Heyoka’s Workbench


Drawing: “Moses Cohen Henriques (as imagined by the blog’s author)”

משה כהן הנריקז – Moses Cohen Henriques: Dutch pirate of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish origin, operating in the Caribbean in the 17th century.

You know good books by your desire to read them a second and even third or fourth time and by your undiminished joy when doing so. One of those is Philipp Blom’s intriguing work »Die Welt aus den Angeln« about Europe during the Little Ice Age of 1570 to 1700. And it was only on re-reading it that the mentioning of one Moses Cohen Henriques really caught my attention and excited my curiosity.

For Henriques was a Jewish pirate who roamed the Caribbean and Brazil and helped the Dutch Admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein capture the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628. Did you know this? And did you know that there were pirates in the Caribbean who preferred a kosher diet?

But why was I so surprised? Why should there not have been Jewish pirates?

As human beings we like stereotypes. And helpful they are! We’d be quite in trouble coping without the one or other generalisation, simplification or rule of thumb. But it’s necessary to be aware of the makeshift nature of a lot of our notions of the world. Even if we are interested in and sympathise with a certain people or culture, we can arrive at taking a fragment for the whole.

I’ve read about wise men like Maimonides or Spinoza. About scientists, writers, artists, movie stars, founders of great businesses. About the very poor peasants in Eastern Europe, too, in their shtetls and, of course, always with their famous Yiddish humour. – And finally, in my head, there formed a somewhat romantic picture of Jewish people in history as rather ethereal beings, always and totally peaceful and benign.

There are worse stereotypes than that, no doubt. But the full picture is more colourful. And part of the full picture is that of course there is a strand of the martial in Jewish history, too. That there were generals, warriors, adventurers. Think of King David, the Maccabean Revolt or the Jewish–Roman wars. Think of the thousands of Jewish soldiers who fought on either Allied side in the Second World War. Think of the IDF which is one of the world’s best armies and without which there certainly would be no Israel, surrounded by enemies as this oasis of democracy, liberty and prosperity was and is.

Seen in this light, it’s much less of a surprise that there once were the likes of Moses Cohen Henriques. But still, it is highly interesting. There is a fine article on the subject by the Jerusalem Post: »Jewish pirates of the Caribbean« (by Gil Stern Stern Zohar, 9 April 2016). And another one about what has become of the Jewish presence in the Caribbean by today: »Keep Dreaming: Jewish pirates of the Caribbean« (by David Breakstone, 17 February 2012).

Note: Regarding Jewish soldiers in the Second World War, I’d like to recommend the little book »An allen Fronten: Jüdische Soldaten im Zweiten Weltkrieg« by Wladimir Struminski. It’s part of the series »Jüdische Miniaturen« by the publishing house Hentrich & Hentrich. Part of this series is available in English, too, under the title »Jewish Miniatures«.

And another note: I read announcements that Philipp Blom’s book on Europe during the Little Ice Age was or will be available in English, too, the title being »The Nightmare« or »The Nightmare of Reason« but I could not verify this. Not even Amazon knows about it.