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Authors and After Words

I previously reviewed two recent books about pirates: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates by Gail Selinger, which traces the history of piracy back to ancient Egypt and The Pirates Laffite by William C. Davis, which separates the Laffite legend from archival facts. Here I shall examine three more volumes, two of which appeared last year.

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler (Doubleday, 2008) just may qualify as the most interesting book that I have read in years. Edward Kritzler was pursuing Jamaica’s buccaneer beginnings when he found what he describes as a puzzling entry in an English pirate’s journal: “…Divers Portuguese of the Hebrew nation…Came to us seeking asylum and promised to show us where the Spaniards hid their gold.”

Kritzler writes, “What were Portuguese Jews doing on a Spanish island, seeking asylum with an English pirate?” Thus began his four-decade search for the answers. And he found plenty.

This book is filled with fascinating tidbits of information that never appear in historical accounts of the settling of the Western Hemisphere. For example, every child in school learns that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” but did you know that on the very same day he sailed (August 2) Jews were officially expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to purify their nation? (If Jews stayed, they were in mortal danger from the Spanish Inquisition.) This remarkable coincidence explains why the Jews dispersed and how they contributed to the Age of Discovery. Their omission from historical accounts was primarily due to their Spanish and Portuguese names. Historians simply assumed these names implied a Christian (or Catholic) faith.

Because of their long involvement in international trade, Jews had been premier mapmakers. They had perfected nautical instruments and made astronomical tables. Before they became pirates, the Jewish pilots were the navigators to what became known as “America” and beyond. Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Amerigo Vespucci employed the same Jewish navigator. Other Jewish navigators sailed with Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

The first Jewish refugee settlement in the New World was in Brazil. They started sugar factories, began coffee and tea production, and traded these items plus tobacco, gold and silver with secret mercantile Jews in Portugal, Europe, England and Africa. When the Inquisition followed them, they became spies for the Dutch and the English. Through their wide mercantile network, they gave information to Queen Elizabeth and Oliver Cromwell. Their help made it possible for England to take Jamaica from the Spanish and to secure a haven for themselves there. It was an English subject, Henry Morgan, based in Port Royal, Jamaica, who joined with Jewish pirates (or privateers from the English point of view) to bring an end to Spanish domination in the Caribbean, thereby giving these exiles from the Inquisition their revenge. Morgan was knighted by Charles II for this service to England (more below).

In Amsterdam, the Dutch provided the first openly tolerant place for Jewish refugees in Europe. These Calvinists saw their mercantile success as a sign of God’s favor. Prince Maurice called for the release of Rabbi Samuel Palache, a well-known Jewish pirate, when he was arrested for piracy in England. There were Jewish pirates in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, along the coasts of Africa, off the shores of Europe, wherever merchant ships carried cargo for the taking. This review barely begins to convey the extent of their quest for a new life where they could live openly and follow their faith. Their courage and daring-do make for a great read.

The Buccaneer King by Dudley Pope (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1977) presents the larger-than-life story of Henry Morgan (1635-1688) in its historical perspective. A word of clarification is needed here. Pirates attacked any ship for profit; privateers obtained letters of marque from kings, princes or other officials who gave permission to seamen to attack ships of other nations; buccaneers also obtained letters of marque but they rarely fought at sea. Buccaneers arrived by ship but raided towns and fought on land. The privateers and buccaneers who raided the Caribbean were the result of the Spanish claim to the entire area. This claim did not set well with the Dutch, English, and French who regarded the New World as a place of opportunity for all Europeans to settle, develop and trade.

Henry Morgan was born in Glamorgan (County Morgan), Wales in 1635. Known as a pirate, Morgan considered himself a buccaneer and not a pirate because he always sailed with letters of marque, only attacked enemies of England, and usually fought on land. When he was only 19, he sailed in the service of Britain to the Caribbean and first saw Jamaica when the British took it from Spain in 1655. He left naval service and became a buccaneer, thus defending English islands from Spanish attacks. By 1661 he had his own ship and eventually became leader of the Caribbean buccaneers. With a base in Port Royal, Jamaica, his popularity among these men was probably due to his willingness to listen to their views. He led with their agreement and consent. From 1663 to 1671 he conducted major raids against Granada, Portobelo, Maracaibo, and even Panama City. These raids in effect ended Spanish dominance in the Caribbean. In 1672, he was sent back to England under arrest for piracy by the governor of Port Royal. He had left a Puritan country under Oliver Cromwell; he returned to a Restoration monarchy. Rather than being imprisoned, he received a hero’s welcome in London. In January 1674 Charles II knighted him and made him lieutenant governor of Jamaica. Ironically, he lived out his life in routine administrative tasks. On Tuesday June 7, 1692, an earthquake destroyed Port Royal and with it the grave of Sir Henry Morgan who, according to Dudley Pope, did more than any other man to render the Caribbean an international sea.

Patriot Pirates by Robert H. Patton (Pantheon Books 2008) presents some amazing information about our Founding Fathers. For example, John Adams had this to say about privateering in the service of the colonies: “It is prudent not to put virtue to too serious a test. I would use American virtue as sparingly as possible lest we wear it out.”

According to Patton, the Continental Congress did permit civilians “to cruise on the enemies of these United States.” In Boston in 1775 George Washington reported that “I fitted out several privateers, or rather armed vessels, in behalf of the Continent.” General Nathanael Greene invested in privateering. In Paris, Benjamin Franklin worked behind the scenes to assist American privateers being held in British prisons. In July 1775, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The New Englanders are fitting out light vessels of war, by which it is hoped…they will distress the British trade in every part of the world.”

Patriot Pirates is filled with anecdotes of political intrigue, investment speculation, and immense maritime courage. Those involved ranged from ordinary citizens such as dockworkers, seaside residents and fishermen to members of the Continental Congress, financiers and signers of The Declaration of Independence including John Hancock. In Patton’s view, American privateering’s enormous success tapped into the American spirit of independence and became, in effect, a seaborne rebellion of its own.

Editor’s Note: Henry Morgan was Joan S. Timm’s umpteenth great uncle, which explains why she has pirates in the blood.