When I think of pirates, I think of Captain Hook, Pirates of the Caribbean, things like that. I found out that Jewish pirates are almost exactly the same, only, well, Jewish. So how and why did these Jews become pirates? How did Jewish life emerge and flourish in the Caribbean Islands?
Jews lived in Spain for many years but around 1478 the Spanish Inquisition began and the Jews were persecuted and forced to leave. Before the Inquisition a man named Henry The Second became king and brought suffering and persecution to the Jews. Jews were not allowed to wear expensive clothing or ride on mules. They were forbidden to go near the palaces, sell weapons or have a Christian name. Jews had to live separate lives from the Christians and were banned from holding public office. They also had to wear badges to indicate that they were Jewish. But some individual Jews were friends with the king and got special advantages and were able to live happily and peaceably, and they had access to money. Some of them became educated and had jobs such as financiers, astronomers, merchants and ship navigators. These skills came in very handy when they later became pirates.
The beginning of the Inquisition was when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand stated The Alhambra Decree and ordered all Jews to leave Spain and never return. This Decree was passed on March 31, 1492 and it stated that every Jew had to be gone by August 31, 1492. If they decided to stay, it was mandatory to convert to Catholicism. The government began to want everyone to abide by the Roman Catholic Church, and anyone who did not believe or agree was forced to leave. Those that did not leave were tortured, jailed, or killed. Some began to flee to Portugal and some parts of Italy and Northern Africa. Many Jewish people did stay in Spain and converted to Catholicism, fully embracing this new religion. Some converted but continued to practice being Jewish by lighting Friday night candles and doing other religious things, but they had to hide and be very careful so they were not discovered. Overall the Spanish Inquisition lasted for approximately 350 years.
Some former Spanish Jewish people wanted revenge. They migrated toward the Caribbean islands where they became pirates in order to attack the Spanish ships and the people upholding the laws of the Inquisition. They began to attack these Spanish ships with ships of their own, since they had experience sailing and managing ships under the king before the Inquisition began. They gave their ships Jewish names such as Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther and The Shield of Abraham. At one time Jewish pirates were the only successful people to capture the Spanish Treasure fleet. A famous Jewish pirate was Yaakov Koriel. When he was young, Yaakov and his family converted to Christianity because of the Inquisition. He was captain of the Spanish fleet until he was caught by the Inquisition and put in jail but later freed by his sailors most who had converted also. Yaakov owned three pirate ships and for a long time his only goal was revenge. Not much is known about what happened to him later. Moses Eanes and Piet Hein, also famous Jewish pirates, helped to capture the Spanish fleet in 1628. Moses Eanes was a Sephardic pirate, who operated in the Caribbean alongside Admiral Piet Hein. Piet Hein was born in November 1577 and was the son of a sea captain. When he was a young man he became a sailor alongside his father. When Piet was in his early twenties he was captured by the Spanish and severed as a galley slave around 1598 probably until 1602.
The Spanish Treasure fleets were adopted from 1566 to 1790. They were big ships meant for transporting a wide variety of goods such as gold, silver, pearls, gems, spices, sugar and tobacco. Spanish ships had brought back items from the New World since Christopher Columbus’s first journey in 1492. In 1628 Piet Hein set out with Moses Eanes and Admiral Hendrick Lonck to capture a Spanish Treasure fleet which was filled with silver and gold. Piet Hein captured about eleven and a half million guilders of gold and silver and other expensive trade goods without any bloodshed because most of the crew had surrendered. Guilders is the Dutch currency. The money funded the Dutch army for eight months. During my research for this paper I read a children’s picture book called Always an Olivia. The book is mostly about the Inquisition and Jewish life in the Caribbean. It is a true story about a Jewish man named Jacob and his wife Naomi and their five children. After arriving in Portugal they changed their last name to Almansil, after the first town they entered in order to hid their Jewish identity. This family loved Portugal; the eldest son Ben was a fisherman alongside his father and his sister Hannah sold these fish in the market with her mother. Friday nights Naomi would make a special Shabbat meal and they would light candles behind closed shutters. But soon the Jews were forced out of Portugal. Many went to Italy where they lived for many generations. One of the descendants of Naomi and Jacob was a girl named Sarah. One day Sarah went for a walk on the beach, wearing a blue headscarf as was the custom of Jewish women. Pirates saw her and recognized her as Jewish, and kidnapped her. Sarah never saw her family again. They planned to go to North Africa where wealthy Jews lived and would pay high sums to free captured Jews. On the boat, Sarah met a man named James and in 1805 they were able to escape to the Georgia Sea Islands, off the coast of the United States. On these Islands there lived a group of free black people called the Geeches. Because Jewish people were not considered white, they were given to the Geeches. Sarah and James lived among the Geechees for many generations, and their children and grandchildren married the Geechee children and grandchildren. In addition to the Jewish pirates, many people believe this was another way Jewish people began to migrate to the Caribbean Islands, and how Jewish life emerged there.
In 2008, outside Kingston, Jamaica, a cemetery was found and some of the headstones had Hebrew writing on them as well as skull and crossbones. Some people think that this is proof that there were, in fact, Jewish pirates, but others believe the skull and crossbones are just the symbol of death and the people buried there are not pirates.
Up until now I had no idea that there were Jewish pirates in the past. When I first started researching Jewish people of the Caribbean I found an enormous amount of information on Jewish pirates and it surprised me. I decided to focus on Jewish pirates as well as Jewish life in the Caribbean. I found a book by Edward Kritzler 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.” What I found most interesting about this subject is that Jewish pirates stood up for their culture and religion during the Inquisition. They didn’t back down and they fought for what they believed in and they survived under extremely difficult circumstances.