Jewish Pirates

Grave of Jewish pirate, Jamaica

Grave of Jewish pirate, Jamaica


One of the most interesting insights I’ve had during my many years studying history is the realisation of the central role played by pirates and piracy.

The Vikings played a huge part in the formation of numerous countries from Western Europe to Russia, and for a large chunk of their heyday, they were essentially a ruthless band of pirates.

The USA’s “Marines’ Hymn” – in between the militaristic chest-thumping – name-checks the Barbary Wars (Tripoli), which were naval actions taken against pirates based in North Africa.

Many early British explorers and governors in the Americas (Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, et al) started-out as privateers.

The Protestant Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion in Europe pitted the Catholic Church and Catholic monarchs against Protestant monarchs and groups such as the French Huguenots.

Because the Protestant side was much smaller during the early years of the Reformation, England and groups like the Huguenots tended to rely on assymetrical warfare tactics to weaken the enemy.

One of the most effective means of assymetrical warfare is interfering with crucial trade routes and networks.  We can see this today, where a small group of highly committed fighters or pirates with superior local knowledge can tie-down and severely impede much larger imperial powers (see Afghanistan and Yemen).

From the late 1500s to the early 1700s, English, Dutch, Huguenots, and other smaller groups were able to wreak havoc with Spanish and Portuguese shipping.

But there was one other group of people who had no love for the Catholic powers in Europe.

The Jews.

Decades before the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s got underway, Jews, Muslims, and Roma (Gitanos) had been ordered to convert to Catholicism and cease their distinct cultural practices in lands held by the Spanish, and later, Portuguese crowns.  Those unwilling to convert were subject to expulsion, or worse.

Some converted to Catholicism publicly, while continuing to practice their true faith in secret.  This was one of the main reasons for the setting-up of The Inquisition – a religious court for rooting-out heretics and “fake Catholics”.

Many of these peoples moved to lands scattered around the Mediterranean – North Africa, Italy, Greece, and Ottoman lands.

Others decided to try their luck in more distant European colonies in West Africa, India, and the “New World”.

So while it is almost never mentioned in mainstream history lessons, wherever we find Englishmen, Dutchmen, or French Huguenots during the 1500s and 1600s, we are also likely to find Jews, Muslims, and Roma – especially at sea, and especially among pirate crews.

Many became pirate captains themselves.

Sinan ReisSamuel PallacheMoses Cohen HenriquesAbraham Blauvelt.

Not everyone said “Ooo-aaar” like a Cornish smuggler…

#pirates #history #jewish

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