Jewish Pirates

Jewish Pirates In New Orleans

New Orleans has always been a trade center. The golden age of piracy ended just about the time the city was founded. Still the Gulf Coast continued to be a haven for pirates. These were the “merchants” who smuggled goods into New Orleans. And most of these goods were illegal, so all sold at a reduced value, without taxes. Therefore, along with slavery, piracy helped make New Orleans a place for wealthy immigrants. The best known pirates in this area are brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte.

In The Jews of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, Emily Ford and Barry Stiefel hypothesize that Jacob Hart, an early Jewish resident of New Orleans “may even have engaged in trade with the famous pirate Jean Lafitte, as many other New Orleans shipping agents did.” Even though nothing is said about Lafitte’s background, there are some who say he was Jewish.

Religious Freedom In Jamaica

The majority of Jewish pirates operated out of Jamaica. Firstly, the Spanish crown gave the island to Christopher Columbus. But in 1685, Great Britain took control with Admiral Willian Penn leading that military action. He was also the father of Pennsylvania founder, William Penn, Jr.. Suddenly, there existed a land in the Caribbean with religious freedom, a haven for the many Jews who had been fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal, and their colonies.

Jewish Pirates
Grave of Jewish Pirate in Jamaica from

The Jews, who numbered about 20% of Kingston inhabitants in 1720, took advantage of the economic opportunities available in the Caribbean. It was relatively easy to become a successful trader. These unwilling emigrants from the Iberian had strong commercial ties with other Jewish businessmen fleeing persecution. They were also successful in trading gold and sugar, as well as other items, with businessmen in Europe and the British North American colonial ports, such as New York, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah.

Moses Cohen Henriques

Some became more adventurous traders. They sailed pirate ships with names like Queen Esther, the Prophet Samuel, and the Shield of Abraham. They most frequently attacked ships from Spain and Portugal, where their ancestors had been tortured and killed by the Inquisition. The most famous Jewish pirate, in other words a privateer, was Moses Cohen Henriques. It is said he was friends with Captain Henry Morgan. In 1628, along with Dutch Admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein, he captured a Spanish treasure fleet, therefore scoring the largest raid for the Dutch West Indies Company. The gold and silver bullion plus other goods amounted to 11,509,524 guilders or $1,267,994.41 in today’s currency. Much went to the Company, as was the custom of privateering. One country also licensed privateers to attack and capture the goods of vessels from other nations.

Raiding Spanish Ships

Another Jewish privateer, Abraham Blauvelt, lives on in places named for him. He served the Dutch West India Company and the Swedish East India Company. Then he commanded his own ship from a base in Jamaica. He also raided Spanish ships and sold the goods to what was then the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Bluefields Bay in Jamaica is named for him. Also the Bluefield River and the city of Bluefields, both in Nicaragua.

In 2008 an old Jewish cemetery was discovered outside Kingston. Some tombstones there have Hebrew writing. Plus they are marked with the well known pirate symbols, the skull and crossbones. There is more to learn about Jewish pirates and those who managed to live in French and Spanish New Orleans despite the Inquisition. The next time you’re headed to New Orleans make plans to join The Savvy Native on our  Jewish New Orleans History Tour, the best way to see historical New Orleans!

Also a big thank you to our guide Suzanne Stone for this blog post.


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