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
By Edward Kritzler
Doubleday; 336 pages; $26
The title of Edward Kritzler's period history seems to imply
something surprising about those who follow the Jewish faith finding
employment as seafaring pirates - more surprising, apparently, than
Catholics or Lutherans.
Despite the stereotypes of Jews as merchants and intellectuals,
plenty of them have swashbuckled their way through life. After all,
Jews have been persecuted for no logical reason in society after
society for thousands of years. Naturally, some of them would become
aggressive in return.
The major attraction of Kritzler's fast-paced history is not the
fact of Jewish pirates, but rather the saga of their persecution,
especially in Spain, that led to their pirate ways, including liaisons
with Christopher Columbus.
Set mostly in the late 1400s, the 1500s and the 1600s, the book
conveys numerous tidbits perhaps unknown to non-Jews and Jews alike.
Kritzler's intellectual odyssey that resulted in the book also began in
unknowing. It was 1967, and he had moved from New York to Jamaica.
While studying the island's history at the national library, he noticed
an entry in a British pirate's journal from 1642. William Jackson wrote
that he found the capital city deserted except for "divers Portuguese
of the Hebrew nation who came unto us seeking asylum, and promised to
show us where the Spaniards hid their gold."
Kritzler knew that early explorers of the New World hailed from
Spain and Portugal, but he had assumed they were "all devout Catholics
carrying the cross." So, he asked himself, "what were Portuguese Jews
doing on a Spanish island, seeking asylum with an English pirate?"
Digging further, Kritzler learned that before the British empire
conquered Jamaica in 1655, the island had been owned by descendants of
Columbus and that those descendants "provided a haven for Jews
otherwise outlawed in the New World." Some of the Jamaican Jews whom
Kritzler met during his research labored to persuade him that Columbus
himself had been Jewish. So much of this history had been hidden,
Kritzler determined, because Jews sailing with Columbus and others hid
their religious identity in order to escape the persecution of Europe
during the Inquisition.
Rulers far away from Europe - in South America, North America and
the Caribbean islands in between - did not want Jews around either. But
many of them set aside their religious prejudices as long as the
closeted Jews proved useful, setting up trade across the ocean using
commodities such as sugar, coffee, tea, grains, plus metals such as
gold and silver. After the trade networks became established, however,
the rulers sometimes turned on the Jews. As Kritzler notes, "In Mexico
and Peru, where Jewish merchants controlled the silver trade, Holy
Inquisitors were called in to purify the bottom line: Jewish leaders
were burned, their wealth was confiscated, and Christians took over the
fabulously rich silver trade."
Desperately seeking refuge, Jews in Holland, mostly in Amsterdam,
found a tolerant society, led by rulers who considered Spain and
Portugal enemies. The Dutch did nothing to discourage Amsterdam Jews
from journeying to the West Indies to become buccaneers in battle
against the nations that had become persecutors.
Having set the stage with historical context, Kritzler shares
various sagas of individual Jews who took to the sea as pirates, or
masterminded the pirate operations from land. The narrative comes
across as disconnected at times, but the material is so rich that the
book is never boring.