The Jewish Pirates Who Ruled the Caribbean

istock (edited)
istock (edited)

As European nations pushed westward in a mad dash for colonies from the 16th to 18th centuries, the Caribbean became a pirate’s paradise. Legendary sailors like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach and William "Captain" Kidd famously stalked the waters in search of vulnerable trading vessels. What’s less well known is that among these rogue sailors’ ranks were displaced European Jews. Pirating was one of the era’s more egalitarian professions—there’s little time for discrimination if you need to work together while running from royal fleets. This sense of relative equality could be one of the reasons that attracted a number of Jews to adventurous lives on the high seas. 

Until recently, 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. 

Ferdinand and Isabella Make Piracy Possible 

Just like many other New World immigrants, Jews crossed the Atlantic in hopes of finding better lives and lucrative careers, increasingly difficult goals in Europe. For centuries, Jews felt the wrath of the Inquisition as it swept across the continent, and a new wave of anti-Semitism coincided almost exactly with the first voyages across the Atlantic. In the very same month that Columbus set sail in search of a new route to Asia, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Spain, and Portugal followed suit a few years later. 

Many fled to more tolerant Middle Eastern countries such as the Ottoman Empire, but a large number eventually made their way to the new colonies, where they became sugar farmers, merchants, and even politicians. In fact, so many Jews occupied Jamaican legislative seats that, in the 19th century, Jamaica’s parliament was the only one in the world to not hold session on Saturdays because of Shabbat. 

By 1720, an estimated 20 percent of Kingston’s residents were descendants of Spanish-Portuguese Jews, and a few of these Jews eventually felt the urge to seek a more adventurous life on the ocean. Captaining ships with names like the Queen Esther, the Prophet Samuel, and the Shield of Abraham, Jewish sailors began roaming the island coasts in search of riches, usually obtained under questionable legal circumstances. These Jewish pirates most frequently attacked Spanish and Portuguese ships, payback for generations of injustice. 

"The Great Jew" and the Pirate Rabbi 

Moshe Cohen Hanarkis (or Moses Cohen Henriques, depending on your translation) was one of the most famous of these revenge-seekers. In 1628, he helped the Dutch West India Company’s Admiral Piet Hein pull one of the most lucrative sea heists in pirating history, stealing enormous amounts of gold and silver from a Spanish fleet off the coast of Cuba. Today’s adjustments would put the treasure’s value at over $1 billion. Not long after, Hanarkis established his own pirate island off the coast of Brazil, and once the colony was recaptured by Portugal, he became an adviser to the infamous Captain Henry Morgan. Surprisingly, although his exact date of death is unknown, Hanarkis never faced a single trial for his crimes. 

Hanarkis wasn’t alone. A 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.

These escapades weren’t limited to Jewish laypeople, either. Rabbi Shmuel Palacci is said to have taken part in some pirate raids against Spanish and Dutch ships. As a pious rebbe, he made sure that his crew donated a tenth of their loot to charity in a Jewish custom known as ma'aser, and even kept kosher aboard his ship.

The Jewish Pirate Who Helped Win the War of 1812 

Perhaps the most influential of all Jewish pirates was Jean Lafitte, the historical figure known for his key role in Andrew Jackson’s success at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. In the controversial Journal of Jean Lafitte—which may have been written by him, may have been written by someone else during the 19th century, or may be a modern forgery—he claims that his mother's father was a Spanish Jew. After the battle of New Orleans, Lafitte returned to pirating and eventually set up a pirate community on Galveston Island. 

Additional Sources: Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, Ed Kritzler, 2008

No Joe: The Time Coffee Was Banned in Prussia

iStock.com/NickS
iStock.com/NickS

In the late 18th century, Prussia's King Frederick the Great (officially Frederick II) blacklisted coffee and encouraged his royal subjects to drink something far more wholesome—beer. According to William Harrison Ukers's classic 1922 book All About Coffee, Frederick issued this decree on September 13, 1777:

"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors, and his officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war."

Though the authenticity of the above quotation cannot be confirmed, it certainly jibes with King Freddie's other opinions on the matter, according to Robert Liberles, a scholar of German-Jewish history. In a 1779 letter, Frederick wrote, "It is despicable to see how extensive the consumption of coffee is … if this is limited a bit, people will have to get used to beer again … His Royal Majesty was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup. This is much healthier than coffee."

So Old Fritz, as he was called, loved beer. But why was he so opposed to coffee?

For one, Frederick was terrified that excessive imports could ruin his kingdom's economy, and he much preferred to restrict commerce than engage in trade. Since coffee, unlike beer, was brought in from across the border, Frederick regularly griped that "at least 700,000 thaler leave the country annually just for coffee"—money, he believed, that could be funneled into well-taxed Prussian businesses instead.

In other words, into Fritz's own pockets.

To redirect the people's spending patterns, Frederick ordered a number of steep restrictions, demanding that coffee roasters obtain a license from the government. This sounds like a reasonable regulation until you learn that Frederick summarily rejected nearly all of the applications, granting exceptions only to people who were already cozy with his court.

If that sounds elitist, it was. Frederick was adamant about keeping coffee out of the hands and mouths of poor people, writing, "this foreign product [has] extended into the lowest classes of human society and caused great contraband activities." To stop them, he hired approximately 400 disabled soldiers to work as coffee spies, or "sniffers," to roam city streets "following the smell of roasting coffee whenever detected, in order to seek out those who might be found without roasting permits," Ukers writes.

But none of these tactics worked. Rather, they just increased coffee smuggling and exacerbated the "contraband activities" that Frederick claimed he was trying to prevent in the first place. So shortly after the king died in 1786, many of these restrictions were lifted, proving yet again that it's always a mistake to get between someone and their java.

12 Old-Timey Turkey Terms to Bring Back This Thanksgiving

iStock.com/westernphotographs
iStock.com/westernphotographs

Want to spice up conversation this Thanksgiving? Use these terms while you’re talking turkey.

1. RUM COBBLE-COLTER

According to A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of Gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., first published in the late 1600s, a cobble-colter is a turkey. A rum cobble-colter, on the other hand, is "a fat large cock-turkey."

2. I GUESS IT’S ALL TURKEY

This American phrase is “a quaint saying indicating that all is equally good.”

3. AND 4. BUBBLY-JOCK AND BOBBLE-COCK

Bubbly-jock is Scottish slang for a male turkey, from the noise the bird makes. The term can also be used to describe “a stupid, boasting person.” Both usages might apply at your Thanksgiving dinner. Slang for a turkey in northern England, meanwhile, is bobble-cock, according to The Slang Dictionary: Or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and "Fast Expressions” of High and Low Society, published in 1864.

5. TURKEY MERCHANTS

According to 1884’s The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal, this was a term for “dealers in plundered or contraband silk.” Previously, it referred to something more obvious: “a driver of turkeys and geese to market.”

6. ALDERMAN

A “well-stuffedturkey. An alderman in chains is a turkey with sausages; according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, the sausages “are supposed to represent the gold chain worn by those magistrates.”

7. COLD TURKEY RAP

According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American, this 1928 term means "an accusation, a charge, against a person caught in the act." Perhaps you'll get a cold turkey rap for stealing seconds—or thirds—of your favorite dish this holiday.

8. BLOCK ISLAND TURKEY

An American slang term for salted cod, originating in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

9. TURKEY PUDDLE

Eighteenth-century slang for coffee.

10. SNOTERGOB

According to A Dictionary of the Scottish Language, snotergob is “the red part of a turkey’s head.”

11. RED AS A TURKEY COCK

This phrase dates back to 1630, according to Dictionary of Proverbs. It could refer to any kind of flushing of the face (including, perhaps, when your dad and your uncle are getting too worked up debating politics).

12. TO HAVE A TURKEY ON ONE’S BACK

According to the 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, this is what you say when someone has imbibed a bit too much: It means “to be drunk.”

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