High-sea Search for Jewish Pirates Takes Heritage Tours by Storm

U.S.-born historian reveals time when Jewish pirates ruled the Caribbean and raided Spanish ships.

Over the last few decades, Jews have traveled the world - from Poland to China - on organized heritage tours. But trips led by historian Ed Kritzler, and American Jew living in Jamaica, have brought an entirely new twist to these lineage expeditions.

Kritzler's tours focus on searching for the lost descendents of a swashbuckling group of Jewish merchants-cum-pirates who sailed the Caribbean coast in the 17th century, on ships called the Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther and Shield of Abraham. Kritzler's clients are mainly Jews from the east coast of the United States.

In his recently published book, "Jewish Pirates of the Carribean," Kritzler traces the Jewish influence on numerous pirate-related incidents or new-world journeys.

The place of Jews in the history of pirating has been a little-investigated subject until now. But Kritzler, an unaffiliated historian, has spent the last decades researching this unusual historical phenomenon.

Jewish pirates were for the most part, decedents of Jews driven out of Spain and Portugal during the expulsions of the 15th century, Kritzler said. These Jews sailed to America in search of a better life far and away from the menacing specter of the inquisition.

The Jewish pirates mostly attacked Spanish fleet vessels to avenge the kingdom that oppressed them, according to the author.

Kritzler was raised in a Jewish home on Long Island, and unlike other Jews in his neighborhood, he grew up wanting to be a cowboy. He eventually settled down in Jamaica, and began studying the history of pirates who used the island as their home base.

The author found evidence pointing to the existence of these Jewish pirates while leafing through documents in the Jamaican national library.

His eyes were drawn to an entry stating that the island's capital was deserted as a result of a pirate attack, and only "a few Portuguese from the Hebrew nation remained."

Kritzler found even further proof at the Jamaican Jewish Cemetery, where he noticed a tombstone bearing a pirate's skull and crossbones.

Although several historians doubt a considerable part of his claims, Kritzler said that many of the pirate's Jewish identities remained unknown as they practiced their religion in secret.

On the other hand, some were proud Jews, standing at the helm of ships with names such as "The Prophet Samuel," "Queen Esther," and "Magen Avraham" (Shield of Abraham).

Kritzler describes figures such as Moshe Cohen Hanarkis, a Jewish pirate who lead a 1628 raid, considered the largest ever to be committed against the Spanish fleet.

He also retells the story of Rabbi Shmuel Palacci, one of the leaders of the Moroccan Jewish community, who participated in pirate activities and battled Spanish ships sent by the Dutch kingdom. Falah even kept kosher on his ships, and even practiced the Jewish custom of ma'aser - taking out a tenth of one's income to charity - out of his booty.