Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Our first Reader Review: Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean

Last month, we offered our readers, for the first time, the opportunity to review some of the latest history publications and to have their review published on the History Today Books Blog. We will offer a selection of books every month, which we will send out to readers in return for their reviews. A second selection of books will be published tomorrow. In the meantime, here is our first reader review of Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.

by Matthew Parker

It was the most successful ‘pirate’ action in Caribbean history. In September 1628, Admiral Piet Heyn, leading a Dutch force of twenty-five ships, captured the entire Spanish silver fleet and carried back to Amsterdam a vast fortune in precious metals, pearls and rubies. Worth nearly a billion dollars in today’s currency, the awe-inspiring haul was enough to rescue bankrupt Holland and pay for the Dutch to invade Brazil once more. Furthermore, Heyn’s spectacular success would inspire generations of admirals, privateers, corsairs, buccaneers and pirates.

So why was Heyn successful when no one else could repeat the trick? According to Kritzler’s book Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, it was down to Moses Cohen Enriques. Cohen was a young boy when his family escaped the brutal Inquisition in Portugal and settled, along with many other Jews, in Amsterdam. There he became an important member of the Brotherhood, a secret international organisation of Jews fighting for revenge against Spain and the Inquisition. Cohen had been sent as a spy to Seville, where, Kritzler writes, ‘he soon acquired information that … it made more sense to attack at sea … rather than mount a land invasion to capture the silver mountain.’ He also, crucially, found out the time and route of the forthcoming silver fleet. Cohen then joined up with Heyn and took part in the capture of the treasure.

So was Cohen, however interesting his story, really a ‘Jewish Pirate of the Caribbean’? Kritzler’s eye-catching title sometimes feels as if it belongs to a slightly different, and certainly less rewarding book. While plenty of daring adventures are chronicled with commendable pace and a great eye for detail, Kritzler’s book is much more than that. It is a panorama of Jewish history, tracing - in Europe and Africa as well as the New World - the diaspora caused by the expulsions, torturing and killings that started in Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. The background to this fascinating time is handled with immense skill and knowledge, while at every turn, the crucial involvement of the ‘People of the Book’ in the major events of the time is emphasised.

Thus we learn how Jews, especially skilled in cartography, accompanied both Da Gama and Columbus on their historic voyages of discovery (Columbus, Kritzler argues, had a hidden agenda: to find a home for the Jews in the New World). A ‘probable’ Jew discovered California, while another marched with Cort├ęs. In a succession of vivid portraits, we meet Sinan, who led a Jewish privateer force in the Mediterranean and became an Ottoman naval commander; Diego Diaz Querido, a slave trader who carried secret messages for the Brotherhood; and Samuel Palache, a ‘pirate rabbi’ who sent a flotilla of privateers to operate against Spanish shipping in the Mediterranean under the flag of Morocco while at the same time serving as the rabbi of the first synagogue in Holland. According to Kritzler, he took his own kosher chef on board his ‘pirate’ ship. It was the extraordinary figure of Rabbi Palache, says Kritzer, who inspired the likes of Moses Cohen Enriques to ‘live as he dreamed.’

The author also writes fascinatingly about the Jewish community in Amsterdam. When the Iberian ‘Conversos’ – Jews forced to convert to Catholicism – found a degree of religious freedom in Amsterdam and ‘came out’ as Jews, many of them had little idea what this meant nor any knowledge of the Talmud. Kritzler explores the confusion in the community as the leaders of the congregation tried to re-educate their people about Judaic Law, ushering in a time of fierce religious conformity and ‘smothering laws.’ He tells the story of a new arrival from Portugal who was drummed out of the congregation for refusing these new strictures, and eventually committed suicide. In Kritzler’s words:

‘It is one of history’s anomalies that their religious leaders, themselves survivors of religious fanaticism, should have formed their own Inquisitional tribunal, rather than show tolerance to the new Jews.’

Thus many still headed for the New World in search of genuine religious freedom (as well as commercial opportunity), often working with the Dutch against the fading power of Spain. Moses Cohen Enriques was amongst the leaders of the successful Dutch invasion of Brazil, where for a generation thereafter, Jewish planters and merchants would make fortunes from the sugar trade.

Kritzler’s first love, however, is the history of Jamaica, where he now lives. According to his researches, fearing the imminent arrival of the Inquisition, clandestine Jews amongst the island’s converso ‘Portugals’ gave Cromwell’s government intelligence and encouragement to invade, while keeping warnings of the coming armada from the Spanish governor. It was two of the Jewish ‘Portugals’ who, against the wishes of the Roman Catholic Spaniards, then surrendered the island to the English.

While casting new light on familiar stories, this focus on the role of one very small group inevitably leads to some anomalies and omissions. But to complain about this would be to miss the point of the book, which is unashamedly partisan and celebratory of the survival skills, verve and energy of the Jewish emigrants, traders, schemers, and, yes, even pirates. By taking on and defeating their oppressors, the ‘pirates’, writes Kritzler, were heroes who ‘would win most of the freedoms that Jews in the West enjoy today.’

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, Edward Kritzler (JR Books)

Matthew Parker is the author of Hell’s Gorge: The Battle to Build the Panama Canal. He is currently working on a new history of the rise and fall of the West Indian sugar empire for publication in 2011. His website can be found at

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