Growing up in Long Island in the 1950s, the only thing I knew about my European relatives was they had lived in shtetls, studied Torah, and wound up in crematoriums. Perhaps because it was a dead world and I was living in the golden age of suburbia when all was new and possible, I found my heroes in the tales of the pioneers, in the writings of Jack London and Howard Pyle, and in cowboy movies. Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe were favorites and accompanying Lewis & Clark a dream. The New World was my world. I majored in Latin American history and when I learned about the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews, I knew if I lived then and got kicked out of Spain, I would have headed for the New World. I always thought, as a Jew, I would have been alone.
Forget the Merchant of Venice—his New World cousins were Jewish explorers, conquistadors, cowboys, and pirates.
That changed one day in 1967, when I came upon an obscure reference in an English pirate’s journal. Invading Jamaica in 1643, Capt. Jackson found the capital deserted except for “divers Portuguese of the Hebrew nation who came unto us seeking asylum, and promised to show us where the Spaniards hid their gold.”
I had always learned that New World adventure was the province of Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, and that they were all heavy-duty Catholics carrying the Cross. So what were Portuguese Jews doing in a Spanish island, seeking asylum from an English pirate?
I was so beguiled by what this portended that I would spend the next four decades in countless libraries and national archives following leads and watch unfold an unknown chapter in Jewish history: Forget the Merchant of Venice—his New World cousins were adventurers after my own heart: Jewish explorers, conquistadors, cowboys, and pirates.
They were similar in spirit to other settlers, but while others came to conquer, search for gold, and collect a bevy of Indian women, they came as well to settle a land beyond the tentacles of the Inquisition. This early history is largely unknown because few knew these pioneers were Jewish. Iberian Jews posed as New Christians from Portugal, the one settler group that did not require proof of Catholic ancestry, and most went to their graves with their masquerade intact.
Each New World colony had an underground community of Jews known only to each other and their brethren in other colonies. As merchants, traders, and ship owners, they dominated commerce. As long as they pretended to be Christian and delivered the goods, no one questioned too closely their religiosity. But once they had established a trade network that spanned the globe, they became expendable. In the 17th century, as fires of the Inquisition flamed throughout the empire, covert Jews conspired with Holland and England to seize a New World colony. Some who were particularly bold turned to piracy to take revenge on those who would burn Jews and, not incidentally, to make themselves rich in the process.
Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean deals with the history of Sephardic Jews in the early New World who overcame the horrors of the Inquisition and through guile, bravery, and intrigue persevered to gain the rights Jews in the Western world enjoy today. Read an excerpt here.
Edward Kritzler is a historian and a former New York-based reporter. He lives in Kingston, Jamaica. He is the author of Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean (Doubleday).