Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean

As a Dutch Jew who has done a fair bit of sailing myself, Edward Kritzler's book "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" was a double treat for me.
Judaism, the Holy Inquisition, the upstart Republic of the Netherlands and... pirates?!
This volatile mix is cemented into Kritzler's tour-de-force historical account that you simply can't put down once you've picked it up.

"Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" maps out the journeys of intrepid Sephardi Jewish travelers: first as merchants and then later also as 'privateers' (pirates). Initially forced into the New World by the Inquisition, these Jews - as Kritzler puts it - carved out a niche for themselves in a hostile world. Kritzler, a Jewish Jamaican historian and author, colorfully describes the Jews' momentous trek from being Spanish conversos (crypto-Jews) who followed Columbus in his wake to finding citizenry in the Republic of the Netherlands and England.

This beautifully-crafted book is an absolute page-turner and makes delicious (Shabbat) reading. The writing is gripping and there's the added bonus of infotainment; after all you pick up a chunk of Western history along the way. Kritzler's easy writing doesn't betray his rigorous scholarship (pages and pages of footnotes in the back). The book presents an engaging and educational account of the Age of Discovery and of the role of piracy. Not as peripheral as we are inclined to believe, pirates were cunning and entrepreneurial and were important actors during this historical epoch. Without wanting to romanticize the crueller aspects of piracy, the privateers did sometimes sow the seeds for proto-communalist or democratic structures (it is the red flag raised on mutinous ships that became the symbol of Socialism) in their challenging of autocratic regimes.

Of course, none of this is entirely new to the reader. What is new and even inspirational to the reader is the Jewish role in all of this. Although it is well-known that Jews established themselves in the New World from early on, their role in privateering had not been much elucidated. To read about Jews who were unafraid to take destiny into their own hands and to stand up to the oppression they faced through courage, faith and wit is more than inspirational and is a story that can't be told often enough. Frankly, it will change your perception of Jews in the late Medieval, early Modern period.
The brilliance of Kritzler's book is that one is made to feel entirely sympathetic to the lot of the Jewish pirates (and merchants) even if they acquired their wealth and freedom through deceit and even violence. One cannot help but rebelliously feel solidarity in this sweeping saga pitted against the forces of bigotry.

My only real criticism of the book is both historical and political in nature. As sympathetic as I found the account of the Jewish rogue traders and sojourners, as lacking I found the account towards other minorities who suffered with (or sometimes even at the hands of) the merchants and pirates. The book mentions very little about the position and treatment of women and women only feature in the wings as prostitutes or wives. Also, lower class workers and immigrants into the New World receive very little treatment. More importantly, the book almost circumvents the issue of slavery and colonialism. Yes, the book mentions the maltreatment, abuse and annihilation of both Native Caribbean/American and imported African populations but only as a footnote in the greater Jewish narrative. Essentially, the spectular story in the book is the story of the elite. A repressed elite, but still an elite often commanding huge wealth needed to sway their fate.

This bias in the book bothered me on two levels: as an anthropologist, I don't find it a fair representation of facts. The stories of slaves and 'Indians' are just as relevant (if not more relevant) in how history was shaped. And as a Jew it made me uncomfortable: our suffering should immediately generate a concern for the sufferings of others.
Jews, just like non-Jews at the time, were slave-traders and sometimes even owners. Fine ships, glittering gold and silver mines, grand houses, luxurious fabrics and spices that so evocatively illustrate this era in the book were produced by the blood, sweat and tears of these slaves. I don't think the author purposely or callously side-stepped this issue but it would have made the book all the richer, more nuanced and truly morally relevant if Kritzler would have made those connections.

Apart from this criticism, the book is simply a wonderful read: an incredible journey into a world both magical and real.
If you are interested in Caribbean and American history, in Judaism or simply in the guts 'n glory of the pirate world, this book is for you.
In short, pick up a copy and say arrrr!

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