New Book Reveals how Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean wrought revenge on their Inquisition persecutors and changed the course of world history

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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.

Steve Weinberg is the author of "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller." E-mail him at books@sfchronicle.com.

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