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Notes from Limmud 2006

Jews and Pirates in the Carribean

Sharonah Fredrick

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

The word "pirate" comes from pirata meaning "businessman". [My Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology disagrees, though cf. the related words in the Online Etymology Dictionary.]

There is one reference to Jewish pirates in the works of Josephus: Aristobulus, scion of the Hasmonean family, did some piracy on the side. But there's not much history of Jewish piracy until the middle of the sixteenth century. At this time, England and Spain had some problems; and most Spanish Jews were trying to flee to the Netherlands or England or Morocco.

The Sultan of Morocco had a Jewish privateer called Rabbi Samuel Palache ("the Conqueror"). He worked as a rabbi from [sentence fragment lost—the speaker was going too fast] Fez in 1580 [...] for around twenty years in 1594, then went into piracy. He served as a spy for the Sultan in the court of Philipe II.

After him, there's no mention of Jewish pirates on the Barbary coast. This is because if any pirate captured was Jewish, things would be doubly difficult for him. At this time, Jewish piracy, however, was switching to the Caribbean.

Beginning from the arrival of Columbus, anyone openly practising Judaism in any of the colonies of the Spanish crown was automatically described as pirata. If they were a crypto-Jew, they would be processed even more as a pirate. Spanish piracy began almost as soon as Columbus reaches the New World.

The first Jew to reach Jamaica was one of the most famous members of Columbus' crew: Luis de Torres. A Jew from the town of Murcia, he functioned as Columbus' translator, because they expected to land in Asia and find the Ten Lost Tribes.

De Torres accompanied Columbus on the first voyage. Columbus may or may not have known he was Jewish. There were other conversos on his crew. On his second voyage, de Torres also accompanied him. When they reached the island the Taíno called Xaymaca, Torres was the first man off the boat... and promptly disappeared, abandoning ship. Columbus was extremely unnerved—the first thing you should lose is not your translator (though of course de Torres could not understand Taíno, and most Taíno had not practised Hebrew since their barmitzvah). De Torres never reappeared, and Columbus declared him pirata.

So de Torres is the first legal pirate; but who was the first real pirate?

In 1530, after Jamaica has been conquered, a group of Portuguese conversos arrived in Jamaica. At this time, there's a split between the conquistadores who followed the party line, and a number of colonial authorities who would turn a blind eye to anything which would bring commercial gain. The Spanish governor was lax on enforcing the Inquisition, and on a number of other things.

Now, these Portuguese were originally sugar merchants on the west coast of Africa. Sugar was very important, because it was what you used to make rum. The Spanish were forbidden from trading with anyone not authorised by the Spanish crown, but a number of Spanish colonists flouted this, and word got out that these Portugese had a rum trade going on with the Carrib Indians, and also with the English—this being at a time just after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when the Spanish were being harried by such English privateers as Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Martin Frobisher.

The secret Jews of Spanish Town started to form strong connections with all of the major English privateers of the time, though there were not yet any recorded incidents of Jewish piracy.

Between 1508 and 1608, the "secret" Jews learned a lot from the pirates, their business partners. By 1608 the Jewish community was an open centre for what would become a pirate explosion in the Carribean. The main groups of pirates at that time were the British, the Dutch and the French.

In 1628 there was a major raid in Cuba, in Matanzas (named after the massacres the Spanish had commited against the Taínos). The Dutch privateer Piet Hein [ancestor of the Piet Hein of superellipse fame] had been a prisoner for four years in Spanish galleys. His first mate was one Moisés Cohen y Enriques.

Where was Cohen y Enriques born? Sixteen islands in the Carribean claim him [though Edward Kritzler's Jewish Pirates of the Carribean makes him a native of Amsterdam and disciple of Samuel Palache]. He eventually died in Port Royal in Jamaica, a wealthy old man. Henry Morgan forty years later put him into the Pirate Code (by Morgan and Charles Stanley, another Welsh pirate). This is an elaborate corporate code: Pirates have to officially join the company. The first one to do was Cohen y Enriques, in 1628, the same year that he and van Hein were going to lead this huge raid on the Spanish garrisons in Cuba. So whenever "el pirata Moisés" is mentioned in the pirate code, it refers to him.

The two of them destroyed the Spanish garrison, with the aid of the worst nightmares of the Spanish garrison—the Carribs—and Spaniards very discontented with the Spanish [governance], mainly the very poorest ones, known as picarros, "ruffains".

That was the one garrison the English had not managed to bring down in the Carribean. This left the way wide open for English domination

The first Jewish pirate colony was off the north coast of Brazil. It was open to anyone of the Brethren of the Coast. You did not have to present proof you were Jewish; you did, however, have to attend services, three times a day. Though there was no synagogue on the island, we do still have the house where the Jewish pirates, and their wives, and their children, prayed.

So did the pirates' children have to follow their fathers' profession? No, and we know this from the first Jewish pirate grave, that of Capt. Jacob Moshiach, in Trinidad—captured from the Spanish by the English. It has a skull-and-crossbones, the letter ש (used on Sephardi gravestones, short for שדי), and the verse עושה שלום במרומיו, הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן. Moshiach's son did not become a pirate; he became a doctor.

So what was Cohen y Enriques doing when he got a bit older? Piracy took a toll on him; and he looked for a young pirate as a protégé. When he got to fifty-five, in 1662, the best thing which could happen to the Jewish community in Jamaica happened—it got conquered by the English. Even though Charles II had Catholic leanings, he formally granted the Jews of Jamaica and their "pyrates", the right to their own synagogue. And this went on to be built in the very middle of Kingston.

Moisés Cohen y Enriques found a protégé in the form of Henry Morgan, which brings us onto code of Morgan and Stanley. The advisement of over twenty pirates or ex-pirates had their input into this, one of whom was Cohen y Enriques, as Morgan's accountant. The code consisted of nine basic principles, and a whole bunch of sub-principles.

Jamaica accepted the Pirates' Code—which meant it was admissible in court, and remained so until 1963, a year after independence from Britain.

Article 5 says:

That pirate that shall strike another ... shall receive Moses' law, that is, forty stripes on the back.

What Moses was this? Moshe Rabbeinu? Judaism at the time is referred to in Spanish as Moses' Law. But Moses' Law here is mentioned 32 times, and mentioned to explicitly at the end as referring to Cohen y Enriques.

Henry Morgan did not want any woman touched against her will; and nor did Cohen y Enriques (who had nine daughters). The Code says:

If at any time you meet with a woman, that man must be prudent. That pirate that meddles with her without her consent shall suffer marooning and then death.

No other legal code at this time had anything like this severe for rape.

Every pirate that joined the Brethren of the Coast now had to swear on the Bible to adhere to this Code. But this was a problem for Cohen [because the Christian Bible contained the New Testament]. So Morgan came up with another option, of placing his hand on a skull. But this of course was also a problem for Cohen [who, being a cohen, could not come into contact with a dead body]. So Morgan gave him a third option, of swearing whilst sitting on a loaded cannon.

After Sir Francis Drake, Morgan probably led more attacks on Spanish forts, and captured more Spanish gold, than anyone else; and he gave quite a little money to the poor. He had many women, and Port Royal became a centre for venereal diseases. So they needed doctors, and there was an influx of Jewish doctors from Guyana and Surinam, at Morgan's invitation. How were these doctors greeted at Port Royal? They had to give their name, whereupon the registry clerk clapped. (Get it?)

One of the most famous Sephardic poets at the time was brought in by Morgan to read to the pirates as they made merry: This was David Lopez Laguna, who wrote The True Mirror of Life, which Morgan said was his famous [did I mean "favourite"?] book. It was published in Jamaica in Spanish in 1680, and translated into English into 1720. Laguna would go into the pubs where the pirates were drinking, and recite poetry. He had a great life and died in his bed, and brought with him a whole coterie of Sephardic Jewish poets.

Everything was very hunky-dory until, in 1688, Henry Morgan died. One out of ten people at the funeral—a real pirate funeral—was a Jew. There weren't very many Jews, but since their status was illegal, it was a good idea to be friends with pirates!

When Morgan died, some latent English anti-semitism started coming out. There were a lot of clergymen who were unhappy at the way Morgan—who had been made Lord Mayor—had brought the Jews in. There was a formal request to have them taken out of Jamaica. Fortunately, the governor, Lynch, of the Jews, denied that request, and also a second request, because they were great for piracy, and great for rum.

However, the Jews now felt threatened. In 1692, an earthquake struck, which wrecked Kingston Town. 1000 of the island's population of 15,000—three quarters of the town's population—died. The English clergymen took it as a sign against the sinfulness of the place, which was filled with "...whores, gypsies and Jews."

The synagogue, which Morgan had laid the founding stone of, was destroyed. There is an eyewitness report, by the shamash of the Port Royal Synagogue, Edmund Heath, in a letter written to Jack Dean. The Jews of the Synagogue had all been invited to a festive meal with one Capt. Rodin—the second-most famous pirate in Jamaica—on June 18. The shamash, the pirate captain and the rabbi were all invited.

200 out of the thousand the synagogue counted as members died. Heath ended his letter saying he's going back to England, because he couldn't take the loss any more. But when he got to Grenada, he changed his mind, and went back, and became one of the people who helped rebuild the synagogue.

Further down in North American history, was the French pirate Jean-Marie Lafitte. (Q.v. Zorro by Isabel Allende.) His Jewish roots were suppressed in older histories, but are now acknowledged. [The speaker went too fast for me again here; there's a reference to "Santo Domingo—the" and "in 1782". Wikipedia says he was born in France, possibly in 1776.]

He was a descendant on his maternal grandmother's side of Spanish Jews who had fled Segovia for Rouen, and then fled there to Santo Domingo. His parents were killed, and he was brought up by his Jewish maternal grandmother.

He referred to himself as following three things: vodoun, [but my notes don't record the other two.] He married a Danish Ashkenazi called Christiana [!] Levine, who was on a ship he captured. (Note: he was a member of the Brethren of the Coast.) She died of a fever, and he remarried a Spanish non-Jewish women. Lafitte established a Jewish colony in Louisiana, right next to New Orleans, called Barataria. (This is the name of the island, in Don Quixote, that Quixote promises to his faithful servant Sancho Panza.)

We don't know the extent of Lafitte's Jewish practice. He was not observant, like Cohen y Enriques, who claimed to have never attacked a ship on Shabbos. Lafitte founded New Orleans's first synagogue, in Metairie. Lafitte at the beginning did trade in slavery, but he eventually turned against slavery because his second wife, as well as being against the Inquisition, was against slavery; and Barataria became a haven for escaped slaves.

Lafitte helped the Americans in the War of 1812, and was rewarded with a presidential pardon. In 1847 he travelled to Germany and met Karl Marx. Marx was very admiring, and Lafitte had an interesting conversation with him. Marx talked about Utopia, and Lafitte said we have already created a utopia, on the island of Barataria.

Another Jewish pirate Cofrasi, who fought the last part of the Inquisition (before it was abolished in 1837), was the last pirate to be hanged.

At this time, as real piracy had come to an end, pirate literature took off. Why in it are there so few mentions of Jews? This could not be because of anti-semitism, because many of the authors were Jewish, e.g. Raphael Sabatini (Captain Blood, Scaramouche) or Charles Kingsley (Westward Ho!). The answer was rather because of the image Jews were carving out for themselves in the nineteenth century. They wanted to project Jews as good.

A second possible explanation: The image of the pirate is a very physical one, even a sexual one. It is not the image of the nice Jewish boy Jews sought to portray in their literature (e.g. in Daniel Deronda, where George Eliot sought to convince the rest of the world that Jews were okay).

The twentieth century brought the advent of pirate films. In the thirties the most famous pirate image was incarnated for us by a Nazi collaborator, Errol Flynn. In his films, the evil character, the one who represents state power, was incarnated by a Russian Jewish actor, Basil Rathbone. After about six films, Rathbone got fed up of always being the baddie, and asked the Warner Brothers to portray a good guy. He was told "Basil, you look too Jewish"! [Recall, the Warner brothers were themselves Jewish!]

In 1958 a film was made about Lafitte, The Buckaneer, starring Yul Brynner. The film-maker, who was Jewish, decided it was not good for American audiences to learn that a hero of the War of 1812 was not Jewish, and the film had no Jewish content.

Now comes along Jonny Depp, and the recent Pirates of the Carribean films [which I suppose I really ought to see]. The Capt. Jack Sparrow in them is modelled on Calico Jack [Capt. John Rackham], an interesting Jamaican: famous for dressing outlandishly, marrying a female pirate, Anne Bonny, and working with the Jews of Trinidad to create an illegal rum-running business. He was hanged by the British in 1712 [1720 according to Wikipedia].

There is one Jewish element in the modern films. Depp wears a lot of eye makeup: kohl—used by Sephardic women to ward off the evil eye. Rackham was known to have taken this up from his Jewish pirate friends, who would apply it every time they got away from the authorities. When Jack was hanged, one of the crimes he was charged with was "wearing things on his face that be of womanish nature."

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2008-01-13 12:32 pm (UTC)
ext_8103: (Default)
From: [identity profile] ewx.livejournal.com
Where do you get pirata (in what language? Latin?) = businessman from?

Date: 2008-01-13 01:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I don't, and I don't honestly know where Dr Fredrick gets it from. In Latin, pirata means "pirate".

<em>I</em> don't

Date: 2008-01-13 02:08 pm (UTC)
ext_8103: (Default)
From: [identity profile] ewx.livejournal.com
Oh, sorry; silly me.

Date: 2008-01-13 02:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pseudomonas.livejournal.com
The OED and Chambers don't mention any sense of "businessman", nor do such Latin dictionaries as I can find.

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