Jewish Pirates

Sephardic Jewish pirate Jean Lafitte

Jewish pirates were those seafaring Jewish people who engaged in piracy. While there is some mention of the phenomena in antiquity, especially during the Hasmonean period, most Jewish pirates operated in the years following the Spanish and Portuguese expulsion of the Iberian Jews. Upon fleeing Iberia, these Jews turned to attacking the Catholic Empire’s shipping as both barbary corsairs from their refuge in the Ottoman dominions, as well as privateers bearing letters of marque from Spanish rivals such as the United Netherlands. Many Jews also were involved in backing Spanish-attacking privateers economically. They viewed this campaign to be a profitable strategy of revenge for their expulsion and the Inquisition’s continued religious persecution in both the Old and New Worlds.

Their accomplishments include helping to defeat the Spanish-Imperial fleet at the 1538 Battle of Preveza, leading the only successful capture of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628, aiding the Dutch capture of part of Brazil from Portugal, and aiding the 1655 British conquest of Jamaica from the Spanish.

Piracy in the Ancient World: Pirates of Joppa

Ancient Jewish life was concentrated around in the highlands of the Samarian and Judaean Mountains, located some distance from the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, Jews were initially not very active in seafaring or navigation. After 142 BCE, the Jewish Hasmonean state acquired ports of their own. Joppa (Jaffa), Ashdod and Gaza were added to their domain, and a small number of Jewish sailors developed.

Jewish pirates were first mentioned by Josephus. There is a drawing of a pirate ship following two merchant ships at Jason’s Tomb in Jerusalem. The drawing shows three ships, one of which is a war ship with Jason holding the bow and getting ready to shoot. The painting is dated back at early 1st century BCE. Seleucid Empire decay was a result of the Maccabean war, and was followed by an influx of Jewish and Arab pirates operating from Levant. Pompey’s journey to Judea may indicate a connection between Jewish and Cilician pirates. As a matter of fact there were so many Jews at the sea, some of which were pirates, during Pompey’s time that king Antigonus II Mattathias was accused in sending them out in purpose.

By the end of First Jewish–Roman War, also known as The Great Revolt, Jews who had been driven out of Galilee rebuilt Joppa (Jaffa), which had been destroyed earlier by Cestius Gallus. Surrounded and cut off by the Romans they rebuilt the city walls, and used a light flotilla to demoralize commerce and interrupt the grain supply to Rome from Alexandria.

In his The Jewish War Josephus wrote:

They also built themselves a great many piratical ships, and turned pirates upon the seas near to Syria, and Phoenicia, and Egypt, and made those seas unnavigable to all men.

In July 67 Vespasian attacked Joppa. The people of Joppa took to the sea, but a pre-dawn storm wrecked the ships. Many drowned, others killed themselves. Those who survived the wreck, numbering about 4,200, were killed by Romans. Joppa was destroyed once again.

But some of them thought that to die by their own swords was lighter than by the sea, and so they killed themselves before they were drowned; although the greatest part of them were carried by the waves, and dashed to pieces against the abrupt parts of the rocks, insomuch that the sea was bloody a long way, and the maritime parts were full of dead bodies; for the Romans came upon those that were carried to the shore, and destroyed them; and the number of the bodies that were thus thrown out of the sea was four thousand and two hundred.

After Joppa’s destruction for the second time Vespasian built a citadel there to prevent the Jewish pirates from taking the city over for the third time. The Romans considered their victory over Joppa’s pirates very important, and commemorated it with the large number of coins for “naval victory”.

Premodern Sephardi Piracy

Spanish Jewish pirates

The Age of Exploration was in part enabled by a crucial navigational advances developed by the primarily Jewish Majorcan cartographic school as well as Abraham Zacuto’s ephemerides. Zacuto was Royal Astronomer and Historian of Portugal until he fled the Inquisition. Vasco Da Gama even lent his name to his Jewish pilot Gaspar da Gama. Many Jews also worked as ship navigators. The knowledge and skills in ship navigation suddenly expelled from Iberia and made enemies of the state were contributing factors to the development of Jewish piracy in that age.

After Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, many of them settled in the friendlier Muslim lands of the Mediterranean (the Ottoman Empire for example). Like their Muslim compatriots who were likewise expelled in 1492, Jews were also looking to revenge Inquisition brutality by sharing with Muslims the newest military technique and secrets used by Christians. And they also joined in on the Muslim Anti-Christian Piracy of the Mediterranean, such as Sinan Reis and Samuel Pallache.

The English State Papers of 1521 bear evidences of Sinan Reis, who sailed with Hayreddin Barbarossa:

As to Coron, it was reported at Rome a few days ago that Andrea Doria was informed that the famous Jewish pirate had prepared a strong fleet to meet the Spanish galleys which are to join Doria’s nineteen

Christopher Columbus himself noticed a great symbolism in expulsion Jews from Spain and sea voyages of discovery, when he started his diary with this statement:

In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and the territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake, with sufficient men, my expedition of discovery to the Indies.

Jewish pirates of Jamaica

Today there are only around 200 Jews living in Jamaica. However, at some point 20% of Kingston’s population were Jews of Portuguese-Spanish ancestry, while Spanish Town was founded by escaped Jews. The first Jews landed on the island in 1530 just 40 years after it was discovered by Christopher Columbus. While for a time the Columbus family’s rule kept out the Inquisition, when their power was eroded and the Church began threatening the crypto-Jewish populace, they aided the British conquest of the Isle. Under the British, Port Royal Jamaica was home not only to privateers bearing letters of marque for operating against the Spanish, some of whom were Jewish, but was also home to a large Jewish community which economically backed the raids against the Spanish.

In 2008 an old Jewish cemetery was discovered outside Kingston. Some tombstones have not only Hebrew writing, but are also marked with the skull and crossbones — pirate symbols.

Jewish pirates of Jamaica named their ships for ancient Jewish heroes and prophets like Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther and Shield of Abraham. They targeted Spanish and Portuguese merchant ships. One of the most famous Jewish pirates of Jamaica was Moses Cohen Henriques, who in 1628, led with Piet Pieterszoon Hein the only successful capture of the Spanish treasure fleet. He went on to aid the Dutch capture of northeast Brazil from Portugal.

Notable pirates

The Great Jew

Sinan, called The Great Jew by the Spaniards, was one such Jewish refugee. His family emigrated from Spain to the Ottoman Empire. He sailed as a barbary corsair under Hayreddin Barbarossa. His legacy includes the defeat of a Spanish-Imperial fleet in 1538 at the Battle of Preveza. He is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Albania.

Yaakov Koriel

Yaakov Koriel was born to Jewish family that converted to Christianity under pressure from the Inquisition when Yaakov was a child. As a young man, Yaakov Koriel was a captain of the Spanish fleet until he was caught by the Inquisition. He was freed by his sailors, most of whom were marranos themselves. For many years after that his only goal was revenge. He had three pirate ships under his command. Little is known about what happened to him later. Some believe that eventually he made his way to the Holy Land, studied Kabbalah and died peacefully of old age.


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