“What a great title”, you say. And, you are right, although as a description of Edward Kritzler’s book of that name, it is a little misleading. Clearly chosen as a way to sell books, not to explain that book’s content.
Kritzler’s subject matter is fascinating, as I will try to explain. Unfortunately, his writing style is not up to the task. He jumps across oceans and back again, and back and forward in time, on a steady basis, making you too dizzy to figure out what is really going on. He needed a better editor than Doubleday chose to give him.
Too be fair, his subject matter is confusing and not easy to organize. But let me see if I can set the stage for you –
In 1492, when Columbus set sail from Spain to find a western passage to India, the Catholic reconquest of the Iberian peninsula was completed with the conquering of Granada, and the Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism were expelled. That, we know.
Most unconverted Jews headed eastward on the Mediterranean, ending up in North Africa, Turkey or Italy. Others went to Portugal, where they were welcomed, but only for a short while before they were “forced” to convert. Converted Jews, termed “New Christians” were permitted to remain in Spain, but they couldn’t be Jewish, or retain any Jewish traditions, or the Catholic Inquisition would arrest and condemn them to death.
Controversy remains as to whether or not Columbus himself was Jewish, or a New Christian, or a Judaizer. But we know that many members of those groups traveled with him on his various voyages to the New World, and that the initial Spanish settlements contained numerous New Christians.
OK, keep that in mind. Now, remember that the Pope divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese colonies, in present day Brazil, also included numerous New Christians. And for a while, the Spanish Inquisition had not established itself in Portugal.
Also, keep in mind that Holland, recently separated from Spain, welcomed the Jews (think of Spinoza and my posting about Theater J’s “New Jerusalem” last week) and allowed them to live openly as Jews.
Now get set for the competition – Latin America and the Caribbean had three European contenders for settlement – for gold and silver mines, for sugar plantations: Spain, Portugal and Holland. Who were the common denominators? The Spanish/Portuguese/Dutch Jews, who had interlocking families in the three countries, spoke all of the languages, and were able to operate as “New Christians”, but often wanted to be able to live openly as Jews.
You get the picture. To escape persecution at home, the Jews/New Christians settled the New World, only to find the problems of home creeping up on them, as the Inquisition spread to the New World, as Spain and Portugal combined in 1580 bringing the Spanish Inquisition to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, as the Netherlands captured the north of Brazil from the Portuguese (permitting Jews to live as Jews), only to lose it again, forcing the now-open Jews to leave, either going to Amsterdam, Curacao, or on that famous ship that left Recife and wound up on Manhattan Island.
So, the Jews (who were, everywhere, known as the Portugals, even in Europe) were fighting for the social freedom, their political freedom and their economic freedom. And economically, not surprisingly, they were very successful in trade, and sugar, and mining. And to protect their enterprises, and prejudice their competition, they, like everyone else, got into privateering, or privacy. Which is where the Jewish pirates come up.
So, Spain, Portugal, Holland. And then there was England, no longer Catholic, with its settlements in North America. How can it get in on the sugar trade, on shipping silver, and so forth. It needed a base in the Caribbean and Jamaica, an island formerly the property of the heirs of Christopher Columbus, with a significant “Jewish” population, seemed ideal. So, it was the Portugals that helped the English take Jamaica, and the English let the Jews settle in New Amsterdam (now New York) and even in England itself.
So, there you have it. With apologies to Edward Kritzler, I must say I probably did a worse job than he did in telling this story – a Jewish presence in the New World from 1492 on. And not only a Jewish presence, but an important one – economically, politically, socially and militarily.
One final point. Think about Somalia today and those terrible pirates, attacking ships in the Gulf, and leaving like kings on shore. Unbelievable that such a thing could happen. But in the 16th century in the Americas, the identical thing happened – privateers capturing and sinking treasure ships of all kinds, their captains living like kings. But there was a difference – in the 16th century, the great powers (Spain, England, etc.) encouraged this activity, sponsored it, and took a cut of the proceeds. Does that happen today, as well?
There’s nothing new under the sun.