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Piracy in the New World

The Adventurous Lives of  Moshe and Avraham Henriques – Cohen

Title: The Jewish Cemetery Artist: Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–1682) Date: c. 1655 Note: This painting was inspired by Beth Haim of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the previous two articles, we explored the story of Rav Shmuel Palache, the pirate rabbi.  When Shmuel died in 1616, the entire Amsterdam Jewish community came to escort him to his final resting place in the Ouderkerk aan de Amstel cemetery.  Among those in that procession were two boys, Moshe Henriques and his brother Avraham. Although Rabbi Palache was almost never home as they grew up, his life must have had a profound impact on them, as both brothers would later have their share of adventures and piracy. This is their story. 

Growing Up In Amsterdam

Our story actually begins in Lisbon in the year 1605, when the king of Spain issued “a general pardon for crimes of Judaism.”  Under the terms of this pardon, all prisoners of the Inquisition were to be released, if they promised to remain devout Catholics.  Many Anusim took advantage of this general amnesty to flee to other countries.  Among the released prisoners was one Antonio Vaez Henriques, who made his way to Amsterdam with his wife and son Manuel.  Once he arrived safely in the Netherlands, he immediately dropped his Portuguese name and took on the Hebrew name Yoseph Cohen.  Manuel was renamed Moshe, and a few months later, the Cohens welcomed an addition to the family, a baby boy, whom the delighted Cohens named Avraham.

Moshe and Avraham grew up in the Portuguese community of Neve Shalom, whose members were all former refugees from Portugal.  Many had been successful merchants back in their former home, and continued to do so in their new one.  One gentile visitor had this to say in describing  the Jews of Amsterdam:

The Jewish caballeros of Amsterdam strutted about in jeweled garments of golden threads adorned with pearls and precious stones, and rode about in fancy coaches emblazoned with their coat of arms.  Even the cases of their prayer shawls were decorated with coats of arms.  Their spice boxes were of ivory, their wives’ bonnets of Brabant lace…

The Rav of the kehillah, R’ Yitzchak Uziel, was Shmuel Palache’s brother in law. He was deeply committed to ensuring that the returning Anusim would live a fully observant Torah lifestyle.  Naturally, many of the rich merchants were not used to being told how to conduct their private affairs, and in 1620, the kehillah split in three: Neve Shalom, Beis Yaakov, and Beis Yisrael. (It should be noted that despite their differences, all three kehillos worked together in tzedakah organizations, and to rescue their brethren who were still trapped in Spain.  Indeed, this rift was not irreparable, as later, in 1639, Shmuel Palache’s nephew Yaakov succeeded in re-uniting all three kehillos.)

As school children, the Cohen brothers attended the Talmud Torah, where they learned what every cheder boy in those days would have learned.  In the afternoons they also learned to read and write Portuguese, as well as Dutch. (Perhaps the Portuguese Talmud Torah was the first Jewish school to have Limudei kodesh and Limudei Chol?)  And So Moshe and Avraham had a safe and happy childhood growing up in a wealthy community of proud Sephardic Jews.  Now we are going to fast forward a few years, and also leave the secure environment of Amsterdam for the precarious land of Brazil…

Moshe Cohen’s Rise to Fame

It is the morning of September 8, 1628.  Moshe Cohen, now a young man, stands aboard Vice Admiral Piet Heyn’s flagship Amsterdam. The twenty five-ship Dutch armada has been ready and waiting for the Spanish treasure fleet.  The lookout cries, “Sail on the horizon!”  Quickly the Dutch fleet springs into action.  The armada captures nine Spanish ships, but three galleons manage to escape to the nearby port of Matanzas.  Some of the Dutch ships set off in pursuit and proceeded to attack the ship.  Grapnel hooks are tossed, securing the Spanish vessels and Dutch sailors swarm across, armed with cutlasses and muskets.  The exuberant boarding crew lets off a round of musket fire and the action is over.  The demoralized Spanish sailors surrender, and Admiral Heyn completes his capture of the Spanish fleet, loaded with ninety-two tons of silver, as well as chests of pearls, rubies, and gold worth 16,000,000 guilders, valued in today’s currency at nearly one billion dollars.1Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean p.123.

In his official report, the admiral wrote the following:2The Funnel Of Gold, by Mendel Peterson. Boston, 1975.

As quickly as we boarded, the Spaniards went over the side, swimming and paddling towards shore.  Within minutes, the flag of the United Provinces [Holland] flew where the lions and castles had been [Spain].  We then came to the [Spanish] Admiral’s ship.  We attacked with a musket charge and boarded her, calling to them ‘Buena Guerra,’ [good war].  Upon hearing it, they put down their muskets and went below deck.

Description: Detail of a headstone at the Jewish cemetery Beth Haim in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. Date: June 2010 Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The victorious fleet quickly dispatched a fast sailing yacht to send the good news back to Holland as the ships prepared to return home. This victory, besides for the tremendous morale boost, was crucial for a different reason:  Holland’s coffers were almost empty, partially due to a failed expedition of Portuguese-held Brazil a few years earlier.3Actually, the invasion had been encouraged by Portuguese Anusim who secretly wrote to their brethren in Amsterdam with a deal that they would rise against the Portuguese if Holland would send an invasion force. Vice Admiral Piet Heyn temporarily succeeded in capturing the port town of Bahia with Jewish assistance but was defeated by a massive invasion force. See Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean p. 118 -121, Jews in Colonial Brazil by Arnold Wiznitzer.   The tremendous wealth gained by this capture would enrich Holland for the foreseeable future, and enable her to launch future interests.

Arriving in Amsterdam, Vice Admiral Heyn and his assistant, Moshe Cohen were treated to a hero’s welcome.  The Portugese Jews were especially proud.  It was, after all, one of their own – Moshe Cohen, who had ascertained the sailing date and location of the Spanish treasure fleet, enabling the Dutch to launch a surprise attack.

Attack on Recife

In 1630, the Dutch were ready for a renewed assault on Brazil.  Moshe Cohen traveled to Recife in the Brazilian province of Pernambuco, to prepare with the Jewish underground, for an invasion.  On February 14th, 7,000 Dutch soldiers landed at Recife’s port.  Another contingent of 3,000 men led by Moshe, landed on a beach north of the port, and the attack on Recife commenced.  Two weeks later, the town was theirs.  An Inquisition document even places the blame on Cohen, for the fall of Pernambuco:

The Jews of Amsterdam were responsible for the capture of Pernambuco, and the principal one was one Antonio Vaez Henriques, alias Moshe Cohen, who went with the said Hollanders and instructed them and gave them plans showing how to take the said place, for he had spent many days in the said Pernambuco, and was well acquainted with the entrances and exits.  The said Hollanders did this by his secret counsel and he lived with them in the said Pernambuco for more than a year.  He is now a merchant in Seville and is nothing but a spy to learn when the fleet comes and goes, and when an assault can be made, so as to give information as he did at the capture of the fleet Piter Hens, in whose company was the said Antonio Vaez.”4A contemporary Memorial Relating To Damages to Spanish Interests in America done by Jews of Holland (1634), by Cyrus Adler Publications Of the American Jewish Historical Society 1909, p. 47. Available online at, the introduction says how this document reached the hands of researchers. (Here the document gives proof that it was Moshe’s advice that led to the loss of the treasure fleet).     

The Anusim who had been residing in Recife were overjoyed at the takeover. They discarded their pretenses of Christianity, and openly returned to Yiddishkeit. One priest residing in the town at the time reported this:

The Jews who had come from Holland had many relatives who had lived in conformity with the law of… [Yoshke].  However after the Dutch had conquered the country, they lifted the mask which had disguised them and circumcised themselves and declared themselves publicly as Jews.  I have heard it said many a time by the Jews, that there was no man of their nation [former conversos] who was not a Jew, and if they did not declare themselves as Jews, it was because of the fear that the world might turn and Brazil might return to Portugal…5Report of Father Calado, See Records Of the Earliest Congregation in the New World by Arnold Wiznitzer Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 1954, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean p.129

From this account, we can learn how proud the Anusim were to be Jewish, and how excited they were to have religious freedom. Eventually, a congregation was formed, called Kehillas Zur Israel.  Moshe Cohen remained there, to organize things, and he also became a privateer, attacking Portuguese warships. It’s unknown how many ships he succeeded in seizing, but after a few years he had prospered sufficiently to buy himself a private island, on which he conferred his converso name, Antonio Vaez.

The “Jewish” Colony

The years following Recife’s capture were highly successful ones.  Dutch Jews, including Moshe’s brother Avraham, streamed to Pernambuco, eager to make money. In fact, so many of them came, that it was the rare family in Amsterdam that did not have any relatives living in Recife.  The Sephardic Jews, who knew both Dutch and Portuguese, were able to serve as translators for the Dutch conquerors, and because they had so many contacts in Brazil and in Europe, were able to dominate Dutch commerce.  This led gentile merchants to complain “Almost the entire sugar trade is dominated by Jews…”  Others suggested that classic tactics of anti-Semitic discrimination be adopted in Brazil too: “Everywhere else in the world, this cheating and dishonest race is compelled to wear distinguishing signs on their clothing…”  Baruch Hashem, their complaints were ignored by the authorities.

Title: Portret van Isaac Aboab da Fonseca Author: Aernout Naghtegael (1658–1725) Date: 1686 Credit: Rijks Museum

In 1640, Recife’s Jewish population numbered 1,500, amounting to between
30-40% of the white population of Brazil!  The port became known as “the port of the Jews,” and its main street was called Rua dos Judios.6Records of the Earliest Congregation in the New World, p. 55 The kehillah even brought in R’ Yitzchak Aboab from Amsterdam, who was a tremendous tzaddik and mekubal, to serve as their rav.

The Cohens in Recife

While Moshe’s fame as a pirate grew, his brother Avraham became wealthy as the colony’s buying agent.  When Prince Maurice of Nassua arrived to take up the job of governor, he requested to buy Moshe’s island for his mansion.  Moshe realized that he was after all a Jew in galus and agreed to sell, and the sale was finalized by Avraham. In 1652, Avraham married Rivkah Palache, granddaughter of Yoseph Palache, Shmuel’s brother.  They had several children together.7Religious Changes and Cultural Transformations In the Early Modern Western Sephardic Communities, p. 203. She appears to have been Avraham’s second wife. We do not have information on his first wife, but we do know that he had at least one son with her, named Yaakov.

Civil War

In 1640, Spain and Portugal, which had been united under one monarchy for sixty years, split apart. This was due to a coup by the Duke of Braganza, who seized the Portuguese throne and crowned himself King John IV.  Now an enemy of Spain, King John formed an alliance with Holland, but this too created an interesting situation. The Dutch had been occupying Brazil, which had been a Portuguese colony since 1630. What would happen to Brazil’s status as a result of this alliance?  Rather than share the province, the States-General of Holland instructed Prince Maurice to turn on their ally and to capture as much Portuguese territory in South America as possible.8Jewish Pirates Of the Caribbean p.140.  The Prince followed instructions, and his soldiers began to occupy unconquered areas in Brazil.

Since Brazil had once belonged to Portugal, there were thousands of Portuguese farmers and merchants who had chosen to live under Dutch rule.  Now, incensed at Holland’s treachery, they began to revolt.

Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil: Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue – the first Jewish congregation in the New World – oldest synagogue in the Americas, built by Portuguese Jews – photo by M.Torres

The leader of this rebellion was one Joao Fernando Vieira, who, along with eighteen co-conspirators, plotted to invite the Dutch leadership to a religious feast, where they would all be murdered.  But one of the eighteen men was a secret Jew, who passed on the assassination plot to a parness of Zur Israel, Dr. Abraham de Mercado. Dr. Mercado, in turn, passed it on to Avraham Cohen who duly informed Prince Maurice. The governor of New Holland asked Avraham to arrest the traitors.9Jews of Colonial Brazil.

Vieira meanwhile had found out that he had been betrayed, and fled to the forests outside Recife.  Avraham Cohen pursued him, and in a skirmish with the rebel force, two Jews were killed. Cohen retreated with his men back into the town, and organized a proper force to go after the rebels.  In his second expedition, he led a force of 900 Dutch and Indian men, after the rebels, who in the meantime, had grown from a small band into an army of disgruntled Portuguese farmers. But Cohen’s men fell into an ambush where they were utterly routed.  Losing many soldiers, they fled back to Recife.


In the year 1645 many hardships befell our nation… The Heavenly Court had decreed that the marauding band spread out and invaded forest and field. Some of them looked for plunder, others hunted human beings, for the enemy came with the intent to destroy everything. The army and officers came from the desert and backlands… and very few of us remained alive…  We ate and considered as a delicacy on a golden table any dry morsel and dried up bread, without any security. But also this became rare in our homes, and there was nothing left to eat and drink…  After many further hardships and evils, a heavenly voice decreed that we should be completely driven out of the country…  The surviving group became the she’aris Yisrael…  I myself was among the exiles and Hashem made me return to this place [Amsterdam], in order to rejoice in the Gan Eden of Torah.10Jewish Soldiers in Dutch Brazil, by Arnold Wiznitzer 1956, p. 48

These words, written by R’ Yitzchak Aboab in the introduction to his sefer Shaar Hashamayim, is his eyewitness account to the devastation that occurred in Recife at the height of the war.  Following the route of Avraham Cohen’s troops, the Portuguese army pillaged the colony of New Holland and committed atrocities.11For instance, the previously mentioned book tells us that when the rebels captured a fort manned by Jewish soldiers, they mercilessly executed the Jewish prisoners by hanging. Eventually, they lay siege to Recife itself.  The Jews of Recife, knowing that the fall of the town meant Portuguese occupation of Brazil, and with it a return of the Inquisition, fought with all their strength against the enemy.  One Dutch soldier wrote the following:

The Jews more than anyone else were in a desperate situation, and preferred to die, sword in hand, than to face their fate under the Portuguese yoke, the flames.12Ibid, p. 46

The Jewish and Dutch defenders managed to hold out until the following year, 1646 when relief ships arrived from Holland to lift the siege.13Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, p.144 (Many Jews then took advantage of this to return to Holland.)  Although the rebels were beaten back, the war was not over.  Over the next seven years, the Dutch suffered a string of defeats, culminating in the fall of Recife in 1653.  During that year a Portuguese armada arrived to bolster the rebel troops.  By then morale was so low that Avraham Cohen reported to the commander of Recife that he had overheard Dutch troops saying they would rather plunder the homes of the wealthy Portuguese Jews than continue fighting.14Ibid, p.146  Even though the Jewish troops continued to defend the city, the battle was lost.  On January 26, 1654, Recife surrendered.  The occupying army immediately gave Jews three months to leave Brazil.  Their shul was converted into a barracks, and the Inquisition took over Prince Maurice’s castle.15The Jews in New Spain.  For over twenty years, the Jews of Recife had thrived, managing to build the first kehillah in the New World.  But now it was time to pick up and travel elsewhere in galus

After Recife

In February of 1654, two ships left Recife, their destination being the island of Curacao, a Dutch colony north of Brazil.  Aboard one of the ships was Moshe Cohen, who had decided to return to piracy.16It’s interesting to note that the destination of the other ship was far, far north, in New Amsterdam. If this name sounds unfamiliar, it is because this city today goes by a different name: New York! These Jewish refugees from Recife were the first Jews to settle in what would become, in a hundred years’ time, the United States of America.   His brother Avraham would return to Holland a month later, on a fleet of ships sent to evacuate the displaced Jews.

As Moshe resumed privateering, Avraham became a leading member of the Amsterdam kehillah.  He was involved in freeing some Jews who had been detained in Jamaica and spoke out in defense of the Jewish community in New Amsterdam, which was constantly being threatened with various edicts by the governor, Peter Stuyvesant. When the refugees arrived, Stuyvesant wanted them out.  In a letter to the States-General, he wrote: “their customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians, we pray that this deceitful race, such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of  [Yoshke] be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony.”17Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, p. 178.

When news of this reached Amsterdam, Avraham and the other leaders of the kehilla appealed to the States General to override Stuyvesant’s request, and the following year a “cease and desist” letter was sent to Stuyvesant.  Over the following years, Stuyvesant continued to present problems, including denying permission to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery.  At every turn, he was challenged by the leaders in Amsterdam who were well connected due to their membership in the Dutch West India Company. The situation was finally solved in 1664, when the English conquered New Amsterdam, and Stuyvesant was removed from power.

Columbus’s Gold Mine 

Description: Kingston, & Port Royal. From Windsor Farm. Date: between 1820 and 1824 Source: Original: Hakewill, (1875), A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica Author: James Hakewill (1778–1843) Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the islands discovered by Cristopher Columbus was Jamaica.  Unlike the rest of South America, which was owned by Spain and Portugal, Jamaica was owned and governed directly by the heirs of Columbus.  For this reason, Jamaica became a great haven for pirates, as well as for smugglers and their ilk.  Since it was beyond the reach of the Inquisition, Jamaica also became a safe haven for many secret Jews.

But the island had another lure, too:  A hidden gold mine.  Rumors had swirled around in European capitals of gold being secretly mined in Jamaica by Columbus’ family.  In 1596, a dispute between two of his heirs led to Spain interceding and installing one of its  own as Governor of Jamaica.  This governor built up Jamaica’s defenses, and also sent out two expeditions to try to locate the mine.18Jamaica under the Spaniards, by Cundall and Pietrersz.   He was not successful, and the rumors continued to swirl until…

Avraham Cohen’s search

In 1662, Benjamin Bueno Mesquita, a good friend of Avraham from his days in Recife, arrived in Amsterdam.  In Recife, two Jews living in Jamaica had told him of the location of the gold mine, and he had kept it a secret all these years.  Avraham devised a plan to secure the mine for himself.  He would travel to England, which by this point had begun to unofficially permit Jews to resettle there.  Once there, he would advance a petition to Charles II, and if the English, who at this point controlled Port Royal, would grant them right of settlement, they would mine the gold and of course give a large percentage to the king.

On March 5, 1662, Avraham Cohen and his partners Avraham Israel and Israel’s son Yitzchak, were granted an audience with King Charles II.  Avraham Israel, who had been one of the Jews imprisoned in Jamaica back in 1654 (and was freed due to the influence of Avraham Cohen), recounted to the king how he had learned of the mine from Jamaica’s covert Jew when he was imprisoned on the then-Spanish island.  He told the king they had confided in him because they feared their feigned Christianity would be exposed by the inquisitors due to Coimbra. Knowing he was about to be released, they asked him to use this knowledge to encourage a foreign invasion.19Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, p. 216.  The king agreed to this deal, under which Cohen would lead an expedition to find and work the mine.  Two-thirds of the gold would be given to the king, with the partners keeping the remaining third.

In March 1663, the group arrived in Port Royal, Jamaica. By this time, Port Royal had become a notorious Pirate town, although there was a small kehillah there, whose members included Moshe Cohen.  Describing their arrival, the harbormaster wrote: “Six Jews arrived with precious cargo, under the specious pretext that they came in search of a vein of gold known to them during the Spaniard’s government… This was basically a pretense, for their design was only to insinuate themselves for the basis of trade.”  Clearly, the harbormaster thought that their whole appeal to King Charles was a ruse, only to be able to get to Jamaica for the purpose of trade. A year later when no gold had been found, King Charles lost his patience and ordered them out of Jamaica.

At this point, the mystery begins. We quote the words of Edward Kritzler, author of Jewish Pirates Of The Caribbean:

Every historian who has looked into this story has endorsed the harbor master’s derisive judgment that Cohen and his partners came for the sake of trade and that the search for the mine was a ruse of these conniving Jews who spellbound a king with a promise of buried treasure… However, a sheaf of seventeenth-century documents discovered by the author in the Island Record office in Spanish Town, Jamaica’s old capital, suggests that to the contrary, the only fraud the partners may have committed was in declaring they had not found the mine.” 20Ibid., p. 219.

What happened?  After Avraham was expelled from Jamaica, he returned to his family in Holland. But these newly discovered records show that he visited Jamaica twice during the next decade and that in 1671, he purchased 420 acres of land by the headwaters of the Oracabessa River.  Why would Avraham risk defying his banishment order and travel hundreds of miles from home for some land in a distant valley?  If he was interested in farming, he could have purchased land in Holland! Avraham’s actions only make sense when we factor in Columbus’ gold mine, which leaves us with the tantalizing question: Did Avraham Cohen end up finding the gold? Is there buried treasure out in Jamaica?

End Of Life

The official date given for Avraham Cohen’s death is 1671 when his wife Rivka reported that he had died.21See Religious Changes and Cultural Transformations In the Early Modern Western Sephardic Communities p.198, which mentions that his wife donated money to the Portuguese shul in Amsterdam, in order that tefillos be recited l’ilui nishmaso. However, documents show that he was alive and well in Jamaica in 1674!  It appears that he faked his own death, in order to keep his trip to Jamaica secret, which further heightens the mystery around the parcel of land he bought.  The last mention of him is in 1675, in connection with a dispute he had with Moshe.

Moshe continued to live in Port Royal, where he was involved in sending weapons and munitions to pirates in Sale, Morocco.  The date of his passing is also not clear. 

And so ends the story of the Henriques- Cohen brothers.  Throughout their lives, they were active in setting up Jewish kehillos in the New World, as well as strengthening Holland’s position in South America.  Moshe spent a good part of his life as a pirate, and while Avraham never was a pirate, he too had his fair share of combat, as well as being involved in a treasure hunt.  Although the idea of Jewish Pirates may sometimes seem unbelievable to some, as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction.        

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