I love a good history book, especially when the author reveals something new and surprising. That’s why I’m recommending a book by Edward Kritzler titled Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean – - How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved out an Empire in the New World in their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom and Revenge.
We learn in American History class that many of the earliest European settlers came to our shores in search of religious freedom. But while our textbooks focus on Puritans, Pilgrims and Quakers, Kritzler documents the central role played by Jews in the exploration and colonization of the Americas.
It makes great sense that the crews of many expeditions to the New World included Jewish sailors fleeing the intense persecution of the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the late 1400s. Non-Christians in Spain and Portugal at the time had three choices: convert to Christianity, leave the country or be burned at the stake. Given those options, getting as far away from home as possible must have seemed like a good idea.
As Kritzler explains, this desire for escape also motivated young Jews to develop essential nautical skill sets. “Outlawed in the civilized world and vulnerable in the Diaspora, Jews became skilled in ways to find and explore new lands. They were the era’s foremost mapmakers, and also perfected the nautical instruments and astronomical tables the early explorers sailed with. When Jewish expertise was needed, prejudice took a backseat to expediency, and Jewish pilots, adept at reading maps and using navigational instruments, were recruited to interpret those tables. Had they not, many an explorer would have been lost in the vast oceans.”
Kritzler makes a strong case that Christopher Columbus, his financial backers and many of his crew were “secret Jews,” surviving as converted Christians or “conversos.” So we learn that in addition to finding a new trade route to Asia for the Spanish crown, Columbus was seeking a safe new home for his people. And while he didn’t live long enough to see it, a thriving Jewish community – - for the most part out of the reach of the Inquisition – - developed in Jamaica, where Columbus first came ashore in the New World.
As you might guess, not everything would always go as planned on the high seas. Prejudice and betrayal followed the Jewish explorers wherever they went. In response, some turned to the risky but lucrative life of pirating. Kritzler introduces us to many of these colorful, fiercely independent characters who have been lost to history.
Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean is a fascinating read for history buffs and anyone interested in the powerful role exclusion plays in motivating people to create their own futures – - no matter how high the risk.
Happy New Year!