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Kosher Pirates: Hebrews on the High Seas & Challenging Pop-Culture/Hollywood Narratives on the Issue



One of my favorite series to watch is known as “Pirates of the Caribbean“—as the ideology of a pirate’s life has always been captivating and I enjoyed the story lines. Sailors & their tales have always had a sense of adventure, from those stories involving what’s seen in the films with Jack Sparrow to some of the older tales such as “Sinbad the Sailor.” (probably my favorite adventure tail).

However, something that came to mind at one point when investigating was the thought of Jewish culture never seeming to intersect with the world of piracy….and when I did more research, I was blown away to see how history should have had way more descriptions of Jews involved in it just as Europeans were.

Specifically, I discovered a book I was able to check out recently called “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.”

It’s by Edward Kritzler and talks about Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean and how some Jews, exiled from Spain and Portugal in the 16th and 17th centuries, turned to piracy on the high seas—mainly as a way to provide for themselves as well as their kin, ala “Robin Hood” types.

On where Edward discusses his reasons for the book, one can click on the following/investigate on YouTube:

Pirates of The Carribean

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean

Jewish Pirate Cemetery of the caribbean

Some famous pirates that were discussed were people such as Jean Lafitte, perhaps the most famous one who was named after the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and played a critical role in winning the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

Another pirate discussed was known as Sinan, known as “The Great Jew,” who was second in command to famed 16th Century pirate Barbarossa. Noted as one who was a remarkable navigator, he was known for doing extensive exploits. When Spain hired forces to protect the Barbary Coast from Corsairs, Sinan led the battle against them, defeating the Genoan navy. He later commanded 6,000 troops against the fortress at Tripoli, Libya, eventually conquering the city. One can go here in Ed Kritzler’s book to see more on it that may interest you

Apparently, many Jewish pirates (as Kritzler writes) were “secret Jews” who converted to Catholicism in name only to survive the Inquisition, then fled to the Caribbean and did their own thing.

Some things that were interesting to consider were how it was apparently the case that the pirate ships kept kosher galleys and refrained from raiding other ships on Shabbat…as discussed in the book here and here. To consider how those turning to piracy stil tried to maintain some aspect of Judaic practices was surprising—but what stood out to me the most was seeing how what they did was essentially the opposite of what many Jews did with Crypto-Judaism where they went underground/adopted the views of those who were a majority. Rather, they chose to be marginalized and remain in the open with their Jewish heritage—except they did so in radical ways.

But prior to that, Jewish pirates were first mentioned by Josephus when discussing the wars with the Romans and what the Jews did in turning to piracy to fight against them. In his “The Jewish War”, as Josephus wrote:

[quote]They also built themselves a great many piratical ships, and turned pirates upon the seas near to Syria, and Phoenicia, and Egypt, and made those seas unnavigable to all men[/quote] 

For more, one can go here to see what Josephus said in depth in “The Wars Of The Jews Or The History Of The Destruction Of Jerusalem Book I.

And there were so many Jews at the sea, some of which were pirates, during Pompey’s time that king Antigonus II Mattathias was accused in sending them out in purpose–and for more, one can go here. Ancient Jewish life was concentrated around Jerusalem, located some distance from the sea….therefore creating a scenario where Jews were initially not very interested in seafaring or navigation. However, after 142 BCE, Jews got ports of their own…and Joppa (Jaffa), Ashdod and Gaza were added to Hasmonean dominions, and a small number of Jewish sailors was created. It is after that point where historic references provide some evidences of Jews fighting as pirates—and for many Jews during times of diasporas, being able to travel/traffic into other countries for safety became one of the driving reasons for many Jews to begin turning to life on the seas.

For other articles on the subject which may be of interest to others:

As being one having West Indian blood/heritage and loves traveling to the West Indies (i.e. Barbados, Jamaica, etc.), it was a real trip to see many of the ways in which Jewish culture intersected with the Island cultures. Although many are often surprised, when studying history, they really should not be since many of the Jews did indeed come over to the West Indies and either founded communities there or found ways to provide for themselves. Today, there are only around 200 Jews living in Jamaica…but at some point 20% of Kingston’s population were Jews of Portuguese-Spanish ancestry. In fact, the first Jews landed on the island in 1530 just 40 years after it was discovered by Christopher Columbus.

To see the Jews landed in the island after Columbus discovered it is even more interesting when considering the fact that it was perhaps Jew who helped him navigate over to the New World to begin with.

It’s wild to consider how Christopher Columbus himself noticed a great symbolism in expulsion Jews from Spain and sea voyages of discovery, when he started his diary with this statement:

[quote]In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and the territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake, with sufficient men, my expedition of discovery to the Indies[/quote]

One can go here in investigating one book on the history of Columbus and Jews precedding him in travelling the seas….as it’s rather fascinating. For the Jews were experienced cartographers and Columbus as well as other great explorers (such as Vasco Da Gama ) are believed to have used used those cartographic skills..as Jews also worked as the ship navigators. With the history of the Jewish people in constantly being forced to migrate/travel with wars, the Diaspora, the Inquisitions—as well as knowledge and skills in ship navigation–it’s not really surprising to see the continual development of Jewish piracy..

 Something else interesting to consider is how  Columbus was secretly a Crypto-Jew alongside others fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, ended up making a homeland for the Jewish people in the Caribbean—even though the man was essentially a terrorist/conqueror to the New World and he also opened up the door for the mistreatment of numerous blacks/Indigenious peoples in the process — with many Jews, sadly, playing a big part in that when it came to trade. . Rabbi Marc Lee Raphael, who authored the book “The Synagogue in America: A Short Historyhas done some excellent work documenting the issue.

According to Columbus, when speaking of the need to colonize the Americas

“I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves…”

– Christopher Columbus

Columbus had an interpretur when he first arrived in Hati—known as Luis de Torres. He was one of the first Jews to settle on Hati in 1492, but there were others that followed. There were actually a good number of Jews aboard Columbus’ ships. Rodrigo de Triana, who was the first to sight land, Maestre Bernal, who served as the expedition’s physician, and as already mentioned, Luis De Torres, the interpreter, who spoke Hebrew and Arabic, which it was believed would be useful in the Orient as it must be recalled that Columbus believed he was enroute to Asia.

And although it was a negative to see some of the things COlumbus did, the opportunities it opened up for Jews in finding new worlds to find refuge in was a plus. As the Jews went to settle and do business, while the Spainsh went to conquer and gain wealth, there was a useful balance….even if it was a negative to have many Jews not get credit for their part in exploration.

Additionally, because of the Jews being able to speak Hebrew, they could remain undercover while being able to switch language/communicate for the sake of updates. Regardless of the nationality of the colony, be it Spanish, Dutch or French or English, the Jews could communicate with each other.

Makes sense, as it gets bothersome being pushed around constantly and then having others take credit for your work–and then still try to push you further….and at some point, you either try to “blend in” or fight back. For some, sabatouge was expected seeing how they were forced to go underground/act as Crypto-Jews while remaining Catholic above ground. Thousands of the Sephardim (Spain was called Sefarad in Hebrew) fled to Portugal, and others to North Africa, some to the Ottoman Empire after the Spanish attempt to erase every trace of Judaism despite all that had occurred previously with 1000 years of Jewish contribution to science and philosophy, under both Christian and Islamic rulers. Thankfully routes within Spanish culture yet remained for conversos, some of whom became physicians to the ruling monarchs and prelates while others conversos were translators and negotiators..and some others sailed with the conquistadores while others even joined the Church, and moved into the hierarchy (as discussed here).

The author of the book”Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” noted how many who were Crypto-Jews were actually funneling information/secrets from the Spanish (or the Portuguese) to the pirates from those who were with the enemy majority since they could act one way (as they were expected)/make others feel they were on their side—and yet secretly they could fund others to make war on the people they had to appear as allies with publically….and no one would ever suspect who the moles were. And some worked with other notable figures, such as Cromwell, in his imperialistic plans secretly since it would benefit them in certain ways–as Ed Kritzler discussed in his book here and here.

Reading what Kritzler had to say, I must say that I was astounded to witness how unknown it is to most people that the Jews of the Caribbean played a pivotal role in destroying the Spanish Empire, assisting England to become wealthy and powerful, and helping the American colonies fight for their Independence….and of course, along with that come many other negative things which were opened up due to one power being supported long enough to establish itself/do things that were not right (as what occurred with slavery, imperialism of the British Empire/its rape of other countries, etc) all for the sake of survival. But ultimately, what the Jews did was quite brilliant actually..and necessary, seeing how the Jews were often stuck feeling as if they were marginalized and having to play all sides, from the times of the New World voyages/exploration to the American Revolution and others (as discussed here).

What the town militia (during the French/Indian War) and militia for the American Revolution were to citizens unable to fight was in many ways what many of the Jewish pirates were for the Jewish communities in the West Indies/Americas (as Ed noted in his book here). For a good documentary on such:

To be clear, I’m not for any type of mindset that one can blame all Jewish people for the slave trade anymore than one can blame all white people for the harm done toward blacks/Native Americans. I love felowshipping with Jewish people and many are my close friends/family (specifically, those from the Messianic Jewish fellowship I attend)—but we’ve had a lot of honest discussions on the ways that many of the problems that started for Native Americans began when one group was seeking to escape persecution and they ended up opening the door for another to be harmed…as was the case when many of the Spanish Jews who came to the West Indies harmed the Spanish EMpire—but opened the door for the English Empire to rise up and others came along to do more harm to the natives…with those who were persecuted often siding with their own even if it meant harm to another group that was native.

The ways others celebrate Columbus has NEVER made any sense to me.

William Katz, of the excellent book entitled “Black Indians”, did a lot of research that I’m glad is coming into awareness. Learned of it back in 2009 when at the Smithsonian Musuem of the American Indian and bought the work since it dealt with showing the connections with Africans and First Nations groups/American Indians, which is a BIG deal for those who are mixed/biracial (African American Indian)…and it was truly a huge blessing. Reading directly what Columbus said and how he was set on enslaving the populace in the NAME of GOD…that was shameful. There was actually something recently that came up which shocked many–if choosing to go here/investigate the article entitled “Rethinking Columbus” ( Rethinking Columbus Banned in Tucson « Rethinking Schools Blog ) AND “Rethinking Columbus banned in Arizona: Katz essays” ( Rethinking Columbus banned in Arizona: Katz essays included ). On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day the book “Rethinking Columbus,” designed to make pupils and teachers think about how this county was founded and developed by its many peoples, was banned from the classrooms of Tucson, Arizona. The book, which has been in print for twenty years and has sold 300,000 copies, carries essays donated by noted Native American, Mexican American, African American, Hispanic American and white authors and educators. Katz did an interview on the issue here ( )–with other excellent reviews here as well ( ).

Theology will ALWAYS be influenced by the culture you come from….as there’s never a discussion about who God is/the Study of God apart from seeing how he is percieved by others and what others place emphasis on.

In regards to what was noted earlier Jewish heritage intersecting with the West Indies, with Jamaica, what was interesting to discover was that 3yrs ago several Jewish graves were found outside Kingston, some of them marked with the skull and crossbones. Alongside the skull/crossbones were Hebrew writing on some of the tombs…and the classic symbol of piracy suggests there were Jews involved in the notorious trade. As Ed Kritzler stated on the Web site of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica

[quote]“The major role of Jews and pirates was we were like the brains behind their brawn, i.e. We advised and backed them” [/quote]

And to be clear, when it comes to piracy, by no means is anything said to make it out as if all Jews involved were just trying to make a living. For there were others that were indeed of the negative variety of pirates since they’d mistreat others/enslave and do things typical of what you’d see in many movies. However, as there were two differing varieties and some aren’t even aware of how Jews would fit into it, one must be careful.

Part of why the subject of Jews and piracy has been on my mind is because I feel like I relate to them….as many of them sought to provide for themselves in ways that others felt were either illegal—or unlawful according to the Torah. But in their eyes, it was necessary. For those Jewish communities that’ve suffered and often made it out as if Jews were always victims, those who were pirates seemed to flip that ideology on its head since Pirate JEWS showed how they were not always going to allow themselves to simply be picked on or forced to go undercover.

For those Jewish communities today that may suffer–or Christian, for that matter—I have been wrestling with whether or not I’d choose to go the route of stealing if I had no other option in order to buy food. As the Torah states “Thou Shall Not Steal” in multiple places ( Leviticus 19:11, Exodus 20:15, Proverbs 10:2 Jeremiah 7:9-11, Leviticus 6:1-7, Mark 10:19 , Proverbs 30:8-9 ). Knowing how far one’s willing to go is a big deal…and even beyond that, knowing what one will be condemned for is a bigger one. For many, it would be an issue of condemnation if one was stealing to survive/provide. And some scriptures coming to mind:

Proverbs 6:29-31

People do not despise a thief if he steals

to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.

31 Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold,

though it costs him all the wealth of his house

There are other Jewish organizations that’ve discussed the issue of how Torah Law shows that stealing to save a life is never a problem (as seen here). Of course, all are different. Where some feel the Torah itself would allow for stealing (alongside other things like lying) if it was the only option available for showing love to your neighbor, others feel that the Torah will always condemn it…no matter how much one feels that they’re acting justly like a “Robin Hood.”

 Just some thoughts…


About Gabriel (G²)

Just another intelligent black man (a dying breed, mind you) living it up under pressure, giving it up to the game called life, taking the good with the bad, the pain with the gain, and still keeping it R.E.A.L (Relational, Enlightened/Effective, Authentic, and Lively) in the way I deal while bringing fame, not shame, to the Name... of Christ. In case anyone was confused as to what I just said/meant (most likely you were), I'm a teacher/educator. I graduated from the Masters of American Studies program at KSU ( http://amst.hss.kennesaw.edu/graduate/, http://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/mast_etd/ and https://saved103.wordpress.com/about/ ) with my focus on History. As my degree is in Interdisciplinary Studies, I am very good at research and love study. I'm also a Youth Worker. I'm also an runner (though not at my prime, I intend to get back soon and have tried throughout the year...it's gotten better), a singer, and avid reader. Love history and studying it with other academics


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