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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Why Jewish Pirates Sunk

A book review by Shelomo Alfassa

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.

By Edward Kritzler - Doubleday, $26.00, 2008

At first, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean looks like an incredible book. Edward Kritzler tells the story of how certain Jews which fled Spain during the era of the Inquisition, went on to become involved in sea trading, exploration and in certain cases, piracy. And while it is indeed a pleasant book, filled with history, exploration, intrigue and adventure - that said, what it is not, is a scholarly work.

The book twists the tales of several Sephardic men (Jews from Spain and Portugal) that were expelled from Spain during the era of the Inquisition. In its narrative, the book occasionally blurs it's subject matter, including that of the Jews that worked on ships with Jews that piloted them. It doesn't describe large numbers of Jewish pirates, for there were not large numbers of Jewish pirates. What the book does, is focus on the few stories of the very few known 'pirates' which were of Jewish extraction. The author weaves their personal stories into the larger contemporary history. He also draws in the history of certain conversos, Sephardic Jews that had converted to Christianity under Inquisitional duress, who had fled Spain for the Caribbean islands, Brazil and Holland. (The author leaves out that the overwhelming majority of the Jews which left Spain went to the Ottoman Empire).

"The book offers authoritative but inaccurate declarations"

The book starts out with Kritzler telling that, "King Solomon's trading post (1000 B.C.) developed over a millennium to become Sephard [sic], a strategic outpost of the Roman Empire." Yet, this is a conjectured theory, for there is no proof that Jews were in Spain during the period of Solomon. A common conviction in Jewish folklore is that the Jews arrived in Spain, sailing from the holy land with the Phoenician sea traders. Yet, these are more likely romanticized stories which have developed over time. What we do know, is that there certainly was no location known as "King Solomon's trading post" and that there is indeed archeological proof that Jews arrived in Spain with the Greeks. The Greeks took up sea going trade, much like the Phoenicians, sometime between 500 and 800 BCE. It is well known that the Greeks were in Spain several hundred years prior to the Romans. Inconsistently, further into his introduction, the author indicates Jews had been in Spain only since "the time of Christ," which would have been some 1000 years after he first mentioned Jews settled - during the period of King Solomon.

The book offers authoritative but inaccurate declarations, such as the Jews arrived in Spain, "…in the first century A.D.," [sic] and that they were there because, "Emperor Titus, after conquering Israel and burning the Temple, exiled thousands of Jews." Yet, there is no proof that a large scale migration of exiled Jews arrived in Spain during this period. Scholars have discussed this topic for centuries, and while Moshe Ibn Ezra indicated this and while Yishak Abravanel has a similar opinion, there remains no proof of such. The Roman conquest of Hispania (generally speaking of modern Spain and Portugal), began near 264-241 BCE, and by this time, Jews has been living there-this being several hundred years before Titus walked the earth.

In a discussion on the number of victims of the mass murders and mass conversions of Jews perpetrated by the Christians in 1391, the author indicates that "100,000" Jews were left dead and there were "100,000 converts for Jesus." He said that another "300,000" later came out of hiding. That is a total of 500,000 Jews! These figures far exceed Abravanel's number of 300,000 total Jews that were exiled from Spain-and even Abravanel's figure is looked at by scholars as exaggerated. Most scholars today have deduced that the number of Jews that were made refugees by the Spanish government as around 150,000 and up to 200,000. As for the number of conversions, they are estimated to be 10,000-35,000, this is significantly less then Kritzler's peculiar figure of 100,000.

The book has many details which must be examined closely if one is searching for historic accuracy. This includes the stunning and unsubstantiated supposition made by the author, that Christopher Columbus "sailed with a hidden agenda" which was to "acquire a new land where Sephardim could live free from the terrors of the Inquisition." If this was indeed a secret of Columbus, then I'm not sure how Kritzler knew about it. Even scholars that focus on Iberia and/or the Sephardic Diaspora have not written about this.

"The book has many details which must be examined closely
if one is searching for historic accuracy."

In another example, Kritzler tells of the Jewish heritage of the famous "pirate" Jean Lafitte of New Orleans, who allegedly told how his Sephardic grandmother spoke to him about the family's tragic experience with the Inquisition. The author mentions that Lafitte wrote about this in his journal. Yet, the (in)famous "Journal of Jean Lafitte" is widely alleged to be a forgery, and many historians have declared it as an outright counterfeit document. Whether it is a forgery or not, Kritzler has included Lafitte's account in the book as if it was substantiated truth. Thus, Kritzler's critical error is magnified by not mentioning or even alluding to the questionable authenticity of "Journal of Jean Lafitte."

On a technical note, the book has several problem with word usage, here are but a few examples:

  • The book inconsistently uses both the word "Muslim" as well as the obsolete word "Moor" to describe people of Islamic religion.
  • The author uses both the words "Jews" and the archaic "Israelites" to describe Jewish people.
  • On the same page (and throughout the book) the word "mellah" (Arabic for 'walled city') is italicized, but the word "mullah" (Islamic cleric) is not.
  • The word "Marrano" is spelled with a capital letter 'm' while "converso" and "anusim" are spelled with a lowercase 'a' and 'c' respectively.
  • Some foreign language words are randomly italicized while others are not. For example, "auto-da-fé" (act of faith) is not italicized, while "quemadero" (place of burning) is. The word "converso" (convert) is not italicized, but the word "cedula" (royal license) is.
  • The word "Mudejares" (Spanish Muslims) is not italicized and has a capital letter, while "moriscos" (Moors) is not italicized and has a lower case first letter.
  • Transliterated Hebrew terms such as "Neveh Shalom" (oasis of peace), "Mahamad" (board of directors of a Spanish-Portuguese congregation), "Zur Israel" (Rock of Israel) and "Cabala" (mystical teachings of Judaism) are not italicized, while other Hebrew words such as "hazan" (man who leads prayers and songs in the synagogue) and "mikvah" (ritual bath) are.

This attractive hard covered book is 263 pages supplemented with another 60 pages of back matter, including a timeline (1492-1675) which focuses only on topics, people and places mentioned in the various chapters. The book is like a rainbow-sprinkled doughnut; it is highly attractive and at first tastes great, but only after you start eating it do realize it is filled with empty calories. This work is recommended to those who fancy historic tales, especially maritime and explorative narratives, but are not looking for solid history or precise scholarship.

Shelomo Alfassa is author of "A Window into Old Jerusalem." He is the former executive director of the 'International Sephardic
Leadership Council' and today is the US Director of 'Justice for Jews from Arab Countries,' which is based at
the 'American Sephardi Federation' in the 'Center for Jewish History' in New York City.

Alfassa, Shelomo. "Why Jewish Pirates Sunk: a review of: Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean." by Kritzler, Edward. (New York: Doubleday, 2008)        Alfassa.com/pirates.html New York, May 2009.

Note added October 2010: Edward Kritzler died September 20, 2010 in Jamaica. His Wellikoff cousins, along with his sisters, wife, daughters and loyal friends mourn his death. Nationally known for "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean", his 2008 best seller, a warm and principled free spirit and great dancer, he will be deeply missed. Margot Fox and Family (Published in The New York Times on October 1, 2010)

This review is available for syndication


© Shelomo Alfassa