America – first Jew there

Spanish_ArmadaIs it true that a Jew helped England repulse the Spanish Armada that attempted to invade England in 5348/1588? Was this selfsame person the first Jew to reach the Americas?

The story began in 5341/1581 when England’s Royal Mining Company invited the Jewish metallurgist and mining engineer, Joachim Gaunse, to come in from Prague and help develop England’s copper industry. Although England was officially Judenrein (empty of Jews) since the expulsion of its Jews back in 5050/1290, England occasionally allowed Jews to slip in when it suited it. For example, in 5170/1410 Lord Mayor of London, Richard Wittington, procured a special license to enable the Jew Samson of Mirabeau to tend to his sick wife for a year. Unfortunately, she died before the year was up. That same year, King Henry allowed another Jewish doctor, Eliyahu Shabtai to visit England for two years.   Gaunse was a metallurgical genius. His research improving the “making of Copper, vittriall, and Coppriss, and smelting of Copper and leadeures” was such a phenomenal success that he reduced the 16 week process of purifying copper ore down to four days. On top of that, he found a way of using the extracted copper impurities as a dye to color cloth.

At this point, several Jewish writers interpolate that Gaunse’s work greatly helped the English in 5348/1588 when the Spanish Armada invasion fleet was lurking off her shores, because thanks to his expertise, England’s small ships could be equipped with mass-produced bronze cannon that were more accurate than the clumsy iron cannon used by the Spanish.

Unfortunately, this oft-repeated tale has a hole so wide that an Armada could sail through with room to spare, because it was actually the other way round. The British used iron cannon while the Spanish used bronze; England’s superiority lay in other factors such as the superior maneuverability of her small ships. In addition, most of the Armada was destroyed not by English cannon but by unusually wild storms that wrecked over half the fleet so that only 54 of its 130 ships managed to struggle home.

Therefore, in commemoration of this event, Queen Elizabeth of England struck a medal bearing the words: “G-d blew with his wind and they were scattered.”

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Spain not exiled its Jews a century earlier. Hashem may have granted them victory and world dominion, and we would have ended up speaking Spanish instead of English.

Was Gaunse the first Jew in America? That depends on how you define “America.” Although the establishment of Jews in North America is generally reckoned from 5414/1654 when 23 Jews arrived from Recife (Brazil) to New York, Jews had reached the Americas long before. For example, the Jew Luis de Torres accompanied Columbus on his 5252/1492 voyage to the Americas as an interpreter, and Gaspar da Gama was the first Jew to reach South America when he stepped ashore in Brazil in 5260/1500.

However, neither Columbus nor Luis de Torres ever reached the American continents; they got no further than the Caribbean Islands, and even Gaspar da Gama only reached South America. Therefore, the honor of being the fi rst known Jew to hit the North American continent falls to our friend Gaunse.

His adventure started a few years before the Spanish Armada in 5344/1584, when Queen Elizabeth granted Sir Walter Raleigh a royal sanction to found English settlements wherever he pleased, irrespective of the rights or feelings of anyone already living there.

As her license stated: “We giue and graunt to our trustie and welbeloued seruant Walter Ralegh, Esquire, and to his heires assignee for euer, free libertie and licence from time to time, and at all times for ever hereafter, to discover, search, fi nde out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince, nor inhabited by Christian People, as to him, his heires and assignee, and to every or any of them shall seeme good, and the same to haue, horde, occupie and enjoy to him, his heires and assignee for euer.”

That was colonialism. Raleigh sent out a first expedition that described North America as a sort of Gan Eden, saying that the explorers “smelt so sweet and strong a smel as if we had bene in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kinde of odoriferous flowers.” The favorable report encouraged Raleigh to send a second expedition to three mile long Roanoke Island off the coast of modern day North Carolina.

In April 5345/1585, seven ships set out from Plymouth, England, taking along Gaunse to help investigate copper deposits in the area that had long been exploited by the local Indians who used to pan copper ore out of rivers and beautify their homes with big copper plates.

Because of England’s war with Spain, there was insufficient shipping to keep up the settlers’ supplies. After one year they hitched a ride back to England with Sir Francis Drake who had passed by with a fleet of twenty-three ships.

Gaunse seems to have taken a liking to England, because after returning there he moved to Bristol and began giving Hebrew lessons to people eager to read the Bible in its original language. People seemed to have forgotten that he was a Jew.

All went well until the churchman Reverend Richard Curteys began feeling there was something fi shy about Gaunse’s beliefs. To confirm his suspicions Curteys accosted him one day and bluntly asked him if he was a christian.

Despite long separation from his people, Gaunse stuck to his principles and admitted he was not. As truthful as Gaunse’s answer may have been, in England of those days it was a one-way ticket to probable burning at the stake for heresy. Strangely, Gaunse had one defense to wriggle off the hook – his Jewish status. He could escape the accusation of heresy by claiming to be an infidel. Investigators duly reported that Gaunse “affi rmeth and sayeth that he was circumcised and hath been always instructed and brought up in the Talmud of the Jews and was never baptized.”

Gaunse was hauled down to London to face a special panel of judges, fortunately comprised of his mining company’s chief investors. Although the tale runs cold at this point, it is highly likely that these people who had profited heavily from Gaunse’s research let him off lightly.

Gaunse left one last trace of his existence.

Roanoke Island became famous as “the lost colony” after a third expedition set out there in 5347/1587. For the next three years, expedition leader John White who had returned to England for supplies could not return because of England’s war with Spain. When he finally got back to the island in 5350/1590 he discovered that its 91 men, 17 women and 9 children had disappeared into thin air. Did Indians capture or kill them, or did they die of starvation, storms, or drought? No one has settled this question despite decades of digging and searching.

Among artifacts discovered on the island during efforts to solve the mystery are lumps of smelted copper and a goldsmith’s crucible, which archeologists claim are probably remnants of Gaunse’s work during the second expedition to the island. If this is true, these miserable items are mute testimony to the first Jew to set foot in North America.

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