Tav Marks the Spot: How the Jewish Pirates of the Barbary Coast Made Their Mark on History

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Zobeida Chaffee-Valdes, Carleton College
Piracy in the Caribbean was a lucrative career, and attracted a much more diverse set of people than those today tend to envision. One group that continually gets left out of the popular narrative of piracy is the small yet flourishing community of Jewish pirates in the Caribbean, which started around the turn of the 16th century and continued to be relevant into the 19th. Many famous Jewish pirates have made their marks on the Atlantic World, among them Sinan Reis, Samuel Pallache, and Moses Cohen Henriques. Sailing with Ottoman letters of marque, Jewish pirates cooperated with and fought alongside Muslims, some of whom had similar motivations of revenge against Spain and Portugal, the countries from which they were expelled just as transatlantic exploration and trade took off. My research explores how the Jewish identity shaped these men’s careers and legacies, from their motivations to obtain letters of marque to how they used the wealth they plundered, and how their religious lives intersected with the daily activities on a pirate ship. I also examine the relationships between seafaring Muslims and Jews, and whether life aboard the ship served as an equalizer or exasperated prejudices. Finally, I am studying the forgotten legacy Jewish piracy left on the world and how it is often excluded from popular culture because it does not fit the traditional narratives surrounding both Judaism and Piracy. In this poster session, I hope to concisely present my research on two specific aspects of this project; namely, why Sephardi Jews took to a life of piracy, and how their Jewish identity affected and shaped their daily lives on board a ship.
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