This Day in Jewish History / Merchant, Diplomat, Pirate, Spy Dies in Amsterdam

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Beth Haim cemetery, near Amsterdam.Credit: Wikipedia

February 4, 1616, is the day on which Samuel Pallache — Sephardi Jew, merchant, diplomat, spy and pirate — died, in Amsterdam.

Pallache was born around 1550, in Fez, Morocco, into a family that had fled Spain a short time earlier, in the wake of the expulsion. He is not a figure unknown to scholars: The first known mention of him is in a work of Jewish history written by poet and historian Miguel de Barrios some decades after Pallache’s death. By Barrios’ telling, Pallache was a proud Jew who served the Moroccan monarch and worked against the Spanish crown, as ambassador to the Netherlands. Barrios even describes a scene in The Hague in which Pallache’s horse-drawn carriage encountered the carriage of the Spanish ambassador and refused to make way for it, forcing the Spaniard to yield to the Jew.

A recent biography, “A Man of Three Worlds,” by Spanish scholars Mercedes Garcia-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers, presents a far more nuanced and complex portrait: of a shrewd businessman and manipulator, a master of subterfuge whose loyalties changed direction with the wind.

Pallache was apparently sent to Spain in 1603 to buy jewels for the Moroccan potentate Muley Zidan. This was possible only with the agreement of King Philip III, which suggests that the ban on Jews in Iberia was not absolute. Records from within the Spanish court show that Pallache refused to leave Madrid when his business was complete, and in order to justify his continued presence, he offered the crown inside political information about the goings-on in the Moroccan court.

Later, Pallache even urged Spain to attack the Moroccan port of Larache. The proposal was not taken up, and over a period of several years, Samuel and his brother Joseph shuttled back and forth between Morocco and Spain, trying in each place to sell the local government intelligence about the other.

In 1608, Samuel Pallache came to Amsterdam. Here, too, he was on a semi-official mission for Muley Zidan, who was looking to form an alliance with the Dutch States-General government in fighting their common enemy, Spain. This round of diplomatic activity, which was intertwined with commercial efforts, continued over several years. And those commercial efforts included privateering — also known as piracy — which he carried out, mainly against Spanish vessels, and with the permission of the Dutch Prince (and monarch) Maurice.

In 1614, however, Pallache was accused of espionage on behalf of Spain. This led both Morocco and the Dutch Republic to cut off contact with him, and Pallache turned to pirateering full-time. Capturing a British ship, he was blown off course in a storm and ended up seeking shelter in Plymouth, England. Not surprisingly, this led to his arrest and trial there, but thanks to political connections, Pallache got himself released and was permitted back into the Netherlands. According to a review of “Man of Three Worlds” by Matt Goldish, an intellectual historian at Ohio State University, he then “picked right back up in his career as diplomat, spy, and merchant, opening up new negotiations with Spain, the Ottomans, and the Dutch for various schemes.” 

Samuel Pallache died on this date in 1616 in The Hague, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery outside Amsterdam.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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