The Meditteranean was plundered by both the Pirate Rabbi
of Holland Samuel Palache, and Sinan the Jew, Barbarossa’s
2nd in command; Chile was Suboltol Deul base, and Moses Cohen
Henriques’ pirate island was off the coast of Brazil.
“But o.k. if we have to go with that title, there were a couple
of Jewish pirates in the Caribbean.” I told him about Jamaica’s
Bartholomew the Portuguese, a successful failure, famous not
for his successes but for his escapes, and the pirate Jean
Lafitte known to Americans as the hero of the battle of New
Orleans who wrote “my Jewish-Spanish grandmother, a witness
at the time of the Inquisition, inspired in me a hatred of
the Spanish crown” And it was off Cuba that in 1628 Moses
Cohen Henriques captured the Spanish Silver fleet, a billion
dollar haul in today’s currency.
So, I told him I’m fine with Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.
But can he give it a broader subtitle like Sephardic Pioneers
or Underground in the New World? "No," he said.
But for you my UJCL readers, you are mishpoche and therefore
I have to tell you the full story.
The major role of Jews and pirates was we were like the brains
behind their brawn, i.e. We advised and backed them.
From the Age of Discovery, secret Jews sailed with the explorers,
marched with the conquistadors and were among the first settlers
in every New World colony. This early history is largely unknown
because few knew these pioneers were Jewish. Forbidden entry
because of their religion, Iberian Jews posed as New Christians
from Portugal, the one settler group that did not require
proof of Catholic ancestry.
A mercantile people, Jews in the New World went about their
(as merchants, traders and ship owners) of becoming the first
merchant class in the Spanish Empire. As long as they pretended
to be Christian and delivered the goods, no one questioned
too closely their religiosity. For most of the l6th century,
the parties were content with the trade-off: The king needed
the Jews to insure his cash flow, and they needed him to keep
the Inquisition at bay.
Each colony had an underground community of Jews known only
to each other and brethren in other colonies. Together they
In the 16th century, when the known world doubled in size
and international trade became big business, conversos established
a trade network that spanned the globe. In concert with Jews
scattered world-wide by the Sephardic Diaspora, they formed
a global tribe of inside traders, a world wide intelligence
network bonded by heritage, language and a hatred for Spain.
Once their trade network was established, however, Jews became
expendable. In the l6th and l7th centuries, thousands of New
World conversos were arrested, tortured and tried. Found guilty,
their wealth was confiscated, and they were first flogged,
then either imprisoned, strangled, burned to ash, condemned
to work in the salt mines of Venezuela, or row galley ships
across the Pacific from which none returned.
“They are good and useful spies,” said Oliver Cromwell of
the Jews who when the Inquisition threatened, advised him
in the conquest of Jamaica. Welcomed by the English, Jews
from all over the New World shed their converso cloaks and
moved to Jamaica. The community soon included ship owners
from Mexico and Brazil, traders from Peru and Columbia, and
ship captains and pilots from Nevis and Barbados. Together
their knowledge of New World trade was unsurpassed. By 1660,
Jamaica had become the Jews’ principal haven in the New World.
Situated in the middle of the shipping lanes, Jamaica was
an ideal base from which to strike at Spanish shipping, and
engage in contraband trade with the Main. Jamaica’s Jews were
major players in both activities.
Having convinced the island’s new leaders that the best way
to defend the colony and have it prosper was to invite the
pirates of the Caribbean to move there, Port Royal became
the home base of the feared Buccaneers of the West Indies
and piracy the island’s chief industry. Jewish merchants,
in coded correspondence with converso merchants in the Spanish
colonies, were able to ascertain what ship was sailing when,
its cargo, route, destination, and what its captain may have
secreted in his cabin. Thus informed, they financed and advised
the buccaneers, and got first dibs on the booty.
Port Royal’s English merchants, new to the New World, could
not compete with those they called “descendants of the Crucifers
of our Lord,” and repeatedly petitioned for their expulsion.
“The infinite number of Jews who daily resort to this island
have made Port Royal their Goshen and will do nothing but
trade…This is a great and growing evil and had we not warning
from other Colonies we should see our streets filled and the
ships hither crowded with them. This means taking our children’s
bread and giving it to the Jews. We did not want them at Port
Royal, a place populous and strong without them.
Another by 72 “Christian merchants” accused the Jews of practicing
what is today normal business practice:
“The great Mischief we suffer by them is that their trading
is a perfect monopoly, for they are a kind of joint stock
company, and not only buy the choicest and best goods, but
frequently buy up whole cargoes, and undersell petitioners,
which they can better bear by their penurious way of living…”
Prejudice could not stand up to economics. Jews’ contribution
to Jamaica and England’s prosperity determined the Crown’s
position in their favor. In two decades (1656-1676), in large
part due to the role of these proven entrepreneurs of wealth
in the silent trade (illegal trade with Spanish colonies)
and their dealings with the buccaneers, Jamaica funneled to
England an estimated four million pounds of silver. England’s
Committee of Accounts noted the island had become “the base
for the greatest flow of silver and gold [and] more bullion
is yearly imported from thence than from
all other of the King’s dominions laid together.”
Port Royal, with its wealthy Jewish merchants, ship owners
and synagogue, was known as the “Treasure House of the Indies”.
In the ascendancy of the Buccaneer Admiral Henry Morgan, the
Jews found their “Joshua.” His six raids on Spanish ports,
financed by the merchants, and culminating in the burning
of the “Golden City of Panama,” brought the Spanish Empire
to its knees. In the Treaty of Madrid in l670, Spain acceded
to Europe’s right to settle the New World...and Jews were
finally free to be Jews.
The Great Earthquake of 1692 brought a climatic end to the
pirate port when the sea swallowed two-thirds of Port Royal.
From an infamous pirate capital, Jamaica, by 1698, had become
a sugar island worked by 40,000 slaves, and after 1713, “the
centre for slave distribution in the Caribbean and North America.”
It was then that England’s Royal African Company was awarded
by the asiento – the monopoly right Spain granted to conduct
the slave trade with Spanish America. A few Jamaican Jews
did participate in the trade, but most dealt in dry goods.
This fact was noted in a London petition in 1735 that protested
the on-going effort of rival merchants to exclude Jews. Their
defenders (92 Jewish and non-Jewish merchants) wrote: “The
Jews [in London] are almost the only persons that send any
dry, fine goods to Jamaica, at their own risk, and on their
own account…for the supply of the inhabitants of the island,
and for making proper sortments of goods for the Spaniards…”
As Jewish involvement with piracy petered out in the Caribbean,
the rovers and their Sephardi sponsors disbanded, only to
reunite when in the following century a budding new nation
would enlist them in its fight for liberty. In the American
Revolution, a dozen prominent Jews sided with the rebels as
privateers. Celebrated as founders of early Jewish congregations,
it is not commonly known that these men owned and operated
more than a few of the pirate ships that captured or destroyed
over 600 British ships and took cargoes and prizes with an
estimated value of $18 million.