This Day in Jewish History |

1720: A Cuban Pirate Is Executed for Converting to Judaism

The rum tale of Jose Diaz Pimienta, who suffered the ultimate punishment for converting.

David Green
David B. Green
The execution of Cuban convert Jose Diaz Pimienta.
The execution of Cuban convert Jose Diaz Pimienta.Credit: Martinoticias
David Green
David B. Green

On July 25, 1720, convicted felon Jose Diaz Pimienta was strangled to death and then burned at the stake in Seville, Spain. His crime was having converted to Judaism.

Jose Diaz Pimienta was born to Catholic parents in a village on the island of Cuba either in 1682 or 1688, more likely the latter (he had two baptismal certificates). From a young age, he evinced mental instability, having tried at age 9 to kill himself while a schoolboy in Havana. In 1708, he was ordained as a priest. Though the minimum age for ordination was 24, he had used a forged baptismal certificate to gain admission to a Mercedarian monastery at the age of 18.

Over the next few years, Pimienta went from island to island, and monastery to monastery, always ending up in trouble with his church superiors. Until the day, back at his parents’ home in Cuba, when he shot one of their servants while trying to steal a mule. He then made another getaway, this time a very quick one, from his native island.

Eventually, in February 1715, as Pimienta told his Church inquisitors when the law finally caught up with him, he decided to sail to the island of Curacao, a Dutch colony. He had heard that the Jews there would pay a person 300 pesetas for converting to their religion, if the conversion was accompanied by the act of the defacement of images of saints and with the whipping of a crucifix. When he actually made contact with the Jews of Curacao, so he testified, they explained to him that none of what he had heard was true. So impressed was he with their integrity that he decided to convert to Judaism of his own volition. He explained to the Jewish officials that he was the son of conversos.

That was not true, but although the Jews were suspicious of him, they gave him some books and told him to begin studying.

Finally – again, this is according to Pimienta’s account – he convinced the Jews of Curacao of his sincerity, after he ripped apart his rosary and declared: “If this thing is from God, let flowers sprout from the beads.” On May 21, 1715, he was officially converted, taking the name of Abraham, and subjected to circumcision. He also took a Jewish wife.

But Pimienta was the restless type and not one to stay in one place for long. During a break from life in Curacao, he worked briefly as a pirate. When he returned, Pimienta was given the responsibility of teaching Jewish children at the school of his synagogue, Mikve Israel. When he tired of that and of Judaism in general, he left Curacao and ended up in Jamaica, after his ship was taken captive by pirates. There he supposedly had a vision that convinced him that he should renounce Judaism. Thereupon, a series of dangerous adventures ensued – at least according to the version he reported to the Inquisition – before he found himself arrested by officials of the Inquisition and brought to Cartagena, Colombia, for interrogation.

Church officials in Cartagena tried him; he confessed to the crimes attributed to him and begged for mercy. His judges sentenced him to life imprisonment at a monastery in Spain. He was transported across the Atlantic, where, in Spain, a new series of escapades and escapes ensued. In the end, Pimienta was brought before a new tribunal, in Seville, and charged with heresy, apostasy and conversion to Judaism. In his interrogation, he professed his loyalty to Judaism and rejection of Catholic doctrine. When asked to sign the record of his trial he refused, because, as he said, “it is the Sabbath.”

Pimienta was convicted of heresy and conversion, and sentenced to the ultimate punishment: to be burned alive at the stake. Sentence was delayed for three months, to give him a chance to recant. This he finally did, on July 24, the day before the sentence was to be carried out. He confessed his sins and asked for a pardon. His excommunication was revoked and, shortly before his execution, he took communion.

His execution took place in Seville on July 25. Because he had confessed, Pimienta was permitted to go to his death in the vestments of a priest, with a crucifix in his hand. Out of consideration for his confession and repentance, he was garroted before being burned. His dead body was then tied to the stake, with a paper crown atop his head, as a sign of his disgrace, and lit aflame.

Following Pimienta’s death, large numbers of priests and nuns said mass for his redemption, and in many religious orders in Spain, fasting, penitence and other acts of discipline were undertaken for the sake of his soul.

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