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Avast Ye Lubbers, The Hebrew Pirates are coming!

by Noel Hershfield, May 29, 2018


A few months ago, I noted in The Winnipeg Jewish Review a comment that Jewish graves were discovered on the Island of Jamaica.


For better or worse, I have always been interested in the many expulsions of Jews. From Israel they were expelled three times, by The Babylonians, the Greeks       and finally the Romans. I was especially interested   in the battles that the Jews fought against all the oppressors, including The Maccabees,   Bar Kochba and numerous others. There were also Jews resisting the Nazis, including the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion, and also Partisan groups such as the brothers Bielski in the Russian forests during World War II.


The most surprising “ revolt” was carried out after the Spanish Inquisition. Many Jews, called conversos were mainly wealthy Jews who had attained high office in Spain, and continue to practice Judaism secretly. There was also a group of Jews called Marranos who also were practicing their Judaism after   conversion to Catholicism. The Inquisition, which really begin in 1487, and was supported by the  royal family, Ferdinand and Isabella. The length of which the Inquisition went to discover “crypto Jews” both converted and unconverted, and still secretly practicing their Judaism, was unbelievable. The inquisitors even went to South America and other areas to where the Jews escaped and hunted them down. They actually dug them up from their graves and burnt the remains!


This book reveals a number of events of which we are unaware. Since the reign of King Solomon, Jews became mariners, cryptographers, advisers to the navies of many countries including Spain. Research has revealed that Columbus’s navigator was Jewish, as were many as the time. There is also some suggestion that Columbus himself was Jewish, but I don’t think this is been actually corroborated by historians. Because of their long-established positions as middlemen, and moneychangers and moneylenders, the Jews were considered to be experts in commerce, trade, and sea routes.


The classic story   is that many countries in Europe and the Middle East employed Jews because of their expertise in commerce, and many leaders of these countries relied on Jewish money to support their efforts to expand by military methods, then once the goals were achieved, the Jews were expelled, and all of their wealth was taken from them. These practices were well documented by Alan Levine in his book Scattered Amongst the People.  


Whether it was revenge or   business, many Jews became privateers. A privateer was a private person or ship and engaged in maritime warfare under the commission of war. This was known as a letter of Marque and it empowered them to carry out all forms of hostility permissible at sea, including attacking foreign vessels during wartime and taking them as prizes. The term Privateer became a euphemism for piracy. There is a huge literature about these privateers and many of them have become famous including Sir Francis Drake who was a privateer for England, Pieter van der Does from the Dutch empire, Amaro Pargo from the Spanish Empire, Heyreddin Barbarossa from the Turkish empire, and a number of Jewish pirates mainly in the employ of Holland, where many Jews took refuge after the Inquisition. These included Jacob Coryell, Moses Cohen Enrique and his brother, who are currently buried in Jamaica, Jean Lafitte, and Rabbi Samuel Palache of Holland.


In his Journal Lafitte wrote “my mother died before I can remember and my maternal grandmother who lived with us became a mother to me. My grandmother was a Spanish Israelite. Her father had been an alchemist with a good practice and patronage in Spain. He was a freethinking Jew , neither Catholic faith or traditional adherence to the Jewish synagogue. But this did not prevent him from dying of starvation in prison for refusing to divulge the technical details which the Inquisition demanded from all Jews. Grandmother told me repeatedly of the trials and tribulations that our ancestors   incurred during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Grandmother’s teachings inspired me and hatred of the Spanish crown and all the persecutions for which it was responsible, not only against Jews.”  


Some other exploits included the defeat of the Imperial Spanish fleet at the 1538 Battle of Preveza which led to the only successful acquisition of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628 worth about $1 billion in today’s money. In addition, Jewish pirates were complementary to the Dutch capture of the northern part of Brazil from Portugal and in 1695, the British conquest of Jamaica from the Spanish.


Jewish pirates apparently were first mentioned by Josephus. In the first century   CE. At the time, there was an influx of Jewish and Arab pirates operating from the Levant. They operated from what is now Jaffa.  After the great first Jewish Roman war it became   the center of Jewish seafaring and piracy.   The Roman Empire destroyed Jaffa and destroyed most of their ships and also slaughtered about 5000 Jews.


During the so-called age of exploration, Vasco da Gama lent his name to his Jewish navigator Gasper da Gama. At that time many Jews worked as ships navigators due to their knowledge and skills in ship navigation.  


Many of these Jews settled in Jamaica and travel to Brazil where apparently, they found that some of the cities in Brazil and were important in the development of trade of sugar. It is interesting that their ships were named after Jewish heroes and prophets such as   Samuel, Queen Esther and the Shield of Abraham. They mainly went after Spanish and Portuguese merchant ships in revenge for the depredations of the Inquisition. Moses Cohen Enrique’s capture of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628 is well documented. He also went on to aid and to found the north east part of Brazil when he was working for the Dutch when they took the area from Portugal.


Jacob Koriel a Jew who converted to Christianity after the Inquisition when he was a child. He was also the Captain of the Spanish fleet until he was caught by the Inquisition. He was freed by his sailors most of whom were Marranos. For many years after that his only goal was revenge. Apparently, he had three ships under his command and no one knows what happened to him in later life. Some believe he eventually went to the Holy Land studied Kabbalah and died peacefully in old age. There is actually a group of American Jews that are now investigating the Jewish presence in Jamaica. Jamaica at the time became a haven for disenfranchised Jews from all over Spain and Portugal and parts of Europe.


Much more will be learned about the Jewish contribution and to the Caribbean because of an organization entitled the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions which is a “nonprofit focused organization on the cultural preservation throughout the Caribbean and has been leading groups to document this forgotten history”. The group is spearheaded by Rachel Frankel a New York-b

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