Friday, 11 August 2017

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean

     Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean (2009) by Edward Kritzler: when you see a book with this title going cheap in a collection of remainded books, how could you possibly resist buying it? Of course, the title was chosen to piggyback on the popularity of a certain movie. As it turned out, the few Jewish pirates mentioned did their dirty work in the Mediterranean, while few of  the Jews of the Caribbean were actually pirates; they were just up to their necks in the business. But it least it cast light on a little known chapter of history: to quote the subtitle of the book: "How a generation of swashbuckling Jews carved out an empire in the New World in their quest for treasure, religious freedom and revenge."
     Of course, we've all grown up on stories of pirates and the Spanish Main. Many will have heard about how one of the greatest of the pirates, Captain Morgan was promoted to Governor of Jamaica, on the theory that an ex-poacher makes the best gamekeeper. In fact, two years after England captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, they invited the "Brethren of the Coast" ie the buccaneers to settle there and defend it. When war broke out, as it frequently did, they became legal privateers, while during truces or brief periods of peace, they were simply pirates. But in war or in peace, they were always cutthroats.  It was a period which did not reflect well on England's honour.
    Somewhat before that, in 1643, an England pirate called William Jackson raided the island. The author, Edward Kritzler happened to be reading Jackson's journal in 1967, and discovered the report that the capital was deserted except for
"divers Portuguese of the Hebrew nation who came unto us seeking asylum, and promised to show us where the Spaniards hit their gold."
     What the? What were Portuguese Jews doing in Jamaica in 1643? Thus began a four decades long research by the author into a forgotten chapter of Jewish history.
     First, a bit of background. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and from France on many occasions until permanently in 1394, but from the earliest days a large population of Sephardic Jews dwelt in Spain. Nevertheless, a series of huge pogroms in 1391 resulted in approximately half of them being baptized to save their skin. They were known as conversos, or New Christians, and were under constant suspicion, with good reason, of practicing their ancestral faith in secret. Marranos ("swine") was the derogatory term used for these secret Jews, who openly attended church and confession, but in secret gatherings at night worshiped in the old fashion. Incredible as it may seem, some of them continued in this fashion right up to the 1970s, when they were in no danger of persecution.
     At the end of 1492, with conquest of the last Arab kingdom of Granada, the remaining Jews were given the choice of conversion or exile, and so a new crop of conversos was raised. The vast majority of these, it would appear, lost all their Jewish connections, with the result that, even today, one in five Spaniards has Jewish ancestry without knowing it. But a lot of them remained marranos, and the Inquisition was diligent in seeking them out.
     One of these secret Jews, whose cousins had already been burnt at that stake, was Luis de Santagel, the court treasurer. Where were his people to go? So when a crackpot called Christopher Columbus came up with the idea that the globe was really smaller than everybody knew it to be, and that one could reach China and India by sailing west, Santagel rushed over to see the queen, and persuaded her to bankroll Columbus. Little did they know that there was a whole New World blocking the route to Asia. The crackpot had become a man of destiny.
     Obviously, here was a golden opportunity for an enterprising secret Jew to avoid the Inquisition. But conversos were nevertheless second class citizens, subject to various disabilities, one of which, from 1501, was being forbidden to go to the Indies. But there were ways around it. If, for instance, a Jew did manage to obtain a license to travel there, he could always bring his servants. Also, no license was required for the crew of a ship, so it was a simple matter to sign on as a crew member - and many ships were owned by conversos - and jump ship. Thus, as early as 1508, the bishop of Cuba was complaining that "practically every ship is filled with Hebrews and New Christians." But one of the simplest method was to migrate to Portugal, and head off to the Spanish colonies as a citizen of that country, who would not have to prove his Catholic credentials. Whenever you see "Portuguese" mentioned in the annals of Spanish America, it is a good guess it was code for "Jew". To quote Kritzler:
Going about as bona fide Christians, most carried their secret to the grave. The adventures of some of those who did not paint an extraordinary tableau of their time. These include a turban-wearing pilot who sailed with three of the early explorers; the first capitalist to own and market New World flora; a suspect Jew who discovered California; a conquistador who was the first Jew burned in the New World; and other Judaizers, men and women, who joined in the conquest of Mexico.
     Jewish businessmen being what they are, you should not be surprised that, by the time the Inquisition got around to rooting them out, it was discovered that the trade from the great silver mountain of Potosí, Bolivia was almost exclusively in the hands of secret Jews, while in Lima they dominated the trade in nearly everything: "from brocade to sackcloth, diamonds to cumin seeds," white pearls and black slaves.
    And piracy. In modern warfare, we sink enemy shipping. Earlier centuries were more humane, but more venal; they licensed private citizens to capture and rob enemy shipping. And to the Jews, Spain was the enemy. In coded correspondence with fellow merchants in other colonies, Jews could provide details of shipping to those who would find it profitable to attack it - for a percentage of the profits, of course. It would be hard to identify any known pirates as Jews, but they were all too often the brains behind the brawn.
    Jews who went into exile into North Africa would find themselves free to practise their religion, but at the price of being ground down by the Muslim rulers. Just the same, more than one ended up as a captain of the Barbary pirates. My enemy's enemy is my friend, it has often been said, and the Netherlands was a Protestant country which had declared its independence from Spain. In the book, therefore, you will discover an incredibly complex set of manoeuvres and negotiations between a Jewish pirate, the sultan of Morocco, and the Stadtholder of the Netherlands. At one point, a flotilla of Dutch pirates headed out against Spanish shipping under the command of a Jewish captain and the flag of Morocco.
     Holland offered religious tolerance, but did not really mean it. Portuguese conversos were allowed in, and could practise Judaism on a don't-ask-don't-tell policy. Before long the Jewish settlement in Amsterdam was very large, very rich, and very open. Secret Jews would migrate from Portugal and, once on Dutch soil, discard their baptismal names for Hebrew ones, and finally get circumcised. If they died before the latter ritual could be performed, their corpse had to be circumcised before it could be laid in the Jewish cemetery. It wasn't all plain sailing, however. The religion practised in secret tended to be the Judaism of the Old Testament. In Amsterdam, however, the rabbis were enforcing the Judaism of the Talmud, with a host of burdensome regulations not found in the Bible.
     The Iberian Union of Spain and Portugal from 1580 to 1640 made the Portuguese colonies the legitimate targets of the Dutch. In 1624 the Dutch captured the then capital of Brazil, Bahia. The local conversos had heard that the Inquisition was coming to destroy them, so they had written to Holland asking the Dutch to liberate them, and agreed to share the cost.
     Alas! The following year, a Spanish fleet reconquered it. However, in 1630 the Dutch conquered Recife, and there sprang up, under Dutch protection, the first openly Jewish community. Under the name of Zur Israel (Rock of Israel), it marketed sugar and taxed Jewish privateers 3 per cent of their booty, till Recife became the richest trading port in the New World outside of Havana. It lasted 24 years. Meanwhile, during the 1640s and 1650s, the Inquisition was destroying the Jewish communities of Peru and Mexico.
     1654 was the year of destiny. Portugal reconquered Recife, and gave the Jews three months to leave. Fifteen ships sailed off to Amsterdam. One headed to New Amsterdam (now New York), but didn't arrive. Instead, a storm blew it to Jamaica. Now, Jamaica had been owned by Columbus' family since 1510, and they had resolutely kept the Inquisition out, despite the fact that it was an open secret that its large settlement of "Portugals" were practising Jews. Now you can see why they came out to meet Jackson in 1643. But this arrival of open Jews in 1654 gave the enemies of Columbus' family their opening. They requested the Inquisition.
     In desperation, the Jews looked for another enemy of Spain: England under Oliver Cromwell. They had already colonised a few small, unclaimed islands, such as Barbados, Nevis, and St Kitts, where Jews had been allowed to settle, even if they not (officially) in England. Now a deal was settled: they would act as spies and fifth columnists for an English invasion of Jamaica.
   In 1655 England captured Jamaica. In 1656 the first synagogue for 366 years was opened in England. In 1657 they persuaded Cromwell to invite the Brethren of the Coast to defend it. Jews started moving into Jamaica as free settlers, and in 1670 a treaty finally ceded the island the England.
    Read it all.

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