Jewish outlaws of the high seas

One’s first reaction to the title of this book is surprise and laughter. Actually, it is a serious attempt to bring to life a little-known chapter in Jewish history: how a small group of Jewish merchants and adventurers – in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition – became free-wheeling outlaws on the high seas.

Their ships carried such names as the Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther and Shield of Abraham. They plundered Spanish and Portuguese possessions, defying those countries that had exiled them.

The author of this detailed, many-sided account is a journalist and historian, and a longtime resident of Jamaica.

In the 15th century, Converso Jews came to Jamaica disguised as Christians.

These newcomers set up sugar factories, pioneered tea, grain and coffee cultivation and traded sugar, tobacco, gold and silver with covert Jews on the Iberian Peninsula.

Other descendants of refugees from the Inquisition settled in Amsterdam and were accepted by the Dutch as a valued merchant class. “They raised their children in the free air of Holland. Over the course of half a century of leadership – 1623-75 – they invaded the world, battled outposts of the Inquisition and orchestrated their people’s freedom.”

Eventually, liberty reached England as well. On April 3, 1656, London’s 35 Jewish families gathered for a Passover seder. After 366 years, they were no longer illegal aliens. “To consecrate this new day, [Oliver] Cromwell’s chief intelligencer proudly changed his name to Abraham Israel Carvajal.”

The 17th century began with Jews outlawed in the New World and most of Europe, and it closed with most of them free.

As Jewish involvement with piracy petered out in the Caribbean, many of the original intrepid group united in the cause of liberty. During the American Revolution, a dozen prominent Jews sided with the rebels as privateers. Celebrated as fathers of early Jewish congregations, these men owned and operated more than a few of the pirate ships that captured and destroyed more than 600 British ships and took cargos and prizes with an estimated value of $18 million in today’s dollars.

No discussion of Jewish piracy should leave out the Jewish heritage of the famous pirate known to Americans as a hero of the Battle of New Orleans. In a hand-written note in his family bible, Jean Lafitte wrote: “I owe all my ingenuity to the intuition of my Jewish-Spanish grandmother, who was a witness at the time of the Inquisition.”

Of course, figures are imprecise, but it is estimated that Conversos in the mid-17th century numbered around 10,000 of the 200,000 settlers in the New World.

Unfortunately, with a heritage of denying their faith, most of their descendants of the pirates eventually abandoned their religion. Of the thousands or more Spanish and Portuguese names listed in Jamaican telephone book, the island’s declared Jews today number less than 200.

Verdict: A colourful, well-researched history, somewhat over-detailed, but much of it fresh and exciting.

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