How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom - and Revenge

By Edward Kritzler



352pp/$./November 2009

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The title of Edward Kritzler's study Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom and Revenge promises a lot. Unfortunately, the title is misleading regarding the contents of the book, which, while it does discuss the Jewish influence in the New World, focuses more on trade and political mechanizations than piracy and rather than empire building, even economic empires, they are simply trying to find a place where their existence is ignored or tolerated.

Kritzler's focus is so targeted on Jewish merchants and conversos (or Portugals), that he gives the reader the impression that all of Europe, or at least those parts he is dealing with, is made up entirely of Jews who were forced to convert. Similarly, he presents the various expeditions to the New World has made up primarily of secret Jews, beginning with Columbus's voyages and continuing through the wars of the seventeenth century. Amerigo Vespucci may not have been a Jew, but according to Kritzler, he was given directions to the Americas by one.

Throughout the book, Kritzler tries to describe things in the most grandiose terms, often to ne real effect. Many of his claims, when making these statements don't stand up to confirmation and they don't add anything to the book by making them, except to make the reader question those statements and subsequent ones.

Where the book is strongest is when Kritzler avoids trying to build up his claims and when he sticks to providing the background and details for the activities he is describing. In many ways, a more appropriate title would be Jewish Influence on the Age of Discovery as he talks about the ways Jews and hidden Jews helped finance expeditions, shared information, and helped build up centers of trade throughout South America, the Caribbean, and European ports, even when they were fighting against European prejudices and laws that attempted to ban their very existence.

Unfortunately, Kritzler tends to get in his own way, presenting a very one-sided story which, although he does work to place everything within a political and religious context, he does so by ignoring the larger picture, focusing almost exclusively on the role of Jews (or former Jews). In doing so, he exaggerates their importance and calls the accuracy of his book into question. Near the end of the book, Kritzler notes that perhaps 5% of the settlers in the New World were of Jewish descent, which further raises the questions of how accurate a picture Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean paints of the region and religion.

Despite this, there are facts and trends that he identifies that can be trusted and offer a view of European expansion into the Caribbean and the battles between European states that took place there that is frequently overlooked. Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean feels like an initial, and popular, exploration of a subject which has the potential to lead toward a more thorough, less sensationalistic study of the topic which provides the role of Jews in the Age of Discovery with more context and a more realistic presentation of their role in financing and exploring the New World.

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