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.
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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 (ucija.org/pirates.htm
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.
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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.
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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.”
Steven Plaut, a professor at Haifa University, is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.