• Gil Zohar

Ahoy, mateys! Thar be Jewish pirates in Jamaica – and gelt


The story of how in 1654 23 Jews escaping religious persecution came to New Amsterdam – today New York City in the United States – is well-known. In a harrowing seven-month voyage the Sefardi refugees fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition sailed north, docking at different ports and ultimately anchoring at the Dutch colony at the mouth of the Hudson River. The refugees had escaped from Recife, Brazil after the Portuguese re-captured their South American outpost – which the Netherlands had seized in 1630.

Yet in 1645, according to the Dutch historian Franz Leonard Schalkwijk, there were 1,630 Portuguese -in that time, the term was synonymous with Jewish - living in Recife, a number equal to the Jewish population of Amsterdam at the time.

Where did the other refugees flee to?

Some returned to Amsterdam, including Isaac Aboab de Fonseca – the first American rabbi, and Moses de Aguilar – the first American cantor. Others disembarked at the nearby Dutch Caribbean colony of Curaçao. Less well known is that some of the escaping Jews sought shelter in Jamaica.

Not Jamaica in Queens, but the luscious Caribbean island that was then the home to several hundred Jews and bnei anusim (the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Roman Catholicism under compulsion). Jamaica at the time was an anomaly in the New World – while the continents of North and South America were being carved up amongst the crowns of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Denmark, Jamaica was a private fiefdom awarded in perpetuity to Christopher Columbus and his heirs in 1494 by Spain’s King Ferdinand. Whether the explorer was himself a crypto-Jew is an unresolved historical issue. But the Columbus kin kept their privately-held domain free of the clutches of Spain’s inquisitors.

Jamaica was only one among the many remote and distant locales in the New World where Jews and apostates sought a haven far from the rapacious Inquisitors of Spain and Portugal.

According to Edward Kritzler’s Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, as early as 1501, the Spanish Crown published an edict that “Moors, Jews, heretics,reconciliados (repentants – those who returned to the church), and New Christians are not allowed to go to the Indies.” Yet in 1508, the bishop of Cuba reported, “practically every ship (arriving in Havana) is filled with Hebrews and New Christians.” Such decrees banning them, followed by letters home complaining of their continued arrival, were a regular occurrence.

“Conversos with the aptitude and capital to develop colonial trade, comfortable in a Hispanic society, yet seeking to put distance between themselves and the homeland of the Inquisition, made their way to the New World. No licenses were required for the crew of a ship, and as many were owned byconversos, they signed on as sailors and jumped ship. Servants also didn't need a license or exit visa, so that a Jew who obtained one by whatever means could take others along as household staff,” explains Kritzler.1

In 1655, one year after the Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil arrived in Jamaica, the Columbus’ poorly defended private island was seized by Britain, Leading the armada was Admiral William Penn, the father of William Penn Jr., who subsequently founded Pennsylvania. Under British rule, religious freedom flourished. By 1720, an estimated 20 percent of residents of the capital Kingston were descendants of Spanish-Portuguese Jews. (The town of Port Royal, founded in 1518 and infamous for its immorality as a pirate base which had one tavern for every ten residents, was destroyed in 1692 by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.)

As elsewhere in the New World, Jamaica’s Jews sought economic opportunities. Some built sugarcane plantations. Others traded various commodities, including African slaves. Apart from plantation owners, Jews were only allowed two slaves.2

The Jamaican community had strong commercial ties with Jewish businessmen in Europe including London, Bayonne and Bourdeaux. Trade developed with the mainland British North American colonial ports, such as New York, Newport, Charleston and Savannah. But some Jamaican Jews turned to a more adventurous – and dangerous – life at sea. Captaining ships bearing suggestive names like the Queen Esther, the Prophet Samuel, and the Shield of Abraham, Jewish sailors began roaming the Caribbean in search of riches, sometimes obtained under questionable legal circumstances.

These Jews most frequently attacked Spanish and Portuguese ships – payback for the property confiscations and torture of their brethren perpetrated by the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, more popularly known as the Spanish Inquisition.

While pirates and buccaneers were outcasts and lawbreakers who attacked shipping, raided towns, and robbed people of their money and sometimes their lives, privateers were a legal version of the same. Mercenaries armed with a letter of marque and reprisal from their government permitting the attack of enemy ports and shipping during military conflict, they engaged in economic warfare – and turned over a portion of their booty to their king. In peacetime, they continued their plunder but flew the Jolly Roger in lieu of the Union Jack or the flag of free Holland.

Being either a criminal or a patriot depended on the latest developments in Europe’s frequent wars of accession and territorial aggrandizement, and their concomitant battles on the colonial front and the high seas.

The most famous of the Caribbean’s Jewish pirates / privateers was Moses Cohen Henriques. His name attests to his family’s Portuguese origins. Like many of his contemporary buccaneers, Henriques’ life is shrouded in mystery. The Wikipedia stub about him does not list a date of birth or death, or even a place of birth. What is documented is that Henriques together with Dutch folk hero Admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein captured a Spanish treasure fleet off of Cuba’s Bay of Matanzas in 1628. The booty of gold and silver bullion amounted to a staggering 11,509,524 guilders, worth around US$1 billion in today’s currency. It was the Dutch West Indies Company’s greatest heist in the Caribbean.

Another notable if poorly documented Jewish pirate was Yaakov Koriel who commanded three pirate ships in the Caribbean. Repenting, he retired to Safed where he studied mysticism under the famous kabbalist rabbi Isaac Luria. Koriel is buried near the Ari's grave in the Upper Galilee town’s famous Old Cemetery.

Similarly, a pirate named David Abrabanel, evidently from the same family as the famous Spanish rabbinic dynasty (which included Don Isaac Abrabanel who fled Spain in 1492 after unsuccessfully trying to bribe Ferdinand and Isabella to rescind their catastrophic expulsion decree), 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.

Henrigues, Koriel and Abrabanel spoke Ladino, and knew the sting of the anti-Semitic slur Marrano meaning pig. The most infamous American Jewish freebooter spoke French, and knew the insult of maudit juif. A U.S. national park in Louisiana proudly bears the name of Jean Lafitte of New Orleans. According to the aforementioned author Edward Kritzler, the kosher swashbuckler was the inspiration for Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.3

Writing in The Jerusalem Post on July 14, 2006, Edward Bernard Glick illuminated

Lafitte's Jewish origins.4

According to retired political science professor living in Oregon, “[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 collected.

Lafitte later commanded his own “kingdom” named Campeche on the island of Galveston, Texas, then nominally under the rule of the colony of Nuevo Espana or Mexico. 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 his eponymous knife.

· · ·

In 1630 Henriques took his loot and led a Jewish contingent to settle in newly captured Brazil. There he established his own treasure island as a pirate base. But in 1654, he too had to flee South America. Ending up in Jamaica, he served as an advisor to the notorious privateer / pirate Henry Morgan. In 1674, England’s King Charles II knighted Morgan in appreciation for the colorful sea captain’s bravery – and the economic havoc he wrecked on the Spanish empire in the New World.

To understand Henriques, Koriel, Abrabanel and Lafitte, and the Caribbean’s unknown Jewish pirates, it’s helpful to examine Morgan’s legacy. Alexandre (or John) Esquemeling joined Morgan’s band of privateers as a ship’s doctor in the late 1660s. Much of what is known about Morgan’s exploits comes from Esquemeling’s account De Americaensche Zee-Roovers (Buccaneers of America) published in Amsterdam in 1678. Perhaps hoping to sell more books, Esquemeling exaggerated his depiction of Morgan as a bloodthirsty marauder. Morgan was so outraged by Esquemeling’s claim that the British privateer used priests and nuns as human shields in the sacking of the Spanish colony of Portobello that he sued the writer’s publisher. In turn, the publisher issued a retraction, saying he no longer accepted Esquemeling’s violence-filled narrative as truthful.

Esquemeling’s book became a bestseller across much of Europe and the Americas, and was translated into several languages. Six years later, in 1684, Esquemeling’s publishing hit was followed by Philip Ayres’ equally evocative The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Barth, Sharp and Others in the South Sea. This was followed by Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, first published in 1724, and reprinted due to popularity in 1725 and 1726. Many scholars now believe that Johnson was in fact a pseudonym for the English writer and political activist Daniel Defoe (c.1660–1731), best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe.

Even as Europe and its colonies were waking up to the danger of piracy and beginning to prohibit it, the fanciful books established Caribbean pirates as a cultural phenomenon. Thus 200 years later, in 1881, a baseball team in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the new sport of baseball sweeping the United States would take the name Pirates.

But thanks to Tinseltown and schlock culture, Morgan and the Caribbean pirates have become pop culture superstars.

Historian Debbie Adams calls Esquemeling’s exaggerated account a partly “imaginary collection that endured.” Yet in spite of its failings, she adds, it gave rise to numerous “legends and myths of Hollywood and pulp fiction.”5

By pulp fiction, Adams means accounts low in artistic quality but high in entertainment value. They have come to include poems, novels, movies and even video games. The kitsch includes a Royal Doulton china mug. The most famous novel based on Morgan’s life is Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 bestsellerCaptain Blood. The real Morgan would no doubt have liked Sabatini. This is because the novelist pictured him as a decent, brave and likable person. (The hero, Peter Blood, is based partly on Morgan and partly on Henry Pitman, another historical figure of the same era.)

That romantic vision of a good man fighting for justice carried over into a number of so-called “pirate” movies. One of the first was the 1935 movieCaptain Blood. It starred another legend in his own time—the Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn. The film owed its success in part to its realism. Like Sabatini, the filmmakers made the details of Morgan’s era as accurate as possible. One of the screenwriters for Captain Blood, Casey Robinson, later recalled, “We kept the historical basis.”6

Hollywood churned out a series of action movies featuring Henry Morgan or characters inspired by him. The Black Swan (1942) had a subplot about him during the time he was an English official in Jamaica. Morgan was also a character in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952), Morgan the Pirate (1961), andPirates of Tortuga (also 1961). The tradition continues with Johnny Depp in the more recent series of Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Similarly in 1967 Disneyland opened its Pirates of the Caribbean ride at its flagship amusement park in Anaheim, California. It was the last attraction which Walt Disney supervised before his death, and the attraction helped further raise pirates’ curious appeal. Thus in 1976 the new Tampa Bay franchise in the U.S. National Football League called itself the Buccaneers.

Rounding out Morgan’s latter day fame is the brand of alcohol named for him. Canada’s Seagram’s distillery introduced its Captain Morgan’s Rum in 1945. Images of the handsome privateer have become pop icons.

But what does all this have to do with Jamaica’s Jewish pirates? Follow the trail of the pieces of eight, matey.

In January 2009 the International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM), which for several years had been documenting Jamaica’s historic Jewish cemeteries with the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions, issued a report about Kingston’s Hunt's Bay and Orange Street Jewish cemeteries. The document was released in Kingston during a five-day conference on Jewish Caribbean history that drew 200 academics, genealogists and history buffs from Oregon to Israel.7

The Hunt’s Bay cemetery, also spelled Hunts Bay – Jamaica’s oldest graveyard – was the burial ground for the Jews of Port Royal. The deceased, who lived across the harbor where the high water table of the peninsula prevented burial, were rowed to their final resting place. The earliest of the remaining 360 tombstones there dates to 1672 and its latest is from the mid 19th century. Many markers were destroyed or looted for construction over time.

The newer Orange Street cemetery, located near the historic Shaarei Shalom Synagogue, contains grave markers from the early 19th century. By the end of that century, Jamaica had six synagogues and around 2,000 Jews. The cemetery is still in use by Jamaica’s contemporary Jewish community, whose numbers have shrunk due to assimilation, intermarriage and emigration to around 200 people. The cemetery is located in Kingston’s newer, northern end of the city. Previous to the establishment of the Orange Street Cemetery, Kingston's Sefardim buried their dead in the no longer extant Old Kingston Jewish Cemetery downtown. The 18th century gravestones from the Old Kingston Jewish Cemetery were transferred to the Orange Street cemetery when the former was closed likely due to the growing city’s new sanitation laws. The transferred gravestones are found along the north and east cemetery walls. Many have been partially covered under earth excavated by subsequent burials. The inventory of the Hunt's Bay Cemetery’s bluestone, limestone and marble grave markers with their Portuguese, Hebrew and English epitaphs included some 50 with skulls and crossbones.8

Before one could say “buried treasure”, the Jamaican government’s Ministry of Tourism realized the potential bonanza of Jewish tourists.

The ISJM report, which did not highlight the skull and crossbones imagery, was followed by a March 8, 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal. Citing “ferocious” competition from Mexico, Jamaican tourism director John Lynch said that his island country values every single visitor. Conceding that Jamaica's Jewish history has “been a well-kept secret,” Lynch launched a tourism package that included visits to the historic Jewish cemeteries, prayers at the island's remaining synagogue – built in 1911 by the United Congregation of Israelites with its distinctive sand floor, and a kiddush with Jewish families. Since most of the island's Jewish sites are near Kingston, the strategy of developing the city as a Jewish heritage cultural destination fit the government's desire to boost tourism in the scruffy, crime- and ganja-ridden capital which most vacationers give a wide berth.

But what of the skull and crossbones on the tombstones?

Jamaica’s Ainsley Henriques – no relation of Moses Cohen Henriques – believes the tombstones with carvings of skulls and crossbones likely belonged to “licensed maritime terrorists”.

That interpretation strikes this writer as improbable.

A more nuanced understanding is found at the Mainblogspot:9

“I know that pirates are positively charming. I mean, who doesn't love pirates? They had parrots? They said “yaaarr.” Still I'm not a huge fan of marauding and murder, so I was thinking that perhaps no evidence was shown that these graves are the graves of pirates. Thus, we also don't have to ask why the Jews buried them in regular graves in the cemetery, as opposed to treating them like criminals – to the extent that they'd even etch the symbols of their trade onto their matzevah (gravestone), stamped with the wish that their souls be bound in the bonds of eternal life - תנצבה? [May his soul be bound up in the bonds of life]. “Although at first glance it seems like a reasonable assumption, this is because the skull and bones survive to the present consciousness only as symbols of piracy. However, actually they were symbols of death, and in the period in question they were often carved on tombstones of fine, upstanding people.

“The skull and cross bones are known as a Memento Mori, a reminder of our own mortality if you will, the hour glass also serves as a reminder that the sands of time are running out.”

Writing in The Forward, Shelly R. Fredman further expanded on Jamaica’s half-hidden Jewish legacy.

“An unusual resort perched on a spit of land that juts into the Caribbean Sea near Port Antonio, on the island’s resplendently green east coast, Great Huts is the brainchild and life mission of Dr. Paul Rhodes, who was born and raised in Brooklyn in a Jewish family. Rhodes is currently offering Jewish cultural tours, unearthing a rich and varied Jewish past mostly hidden from the typical Montego Bay tourist. Wander Jamaica’s farther reaches, and you will stumble upon Jewish islanders living idiosyncratic yet compelling versions of Eden. “Rhodes, who eventually left Brooklyn to settle in Washington, D.C., first came to Jamaica as a medical student. His love for the people of the island developed as he worked in the almshouses. “I was so moved by what I found there,” he said when I spoke with him in the spring. “The old people were so prayerful and spiritually robust.” In their hymns and chanting, Rhodes heard echoes of his grandfather. The elders’ sense of community reminded him of his boyhood summers spent at Makowsky’s bungalow colony in New Paltz, N.Y.

“The story touches on Rastafarians and their Old Testament beliefs, including that they are descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel. Lions of David are all over the island, carved or painted, pointing to a past legacy. Eco- and environmental tourism is represented at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill, created by women who are daughters of Holocaust survivors.” Mental Floss from the blogosphere emphasizes piracy's financial impact on the Jewish community:10

“What then can we understand of Jamaica’s three-century old Hebrew tombstones? Certainly Jews were involved in the island’s main industry of piracy. But military forces, whether government sanctioned or mercenary, march – and sail – backed by an elaborate infrastructure. Aside from those who attacked Spanish shipping were Jews involved in provisioning, sail making, weapons sales, etc. No doubt others fenced the stolen goods the pirates acquired. And still others provided the taverns and prostitutes which pirates squandered their ill-gotten gains.”

Placing the skull and crossbones found at the Hunt’s Bay cemetery in a wider cultural context, the symbol is a fairly common motif intended to inspire piety that one can see in other historic Sefardi cemeteries, such as in Hamburg Altona in Germany, The Hague and Ouderkerk in the Netherlands. and the burial grounds of Queen Mary’s College, Mile End in the East End of London, England.

Piracy was prohibited in Jamaica in 1687 and in the Bahamas in 1717. Sir Henry Morgan’s long struggle to clear his reputation suggests that disreputable occupation was not one that a dead pirate’s family – Jewish or gentile – would wish to memorialize on the tombstone of their deceased relative.

The cultural meaning of pirate has shifted. Originally feared as blood-thirsty marauders, today Caribbean pirates have become benign figures akin to Robin Hood.September 19 has been designated as International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Pharmaceutical companies have phased out the skull and crossbones, which once meant poison and death, lest children mistake they symbol as something cute and friendly. Like Barney the Dinosaur.

From Halloween to Purim, the piracy party continues unabated.

But what is Jewish world to make of figures like Henriques, Koriel, Abrabanel and Lafitte? Were they heroes or villains?

Certainly Lafitte was a good guy, according to Aileen Weintraub’s Jean Lafitte: Pirate-Hero of the War of 1812. A Yankee hero who defeated perfidious Albion.

The cartoon book Skullcaps and Crossbones: The Adventures of Shmuel Kafri

by Yonah Klein and Jacky Yarhi strikingly portrays Koriel as a ba’al teshuva freed of any moral stain. In the tradition of rogue turned tzadik Raish Lakish – a Roman gladiator who became a Talmudic sage – the book jacket breathlessly reveals:

“An unearthed home from the times of the Arizal [sic] is found to contain a chest of papers, believed to be the private collection of Harav Chaim Vital. Among those papers is a book, purporting to be the private diary of Yaakov Koriel, the 16th-century Jewish pirate who captained three ships in the Caribbean. “Koriel, who abandoned piracy and moved to Eretz Yisrael, left behind this record of his life. Exciting and moving in turn, it shows how a young Jewish boy in Inquisition Spain became a naval captain, then a pirate, and finally returned to life as a religious Jew. “But the diary has more than one secret. Shmuel Kafri and his son, Yitzchak, investigate the Koriel diary on behalf of the Jewish Antiquities Society, and quickly find that the diary is even more valuable than they could have imagined, well worth a trip to Israel and Jamaica. But someone else is also trying to get his hands on the diary.”

Far be it from this writer to criticize another for trying to bring Jewish children to Torah and make them proud. By all means invoke the remarkable stories of Jewish pirates.

The academic study of these little known figures has only just begun. See http://www.cryptojewsjournal.org/links.html

In Israel, Koriel is an obscure figure. His grave is not on the Psalms circuit of those beseeching the Ari, Yosef Karo and the other Safed kabbalists buried nearby. While famous tzaddikim grace bottles of arak, there is no Rabbi Koriel brand comparable to Captain Morgan’s rum. Nor does Koriel appear in the Israel Ministry of Tourism’s tour guide curriculum – an intense two-year non-academic that involves learning about thousands of biblical, historical and political figures. But not criminal.

If Israel were to promote Koriel as a proto-Zionist anticipating Theodor Herzl by more than three centuries, would this – as the proverbial saying goes – be good for the Jews?

If Koriel is a hero, what about gangster Bugsy Siegel who in 1948 gave Golda Meyerson a suitcase stuffed with cash to buy guns for the War of Independence they both knew was coming? And what of Siegel’s partner in crime Meyer Lansky – whose application to make aliyah was rejected? It’s a slippery crime-doesn’t-pay slope till one descends to the private hell of remorse for Bernie Madoff, who made the unpardonable sin of ripping off fellow Jews and tzedaka funds in his Ponzi scheme.

Closer to home, Israel faces the shameful reality of having former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former President Moshe Katzav, along with several former MKs serving prison time for corruption. The case of former Jerusalem Mayor Lupolianski suggests the moral dilemmas facing a Jewish pirate; Hizzoner donated his ill-gotten gains to his favorite charity. No doubt many Jewish pirates saw themselves as avenging the crimes of the Inquisition. Like all of us, they were complex figures with varied motives. Revenge was one. Greed another.

The Jewish pirates of the Caribbean is a subject that deserves ongoing research.

In conclusion, were there Jewish pirates in the Caribbean? Aye.

Were other Jews involved in the piracy’s ancillary businesses? Oy.

But were the Jews lying beneath the three century-old tombstones in Kingston, Jamaica decorated with skull and crossbones pirates? Nay.

Alas, dead men tell no tales.

  1. Edward Kritzler, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the Nee World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom and Revenge, New York: Anchor Books, 2008, p.47

  2. Eli Faber, Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight New York: New York University Press, 1998

  3. http://www.thejc.com/lifestyle/lifestyle-features/15527/is-real-life-jewish-pirate-who-inspired-johnny-depp

  4. See also I. Harold Sharfman's Jews on the Frontier.

  5. Debbie Adams, “The Molecularity of Being: Henry Morgan.” http://lometa.blogspot.com/2009_05_24_archive.html

  6. Patrick McGilligan, editor. Backstory: Interviews with the Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 299

  7. New Findings at the Old Jewish cemetery of Hunts Bay, Jamaica by Michael Nosonovsky

  8. Safed grave yaakov koriel

  9. http://onthemainline.blogspot.co.il/2010/09/yo-ho-ho-and-i-doubt-hes-pirate.html

  10. http://mentalfloss.com/article/64443/jewish-pirates-who-ruled-caribbean

  11. Yonah Klein and Jacky Yarhi, Skullcaps and Crossbones: The Adventures of Shmuel Kafri, New York: Feldheim

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