Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean

“Putting the Oy Back into ‘Ahoy'” by Haifa University professor Steven Plaut appeared recently in the Jewish Press.

They did not sing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Manischewitz,” nor do they ever seem to appear in any of the Disney films about pirates in the Caribbean. The website piratesinfo.com carries not a single reference to them.

And while September 19 has for a number of years now been designated International Talk Like a Pirate Day (there are even Internet courses available in pirate lingo), none of its initiators seems to have had Ladino (the language spoken by Jewish refugees expelled by the Spanish and Portuguese after the Reconquista) in mind.

Swashbuckling buccaneers who took time to put on tefillin each morning? Better get used to the idea. Long overlooked, the history of Jewish piracy has been garnering increasing interest, with several serious books and articles telling its epic tales.

Many Jewish pirates came from families of refugees who had been expelled by Spain and Portugal. They took to piracy as part of a strategy of revenge on the Iberian powers (though lining their pockets with Spanish doubloons was no doubt also a motive). Many of these pirates mixed traditional Jewish lifestyles with their exploits on the high seas.

Plaut covers Portuguese Jewish refugees in Jamaica in 1511, and the British takeover from the Spanish in 1655 with the help of local Jews and Conversos. In 1720, 20% of Kingston residents were Jewish. Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues operated side by side, finally merging in the 20th century. Cemeteries hold Jewish tombstones back to 1672, inscribed in Portuguese, Hebrew and English.

The official website of today’s Jewish community of Jamaica is here, with a pirate page here. Plaut says that municipal workers in Kingston recently uncovered a long forgotten pirate graveyard, with tombstones featuring Jewish stars, Hebrew inscriptions and skulls and crossbones. Pirate graves have also been found near Bridgetown, Barbados and in the old Curacao Jewish cemetery.

Jamaican-born Jewish historian Ed Kritzler wrote “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” and offers private tours of Jewish pirate coves on the island.

In 1628, Moses Cohen Henriques sailed with Dutch Admiral Piet Hein (Dutch West India Company), a former Spanish galleon slave who hated Spain. They raided Spanish ships off Cuba, and “liberated” gold and silver. Henriques also had an island off Brazil where Jews could practice Judaism openly.

Rabbi-pirate Samuel Pallache, a leader of the Fez, Morocco community, was the son of the leading rabbi of Cordoba, Spain, and recruited Conversos for his crew.

Jewish pirates worked for the Ottoman Turks. Born in Turkey, Sinan, known as “The Great Jew,” worked from Algiers; his flag bore a six-pointed star. He defeated a mercenary Genoa navy (hired by Spain), conquered Tripoli (Libya) and became an Ottoman naval commander. He’s buried in an Albanian Jewish cemetery.

Read about Yaakov Koriel who commanded several ships before repenting and deciding to study Kabalah with Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed, where he is buried; and David Abrabanel (aka Capt. Davis), who after his family’s massacre, joined British pirates with his ship, The Jerusalem. There’s a Chilean maritim museum with pirate letters written in Hebrew.

The rabbi of Curacao scolding his community’s own pirates when they attacked a Jewish-owned ship. Did that sermon make it into the historical newspaper archive of Curacao?

Josephus writes about Jewish pirates off Roman-era Israel, and Plaut adds that Haifa was once known as Little Malta because of its pirates.

Why were so many Jews in this profession? Jews specialized in map-making during the 15th-16th centuries, such as Zacuto and Cresque who provided maps to explorers; others served as ship navigators and translators.

On the Lighter Side of Pirating a la Mad Magazine, Plaut names a Jewish humor site which lists halachic challenges for pirates, such as how long do you wait, after capturing a ship, to put up a mezuzah in the captain’s cabin? Or, if your parrot’s on your shoulder, is that carrying?

What costumes do Jewish pirates wear at Purim, Plaut asks. Do they dress up as accountants?

It’s time, he says, to put the oy back into “ahoy.”

Do read the complete article here. Enjoy!

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