Life & Culture

Is this the real-life Jewish pirate who inspired Johnny Depp?

Author Edward Kritzler tells us about piracy and the Jews


If the key to getting attention for a new book relies to an extent on the title, Edward Kritzler has cracked it.

His new book is called Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, which summons up visions of Yiddishe buccaneers, cutlass in one hand, tallit bag in the other, wreaking havoc on the high seas. It could almost be the title of a Mel Brooks movie.

But while there were indeed real Jewish pirates in the Caribbean, Kritzler, visiting London from his home in Jamaica, concedes the title of the book was “a commercial decision”.

Kritzler had originally intended to call it Jewish Pioneers in the New World. However, his editor, Adam Bellow, son of novelist Saul Bellow, had other ideas. Says Kritzler: “Adam told me: ‘We’re going to call it Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean’ on the basis the movie Pirates of the Caribbean had made billions of dollars.”

If the title is not strictly descriptive of the contents, no one can claim that there is not some startling material in the book. It describes the flight of Jews, hounded from Spain during the Inquisition, who found their way to the New World, and made their mark as pilots, cartographers, merchants and, yes, even pirates.

The starting point for Kritzler’s journey was the fact that Jamaica was originally colonised by Jews — conversos who were refugees from the Iberian peninsula. It was the discovery of this information that got him started on 40 years of research which culminated in the book.

“Before it was colonised by the British, Jamaica belonged to the family of Christopher Columbus who provided a haven for Jews in the New World. It was Jamaica for the Jews. Jamaica could have been Israel,” he says.

Kritzler adds that among the “big machers” on the island, many of the most eminent families still have Jewish connections.

But what of the pirates? The most buccaneering of them all was Samuel Palache, who went nowhere near the Caribbean. He was known as the “Pirate Rabbi” and he combined a swashbuckling career involving capturing Spanish ships on the high seas with preaching from the pulpit in Amsterdam.

“He was the father of it all,” says Kritzler. “He was a Barbary pirate, operating from the North African coast, but the generation which looked up to him were the guys who went to the New World. This is a pirate who founded the Amsterdam Jewish community then went out to attack Spanish ships. He always had a kosher chef on board.”

His influence rubbed off on Moses Cohen Enriques, a Jew who led the Dutch invasion of Brazil and who later established a pirate island off the coastal city of Recife in Brazil.

The Jews who followed Enriques to Recife were a rough lot, claims Kritzler. “Enriques himself was fined 50 florins for taking Christian women into the mikvah. The community were also forced to outlaw gambling on Friday afternoon because too many Jews turned up late for Shabbat dinner.” The other interesting regulation was that the Jewish pirates of Recife were required to donate three per cent of their booty to the local synagogue.

Despite their sometimes nefarious activities — the colony of Recife owed much of its prosperity to the slave trade — Kritzler has much admiration for these Jewish pioneers in the New World. “Some of these guys went for fun and games, others were motivated by hatred of the Spanish but these pioneer Jews won the rights that the Jews in the West enjoy today.”

Another famous pirate who Kritzler claims to be Jewish was legendary American buccaneer Jean Lafitte. Kritzler says: “He wrote that his grandparents were tortured by the Inquisition and this inspired a hatred of the Spanish.”

One imagines that had Kritzler been around in those days he would have been tempted to join the buccaneers. He was obsessed by cowboys and pirates during his youth in Long Island. “I was a wild kid. I went to Cuba when I was 19 years old. I was a revolutionary, left-wing anarchist rebel. I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up.”

He actually grew up to be a music journalist in New York but fell in love with Jamaica when he visited in 1967, and stayed. “In New York I was just another nebbuch — in Jamaica I’m someone. I love Jamaica and I love the music. When I interviewed Bob Dylan I told him about Bob Marley.”

His obsession with cowboys could lead him on to his next book. “Not many people know that the first cowboys in America were Jews. They moved to Mexico during the Inquisition and in the 17th century they took their cattle and their horses across the Rio Grande and introduced ranching north of the border.”

He has not yet thought of a title but How the West was Won… by Jews could be a contender.

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