History often plays with the past and facts are often distorted or full of omissions. The many histories, novels, and movies, written about pirates, makes one think the largest group of pirates were English, French and Dutch with North African Moorish, Turkish and Chinese thrown in to sweeten the “Grog”. Today, you might say the history of piracy has been taken over by “White privilege”. Truth is – piracy has existed across vast sections of humanity. The reasons for its existence being poverty versus gain and injustice versus revenge have not changed. One pivotal group involved in the classic age of piracy was Jewish. They had good reason to be.
We cannot fully address the millenniums of prejudice towards the Jewish faith who were often scapegoated by the concept that they were responsible for the death of the “Christian God” Jesus. How tell? This lacks historical sense! Jesus lived and died a Jew and studied Jewish laws. His loving parents? – Jewish, apostles? – all Jewish, disciples? Jewish! It was the Romans who nailed Him to the cross.
It is more complex than stated here but Christianity would not exist but for Judaic traditions. Unfortunately, the myth of Jewish guilt grew until by late medieval times, when the Inquisition was started by the church to protect it from free ideas perceived as heresy, that prejudice against Jewish communities became rampant.
Jewish communities thrived in southern European areas but the ascendency of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as victors over the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula reinforced the rise of the Catholic Inquisition’s anti-Semitism to new heights. In 1492, Iberian Jews, called “Sephardim”, were forced by threat of torture and death, to convert to Catholicism or leave their possessions and flee.
Those who converted were called Marrano’s. Those who did not, fled to European areas where there was some tolerance. Many were accepted in Britain, Morocco, Libya, The Ottoman Empire, and other tolerant Muslim lands. But the Inquisition left many of the victims with hatred and lust for revenge, especially against Spain and Portugal. So rose the age of Jewish piracy which was to last three hundred years.
By 1521 the pirates Sinan Reis and Samuel Pallache shared their knowledge of Christian Naval strategy and joined the feared Ottoman Pirate,” Barbarossa”. They defeated the Holy Roman Emperor, who was the Spanish King, at the battle of Preveza then continued on as Barbary Corsairs attacking Spanish and Portuguese ships all over the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic. At this time Spain was the most formidable European Country controlling most of Southern Italy, Sicily, parts of France, Malta etc. This stifled the trade routes to the Far East for hundreds of years.
Spain and Portugal were the first to begin exploiting the New World, the African coasts and most of the Indian Ocean. Gold and silver began to flow into Spain and Portugal from Mexico, Peru and Columbia. Slaves were procured on Africa’s Gold Coast by the Portuguese for sale on the new Sugar plantations of the West Indies, Brazil and Americas. All this profit spurred the islands of the Caribbean to become havens for mainly English, with some Dutch and French pirates who saw, in the cumbersome treasure ships of Spain, easy pickings for their faster sloops and their able crews were up to the challenge. When Britain took over islands like Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, Jews were welcomed in the pirate strongholds of Port Royal and Kingston. In short time 20% of the population were Jews who owned their own pirate ships co-operating with English, Dutch, Ex-slave, and Indian pirates. Most Jewish pirates had expert skills in navigation and math and were highly regarded. Valued for their literacy, they used no “X” marks to sign their names. They could decipher maps and many spoke multiple languages. They tended to name their ships with the names of their prophets and heroes such as Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther, and Shield of Abraham.
In the roving days of Captain Morgan, the most dreaded pirate of his time was based in “The wickedest place on earth”, Port Royal. He joined a marauding buccaneer friend of his named Captain Moses Cohen Henriques. He was Portuguese and had been tortured by the Inquisition in 1605 for practicing his Jewish faith in secret. He became a sworn enemy of Portugal and Spain. He moved to the Indies and with Morgan, pulled off the largest heist of Spanish gold and silver ever. Over a billion dollars’ worth in today’s value. Captains Henriques and Morgan make the “Goodfella’s” look like loser chumps even though they pulled off the Lufthansa heist.
David Abrabanel came from a noted Old World Rabbinic Dynasty that claimed heritage back to King David. After his family was massacred, he captained his own pirate vessel named Jerusalem and sailed under the “nom de guerre” of Captain Davis. He raided along the Pacific coasts and the Spanish colony of Panama where ships filled with mined gold from Peru and the Potosi mine in Columbia and docked at the narrow Pacific side of Panama to offload the treasure and carry it by wagons across to the Caribbean. Then it was loaded onto the large treasure fleet bound for Spain in September of each year. Captain Davis thus pushed the Spanish into fighting a two-front naval war against British pirates and their Jewish pirate allies on the Pacific and Atlantic. Captain Davis is also claimed to be the discoverer of Easter Island.
Another “Marrano’’ was Yaacov Kuriel who worked as a Captain in the Spanish fleet. When it was rumored, he was practicing his Jewish faith in secret and held for torture by the Inquisition. Sympathetic friends helped Yaacov escape. He turned to piracy against the Spanish with his own fleet of three fast, well-armed ships of his own. He obtained sweet revenge and retired to the Holy Land to study the scriptures and to die as a Jew.
There were many more Jewish pirates, but we end with a rather surprising one because it is rarely mentioned that this pirate, the hero who helped win the war of 1812 for America, was indeed a Jewish pirate probably from the Basque Country between France and Spain. Jeanne Lafitte was born in 1769, way past the golden age of piracy in the waning days of the Spanish Colonies. In the early 1800’s Jeanne and his brother Pierre operated fleets from southern Louisiana. He was well regarded in New Orleans. He and his crews spent lavishly from profits they received through piracy and smuggling operations, No one would dare interfere with his operations for good reason -His fleets and crews were heavily armed with the best weapons money could buy and everyone loved the money he spread around. His crews were well compensated, and all swore allegiance to him.
However, by 1814 things began to change. America was at war with Britain and feared her naval power. They did not need the possibility of Lafitte joining the British against America. The fear was well founded. The British Admiralty made Jeanne “An offer he couldn’t refuse”. Actually, it was quite good consisting of a pardon, free grants to enormous parcels of land and no interference in his piracy operations in the future -as long as he did not operate against the British. So, what does he do? Being a man after my own mind-he turns it down. But the United States could not take a chance. Lafitte made it clear he just wanted to be left alone, but they sent a fleet to attack, the Lafitte brothers lost a fair share of their fleet. What was left, however, was still a formable force. The Lafitte brothers then approached General Andrew Jackson and offered their services to him. They promised all their canons and well-trained men and basically won the Battle of New Orleans for America. Jeanne actually convinced Old Hickory to use a better strategy to win the drawn-out battle. He pardoned the Lafitte brothers and they sailed on and continued to prosper. I often wondered how General Jackson became so wealthy. Could it have been……?????????
No way! We all know American Presidents have pristine records of being honest!!
It is hard to ascertain the practice of a historical figures’ religious observance. We have no way of determining this in the case of the Jewish pirates. Given that, we have some hints. Having been so prejudiced against, it is understandable that they would play down their ethnicity. But how much? Maybe not as much as we might imagine. Pirates by nature came from the fringes of society. Injustice drove indebted and impressed sailors from British ships where living conditions were merciless. They were freer becoming a pirate where crews elected their Captains and lived by common sense rules. Did they observe holy days, eat kosher foods regularly?
That is anyone’s guess. Runaway slaves, Native Americans, South Sea Islanders and Moors all crewed together on pirate ships. Their different customs were just accepted. So must it have been with the Jewish captains and crew members. There is a solid clue to that hypothesis. On the island of Jamaica and surrounding pirate island hangouts, there are established graveyards with many tombstones engraved only in Hebrew and topped with the dreaded “Skull and Crossbones”!
C. 2021 Article and Illustrations by Mark C. Nuccio
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