Edward Kritzler, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean. First Anchor Books edition, 2009.
A general impression has been created that the Jewish people no longer exercised any armed resistance to their oppression from the fall of Beitar to the Romans in 135 CE until the beginning of the resettlement of the Yishuv in the late 19th century.
A small but significant refutation of that thesis is found in Edward Kritzler’s book Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean. It is not just a Jewish version of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that have become so popular in the last decade. It is a story of Jews actively resisting those who oppressed them, using military means, diplomacy, and piracy to protect themselves.
The setting of Kritzler’s history begins with the Spanish Inquisition, when Spanish Jews, after having been the largest Jewish community in Europe, were banned. The immediate targets of the Inquisition were those who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. At a time when the Spanish throne was recovering its territories from Muslim rule, it became obsessed with “purifying” its population by rooting out those who had Jewish ancestry. Thousands were attacked and killed by mobs while many more were systematically burned at the stake.
The Inquisition formally began in 1492, at the same time that Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, raising the question of whether its anti-Jewish decrees would also reach the territories that were being incorporated into the Spanish Empire. While many Jews fled Spain and moved east to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, significant numbers also fled to the West to what would become Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, and the islands of the Caribbean.
The key to Kritzler’s history is the island of Jamaica and the personal involvement of Christopher Columbus, who won a hereditary title over the territories he discovered. He exercised this title through his son in Jamaica. Without probing the question of Columbus’s possible Jewish roots, Kritzler shares the important fact that while the Spanish Inquisition reached most of Spain’s lands in the New World, the inquisitors were kept out of Jamaica, which became a haven for the Jews.
The Jewish presence in the New World was boosted with the entry of Holland into the struggle for power. Kritzler tells of a clandestine group of Jews in Amsterdam who were called the Brotherhood of the Jews of Holland, which shared intelligence about Spanish naval operations in South America with Amsterdam. They also provided funds to help Holland wage war against Spain. The second alliance of the Jamaican Jews was with Britain, which also fought the Spanish Crown. Jamaica had fallen to Spain but could be recovered. A secret community of Jews in Jamaica reached out to the agent of Oliver Cromwell, which led to an invasion by 36 English ships. The peace treaty that was concluded allowed Jews to remain openly as Jews. But the struggle over the Spanish colonies also led some to conclude that the seizure of land was at best temporary, and a more efficient way to wage war on Spain was through piracy on the high seas.
Jews had been part of the world of piracy elsewhere. Kritzler reviews the case of Sinan, a Jewish refugee from Spain who came through Turkey. Sinan captured Tunis on behalf of the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. While the red-bearded Barbarossa was better known to the West, Sinan was a real naval commander and was relied upon by Barbarossa to secure the great naval victories of the Ottomans in the Mediterranean. Indeed it was Sinan who destroyed most of the Spanish fleet in the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece in 1538. His international connections extended to India, where he linked himself to an Indian prince who needed help to evict the Portuguese. Sinan’s successes undoubtedly added to the dread of the two Iberian powers as they watched the operations of Jewish pirates in the New World.
This book is not only intended to entertain its readers. It is a book about geopolitics in the 16th century. It delves into diplomacy that crosses cultural and religious lines. It is also a book about Jewish survival in an era in which Jews were being slaughtered because of their faith. It makes an extremely important contribution to Jewish history, particularly because it is a subject that few have heard about before.