, authorities were separating the children of remaining Jews from their parents and sending them to Brazil to be raised as Catholics. The crypto-Jews already in Brazil used their secret groups to teach these children about their true heritage thereby sustaining the Jewish faith in Brazil. During the time the Jews were creating their large plantations in Brazil, they provided their most lasting benefit to the Caribbean economy. Sugar cane was imported from Madeira in Portugal, and it became the basic foundation of the entire Caribbean economy until the 18th century. Sugar cane could be easily grown in the hot climates of South America and the Caribbean, then converted to sugar to be shipped to Europe.
Spain dominated most of Europe, including Holland, during the 16th century. Holland finally won its independence in 1581. After years under the control of the Catholic Hapsburgs, the new Dutch government established religious tolerance as one of its primary goals. In 1588, the Spaniards tried to overpower England; the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the British Royal Navy marked the beginning of Spain's downfall as master of Europe. A weakened Spain meant that her colonies were vulnerable to other European powers looking to establish themselves in the New World.
Holland was a burgeoning rival to Spain and Portugal and was hoping to gain from their misfortunes. The Dutch hoped to capture for themselves some of the Portuguese and Spanish territories in the New World. In the 1630's, the Hollanders sailed into the harbor of Recife, in the northeast corner of Brazil, conquered the region, and claimed it for The Netherlands. They had the help of many of the secret Jewish settlers living in Brazil. Since the Jews had been persecuted by the Portuguese, their sympathies lay with the more tolerant Dutch.
A sizable Jewish community in Amsterdam had grown when Jews started arriving from Spain in 1492. When the Dutch wanted to send settlers to colonize their new territory in Brazil, a group of 600 of the Amsterdam Jews sailed for Brazil. By 1642, the "Holy Congregation", as they called themselves, numbered between three and four thousand. They prospered in their traditional occupations as traders and merchants, but also became successful farmers and plantation owners. Under the Portuguese, Jews had been forced to pretend they were Catholic. When the Dutch came to power, Jews were no longer required to worship in secret communities, but instead were allowed to freely celebrate their religion.
In 1654, the Portuguese sent a fleet to reconquer their lost Brazilian territory. The siege lasted ten years. The Jews fought on the side of the Dutch while the Portuguese, who still lived there, and native Brazilian Indians sided with the Portuguese.
Peace was finally declared in 1664. The Portuguese conducted an Inquisition similar to that of Spain: if a citizen wouldn't profess to being a Catholic, he was branded a heretic and expelled or killed. During the reign of the Dutch the Jews had openly celebrated their religion, and now they couldn't go back to their hidden societies. The Portuguese provided sixteen ships to remove the Jews from Brazil. Once again, Jews had to leave their homes, businesses, and properties behind to search for a haven where they would find freedom from religious persecution and the simple chance to earn a living.
Many of the Jews who left Brazil returned to Amsterdam, including Isaac Aboab de Fonseca, the first American rabbi, and Moses de Aguilar, the first American cantor (Kishor 14-15). The rest of the Jews who left Brazil settled on the nearby islands of the Caribbean; one boatload even made it as far as New Amsterdam (New York). The large numbers of Jews arriving from Brazil marked the beginning of definite Jewish communities in the Caribbean. Jewish settlements rose up in Dutch colonies in the Caribbean like Surinam and Curacao, British colonies like Jamaica and Barbados, and French colonies such as Martinique. We will consider the territories of the individual European powers separately, starting with the British.
In 1654, the chief British colonies were Surinam, Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands. The British government actively promoted the settlement of Jews in their territories; Jews were reputed to be industrious, good businessmen, and generally model citizens. The British merchants, on the other hand, did not like the Jews, and accused them of unfair trade competition. The history of the British colonies is full of attempts by these merchants to limit the extent of Jewish trading and restrict their business.
DUTCH GUIANA (SURINAM) TOP
On the northeast coast of South America, is a special case among the British colonies for two reasons. First, it was only a British colony for a short while, but Jewish settlement started while it was British. Very soon it became a Dutch colony, going by the name of Dutch Guiana. In addition, Surinamis not geographically located in the Caribbean Ocean since it is on the northeastern coast of the South American continent. It has, however, always been considered part of the Caribbean region because it is inaccessible by land from the rest of South America, and its economic and social focus has always been to the Caribbean.
Great Britain claimed the territory of Surinam in 1665. Rather surprisingly, given their history of colonizing other tropical colonies of the British Empire, British citizens did not seem to want to settle in Surinam. The British government decided to attract Jewish settlers to Surinam by offering them full British citizenship, recognition of their Sabbath, and ten acres of land to build a synagogue. The Jews had never before in modern times had full citizenship in any country (Kishor 16). It was around this same time that the Jews of Brazil were being forced from their homes. Therefore, it is natural that a large number of Jews were attracted to Surinam, given Britain's uniquely hospitable attitude. The Jewish community became successful there, as in Brazil, as traders and in agriculture. The colony passed to the Dutch, in 1667, and was known henceforth as Dutch Guiana.
Although the rights of the Jews (in Surinam) were not changed, many Jews moved to Barbados to retain their British citizenship. Jews are believed to have been established in Barbados as early as 1628. In 1661, three Jewish businessmen requested permission to institute trade routes between Barbados and Surinam, which was still part of the British Empire. As will be seen repeatedly, even though the Jews had full legal citizenship and were allowed by the government to trade and conduct business, their success caused the other settlers to try to limit the scope of Jewish trade. British businessmen claimed the Jews traded more with the Dutch than the British, and the government did finally put limits on the Jews' ability to trade. They were not allowed to purchase slaves, and were required to live in a Jewish ghetto. By 1802, the colonial government in Barbados had removed all discriminatory regulations from the Jews living there. A Jewish community remained on Barbados until 1831, when a hurricane destroyed all of the towns on the island.
A synagogue for Sephardis, the Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent, had been established in Barbados in the 1650's. The settlers named this first Barbados synagogue Nidhe Israel, "The Dispersed Ones of Israel". The original Barbados synagogue building is still standing but no longer serves as a place of worship. The attached cemetery is in disrepair but the inscriptions on the headstones were copied and have been saved. They provide important historical and genealogical data for researchers. The Jewish cemetery on Barbados is believed to be the oldest Jewish graveyard in the Western Hemisphere with citations dating back to the 1660's. Graves of several famous people are there, including Samuel Hart, son of the American Moses Hart, and Mosseh Haym Nahamyas (Moses Nehemiah), who died on Barbados in 1672 and was the first Jew to live in Virginia (AJA 18).
The British attracted Jews to their colony in Jamaica as well. There were settlements at both Kingston and Spanish Town. The account of their communities in Jamaica followed a pattern similar to that in Barbados. The Jews became economically successful there, and, in 1671, the citizens of Jamaica petitioned the British government to expel all members of the local Hebrew community.
Governor Lynch, the colonial governor in Jamaica, opposed this petition and it was not enacted. The citizens did manage to get a special tax decreed against Jews in 1693. In 1703, Jews were banned from using indentured Christian servants, and in 1783, they were again taxed, previous exemptions of duty on the Sabbath were taken away, and they were prohibited from holding any public positions. The Jewish communities flourished despite these restrictions and when the British Empire declared equal rights for Jews living in any colony in the early 19th century, ten percent for the Whites in Jamaica were Jews (Kishor 20).
THE LEEWARD ISLANDS TOP
The Leeward Islands are a small group of islands at the eastern end of the Caribbean. Because of their small size, their history is sketchy. It is known that some Jews did settle in the area in the 1600's. In the now familiar story, the other citizens there resented the successes of the Jewish merchants. In 1694, they enacted special legislation to prohibit the Jews from cornering the market on imported commodities. They evidently attributed the success of the Jews to unfair business practices: when the law was repealed in 1704 the Jewish citizens were required to promise to be fair and honest in their future dealings and to support the Islands in case of a war.
BENJAMIN BUENO DE MESQUITA TOP
Sometimes the easiest way to understand history is by seeing it in relation to the life of an ordinary person who lived at a particular time. Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita was a Jewish merchant who settled in the Caribbean. His life illustrates the historical flow of Jews into the New World. It is not known where Bueno de Mesquita was born but there is little doubt that he was of European descent. He referred to himself as a Portuguese merchant but it so believed that he was actually Spanish, as Portuguese was often a euphemism for "Jew". A paper, dated December 11, 1654, with his signature was discovered in Leghorn, Italy, so it is known that travelled there. He had settled first in Brazil. There is a document with his signature, matching the signature found in Italy, in Recife, the colony in northern Brazil established by the Dutch in the 1630's. He was driven out when the war there between the Portuguese and Dutch began. He actually lived on several Caribbean islands, as business and political fortunes waxed and waned in those turbulent times. In 1661, he requested the British government to release him from the restrictions of the Navigation Act, which limited trading with the countries with which Great Britain was at war. He received permission for free trading and set up business in Jamaica. When he did not find the gold mine had pledged to begin, he, his sons, and several other Jews, (possibly his partners) were deported. It is thought that his wife and daughters were not in Jamaica at the time of their deportation.
One of his sons, Joseph, had moved from Barbados to New Amsterdam (New York). About 1679, Benjamin joined him there, and died in New York in 1683. He is buried in the Chatham Square cemetery belonging to the oldest Jewish Synagogue in America, the Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. Benjamin's tombstone marks the oldest Jewish grave in New York.
MARTINIQUE AND HAITI TOP
The French, like the other European powers, strove to gain a foothold in the Caribbean. Their holdings included the small island of Martinique, on the eastern edge of the Caribbean to the north of Venezuela. Another major colony was Haiti, which comprises half of the island containing Santo Domingo. There was an early, sizeable Jewish population on Martinique; however, there were never notable Jewish settlements in what is now Haiti. France conquered and claimed Martinique in 1635. At that early date there were Jewish merchants and traders already settled there who had arrived earlier with the Dutch. They lived in peace until the 1650's. Although the French did not conduct an Inquisition on the scale of the Spanish and Portuguese, they were a Catholic nation, and many of the settlers were Catholic clerics serving as missionaries. As with the British colonies, the French merchants in Martinique and, in this case, the Jesuit priests as well, resented the success of the Jews and caused discriminatory legislation to be enacted. In 1683, King Louis XIV ordered all Jews expelled from French colonies in the New World. Apparently the Jews, and the colonial government as well, ignored the rule, as Jews continued to settle and flourish on Martinique. After the French Revolution, all legislative discrimination against Jews on Martinique ended.
SANTO DOMINGO TOP
The life of David Gradis illustrates the story of Jews in the French colonies. Despite official religious intolerance, Jews on Martinique prospered. In 1722, David Gradis started a trading business in St. Pierre, Martinique. He was successful enough to start a branch in Santo Domingo in 1724. The Gradis family became so powerful that the colonial government was unable to banish them from the island despite French law. As was common at that time, their trade pattern was a triangular route between Europe, the Caribbean and North America. The Gradis' business interests involved trading with Bordeaux, France, where ships picked up cargo of pickled meat and alcohol to bring back to the Caribbean and American ports. His son, Abraham, increased the family's wealth and power. Abraham was so powerful that he was exempted from the discrimination that plagued the rest of the Jews and was allowed, for instance, to own property.
ST. THOMAS AND ST. CROIX TOP
Even tiny Denmark had control of a few islands in the Caribbean. St. Thomas and St. Croix, part of what are now the United States territory of the Virgin Islands, were once Danish colonies. By the late 1700's, there was a congregation, Berakah We-Shalom U-Gemilut Hasadim, and record books exist for births (dated 1786) and deaths (dated 1792). Most of the records were sent to the Royal Archives in Denmark or to the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C.
Many of the details concerning Jewish history among the Danes has not been extensively studied by scholars. Still, in considering the history of Jews in the Caribbean, it is important to know that there were Danish colonies with Jewish settlements.
Holland, at one time, controlled several islands and territories in the Caribbean under the control of the Dutch West Indies Company. Jews were among the first settlers to travel to the new colonies, many of them descendants of Jews who had arrived from Spain in 1492. The most important of the Dutch colonies were Curacao and Surinam (which was originally British).
LESSER ANTILLES - CURACAO TOP
Curacao is part of the Lesser Antilles, the southernmost group of islands in the Caribbean, quite close to the mainland of South America just above Venezuela. The Dutch were much more tolerant of Jews than the Spanish, Portuguese, or French. The Jews were allowed to build up their businesses, contributing to the success of the Dutch in the Caribbean. By 1650, there were twelve Jewish families living on Curacao. The Dutch West Indies Company was in charge of administering the Dutch colonies. The company ordered the governor to give these new settlers land, slaves to work the land, livestock and tools. The Jews settled in an area still known as Jodenwyk (Joden is "Jewish" in Dutch). In 1651, a large number of Jewish settlers, in flight from the persisting battle between the Portuguese and Dutch in Brazil, arrived in Curacao. By 1750, the population of Jews reached 2,000.
In 1656, there were enough Jews to establish a congregation in Willemstad, the Sephardic (Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent) Congregation named Mikveh Israel, which is still in existence. They built a synagogue in 1692. It was not until 1864 that a second Jewish congregation was established in Willemstad, a Liberal Jewish Congregation, Temple Emanu-El. The Jewish community in Curacao was so strong that it helped support new communities in the United States. One such example was the Newport, Rhode Island congregation that, in 1765, sent a letter begging the Curacao congregation for financial help to pay off the mortgages on their synagogue building (AJA 11).
Jews had first settled in Surinam when it was under British rule. A document dated 1643 from Surinam exists in the Amsterdam Jewish Archives. A boatload of Jews arrived from Britain in 1652, while Surinam was still British. Under British rule, the Jews there were offered rights that they did not have anywhere else, including he right to be full British citizens. In 1667, the British surrendered Surinam to the Dutch at the Treaty of Breda, for which they gained New Amsterdam, renamed New York. The Dutch intended for the Jews to maintain the rights they had under British rule.
All British subjects were to be allowed to leave, and a ship was sent by His Majesty Charles II to carry all those wishing to depart. The Jews were accustomed to being forcibly sent away from countries, but this time the government would not allow them to leave! The new Dutch government refused to let the Jews board the English ships, evidently fearing that the loss of the businesses owned by the Jews would damage the economy. A list survives claiming that ten Jews, many belonging to the Pereira family, and their 822 slaves wished to emigrate to Jamaica, but were not allowed to do so.
When Surinam became Dutch, the Dutch thought they had a traded the ordinary little town of New Amsterdam (which became New York City) for a rich tropical paradise. For awhile, it seemed they were right. The plantation-based economy of Surinam, with its riches for sugar cane, coffee, and chocolate turned out to be the leading community of the Americas by 1730. It far surpassed the wealth of such better known places as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.
But the plantations, with the crop of sugar cane as their main export, were dependent on the labor of slaves imported from Africa. In the late 17th century, these slaves began rebelling and escaped into the jungle. There they set up communities of their own, emerging periodically to attack the plantations. This resulted in a shortage of labor at the same time there was a banking crisis in Holland. These factors, along with the discovery that sugar could be obtained from beets, a crop that could be grown in Europe, caused Surinam's economic decline, from which it has never recovered.
The first synagogue in Surinam was built out of wood in the 1660's at a site upriver from the capitol at Paramaribo called the Joden Savanne (Jewish Savannah). It was surrounded by a town which acted as headquarters for the Jewish plantation owners. A more permanent brick synagogue building was erected in 1685, and a rabbi, David Pardo, arrived from London. In 1734, Ashkenazic Jews (of Dutch, German, or Eastern European descent) began arriving. The Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews did not get along well, and ultimately two congregations were founded. Sephardis, who were mostly wealthy and well-educated business people, were considered the elite of the Jewish people. Ashkenazis were, in general, poorer people than the Sephardis. When their population had grown to a substantial size, they wanted a synagogue of their own. They bought the old Sephardic satellite "prayer house" in Paramaribo from the Sephardis. The Sephardis specified that the Ashkenazic Jews must follow the Sephardic minhag, or order of the service. Thus, there was never a synagogue that followed the traditional Ashkenazic order of prayers in Surinam and, today, both congregations are served by the same rabbi.
Among Jews settling in Dutch territories, David Cohen Nassy played a part in the history of both Curacao and Surinam. Nassy was born in Portugal in approximately 1612 as Christovao da Tavora. With the Portuguese Inquisition behind him and with religious freedom in Holland ahead of him, young da Tavora headed for Holland where he changed his name to Joseph Nu¤es da Fonseca. This was done probably either to protect his family still in Portugal, or just to make it harder for anyone to find him. He emigrated to Brazil, but was driven away during the war between Holland and Portugal. In 1662, he and a financier, Abraham Cohen, established a colony in Cayenne, which was later French Guiana. By this time, he had adopted the name of David Cohen Nassy. He received a charter from the Dutch West Indies Company to start a new Jewish settlement in Curacao, but eventually moved on to Surinam. He founded the early Jewish colony in Surinam in the Joden Savanne. When the slave revolts started, he organized the other Jewish plantation owners to try to combat the raids of the runaway slaves. He was killed during a foray into the jungle in search of one of the slave encampments. The community he founded in the Joden Savanne was decimated by the French in 1712 during an attempt to capture Surinam from the Dutch. His two sons, Samuel and Joseph Cohen Nassy, were also military leaders.
There was never much of a Jewish population on the largest Caribbean island, Cuba. A Jew, Luis de Torres, was on one of Columbus's ships for the 1492 journey and served as an interpreter.
It is believed that de Torres settled in Cuba. Spain's Inquisition spread to its colony of Cuba, and Cuban Jews were its victims as late as 1783. The Inquisition was not officially abolished until 1823. Although Jews have been on Cuba for centuries, they were only lawfully allowed to settle in 1881 and still suffered legal discrimination until after the Spanish-American war. In 1898, they were finally allowed to publicly worship and built a synagogue or the congregation.
The history of Jews in the Caribbean is one that is not well known. Their place gets lost in more colorful tales of Spanish conquistadors, cutthroat pirates, and continual battles between the European powers over territory. But their importance cannot be underestimated. A Jew introduced sugar cane to the Caribbean; this crop was the mainstay of the economy for several hundred years.
Jews started trade routes between the islands and their mother countries. As we have seen, the Caribbean Jewish merchants were so successful that the other businessmen often persuaded their governments to tax or restrict Jewish trade. In spite of these attempts to put them out of business, Jewish communities flourished.
UNITED STATES TOP
In a time when the United States did not exist but was itself no more than a set of colonies, Jewish settlers looked to the religious and economic freedom they found in the New World to make new lives for themselves. We know Jews fleeing Brazil went to North American colonies as well as to the Caribbean. The Caribbean congregations helped support the Jewish communities that were starting in the United States. We know there was much travel and trade between the communities in the "future" United States and the Caribbean. In fact, the Jews of the Caribbean are regarded, by many scholars, as the "missing link" in the Jewish settlement of the early United States. It is clear that as Europeans fanned but to set up colonies in the Western Hemisphere, the Jews were among the vanguard of the settlers who made important contributions in the colonization of the "NewWorld."
"Putting the Oy Back into 'Ahoy”
by Professor Steven Plaut (Haifa University)
Oct 15 2008
(From Wikipedia: Piracy in the Caribbean)
They did not sing "Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Manischewitz," nor do they ever seem to appear in any of the Disney films about pirates in the Caribbean. The website piratesinfo.com carries not a single reference to them.
And while September 19 has for a number of years now been designated International Talk Like a Pirate Day (there are even Internet courses available in pirate lingo), none of its initiators seems to have had Ladino (the language spoken by Jewish refugees expelled by the Spanish and Portuguese after the Reconquista) in mind.
Swashbuckling buccaneers who took time to put on tefillin each morning? Better get used to the idea. Long overlooked, the history of Jewish piracy has been garnering increasing interest, with several serious books and articles telling its epic tales.
Many Jewish pirates came from families of refugees who had been expelled by Spain and Portugal. They took to piracy as part of a strategy of revenge on the Iberian powers (though lining their pockets with Spanish doubloons was no doubt also a motive). Many of these pirates mixed traditional Jewish lifestyles with their exploits on the high seas.
Jewish refugees from Portugal first settled in Jamaica in 1511, probably originally as sugar growers, and some took up piracy. The British, led by Admiral William Penn (the father of the William Penn who established Philadelphia), took over the island from the Spanish in 1655, reportedly with assistance from local Jews and Marranos (crypto-Jews), all of whom were allowed to remain.
By 1720, as many as 20 percent of the residents of Kingston were Jews. Over time, Ashkenazi Jews arrived and their synagogues operated alongside the Sephardic ones (the congregations all merged in the 20th century). Jewish tombstones dating back to 1672 have been found there, with Portuguese, Hebrew and English inscriptions.
Some Jews went into local Jamaican politics, and there were so many in the Jamaican parliament in the 19th century that it became the only parliament on earth that did not hold deliberations on Saturday. The Jewish community of Jamaica today numbers a couple hundred and calls itself the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica (UCIJA). The active synagogue there is built in Sephardic style and is one of the few left in the world with a sand floor. Naturally, its official website includes a page on the pirate ancestors of Jewish residents (The United Congregation of Israelites - Kingston, Jamaica).
According to an article earlier this year in the Israeli weekly Bakihilot, municipal workers in Kingston recently uncovered a long forgotten pirate graveyard. Among the tombstones are those with Jewish stars and Hebrew inscriptions, together with pirate symbols such as the skull and crossbones.
Similar Jewish pirate graves have been found near Bridgetown in the Barbados and in the old Jewish graveyard in Curacao. Jamaican-born Jewish historian Ed Kritzler claims that Jewish pirates once operated there, raiding the Spanish Main wearing tallis shawls. He's just published a book titled ‘Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean’ and conducts private tours of the "Jewish pirate coves" of Jamaica.
Kritzler's book includes the saga of one Moses Cohen Henriques, who participated in one of history's largest sea heists against Spain. In 1628, Henriques sailed together with Dutch Admiral Piet Hein, of the Dutch West India Company, who hated Spain after having been held as a slave for four years on a Spanish galleon. They raided Spanish ships off Matanzas Bay in Cuba, commandeering large amounts of gold and silver.
Henriques set up his own pirate "Treasure Island" on a deserted island off the Brazilian coast on which Jews could openly practice their religion. (He also served as adviser to Henry Morgan, perhaps the most famous pirate of all time; Errol Flynn played Morgan in the movie "Captain Blood.") After the recapture of Brazil by Portugal in 1654, some of these Jews would sail off to set up a brand new Jewish community in a place called New Amsterdam, now known as New York.
In many cases Jewish pirates collaborated with Holland, a friendly and welcoming state for Jews. One such pirate was Rabbi Samuel Pallache, a leader of the Moroccan Jewish community in Fez. Born in The Hague, he was son of a leading rabbi from Cordoba who ended up in Morocco. From there he was sent to Holland as envoy of the Moroccan sultan, who was seeking allies against Spain. He became a personal friend of Dutch Crown Prince Maurice, who commissioned him as a privateer, and served for years as a pirate under a Netherlands flag and with Dutch letters of marque. Rabbi Pallache recruited Marranos for his crews.
In other cases Jewish pirates worked for the Ottomans. A Jewish pirate named Sinan, known to his Spanish prey as "The Great Jew" was born in what is now Turkey and operated out of Algiers. He first served as second in command to the famous pirate Barbarossa. (No connection to the fictional Barbarossa of the Disney films.) Their pirate flag carried a six-pointed star called the Seal of Solomon by the Ottomans.
Sinan led the force that defeated a Genoan navy hired by Spain to rid the Barbary Coast of corsairs. He then conquered Tripoli in Libya, and was eventually appointed supreme Ottoman naval commander. He is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Albania.
A Jewish pirate named Yaakov Koriel commanded three pirate ships in the Caribbean. He later repented and ended up in Safed as one of the Kabbalah students of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) and is buried near the Ari's grave.
A pirate named David Abrabanel, evidently from the same family as the famous Spanish rabbinic dynasty (which included Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel), joined British privateers after his family was butchered off the South American coast. He used the nom de guerre "Captain Davis" and commanded his own pirate vessel named The Jerusalem. According to at least one report, he was the person who discovered what is now called Easter Island.
Several Jewish corsairs operated against Spanish ships off the coast of Chile. There are reports that their galleys were kosher and they abstained from raids on the Sabbath. A maritime museum in Chile today holds letters of communication among these pirates composed in Hebrew.
One pirate leader was named Subatol Deul. On a trip up the coast he stumbled across a ship under the command of the pirate Henry Drake, son of Sir Francis Drake. They decided to create an alliance of anti-Spanish pirates, the "Black Flag Fraternity."
Deul and Drake reportedly buried treasure on an island near Coquimbo in 1645. A chapter in the book Piracy & Plunder: A Murderous Business, by Milton Meltzer, is devoted to Deul's swashbuckling career.
There also were Jewish corsairs based in Curacao next to Venezuela. The local Curacao rabbi once berated his community's pirates when they thoughtlessly attacked a ship owned by a fellow Jew. At least it wasn't done on the Sabbath.
The history of Jewish pirates goes far back: Josephus mentions Jewish pirates operating in the seas off the Land of Israel in Roman times. There is a drawing of a pirate ship inside Jason's Tomb in Jerusalem. The Hasmonean Hyrcanus accused Aristobulus, his brother, of "acts of piracy at sea." In its last days, the Seleucid empire (the one fought by the Maccabees) was plagued by Jewish and Arab pirates.
Pirates operated from coves along the Levantine coast for centuries, and my own city of Haifa was once known as The Little Malta because of its notorious pirates. (The local pirates these days seem to specialize mainly in computer software.)
The fact that some Jews seemed to have taken so easily to the pirate lifestyle may have been due in part to other skills developed by Jews over the centuries. Cartography, for example, was considered a Jewish specialty in the 15th and 16th centuries, and Christopher Columbus is believed to have consulted the work of a Jewish cartographer, one Abraham Cresque of Mallorca, who produced the Catalan Atlas in 1375. Portuguese Jewish cartographers and scientists contributed to Vasco Da Gama's voyage of discovery to the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Jews also worked on ships as navigators.
Perhaps the most important Jewish pirate of all was the Caribbean pirate Jean Lafitte, a familiar name to many American schoolchildren. He and his men, pirates trained in cannon fire, came to the aid of General (later President) Andrew Jackson and played a critical role in winning the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. A Jean Lafitte National Historic Park stands today on the outskirts of the city.
What is still largely unknown is that Lafitte was a Jew, born either in Western France or in what is now Haiti. A while back my friend Edward Bernard Glick, a retired professor of political science living in Oregon, published an article in the Jerusalem Post (July 14, 2006) on Lafitte's Jewish origins and it stirred up a storm of interest. Parts of Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman's book Jews on the Frontier also discuss Lafitte's life.
According to Glick, "[Lafitte] was a Sephardi Jew, as was his first wife, who was born in the Danish Virgin Islands. In his prime, Lafitte ran not just one pirate sloop but a whole fleet of them simultaneously. He even bought a blacksmith shop in New Orleans, which he used as a front for fencing pirate loot. And he was one of the few buccaneers who didn't die in battle, in prison or on the gallows."
Glick claims the British tried to recruit Lafitte to guide them through the swamps to ambush the Americans, but Lafitte instead showed General "Old Hickory" Jackson Britain's battle plans to attack New Orleans. The rest is history.
Years before the Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne placed a reward of $500 on Lafitte's head. Lafitte retaliated by putting a $5,000 bounty on the head of the governor. Neither collected.
Lafitte later commanded his own "kingdom" named Campeche on the island of Galveston, Texas, then nominally under Spanish rule. Some of Lafitte's trading activities were conducted by Jao de la Porta, a Portuguese Jew from Spanish Texas. Among their clients was Jim Bowie, made famous at the Alamo and also for the special knife.
Mention of Jewish pirates can pop up in some unexpected places. Just before Rosh Hashanah this year, the liberal Huffington Post website carried a post by humorist Andy Borowitz "reporting" that the group of Somali pirates who had just hijacked a ship full of Ukrainians in the Gulf of Aden was calling a halt to the piracy in honor of the Jewish High Holidays.
Wrote Borowitz: " 'To all of our Jewish friends, we say a hearty Shana Tova,' said pirate spokesman Sugule, moments before the pirates hoisted a Star of David flag over the captured ship. Sugule took pains to indicate that while the pirates were taking a Rosh Hashanah break from their usual plundering and pillaging schedule, they were doing so only out of respect for Jewish pirates and not because they are Jewish themselves. 'None of us Somali pirates are Jewish,' he said. 'Except for Abe in accounting, who's half.' "
And there are others who are getting into the spirit of things. The Bangitout.com Jewish humor website listed a set of halachic challenges for Jewish pirates, including the following:
If you have a hook instead of a hand, on which arm do you put tefillin?
Does your treasure map show how far the eruv extends?
How long do you wait, after capturing a plundered ship, to put up a mezuzah in the captain's cabin?
Should you cover your eye patch with your hand when you say the Shema?
Can you wear a leather boot over your peg leg on Yom Kippur?
Are you able to carry on the plank on Shabbos?
If your parrot is on your shoulder, is that carrying?
Personally, I think the biggest challenge to Jewish pirates occurs at Purim. After walking around all year decked out like that, what could they possibly dress up as? Accountants?
In a way, the legacy of Jewish pirates is alive and well in Israel today. One of the most outstanding examples of the Jewish state's derring-do was when it stole five gunboats out of the port of Cherbourg in France - ships that had already been paid for by Israel but that France, as punishment for Israel's Six-Day War victory, was refusing to deliver.
Israeli agents operating through a front corporation seized the ships on December 25, 1969 and sailed them to Haifa. The details of that piracy are engagingly told in The Boats of Cherbourg (1997) by Abraham Rabinovich.
So let's swab the decks, count our doubloons and grant the Jewish pirates their proper place in history. In other words, it's time to put the oy back into "ahoy."