The sailing routes of Caribbean pirates are not the likeliest paths for East Coast Jews to explore while participating in organized heritage trips. And yet, that's ex actly what the independent Jamaica-based historian Eddie Kritzler is offering.
Kritzler, who grew up in Long Island, has for the past few years been taking Jewish tourists on boat rides on the trail of one of the most colorful phenomena in the history of the Jewish people: The Jewish pirates who prowled the Caribbean during the 17th century. The American historian's research traces these pirates' origins to the expulsion of Iberian Jews during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. These Sephardi Jews sailed to America in search of a new life free from religious persecution.
Some settled in the Caribbean Islands. Their descendants, Kritzler argues, were highly motivated to strike at the ships of the Spanish Armada as vengeance for the oppression their forefathers had suffered.
According to Kritzler, who describes himself as a somewhat adventurous person, he found proof of the existence of kosher pirates in the national library of Jamaica. The proof, he says, lies in a passage recounting the evacuation of the island's capital city following an attack by pirates. The passage said that "only a few Portuguese of the Hebrew nation remained in the city." This passage, he says, launched him on his research.
A few headstones in Jamaica's Jewish cemetery, Kritzler notes, carried the skull and crossbones symbol found on the pirate flag. In a book he published a few months ago, "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean," Kritzler identifies Jewish fingerprints in various pirate-related matters around that period, as well as in the voyages to map and explore the New World.
Proud of Jewish heritage
Other historians question many of his claims. Kritzler argues that many pirates kept their Jewish identity hidden, but some were proud of their Jewish heritage, boasting it in names of ships such as "Samuel the Prophet," "Queen Esther" and "Abraham's Shield."
And where there are pirates, there is always treasure. In his book, Kritzler tells of a stash of gold that Christopher Columbus had acquired from the Veragua Indians of Panama. Legend has it that Columbus had it hidden somewhere in Jamaica.
Kritzler hints in his prologue that two Jews dug up "Columbus' lost gold mine," and in his epilogue he makes his case that in the 1670s the Dutch brothers Abraham Cohen and Moses Cohen Henriques found, and fought over, the treasure. Kritzler even refers to original documents posted on his Web site.
The Jewish pirate Moses Cohen Henriques, incidentally, laid his hand on plenty of gold in a 1628 heist against the Spanish Aramada - which turned out to be the single largest hold-up in the Spanish fleet's history.
Asked whether he thinks of Jewish pirates as a possible source of pride for the Jewish people, Kritzler says that although they were not always very kind people, they did fight against their oppressors - a fact which, he says, is a source of inspiration for many of his Jewish and non-Jewish tourists.