Staring the Rabbi Pirate in the Face.

On November 4, 1614, John Chamberlain writes a letter to Dudley Carleton concerning the arrest of a Jewish pirate in Darthmouth, England.

‘a Jew pirat, that brought three prises of Spaniards into Plimmouth. He was sent out by the King of Maroco, and useth Hollanders ships and for the most part theyre mariners. But yt is like he shall passe yt over well enough, for he pretendeth to have leave and licence under the King’s hand for his free egresse and regresse, which he was not beleeved till he made proof of yt.’

The Jewish pirate in question was Samuel Pallache. Samuel was born in Fez, a Moroccan city situated on the northern edge of the Middle Atlas, a city of scholars and intellectuals, of Islam, craftsmen and artists. His father, Isaac Pallache, was a rabbi in this city.

The family fled to Morocco from Spain, where his grandfather had served as rabbi in Córdoba, sometime in the first half of the sixteenth century. Fez is the oldest of Morocco’s four imperial cities, it dates to the beginning of the ninth century, when Idris II founded a Berber kingdom on the Oued Fez with Fez as its capital. The ninth century al-Qarawiyyin Mosque was the largest in the Maghreb, and is one of the oldest Islamic universities in the world. Being the grandson of Spanish exiles, a central element in the life of Samuel was the Iberian Peninsula, where a sizeable Jewish community had been present since the Late Roman Empire. In medieval Hebrew, Spain became known as Sepharad, and Spanish Jewry expanded gradually by immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

From the very beginning, the Jews found themselves from time to time in difficult and inhospitable circumstances and wandered back and forth between Spain and North Africa. Samuel had tried to return with his family to Spain. It must have seemed so close for him, only 15 kilometers (just over nine miles) of water separate Tarifa in southern Spain from Morocco. It is so close, that he must have felt he could touch it. From the Moroccan northern shores, he could look out, on a clear day, across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tarifa.

He was devoutly Jewish, but in his despair to leave Morocco, he was willing to convert to Catholicism in return for a Spanish nationality. While Jews were tried by the Inquisition, he and many other Moroccan Jews were escaping back to Spain. They were stuck between two worlds, rejected in one, and not fully at ease in the other. The expulsion from Spain caused a trauma. Following the golden centuries of Jewish life on the Iberian Peninsula, the expulsion left them geographically scattered and spiritually torn.

A painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, thought to be a portrait of Samuel, hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. A bearded man, wearing a magnificent turban and fur-lined cape, all in an “oriental style”, is staring intensely at us. He takes us back to a seemingly long-forgotten world of exotically dressed foreigners, that were a familiar sight in the streets and marketplaces of Amsterdam.

Rembrandt van Rijn and Workshop (Probably Govaert Flinck). Man in Oriental Costume c. 1635. Oil on linen. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The possibility that Rembrandt memorialized Samuel would not be farfetched. Samuel was well known and respected in Amsterdam. He was sent as the Sultan’s envoy to the young Dutch Republic, a former Spanish possession, where he managed to secure a diplomatic treaty between Morocco and the United Provinces of the Netherlands in 1608. Before this, Samuel and his brother Joseph, are mentioned as representatives of the Moroccan crown in Spanish records. They were sent to buy jewels on behalf of the potentate Muley Zaydan. As it was feared that they would encourage the conversos to practice Judaism, they were refused permission to go to Lisbon for further trade. For many years, the Pallache brothers, went back and forth between Morocco and Spain, trying unsuccessfully to sell their services as informants.

Around 1607 the Pallache family was forced to flee from Spain to southern France following threats from the Inquisition. The brothers arrived in Amsterdam around 1608, and decided to move their families and resettle in Holland. Between 1609 and 1614 Samuel was involved in many diplomatic and financial deals on behalf of Muley Zaydan in the Dutch Republic. His story is of a man who was daring and fearless. He accompanied Dutch privateers on a voyage to capture ships, and continued to lead semi-piratic missions on behalf of the Moroccan and Dutch interests against the Spanish. The privateers lived a life of great freedom.

The treaty of Tordesillas on the 7th of June 1494 declared that lands lying beyond the Atlantic Ocean, whether discovered in the past or the future, were to be shared uniquely between Spain and Portugal. Pope Alexander VI gave his approval in a papal bull. The Spanish refused to allow any other nation to trade with their American colonies. Spain’s rivals, especially the French and British, spent the next few hundred years in various shifting alliances and both would either rob the Spanish ships directly or issue warrants or ‘letters of marque’ to privateers. Around 1614 Samuel was accused of having ties with Spain, and fell out of favor with both the Dutch and Muley Zaydan, and he went off on a piracy expedition of his own. He captured several ships, but he was arrested before he could arrive in Morocco and sell his booty.

From the very beginning I was fascinated by him. I was struck repeatedly by the way he was formed by memories of Spain and his own vivid dreams of the future. Samuel has ended up in many interesting and important publications with a whole series of questions, such as: Who was the man? What was his religion? What was his identity? Was he a fraud?  He has been described as moving fluidly from merchant to pirate, from Jewish to Christian, from diplomat to spy, being a shrewd businessman and manipulator, whose loyalties changed with the wind. He has been identified as a Moroccan Jew, a Spanish Catholic, an English prisoner, a Jew from Amsterdam, and as Rabbi Pallache. For what is most important, in my view, is that Samuel existed between Islamic Fez, Catholic Spain, Protestant England and Holland, and the Jewish communities of Fez and Amsterdam, and that he was trying to survive.

He left no written record about himself. There is something emotional in all that silence about his own adventures, sufferings, joys, (be)longing, travels, and searching for a home. Samuel’s silences about himself are giving us a message. In those silences his individual religious experiences are hidden. Between those silences and what he does say by his actions, something of his character, his sympathies, integrity, perseverance, and determination, do, I believe, appear. Time and time again he was confronted with the dilemma, that there was no longer any way for him, as a Jew, to continue living within the society. He was no part of it, and was constantly being challenged to give up his religion and to enter society anew. The question of choosing between integration and isolation was crucial.  Samuel never reached Spain again, and he died a poor man in Holland in 1616. His funeral procession was accompanied by Prince Maurice and members of the Estates General.

You can find his final resting place at the Jewish cemetery Beth Haim in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, just outside Amsterdam. I can find some comfort in the fact that he was buried as a Jew. After living a life with blurry lines and diverse identities, at least he came home to his true self.

‘Man in an Oriental Costume’ was probably not painted by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669) himself, but in the workshop of Rembrandt, by Govaert Flinck (1615-1660) around 1635. In 1633, Flinck moved to Amsterdam, studying with Rembrandt van Rijn until 1636. Govert Flinck’s style was at first extremely close to that of Rembrandt. His early works are so similar that collectors once bought them as Rembrandts. As famously argued by Svetlana Alpers, Rembrandt ran his studio as an “enterprise,” in which he taught his students to paint convincingly in his style.

Signature of Rembrandt van Rijn on the painting:

Signature Rembrandt van Rijn

Bibliography: García-Arenal, Mercedes and Gerard Wiegers ‘A Man of Three Worlds:  Samuel Pallache, a Moroccan Jew in Catholic and Protestant Europe.’ Martin Beagles, trans.  Baltimore, MD.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Originally in Spanish as Entre el Islam y Occident: La vida de Samuel Pallache, judío de Fez. Madrid: Siglo XXI 1999.

About the Author
I have had the privilege to work as a professional archaeologist on a vast number of archaeological sites in the Middle East, Sahel and North Africa. I write about Jewish history, culture and heritage, from ancient texts to modern politics.
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