Hijacking the piracy story

While pirates are very much in the news, the tale of Jewish bandits of old is still waiting to be told.

pirates book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
pirates book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean By Edward Kritzler Doubleday 324 pp. $26 The deceptive title of this peculiar book suggests to its readers that they will learn about Jewish buccaneers who plied their nefarious trade in the New World. Actually, only one of the book's 10 chapters focuses exclusively on a Jewish pirate, Samuel Palache, but he was in no way a "Jewish Pirate of the Caribbean" since he never left Europe and North Africa. Born in Morocco, he became a rabbi and a pirate in the Mediterranean. Eventually, in 1612, he helped to establish the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Palache's predecessor, Sinan, "commonly known as 'the Great Jew,' or 'the Famous Jewish Pirate,'" served the Turkish ruler Suleiman, helping him to extend his dominion to the entire Mediterranean. For a time, Sinan served as governor of Algiers and later, as Kaptan Pasha, he commanded the Turkish navy. After a colorful career, he died in 1558 and was buried in Istanbul. Sinan was never in the Caribbean. By contrast to Palache and Sinan, who were exclusively Old World figures, there were many Jews, mostly "conversos," who were active in the New World. Many of them in Spain and Portugal had been forced to convert although they secretly practiced Judaism. A number of them came to America where they were active in trade and commerce. According to Edward Kritzler, many of these Jewish merchants turned to piracy. When the English captured the island of Jamaica, Jews were welcomed. Eventually, three congregations were established and a rabbi was employed. A base was established for the pirates to strike successfully at Spanish shipping. Kritzler interrupts this account for an extensive discussion of Columbus and his voyages to America, asserting that he and many of his crew members were clandestine Jews. This is but one of many digressions in the book, contributing to its choppiness and occasional lack of coherence. Just before concluding his presentation, Kritzler uses flimsy evidence to assert that Jean Lafitte, who ran his pirate ships from New Orleans where he was allied with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, was a Jew. In any case, New Orleans is on the Gulf of Mexico, not the Caribbean, so that his inclusion in the book is somewhat dubious. Kritzler adds a peculiar "Epilogue" to his narrative in which he deals with "the lost mine of Columbus." Supposedly, Columbus once extracted some gold from a mine in Jamaica and Kritzler, who lives on the island, claims to have found in its archives some coded references to the location of the mine. The flimsy connection to the topic of the book is a "crumbling parchment" reference to a law suit between two Cohen brothers over ownership of the land on which the mine was supposedly located. One of these two brothers was "the pirate Moses Cohen Henriques." Forty-five pages of "Notes and Sources" and a "Chronology" are included as though to claim a scholarly basis for this somewhat bizarre chronicle. The story of Jewish pirates in the Caribbean is yet to written. The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.