Monday, October 13, 2008
Putting the Oy Back into 'Ahoy' - The Saga of Jewish Pirates
Putting the Oy Back into 'Ahoy'
Date: Wednesday, October 15 2008
They did not sing "Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Manischewitz," nor do they
ever seem to appear in any of the Disney films about pirates in the
Caribbean. The website piratesinfo.com carries not a single reference to
And while September 19 has for a number of years now been designated
International Talk Like a Pirate Day (there are even Internet courses
available in pirate lingo), none of its initiators seems to have had
Ladino (the language spoken by Jewish refugees expelled by the Spanish
and Portuguese after the Reconquista) in mind.
Swashbuckling buccaneers who took time to put on tefillin each morning?
Better get used to the idea. Long overlooked, the history of Jewish
piracy has been garnering increasing interest, with several serious
books and articles telling its epic tales.
Many Jewish pirates came from families of refugees who had been expelled
by Spain and Portugal. They took to piracy as part of a strategy of
revenge on the Iberian powers (though lining their pockets with Spanish
doubloons was no doubt also a motive). Many of these pirates mixed
traditional Jewish lifestyles with their exploits on the high seas.
* * * * *
Jewish refugees from Portugal first settled in Jamaica in 1511, probably
originally as sugar growers, and some took up piracy. The British, led
by Admiral William Penn (the father of the William Penn who established
Philadelphia), took over the island from the Spanish in 1655, reportedly
with assistance from local Jews and Marranos (crypto-Jews), all of whom
were allowed to remain.
By 1720, as many as 20 percent of the residents of Kingston were Jews.
Over time, Ashkenazi Jews arrived and their synagogues operated
alongside the Sephardic ones (the congregations all merged in the 20th
century). Jewish tombstones dating back to 1672 have been found there,
with Portuguese, Hebrew and English inscriptions.
Some Jews went into local Jamaican politics, and there were so many in
the Jamaican parliament in the 19th century that it became the only
parliament on earth that did not hold deliberations on Saturday. The
Jewish community of Jamaica today numbers a couple hundred and calls
itself the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica (UCIJA). The
active synagogue there is built in Sephardic style and is one of the few
left in the world with a sand floor. Naturally, its official website
includes a page on the pirate ancestors of Jewish residents
According to an article earlier this year in the Israeli weekly
Bakihilot, municipal workers in Kingston recently uncovered a long
forgotten pirate graveyard. Among the tombstones are those with Jewish
stars and Hebrew inscriptions, together with pirate symbols such as the
skull and crossbones.
Similar Jewish pirate graves have been found near Bridgetown in the
Barbados and in the old Jewish graveyard in Curacao. Jamaican-born
Jewish historian Ed Kritzler claims that Jewish pirates once operated
there, raiding the Spanish Main wearing tallis shawls. He's just
published a book titled Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean and conducts
private tours of the "Jewish pirate coves" of Jamaica.
Kritzler's book includes the saga of one Moses Cohen Henriques, who
participated in one of history's largest sea heists against Spain. In
1628, Henriques sailed together with Dutch Admiral Piet Hein, of the
Dutch West India Company, who hated Spain after having been held as a
slave for four years on a Spanish galleon. They raided Spanish ships off
Matanzas Bay in Cuba, commandeering large amounts of gold and silver.
Henriques set up his own pirate "Treasure Island" on a deserted island
off the Brazilian coast on which Jews could openly practice their
religion. (He also served as adviser to Henry Morgan, perhaps the most
famous pirate of all time; Errol Flynn played Morgan in the movie
"Captain Blood.") After the recapture of Brazil by Portugal in 1654,
some of these Jews would sail off to set up a brand new Jewish community
in a place called New Amsterdam, now known as New York.
In many cases Jewish pirates collaborated with Holland, a friendly and
welcoming state for Jews. One such pirate was Rabbi Samuel Pallache, a
leader of the Moroccan Jewish community in Fez. Born in The Hague, he
was son of a leading rabbi from Cordoba who ended up in Morocco. From
there he was sent to Holland as envoy of the Moroccan sultan, who was
seeking allies against Spain. He became a personal friend of Dutch Crown
Prince Maurice, who commissioned him as a privateer, and served for
years as a pirate under a Netherlands flag and with Dutch letters of
marque. Rabbi Pallache recruited Marranos for his crews.
In other cases Jewish pirates worked for the Ottomans. A Jewish pirate
named Sinan, known to his Spanish prey as "The Great Jew," was born in
what is now Turkey and operated out of Algiers. He first served as
second in command to the famous pirate Barbarossa. (No connection to the
fictional Barbarossa of the Disney films.) Their pirate flag carried a
six-pointed star called the Seal of Solomon by the Ottomans.
Sinan led the force that defeated a Genoan navy hired by Spain to rid
the Barbary Coast of corsairs. He then conquered Tripoli in Libya, and
was eventually appointed supreme Ottoman naval commander. He is buried
in a Jewish cemetery in Albania.
A Jewish pirate named Yaakov Koriel commanded three pirate ships in the
Caribbean. He later repented and ended up in Safed as one of the
Kabbalah students of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) and is buried near the
A pirate named David Abrabanel, evidently from the same family as the
famous Spanish rabbinic dynasty (which included Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel),
joined British privateers after his family was butchered off the South
American coast. He used the nom de guerre "Captain Davis" and commanded
his own pirate vessel named The Jerusalem. According to at least one
report, he was the person who discovered what is now called Easter
Several Jewish corsairs operated against Spanish ships off the coast of
Chile. There are reports that their galleys were kosher and they
abstained from raids on the Sabbath. A maritime museum in Chile today
holds letters of communication among these pirates composed in Hebrew.
One pirate leader was named Subatol Deul. On a trip up the coast he
stumbled across a ship under the command of the pirate Henry Drake, son
of Sir Francis Drake. They decided to create an alliance of anti-Spanish
pirates, the "Black Flag Fraternity."
Deul and Drake reportedly buried treasure on an island near Coquimbo in
1645. A chapter in the book Piracy & Plunder: A Murderous Business, by
Milton Meltzer, is devoted to Deul's swashbuckling career.
There also were Jewish corsairs based in Curacao next to Venezuela. The
local Curacao rabbi once berated his community's pirates when they
thoughtlessly attacked a ship owned by a fellow Jew. At least it wasn't
done on the Sabbath.
The history of Jewish pirates goes far back: Josephus mentions Jewish
pirates operating in the seas off the Land of Israel in Roman times.
There is a drawing of a pirate ship inside Jason's Tomb in Jerusalem.
The Hasmonean Hyrcanus accused Aristobulus, his brother, of "acts of
piracy at sea." In its last days, the Seleucid empire (the one fought by
the Maccabees) was plagued by Jewish and Arab pirates.
Pirates operated from coves along the Levantine coast for centuries, and
my own city of Haifa was once known as The Little Malta because of its
notorious pirates. (The local pirates these days seem to specialize
mainly in computer software.)
The fact that some Jews seemed to have taken so easily to the pirate
lifestyle may have been due in part to other skills developed by Jews
over the centuries. Cartography, for example, was considered a Jewish
specialty in the 15th and 16th centuries, and Christopher Columbus is
believed to have consulted the work of a Jewish cartographer, one
Abraham Cresque of Mallorca, who produced the Catalan Atlas in 1375.
Portuguese Jewish cartographers and scientists contributed to Vasco Da
Gama's voyage of discovery to the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Jews also
worked on ships as navigators.
* * * * *
Perhaps the most important Jewish pirate of all was the Caribbean pirate
Jean Lafitte, a familiar name to many American schoolchildren. He and
his men, pirates trained in cannon fire, came to the aid of General
(later President) Andrew Jackson and played a critical role in winning
the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. A Jean Lafitte National
Historic Park stands today on the outskirts of the city.
What is still largely unknown is that Lafitte was a Jew, born either in
Western France or in what is now Haiti. A while back my friend Edward
Bernard Glick, a retired professor of political science living in
Oregon, published an article in the Jerusalem Post (July 14, 2006) on
Lafitte's Jewish origins and it stirred up a storm of interest. Parts of
Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman's book Jews on the Frontier also discuss
According to Glick, "[Lafitte] was a Sephardi Jew, as was his first
wife, who was born in the Danish Virgin Islands. In his prime, Lafitte
ran not just one pirate sloop but a whole fleet of them simultaneously.
He even bought a blacksmith shop in New Orleans, which he used as a
front for fencing pirate loot. And he was one of the few buccaneers who
didn't die in battle, in prison or on the gallows."
Glick claims the British tried to recruit Lafitte to guide them through
the swamps to ambush the Americans, but Lafitte instead showed General
"Old Hickory" Jackson Britain's battle plans to attack New Orleans. The
rest is history.
Years before the Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana Governor William C. C.
Claiborne placed a reward of $500 on Lafitte's head. Lafitte retaliated
by putting a $5,000 bounty on the head of the governor. Neither
Lafitte later commanded his own "kingdom" named Campeche on the island
of Galveston, Texas, then nominally under Spanish rule. Some of
Lafitte's trading activities were conducted by Jao de la Porta, a
Portuguese Jew from Spanish Texas. Among their clients was Jim Bowie,
made famous at the Alamo and also for the special knife.
* * * * *
Mention of Jewish pirates can pop up in some unexpected places. Just
before Rosh Hashanah this year, the liberal Huffington Post website
carried a post by humorist Andy Borowitz "reporting" that the group of
Somali pirates who had just hijacked a ship full of Ukrainians in the
Gulf of Aden was calling a halt to the piracy in honor of the Jewish
Wrote Borowitz: " 'To all of our Jewish friends, we say a hearty Shana
Tova,' said pirate spokesman Sugule, moments before the pirates hoisted a
Star of David flag over the captured ship. Sugule took pains to indicate
that while the pirates were taking a Rosh Hashanah break from their usual
plundering and pillaging schedule, they were doing so only out of respect
for Jewish pirates and not because they are Jewish themselves. 'None of
us Somali pirates are Jewish,' he said. 'Except for Abe in accounting,
who's half.' "
And there are others who are getting into the spirit of things. The
Bangitout.com Jewish humor website listed a set of halachic challenges
for Jewish pirates, including the following:
If you have a hook instead of a hand, on which arm do you put tefillin?
Does your treasure map show how far the eruv extends?
How long do you wait, after capturing a plundered ship, to put up a
mezuzah in the captain's cabin?
Should you cover your eye patch with your hand when you say the Shema?
Can you wear a leather boot over your peg leg on Yom Kippur?
Are you able to carry on the plank on Shabbos? If your parrot is on
your shoulder, is that carrying?
Personally, I think the biggest challenge to Jewish pirates occurs at
Purim. After walking around all year decked out like that, what could
they possibly dress up as? Accountants?
In a way, the legacy of Jewish pirates is alive and well in Israel
today. One of the most outstanding examples of the Jewish state's
derring-do was when it stole five gunboats out of the port of Cherbourg
in France - ships that had already been paid for by Israel but that
France, as punishment for Israel's Six-Day War victory, was refusing to
Israeli agents operating through a front corporation seized the ships on
December 25, 1969 and sailed them to Haifa. The details of that piracy
are engagingly told in The Boats of Cherbourg (1997) by Abraham
So let's swab the decks, count our doubloons and grant the Jewish
pirates their proper place in history. In other words, it's time to put
the oy back into "ahoy."