Capitalism and Ethnicity in Elizabethan England: Were the Privateers Sephardic Jews?
One of the most intriguing and historically important mercantile activities of the late 1500's was the concerted attack upon Spanish shipping from the New World by English privateers.
Much of Spain's economic and military power during the sixteenth century was derived from her receipt of gold and silver bullion from New World colonies in Central and South America, Cuba and the Caribbean. Carried by convoys of galleons, termed "treasure fleets', the Spanish monetary flow was used to support not only her colonization efforts, but also to finance the activities of the Inquisition and military endeavors in France and the Low Countries. Protestants, Muslims and Jews, alike, were aggressively pursued from Iberia, throughout Western Europe and into the New World in an effort to enforce religious conformity.
England, under the Protestang reign of Elizabeth I, was alone in effectively working against this Counter-Reformation. Britain’s efforts were funded, ironically, by Spanish monies stolen from the very same treasure fleets by a set of men, termed privateers, who acted with the Queen’s tacit consent, but without England’s formal authorization. Among the most prominent of this set of mariners were Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Phillip Sidney, Robert Cavendish, John Hawkins, Richard Grenville and Martin Frobisher. This group was united by its origins in southwestern England (Cornwall and Devon), its fervent Protestantism and marked anti-Catholicism, and its antipathy for Spain. Less known, but perhaps of even greater importance, is that the group of privateers was also bonded closely by marriage, kinship and business dealings – in some cases spanning several generations.
Genealogical and DNA research indicates that an even more profound reason for their personal and political cohesion lies in their shared Sephardic Jewish ancestry.
The research to be presented argues that a large, but largely unacknowledged, group of crypto-Jewish Britons of Sephardic descent was present in England from the reign of Henry VIII onward to that of his daughter Elizabeth I, and that this community played a key role in guiding Britain’s naval development and New World colonization efforts. In particular, the new data source of DNA will be introduced as a way to support efforts of historical revision.
Keywords: English history, privateers, Inquisition, New World
Dr. Elizabeth Hirschman
Professor of Marketing, School of Business, Rutgers University