History Remembered: the Jewish Pirates

Samuel Pallache by Rembrandt
Here is the story, as told to me by a very distant cousin, a Creek-Jewish family genealogist:

“Four hundred years ago we had to leave Portugal. It was dangerous —the soldiers were right behind us, hunting us down. Our family owned ships, and we were all at the docks waiting to go on board, but one brother was late.  The soldiers caught him.  The rest of us got away, and we sailed to Holland.   There we became pirates, but we would only attack Spanish and Portuguese ships.  We took the name “Slack,” which is Dutch for “strike,” to remind ourselves of our desire for revenge.  I’ve talked to Slack families all over the country, and they all have the same story.”

There are no Slacks among my ancestors, and their story has little or nothing to do with the southern frontier. But when
you go digging around in family history, there’s no telling where it can lead you.  This story has been passed down for over four hundred years, and at least in its general outline, it’s true.

Sephardic Jews and “conversos”—Jews who had officially converted, but whose loyalty to Christianity was doubtful—were driven out of Spain in 1492.  Many of them settled in Portugal.  In 1580, however, Spain and Portugal became united under one crown, and the Inquisition moved in, executing thousands of suspected conversos and often kidnapping their children to be raised as Christians.  At around the same time, the northern provinces of the Netherlands declared  their independence from Spain, and established freedom of conscience as a guiding principle of their new state.

The conversos of  Portugal saw a haven. The escape was dangerous, since no one of Jewish descent was allowed to leave the country without a permit from the king, but wealthy shipowning families could manage it.  In the Netherlands they reconnected with their ancient faith, and in many cases abandoned their Spanish or Portuguese names for Hebrew ones.  They built or expanded trading networks that spanned the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.  Many of them became rich.  And in the first generation of those born in freedom, a number of them also became pirates, following the example of  Samuel Pallache (pictured above, as painted by Rembrandt,) a rabbi and son of a rabbi, an immensely rich merchant, spy, double agent, and privateer.

Dutch privateers (licensed pirates) had a  history of preying on Spanish ships during the long struggle for freedom, and the sons of the first arrivals were eager to join them.  The next century saw a lengthy battle for the rich trade of Brazil and the Caribbean, in which Jewish pirates played important roles, fighting on the side of whichever European power seemed most likely to protect the freedom of their people, but always against the Spanish.  Eventually many of the descendants of these merchant-pirates migrated north to the British colonies of North America. Among them, we can be fairly sure, were the Slacks.

Further reading: Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Edward Kritzler, gives a lively picture of this forgotten history.  Also check out Wikipedia.com for Samual Pallache and Moses Cohen Henriques.

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