Jean Lafitte. Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions

Skulls, Crossbones, and Stars of David

Y'all should read up on Jewish Pirates

I’ve always had what you might call “a brand”: I was in pageants as a kid, I was a cheerleader in high school, joined a sorority in college, and always showed up to teach religious school on Sundays and to study Torah study on Saturdays. However, I have always had one interest that sort of defied the rest of the brand.

Pirates.

Ever since I was eleven and saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I have been absolutely obsessed with pirates. I kept it pretty low key around new people, because I know my intensity around this topic might throw them for a loop, but my good friends know that I have been irrevocably obsessed with pirates for a long time. For a while it was just fictionalized accounts, young adult novels, television shows, and movies with any hint of swashbuckle. At some point, however, this interest grew. And then it grew more.

Soon I was reading nonfiction about historical piracy and watching Mythbusters episodes about pirate stereotypes. It was when I was writing college research papers on piracy that I decided it might be more than a preteen phase, and something I was genuinely interested in the history and modern implications of. One research paper and one senior capstone later, I was semi-officially a pirate scholar.

So can anyone explain to me how it took until my ISJL Education Fellowship before I found out that Jewish pirates are actually a huge piece of Jewish AND pirate history?

Turns out, Jewish pirates were a thing. Like, a big thing. Big enough for a Wikipedia page at least.

“But Ava,” you ask, “why are you talking about Jewish pirates on a blog about being Southern and Jewish?” Well, dear reader, I’ll tell you.

First, let me give you the background. The Age of Exploration (oooooo, aaaaaaaaah) was made possible in large part by European Jews. They funded a number of explorations that would contribute heavily to world history… even if they weren’t mentioned in the history books. Jews at this time were also scholars of navigation, and made up the majority of the Majorcan cartographic school. The King of Portugal’s Royal Astronomer in the late 1400s was even a Jewish man named Abraham Zacuto, who now has a crater named after him on the moon.

If you’re a student of European history, however, you may have an inkling as to what comes next. In 1492, all practicing Jews were expelled from the Iberian peninsula. Many of these expelled Jews were navigational experts, and they were angry at having their lives uprooted rather than convert to Catholicism.

So, what does any country-less enemy of the state, familiar with ship exploration, who also happens to be an expert in navigation DO?

Well, some of them decide to become pirates. Obviously.

They had all the information and all the expertise to cripple the very government that had betrayed them in the first place. Some of them even went to the Middle East, and teamed up with Muslims who had been kicked out of Spain and Portugal years earlier. Others went and became Jewish pirates of the Caribbean. Those would become the founders of Spanish Town in Jamaica, and would make up 20% of Kingston. In 2008, a Jewish pirate cemetery was found outside of Jamaica, and I highly recommend looking up pictures, because if you haven’t, you’ve never seen a Jewish headstone with Hebrew writing and a skull-and-crossbones on it, and you definitely, definitely should.

Pirate ships called “The Shield of Abraham,” “The Queen Esther,” and “The Prophet Samuel” followed a long Jewish tradition of fighting in rebellion against powers that wanted them destroyed. It’s no wonder to me that after the Maccabees and before Holocaust resistance fighters, there was a different kind of Jewish warrior. Some of them were notorious, like Moses Cohen Henriques, who led the only successful capture of the Spanish treasure fleet, the biggest and most well-guarded prize on the sea.

Now, from my own experience researching piracy, I would have thought that their careers ended like so many others, in a blaze of glory after short, bloody careers. But, in a move that also feels inherently Jewish, many of them were said to have retired peacefully to the Holy Land instead.

But back to the question I asked at the beginning. How is this related to being SOUTHERN and Jewish? Here’s the thing: Jewish pirates are inherently linked to the American South. With so many ports all along the coast, places that have a rich pirate history like New Orleans and North Carolina can expect that some of the pirates who may have visited those ports were Jews. This brings me to my final point. If you have ever visited New Orleans, you may have heard of a pirate named Jean Lafitte.

While quite a bit is known about his career, not much is known about his ancestry. See, Lafitte was French as far as is known, but at a time when it was very, very convenient to be French in America. His family’s origins are contested, but there is evidence that his grandparents were Sephardic Jews from Spain who had escaped to France during the same period that forced other Jews at the time into piracy.

So, the next time you visit New Orleans, take a look around for Lafitte, and remember that Jews have a long, rich history that even includes a little swash and buckle. Yo ho ho, and a bottle of Manischewitz!

(PS Will we re-run this post for Talk Like a Pirate Day? Sure’n we will, mateys!)

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