Under Muslim rule in Spain, Jews were largely protected from persecution. This led to an explosion of Jewish culture and learning in Iberia and a very prosperous merchant class. With the Reconquista and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, many Jews began fleeing from Spain because of the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition and, in 1492, all Jews in Spain were officially forced to either convert to Roman Catholicism or leave the country.
After Columbus’ early exploration of the new world, many of Europe’s Jews migrated to the Caribbean. Columbus claimed Jamaica for Spain during his second voyage to the Americas in 1503. Jews played a vital role in establishing sugar plantations and trading posts across the Caribbean. In Jamaica they were sheltered by the Columbus family, who held off the inquisitors. Eventually 20% of Kingston’s population were Portuguese and Spanish Jews. While the Columbus family’s rule kept out the Inquisition, when their power was eroded and the Church began threatening the crypto-Jewish populace, they aided the English conquest of Jamaica. Under the English, the city of Port Royal was home not only to privateers bearing letters of marque against Spanish treasure galleons, some of whom were Jewish, but was also home to a large Jewish community which economically supported the raids against the Spanish.
The British, who had long been at war with Catholic Europe, captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. The British allowed the Jewish population to live openly and granted them British citizenship five years later in 1660. Britain, in violent competition with Spain for territory and treasure, had hired buccaneers and privateers in a kind of state sponsored piracy with the express purpose of capturing Spanish possessions. Jewish privateers found common cause with the British in their war against Spain and when the Royal Navy captured Jamaica from the Spanish and subsequently turned Port Royal into a naval base, Jewish buccaneers were among the fleet of officially sponsored pirates assembled to fight the Spanish.
Jewish pirates of Jamaica named their ships for ancient Jewish heroes and prophets like Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther and Shield of Abraham. They targeted Spanish and Portuguese merchant ships. One of the most famous Jewish pirates of Jamaica was Moses Cohen Henriques, who in 1628, led with Piet Pieterszoon Hein the only successful capture of the Spanish treasure fleet denying the Spanish Crown over a million pieces of eight. He went on to aid the Dutch capture of northeast Brazil from Portugal and become a trusted advisor to Captain Henry Morgan, who was eventually knighted and made Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
Eventually, as the British established naval hegemony in the Atlantic, piracy against Spain become less profitable and these Jews of Jamaica became more engaged in the sugar trade and the production of rum. This shift led to another migration – to Dutch New Amsterdam.