Thursday, October 7, 2010

Books: A Man For All Seasons

I have made a lot of cyber-friends through this blogging deal, which is an unexpected bonus. One of these is Denis whose wonderful reviews of horror movies good and bad at his site The Horror?! always make my day. Because he’s been a great supporter of Triple P, it didn’t surprise me at all to get a message from him about a Jewish pirate.

Here is the link Denis sent me to
ratmmjess’s Live Journal article on the 17th century Renaissance man Samuel Pallache (sometimes spelled Palache). The brief article, the information in which is drawn from Edward Kritzler’s Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean (a book I have yet to read), sparked my curiosity and so it was off to the local bookstore with a man’s name, a picture in my head, and my usual glee at the prospect of researching anything involving pirates/privateers or seafaring.

What I found at Title Wave was a 200 page history and biography by Mercedes Garcia-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers entitled A Man of Three Worlds. The book is brief almost in the extreme but this makes its focus on Pallache all the more engrossing. Especially given the many, many experiences he had within the span of his 66 year life.

Samuel Pallache was born around 1550 in Morocco. Legend insists that he was born in Spain but Garcia-Arenal and Wiegers are nothing if not excellent researches and, much like William C. Davis with the Laffite brothers, they debunk one myth after another about Pallache. The Pallache family was indeed from Spain and had come to the Morocco ahead of the diaspora that was triggered by the Spanish Reconquista.

Pallache’s father was a Rabbi who became a leading figure in the tight-knit Jewish community of Fez. Samuel grew up in a comfortable environment surrounded by loving family. He heard tales of the abandon home in Spain and these clearly struck a cord. He kept the memory of Spain fresh in his mind as he grew to manhood.

Samuel became a merchant specializing in the newly opened trade routes between the Barbary Coast and Europe, particularly Holland. The Dutch, mortal enemies of Spain by the late 16th century, enjoyed thumbing their nose at the Spanish by trading with the corsairs who so frequently took Spanish ships, cargo and humans as slaves. Pallache grew quite comfortable in this business and he learned diplomacy as well. Eventually he decided it was time to go big and expand his business beyond the confines of Morocco and Holland.

Here Pallache did an uncharacteristic thing that would have made him unpopular at best in the Jewish communities of Fez and Amsterdam had they known. He attempted to return his family to Spain, even going so far as to be baptized in the Catholic Church, making himself what was known as a converso – a baptized Jew. He offered himself as spy to the Spanish court and for a brief time in the 1590s he appears to have carried information from the Sultan of Morocco’s enclave to Spain.

When his bid to repatriate backfired – Spain was still not ready to embrace Moors or Jews regardless of how helpful they might be – Pallache turned the other cheek, so to speak. Through his merchant connections, Samuel had gained access to the court of Sultan Zidan Abu Ma’ali and had become a personal favorite of the Sultan. He offered himself as a spy for Morocco and the Sultan readily agreed. In 1608 Zidan also made Samuel his official “agent” to The Hague in Holland and sent Pallache off on a diplomatic trip with a letter of introduction to Prince Maurice of Nassau.

Sultan Zidan had recently managed to put down an extremist rebellion lead by his brother and backed by Spain. Rightly imagining that Spain would continue such malicious attacks, Zidan decided to form a diplomatic alliance against Spain with his partner in trade, Holland. Pallache, who had a home in Amsterdam, would work out the details. He did so without a hitch, and made a close friend in Prince Maurice in the process. By December of 1608 Morocco and Holland had agreed to a signed treaty.

Prince Maurice next backed Samuel’s bid to become a privateer for Morocco. The Prince supplied ships and arms, the Sultan supplied men and a commission and by 1614 Pallache was at sea raiding Spanish shipping with very little resistance. The only glitch in his piratical carrier came when a storm forced him into Plymouth, England with a Spanish prize. The Spanish ambassador cried for Pallache’s arrest as a pirate and King James of England had very little choice but to comply. Samuel was never imprisoned per se (he was kept at the home of a local governor) and, though a trial was mounted, Samuel’s Moroccan commission and the intersession of the Prince of Nassau made it completely unnecessary. James freed Pallache and quipped to the grousing Spanish Ambassador that Spain had no more love for Protestants than it did for Jews.

Pallache set aside piracy after this incident and returned to the heart of the Jewish community in Amsterdam. His wealth had sadly diminished by this time and, though he continued his merchant endeavors, the exciting days of intrigue were behind him. He died on February 4, 1618 and is buried in the Sephardic Jewish cemetery in The Hague.

Garcia-Arenal and Wiegers get up close and personal with the man and his time in A Man of Three Worlds. The book can be dry at points; some of the discussions of political maneuvering and state/church interaction were a little off-putting even for a history nerd like me. Overall, though, the book allows Samuel Pallache to shine through. His dynamism, eccentric zeal and pragmatic, strangely modern outlook could not be lost on any reader. It’s worth a look for students of history, economics, diplomacy, religion and/or, yes, piracy.


Charles L. Wallace said...

What an eclectic, intriguing fellow!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles! He was too. A Man of Three Worlds was really worthwhile and I'm looking forward to reading and reviewind Kritzler's book sometime soon.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Well, one mans pirate is another mans privateer, right?

It does seem pretty unusual (though not completely unprecedented) to take up privateering in your 60's... Pallache certainly seemed to live a full life, if not an exceptionally long one, Pirate Queen.

And religion, as always, seems to be at the root of so much of these conflicts throughout history, just as it is today.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Glad I could point you in the direction of a figure this fascinating.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy and Denis!

Timmy: Yes on all counts, of course. Pallache was obviously an unusual character but when you think about his virtual life long experience at sea (as a merchant he would have travelled a great deal), the privateering thing was probably a more "natural" step than it appears on paper.

Denis: Thankee indeed for helping me find another interesting pirate that most people have no clue about. That's the good stuff!