When Jews Were Pirates

This review appears in the April 2010 issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County) Federation Star.

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Edward Kritzler. Anchor Books. 324 pages. $15.

The Renaissance in Europe is notable for many advances in science and literature, as well as for the ongoing discovery, exploration, and colonization of lands far across the seas. The history of diaspora Judaism is one aspect of Renaissance history, and for the most part it is a tragic story. Beginning with the Spanish Inquisition, which threatened Jewish existence through execution or forced conversion, this period brings with it the peculiar and largely unknown story of Jewish participation in the exploration, settling, and economic development of the New World.

The colorful story that Edward Kritzler tells is of “Iberian Jews, disguised as Christians, who pioneered the New World as explorers, conquistadors, cowboys, and pirates, transformed sugar cultivation into an agro-industry that they introduced to the Caribbean, and created the first trade network spanning the seven seas.” The hidden Jews did all this within the unstable environment of a Central and South America where European powers – principally Spain, Portugal, Holland, and England – fought for dominance, the Jewish adventurers alternately finding favor and scorn with various monarchs and colonial officials over a period of about 180 years.

Expert businessmen, the Jews of the Sephardic Diaspora, victims of expulsion, sharpened their talents as traders to assure their survival. They helped make kings rich, and they often provided them with valuable intelligence. They also waged their own battles as tradesmen-pirates, amassing personal wealth and influence far beyond their numbers. By the middle of the 17th century, the end of the story Kritzler tells, the Jews of the New World (and the Old), had established themselves in New Amsterdam (soon to be New York) and elsewhere as citizens with sufficient rights to flourish as admitted and practicing Jews – if not the full rights accorded to other peoples.    

Moshe and Abraham Cohen Henriques; Menasseh ben Israel; Samuel Palache (“the pirate rabbi”); Sinan, the Jewish captain of Barbarossa’s pirate fleet; and Peruvian silver tycoon Manuel Batista Perez are among the many colorful figures treated by Kritzler in this exciting, enlightening, and often humorous study.

If Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean has a fault, it is in its too-muchness. The material is fascinating, and a significant portion of Kritzler’s findings derive from his diligent discovery of previously overlooked documents in Jamaica and elsewhere. However, so much information is crammed into each page, let alone each chapter, that it is difficult to absorb. Sometimes the larger story and its meaning are overwhelmed by the barrage of details.

But information overload is a small price to pay for the treasure that Edward Kritzler offers. Of the many themes arcing through his book, the most important may be that although Jews, hidden and open, were almost always in a state of technical illegality and therefore vulnerable to arrest and worse, “When Jewish expertise was needed, prejudice took a backseat to expediency. . . .” So what else is new? Next time you’re cruising the Caribbean, bring along this book.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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