Who Knew? The Secret History of the Pirates of the Caribbean, or What Disney Doesn’t Want You to Know

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a generation of swashbuckling Jews carved out an empire in the New World in their quest for treasure, religious freedom–and revenge by Edward Kritzler.

What happened in 1492? Chances are, the answer that springs to mind for most Americans is “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” For Jews, however, the date marks the expulsion from Spain (“convert, leave, or die”), followed in 1497 by the expulsion from Portugal, collectively known as the Sephardic Diaspora. Those who were unable to flee became “conversos” and for most, this forced conversion was a pretense only.

The world was a dangerous place for Jews. Any hint of “Judaizing” brought the swift attention of the Inquisition. Only a few nations, Morocco and Holland among them, offered any vestige of safety. Jews allied themselves with various nations, playing one against the other. In the mid-1500s, Sultan Suleiman’s naval commander, Barbarossa, terrorized the Mediterranean, but the man who actually led the sea battles was Sinan, “the famous Jewish pirate,” who had fled from Spain to Turkey. Sinan was famous for his humane treatment of prisoners and his magical powers (his knowledge of the sextant).

The discovery of the New World opened new possibilities. Jews were among the first Europeans to explore the Caribbean. Mapmakers, pilots, surgeons, bursars, translators, traders and spies, they sailed with Columbus, as well as da Gama and Cortes. It is not clear whether Columbus himself was of Jewish ancestry, but he, along with his heirs provided a haven for “secret Jews” from the Inquisition. Because Spanish conversos were forbidden to settle the New World, they came as “Portugese,” and the label became a code-word for conversos.

The early Jewish settlers were traders and shipowners, drawing on their skills and business methods (such as a private banking system issuing letters of credit, far less easily stolen than buillion). For most of the sixteenth century, as long as they pretended to be Christian and supplied the Spanish with a trading network, no one questioned them too closely. By the turn of the century, however, they had become expendable. The Inquisition descended with full force on Jewish communities in Mexico and Brazil. The New World was no longer a haven.

In response, a handful of Jews conspired with Holland and England to seize a New World colony. Their inspiration was the Barbary pirate, “the pirate rabbi” Samuel Palache (whose personal chef prepared kosher meals for him). Among the foremost were the Cohen Henriques brothers, Moses and Abraham (who refused to use his Spanish “oppressor” name). Moses Cohen Henriques plotted and took part (under the Dutch admiral Piet Heyn) in the only successful capture of a Spanish treasure fleet “flota” (worth about $1 billion in today’s currency) in 200 years in 1628. In his later life, he reigned over his own “pirate island” (off Recife, bought with his share of the plunder) and became an advisor to the notorious buccaneer Henry Morgan.

Together with Abraham Israel, Abraham Cohen persuaded Oliver Cromwell to come to the defense of Jamaica’s Jewish community in exchange for Jewish support of a British invasion (sweetened with promises of the location of the secret gold of Columbus). The English forces sent to take possession floundered, but another Jew, Simon de Caceres, proposed another way of ensuring the island’s security to Cromwell–enlisting the hunters of Hispaniola, a ferocious group of anarchists, heretics, and outlaws who had gone from hunting beef to robbing boats. They called themselves the Brethren of the Coast. Their headquarters was at Tortuga, and they got the name “buccaneer” from the “boucan” or green wood grill used to roast their beef, until the Spanish tried to eliminate them by killing the cattle. De Caceres proposed licensing them as privateers, offering them a new base at Port Royal, Jamaica, and encouraging them to keep the Spanish in check.    The pirates proceeded to capture Spanish riches, which were then sold through Jewish merchants (who also outfitted and advised them). Thus, Jewish traders and shipowners encouraged the buccaneers to wage a war against the Inquisition, resulting in eventual the downfall of the Spanish empire in the New World — and the creation of havens where the Jews might practice their religion openly.

Last but not least, the pirate Jean Lafitte attributed his ingenuity to his Jewish-Spanish grandmother, a survivor of the Inquisition.

While it may be true that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish could not have anticipated the eventual outcome. The expulsion and persecution of the Iberian Jews, far from destroying them, served as an impetus for them to develop markets and trade routes, as well a military intelligence, that helped ensure their safety and welcome. The price of the benefits was edicts permitting open practice not just of Judaism, but of other faiths.

You can view interviews with Edward Kritzler here. Do watch — it’s a hoot.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing fantasy and science fiction since the 1980s. Read her most recent book, Hastur Lord, a Darkover collaboration with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.



Who Knew? The Secret History of the Pirates of the Caribbean, or What Disney Doesn’t Want You to Know — 4 Comments

  1. I recently went on a Caribbean cruise and brought along this wonderful book to read. It put my vacation into an entirely different light 🙂

    Totally concur with your review — it’s a terrific book!