While this may read like something from a Monty Python skit, apparently there is more than a kernel of truth to the reign of Jewish Piracy on the high seas from the 16th -18th Centuries as evidenced by tombstones in Jamaica:
History books rarely noted the exploits of Jewish pirates, despite their surprising prevalence and success, but historical graveyards unearthed in the Caribbean within the last decade revealed tombstones with Stars of David, Hebrew, and skull and crossbones insignia. As early as 1501 the Spanish Crown published an edict that “Moors, Jews, heretics, reconciliados (repentants – those who returned to the church), and New Christians are not allowed to go to the Indies.”
Yet in 1508, the bishop of Cuba reported, “practically every ship [arriving in Havana] is filled with Hebrews and New Christians.” Such decrees banning them, followed by letters home complaining of their continued arrival, were a regular occurrence.
Jamaica at the time was an anomaly in the New World – a private fiefdom awarded in perpetuity to Christopher Columbus and his heirs in 1494 by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs. Whether the explorer was himself a crypto-Jew is an unresolved historical issue, but for over a century the Columbus kin kept their privately held domain free of the clutches of Spain’s inquisitors. In 1655, one year after the Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil arrived in Jamaica, the Columbuses’ poorly defended private island was seized by Britain. Leading the armada was Admiral William Penn, (the father of William Penn Jr., who subsequently founded Pennsylvania). Penn's conquest of Jamaica was reportedly with assistance from local Jews and Marranos (crypto-Jews), all of whom were allowed to remain.
Under British rule, religious freedom flourished and by 1720, an estimated 20 percent of residents of the capital, Kingston, were descendants of Spanish-Portuguese Jews. Some Jews went into Jamaican politics, and there were so many in the Jamaican parliament in the 19th century that it became the only parliament on earth that did not hold deliberations on Saturday.
But other Jamaican Jews turned to a more adventurous – and dangerous – life at sea. Captaining ships bearing names like the Queen Esther, the Prophet Samuel, and the Shield of Abraham, Jewish sailors began roaming the Caribbean in search of riches, sometimes obtained under questionable circumstances. These Jews most frequently attacked Spanish and Portuguese ships – payback for the property confiscations and torture of their brethren perpetrated by the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
Pirates and buccaneers were outcasts and lawbreakers who attacked ships, raided towns and robbed people of their money and sometimes their lives, but privateers were a legal version of the same. Mercenaries armed with a letter of marque and reprisal from their government permitting the attack of enemy ports and shipping during military conflict, they engaged in economic warfare – and turned over a portion of their booty to their king. Being either a criminal or a patriot depended on the latest developments in Europe’s frequent wars of accession and territorial aggrandizement, and their concomitant battles on the colonial front and the high seas.
In peacetime, they continued their plunder but flew the Jolly Roger pirate flag in lieu of the British Union Jack or the flag of free Holland. Most famous of the Caribbean’s Jewish pirates, or privateers, was Moses Cohen Henriques of Portuguese origin. Like many of his contemporary buccaneers, Henriques’s life is shrouded in mystery. Together with Dutch folk hero Admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein, Henriques captured a Spanish treasure fleet off Cuba’s Bay of Matanzas in 1628. The booty of gold and silver bullion amounted to a staggering 11,509,524 guilders, worth around US$1 billion in today’s currency. It was the Dutch West Indies Company’s greatest heist in the Caribbean.
Another notable – if poorly documented – Jewish pirate was Yaakov Koriel, who commanded three pirate ships in the Caribbean. A third pirate/privateer, David Abrabanel, evidently from the same family as the famous Spanish rabbinic dynasty (which included Don Isaac Abrabanel who fled Spain in 1492 after unsuccessfully trying to bribe Ferdinand and Isabella to rescind their catastrophic expulsion decree), joined British privateers after his family was butchered off the South American coast. He used the nom de guerre “Captain Davis” and commanded his own pirate vessel named Jerusalem.
Possibly the most famous of the Jewish pirates of the early 19th Century was Jean Lafitte, a name familiar to most American schoolchildren. Born either in Basque-France or the French colony of Saint-Domingue, Lafitte was more of a smuggler and professional fence than a pirate, but working out of the small and sparsely populated Louisiana island of Barataria, he ran not just one sloop but a whole fleet of them simultaneously.
On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain. Britain maintained a powerful navy, while the United States had little naval power. To supplement this deficit, the United States offered letters of marque to private armed vessels. New Orleans issued six such letters, primarily to smugglers who worked with Lafitte. These smugglers often held letters of marque from multiple countries, authorizing them to capture booty from differing nations. They submitted booty from captured British ships to the American authorities at New Orleans, while booty from all other ships was often channeled for sale on the markets through Lafitte's operation.
On November 10, 1812, the US District Attorney John R. Grymes charged Lafitte with "violation of the revenue law". Three days later, 40 soldiers were sent to ambush the Baratarians; they captured Lafitte, his brother Pierre, and 25 unarmed smugglers on November 16, and confiscated several thousand dollars of contraband. Officials released the smugglers after they posted bond, and they disappeared, refusing to return for a trial. By September of 1814 Pierre was back in jail and Commodore Daniel Patterson led a flotilla of gunboats to Barataria and took 80 people captive, but Lafitte escaped safely. The Americans took custody of six schooners, one felucca, and a brig, as well as 20 cannon and goods worth $500,000.
In mid-December, General (later President) Andrew Jackson met with Jean Lafitte, who offered to serve if the US would pardon those of his men who agreed to defend the city. Jackson agreed to do so. On December 19, the state legislature passed a resolution recommending a full pardon for all of the former residents at Barataria. With Lafitte's encouragement, many of his men joined the New Orleans militia or as sailors to man the ships. Others formed three artillery companies. Thus Jean Lafitte played a critical role in winning the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.
Among the many legends about the brothers Lafitte is that they were born as Sephardi Jews, as was Jean's first wife, who was born in the Danish Virgin Islands. This claim has a disputed provenance in The Journal of Jean Laffite, purportedly found In 1948 by a direct descendant, John Andrechyne Laflin.
There have been pirates on the Mediterranean for as long as there have been ships. Jewish pirates were first mentioned by Josephus. There is a drawing of a pirate ship following two merchant ships at Jason's Tomb in Jerusalem.
Dated back at early 1st century BCE, it depicts the High Priest Jason holding the bow and getting ready to shoot. Seleucid Empire decay was a result of the Maccabean war, and was followed by an influx of Jewish and Arab pirates operating from Levant. Pompey's journey to Judea may indicate a connection between Jewish and Cilician pirates. As a matter of fact there were so many Jews at the sea, some of which were pirates, during Pompey's time that king Antigonus II Mattathias was accused in sending them out on purpose.
One captain known only as Sinan, or "The Great Jew" by his Spanish targets, worked alongside the dreaded Hayreddin Barbarossa. Born in Turkey, this Sephardic sailor included a six-pointed star on his ship’s flag and was so good at maritime navigation that it was rumored he employed black magic to find his way. In 1538, Sinan was instrumental in defeating the Spanish-backed Genoan fleet at the Battle of Preveza, a crippling blow to Spain’s attempts to secure the Barbary Coast.
In the 20th Century, Jewish pirates smuggled Holocaust survivors out of Europe into the British Mandate of Palestine, and in 1948 the birth of the contemporary Israeli Navy was the result piracy that came out of those smuggling operations: Three former Aliyah Bet ships, that had been seized by the British and impounded in Haifa harbor, were surreptitiously refurbished as warships. The three ships were selected for their military background – one, the INS Eilat, was an icebreaker...
...and the other two, the INS Haganah and INS Wedgwood, had been Royal Canadian Navy corvettes. To avoid arousing British suspicion the clandestine work began shortly before Israeli independence.
The ships were put into minimum running condition by contractors dressed as stevedores and port personnel, who were able to work in the engine rooms and below deck. On 21 May 1948, all three ships were made to look like ships that had been purchased by foreign owners for commercial use and set sail for Tel Aviv. In Tel Aviv, they were fitted with small field guns dating to the late 19th century and anti-aircraft guns. The warships were manned by former merchant seamen, former crew members of Aliyah Bet ships, Israelis who had served in the Royal Navy during World War II, and foreign volunteers. The newly refurbished and crewed warships served on coastal patrol duties and bombarded Egyptian coastal installations in and around the Gaza area all the way to Port Said.
Not sure why I got carried away with this silliness, but I'm well known as a meta research nerd. Hope that Jon, Kosh and the rest of the tribe enjoy this.