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BOOK REVIEW

A pirate's life for some Jews

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 Edward Kritzler Doubleday: 336 pp., $26

November 28, 2008|Jonathan Kirsch | Kirsch is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."

More than 40 years ago, Edward Kritzler came across a journal kept by a 17th century English buccaneer in which he found an intriguing reference to "divers Portuguese of the Hebrew nation." Thus began his research into an obscure and mostly forgotten aspect of Jewish history. "Forget the Merchant of Venice," writes Kritzler. "[H]is New World cousins were adventurers after my own heart: Jewish explorers, conquistadors, cowboys and, yes, pirates."

"Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" begins with one of the enduring horrors of history -- the Inquisition. Driven out of Spain and Portugal by royal decrees that compelled them to convert or leave, the Jews of the Iberian peninsula sought refuge wherever they could find it, including the far-flung colonies in the Americas. But the friar-inquisitors inevitably followed the conquistadors, and so the Jewish refugees found themselves at risk even in the New World.

Strictly speaking, only Jews who had converted to Christianity came under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, but the inquisitors acted on the assumption that few if any Jews ever submitted themselves to an earnest conversion. So it was that conversos with Jewish blood in their veins were routinely searched out and condemned as "secret Jews" by the Inquisition. A new refuge was needed, and the most daring ones managed to make their way to various colonial backwaters.

"Since all Spanish conversos were forbidden in the New World, it made no difference if one was a true convert, an atheist, or a covert Jew," Kritzler writes. "All were there illegally and therefore subject to persecution."

The real theme of Kritzler's book, in fact, is the startling variety of strategies for survival that Jewish refugees embraced. Some pursued the traditional roles of broker, trader and financier, but others were considerably more inventive. "Outlawed in the civilized world and vulnerable in the Diaspora, Jews became skilled in ways to find and explore new lands," explains the author, who points out that Jews were especially in demand as pilots, cartographers, and makers and users of astronomical tables and nautical instruments. "When Jewish expertise was needed, prejudice took a backseat to expediency. . . ."

Many of the episodes in Kritzler's compelling book will be truly startling to the non-specialist reader. When the original Spanish settlement in Jamaica turned out to be a dismal failure, for example, a decision was made to repopulate the island with Jewish conversos: "Jamaica for the Jews," as Kritzler puts it, "or the colony goes under." What's more, the success of the settlement was essential to the task of ridding the sea lanes of pirates who preyed on Spanish treasure ships: "If it meant dealing with converted Jews to ensure their safety and prevent the strategic colony from becoming a pirate base, so be it."

But Jews were to be found among the pirates too. Kritzler introduces us to more than one Jewish buccaneer, including a remarkable man named Samuel Palache, a "pirate rabbi" who sent a flotilla of privateers to operate against Spanish shipping in the Mediterranean under the flag of Morocco in 1611 even as he served as the rabbi of the first synagogue in Holland. "Carved on the bow of his ship was a phoenix," writes Kritzler. "It was his way of saying that the Inquisition might burn individual Jews, but could not destroy their ancestral faith."

Although Kritzler seeks to cast his characters in a heroic light, he is willing to describe some of their less appealing exploits. The Jewish community in the Brazilian town of Recife, for example, owed much of its prosperity to the local slave trade: "Jewish merchants, as middlemen, also had a lucrative share, buying slaves at . . . auction and selling them to the planters on an installment plan -- no money down, three years to pay at an interest rate of 40-50 percent." But he also takes care to point out that "Arabs controlled the East African slave trade," and, in West Africa, "men from Sweden, France, Denmark, Portugal, Germany, Holland, England and Spain sailed slave ships and manned the slave forts."

The unfortunate title of "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" understates the scope of Kritzler's book and the scale of his achievement. Not all of the Jews we meet were pirates, not all of the pirates were Jews, and not all of them operated in the Caribbean. What Kritzler has actually written is an ambitious and expansive history of a mostly unexamined aspect of the Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal during an especially active era of the Spanish Inquisition. And, to his credit, the author often pauses to provide the complex and highly nuanced back story -- political, diplomatic, economic and religious -- to the colorful personalities and exploits that he describes.

Any reader hoping to encounter a Yiddish-speaking version of Capt. Jack Sparrow will have to look elsewhere.

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