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’s 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