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The Dread Jewish Pirate Jean Lafitte

How the French buccaneer king and other descendants of Spain’s hidden Jews took to the high seas and revenged themselves upon the kingdom that tormented their ancestors

Robert Rockaway
July 30, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Visitors to the Caribbean island of Jamaica are often regaled by their guides with tales of famous and infamous pirates, like Henry Morgan, Calico Jack, and Blackbeard (Edward Thatch), as well as female pirates such as Anne Bonny, Grace O’Malley, and Mary Read, who spent most of her life pretending to be a man. Another group, less well known, who also contributed to Caribbean pirate history and folklore were Jews.

Piracy is defined as an act of robbery or criminal violence by men on a ship or boat who attack another ship or coastal area with the goal of stealing a cargo or other valuable goods. Those who conduct acts of piracy are called pirates, and the ships they use to perpetrate their attacks are referred to as pirate ships. The era of piracy began in the 1500s and ended around the 1830s. The pirates’ most successful period extended from the 1660s to about 1730. Jews allegedly made their greatest impact during this era.

However, so much undocumented and doubtful information exists about the Jewish pirates that it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. As a historian, I am careful to document what I write about—so when it comes to writing about Jewish pirates, I exercise great caution due to the lack of verifiable sources and documentation. Nonetheless, despite the uncertainty surrounding Jewish pirates, tales about them make for such a fascinating narrative that it is still worth recounting them.

One Jewish pirate who has been proved to be genuine is Jean Lafitte. Jean was born in 1780 and died around 1823. He was a French pirate and privateer who operated primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. A privateer is defined as a private person or ship that engages in maritime pseudo-warfare under a government commission of war.

Jean was apparently born in France or in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. By 1805, he was operating a warehouse in New Orleans that dispersed goods smuggled by his older brother Pierre. In 1807, the United States government passed an Embargo Act, so the brothers moved their operations to an island off the coast of Louisiana. By 1810 their new port had become very successful. Their smuggling operation also became very profitable and they began to engage in piracy.

In 1812, war broke out between England and the United States. Despite being warned of a possible military attack on their base of operations, the brothers took no defensive precautions. As a result, a United States naval force successfully invaded and captured the port and most of the brothers’ fleet. Later, in return for a legal pardon, Lafitte and his fleet helped Andrew Jackson (later, president of the United States) defend New Orleans from the British. After Jackson secured victory, he paid tribute to the Lafitte brothers’ efforts and those of their fellow privateers.

The Lafittes subsequently became spies for the Spanish government during the Mexican War for Independence. In 1817, Jean founded a new colony on Galveston Island, which he named Campeche. At its height, Campeche earned millions of dollars annually from stolen or smuggled money and goods. Lafitte continued attacking merchant ships as a pirate around Central American ports until his death in 1823.

Details about Jean Lafitte’s early life remain obscure and contradictory. In his disputed memoir work, Journal de Jean Lafitte, Lafitte claims to have been born in Bordeaux, France, in 1780, the child of Sephardic Jewish parents whose converso grandmother and mother fled from Spain to France in 1765 after his maternal grandfather was executed by the Inquisition for “Judaizing.” Some sources say his father was French while his mother’s family had come from Spain.

A converso was a Jew or one of his or her descendants who converted under duress to Catholicism in Spain or Portugal in the 14th and 15th centuries. Jean and his brother Pierre claimed to have been born in Bayonne, France, while other documents of that time place his birthplace as St. Malo or Brest. One of his biographers, Jack C. Ramsay, says, “This was a convenient time for Jean to be a native of France, because it provided him protection from American law.” Still other accounts claim that Lafitte was born in Spain, New York, and Haiti.

Yet, families with the surname Lafitte have been recorded in Louisiana documents as early as 1765. According to Ramsay, Lafitte and his older brother Pierre and their widowed mother migrated to New Orleans in the 1780s. In 1784, his mother married Pedro Aubry, a New Orleans merchant, and kept Jean with her. Pierre, on the other hand, was sent to be raised by family members elsewhere in Louisiana.

In any case, the details of Lafitte’s first 20 years are sparse and subject to much speculation. What we do know is that by 1806, several “Captain Lafittes” operated in New Orleans. It is highly likely that Jean was one of them.

Surviving sources indicate that Lafitte was sharp and resourceful. He was also handsome and outgoing and enjoyed drinking, gambling, and women. He was known to affect aristocratic mannerisms and to dress better than most of his fellow privateers. His native language was French, but he spoke English reasonably well and had a working knowledge of Spanish. During his life he acted as a soldier, sailor, diplomat, and merchant, displaying a gift for leadership in all roles.

During the battle of New Orleans against the British, Jean and his brother Pierre displayed great courage and heroism. The government recognized their contributions and pardoned them for all their offenses, as well as granted full pardons to all the men who had served under Jean and his brother.

In a handwritten note found in his family Bible, Lafitte wrote: “I owe all my ingenuity to the great intuition of my Jewish-Spanish grandmother, who was a witness at the time of the Inquisition.” In his journal, Jean elaborated on his ancestry:

“My mother died before I can remember and my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, became a mother to me. My grandmother was of [sic] Spanish-Israelite. My mother’s father had been an alchemist with a good practice and patronage in Spain. He was a freethinking Jew with neither Catholic faith nor traditional adherence to the Jewish synagogue. But this did not prevent him from dying of starvation in prison for refusing to divulge the details which the Inquisition demanded from all Jews. Grandmother told me repeatedly of the trials and tribulations her ancestors had endured at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Grandmother’s teachings inspired in me a hatred of the Spanish crown and all the persecutions for which it was responsible—not only against Jews.”

This hatred for Spain lasted Jean’s whole life.

Jean married Cristina Levine, who was 17, and they had three children together. Christina died after the birth of their daughter. Jean fell sick after his three children were grown. He was nursed back to health by Emma Hortense Mortimer. They married and had two sons together.

Rembrandt van Rijn and workshop (probably Govaert Flinck), 'Man in Oriental Costume,' circa 1635, thought to be Samuel Pallache
Rembrandt van Rijn and workshop (probably Govaert Flinck), ‘Man in Oriental Costume,’ circa 1635, thought to be Samuel PallacheNational Gallery of Art

All the while, Lafitte and his men continued to capture Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1821, Jean’s ship was ambushed by a Spanish warship, and he and his men were captured and jailed. With help from the outside, Jean managed to escape. In 1822 he was captured again, this time by an American warship which turned him over to the local authorities, who promptly freed him. Jean continued to patrol the shipping lanes around Cuba. In November 1822, he made news in the American press after he escorted an American schooner through the pirate-controlled seas, even providing them with extra cannonballs and food.

In February 1823, Jean attempted to capture what appeared to be two Spanish merchant vessels. It was a cloudy day with low visibility, and he mistook their true identity. The two ships suddenly turned about and attacked Jean’s ship. The two ships had not been merchant vessels but heavily armed Spanish privateers, who opened heavy fire against him. Lafitte was badly wounded in the battle and died after dawn on Feb. 5, 1823. He was buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras. The Spanish press carried obituaries of his death, which proclaimed the “loss of this brave naval officer.” No American newspaper mentioned him or published an obituary.

After Lafitte’s death, two fishing communities in Louisiana were named after him, as well as a town hall and a Jean Lafitte Boulevard in Parish County, Louisiana. His name was also installed on a National Historic Park and Preserve located 25 minutes from downtown New Orleans.

Another Jewish pirate or privateer was Moses Cohen Henriques (or Hanarkis). He was of Portuguese origin, but his life is shrouded in mystery. Alongside the Dutch naval folk hero Admiral Piet Pieterszoon, he captured a Spanish treasure fleet off Cuba’s Bay of Mantanzas in 1628. The booty of gold and silver bullion amounted to 11,509,524 guilders, worth over $1 billion in today’s currency. It was the greatest heist committed against the Dutch West India Company in the Caribbean.

Not long after this, Hanarkis established his own pirate island off the coast of Brazil. After the colony was recaptured by Portugal, he became an adviser to the infamous pirate Captain Henry Morgan. Hanarkis never faced a single trial for his crimes.

There was also a captain known only as Sinan, or “The Great Jew” by his Spanish targets. He worked alongside the dreaded pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa. Born in Turkey, this Sephardic sailor included a six-pointed Star of David on his ship’s flag. He was so good at maritime navigation that it was rumored that he employed black magic to find his way. In 1538, Sinan was instrumental in defeating the Spanish-backed Genoan fleet at the Battle of Preveza.

Yaacov Kuriel was another notable Jewish pirate. He was born to a Jewish family which had converted to Christianity under pressure from the Inquisition when Yaacov was a child. As a young man, Kuriel was a captain of the Spanish fleet until he was caught by the Inquisition. He was freed in a daring raid by his sailors, most of whom were Marranos themselves. For many years, his goal was to exact revenge against the Spanish with the three ships under his command.

Little is known about what happened to Kuriel after his career at sea ended. Some believe he made his way to the Holy Land, studied Kabbalah, and died peacefully of old age in Safed, though there is no genuine proof of this pleasant fate.

These pirating escapades were not limited to Jewish laypeople. Moroccan-born Rabbi Shmuel Pallache is said to have taken part in some pirate raids against Spanish and Dutch ships. As a pious rabbi, he made sure that his crew donated a tenth of their loot to charity, and even kept kosher aboard his ship. As the envoy of the Pallachi family, which was a leading family in Cordoba, in 1608 he served as the agent of the Dutch government and concluded a Treaty of Friendship and Free Commerce with the Dutch Republic and Morocco in 1610. This was one of the first official treaties between a European country and a non-Christian nation, after the 16th-century treaties of the Franco-Ottoman alliance. Yet Pallache secretly acted as a double agent. He maintained close ties with the Spanish court and passed classified information about Dutch-Moroccan relations on to the Spanish. When this duplicity came to light, he fell out of favor with the Moroccan sultan.

Pallache hosted the first minyan of 16 worshippers in his home in Amsterdam around 1590. On Feb. 4, 1616, he died in The Hague and was buried with a gravestone in the Beth Haim of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel cemetery of the Portuguese Jewish community.

What is ultimately clear is that Jewish pirates did not hide their origins and had no problem expressing their Jewish identity. They were proud of what they did. They named the ships they captained after biblical characters such as “The Queen Esther,” “The Prophet Samuel,” and “The Shield of Abraham.” The fact that ships from Spain, a kingdom that had committed unspeakable crimes against their ancestors, were such bountiful targets clearly provided extra motivation for their deeds.

Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.