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THE STORY YOU DON’T KNOW: The Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean


In 1645 there were 1,630 “Portuguese” (a term then synonymous with Jews) living in Recife, Brazil, according to Dutch historian Franz Leonard Schalkwijk. In 1654, as is well-known, 23 of them escaped religious persecution by ship and arrived at the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam – today New York City. Where did the other refugees flee to? Some returned to Amsterdam, including Isaac Aboab de Fonseca, the first American rabbi, and Moses de Aguilar, the first American cantor. Others disembarked at the nearby Dutch Caribbean colony of Curaçao.

Less well-known is that some of the escaping Jews sought shelter in Jamaica, the luscious Caribbean island that was then the home to several hundred Jews and Bnei Anusim (descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Roman Catholicism under compulsion).

Jamaica at the time was an anomaly in the New World – a private fiefdom awarded in perpetuity to Christopher Columbus and his heirs in 1494 by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs. Whether the explorer was himself a crypto-Jew is an unresolved historical issue. For over a century the Columbus kin kept their privately held domain free of the clutches of Spain’s inquisitors.

Jamaica was only one among the many remote and distant locales in the New World where Jews and apostates sought a haven far from the rapacious inquisitors of Spain and Portugal.

ACCORDING TO Edward Kritzler’s Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, as early as 1501 the Spanish Crown published an edict that “Moors, Jews, heretics, reconciliados (repentants – those who returned to the church), and New Christians are not allowed to go to the Indies.”

Yet in 1508, the bishop of Cuba reported, “practically every ship [arriving in Havana] is filled with Hebrews and New Christians.” Such decrees banning them, followed by letters home complaining of their continued arrival, were a regular occurrence.

“Conversos with the aptitude and capital to develop colonial trade, comfortable in a Hispanic society, yet seeking to put distance between themselves and the homeland of the Inquisition, made their way to the New World. No licenses were required for the crew of a ship, and as many were owned by conversos, they signed


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