A Jewish Admiral for Muslim Nations

        July 2014    
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A Jewish Admiral for Muslim Nations

By Louis Arthur Norton

The Jewish people have participated in maritime commerce for millennia. The tribe of Zebulon, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, was known by a maritime symbol representing their walk of life.1 The clans Hebrew biblical description states, Zebulon will dwell by the seashore; and he shall be for a haven of ships (Gen. 49:13) and For they shall partake of the abundance of the seas and of treasures hidden in the sand (Deut. 33:18).

Historical evidence indicates that perhaps the first person of Jewish heritage to become an admiral served in the navy of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. He achieved this title by successfully battling the Portuguese Navy. Ironically this was roughly sixty years after his family had been expelled from Portugal in the Inquisition of 1497.

All Portuguese Jews and those who came to Portugal from the 1492 Spanish Inquisition were expelled. Many took asylum in the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Some were conversos or converts to Christianity while others became crypto-Jews giving the appearance of conversion but still engaging in the beliefs and rituals of their historical roots. The former Spanish and Portuguese Jews, now part of the Diaspora known as the Sephardim, resettled in Morocco, Holland, France, Thessalonica, Constantinople (Istanbul), Brazil, Curaao, the Antilles and Mexico. They integrated into these societies, contributing whatever talents they possessed.

The Ottoman Empire whose capital was Constantinople was in the midst of expansion. Its apogee occurred from 1453 through 1566. It was the dominant nation in North Africa, Eastern Mediterranean, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsulas coast. Constantinople had been the center of the Orthodox Christian world, and therefore had a large Christian population. As the Ottoman Empire grew into Europe, more and more non-Muslims came under Ottoman authority. By the 1530s, a very large portion of the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire was not Muslim, but people of different religious beliefs in the Ottoman Empire were treated with relative tolerance especially compared with those in contemporary European Christian nations.

During the early part of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese emerged as a dominant maritime nation heavily engaged in foreign trade, exploration and opportunistic conquests. The Ottomans and the Portuguese were involved in a long series of military encounters. Some were brief battles, while others lasted for many years. The major hostilities between the nations began in 1538, where the Ottomans laid siege to Diu, a settlement on the western coast of India that had been built by the Portuguese in 1535.

The Ottoman attack was unsuccessful, as were those in 1541, 1546, and 1549. Most of these battles were fought on or near the Indian Ocean to stem the expansion of the Portuguese Empire especially over control of ports on the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

One of the captains within the Ottoman fleet was an enterprising man, possibly a convert from a family of Iberian Jews, Sefer Reis.2 (He will be referred to as Sefer to differentiate him from other mariners named Reis in the Ottoman navy.) Sefer had spent most of his naval career sailing in the Indian Ocean. This gave him an advantage over his many colleagues who fought in the completely different environment of the Mediterranean.

He knew that monsoons frequented the Indian Ocean and its current changed with the seasons but in a reasonably predictable manner. Sefer tried to keep the Portuguese downwind of his vessels to prevent their larger square-rigged carracks (Portuguese sailing ships with three or four masts) from attacking him.3 He blockaded Dui and managed to capture five Portuguese vessels, returning them to Mocha in triumph.

The Portuguese, now were concerned about this maritime upstart, diverted substantial resources to find Sefer in the Red Sea. The Ottomans superior knowledge of the winds and currents of the area enabled him use clever ruses. Sefer frequently ambushed his adversaries while evading them by attacking only when he had a decided tactical advantage.

In 1560 Sefer had his most famous engagement against the Portuguese. Cristvo Pereira Homen, the Portuguese admiral, commanded a fleet to escort a Jesuit minister to the Abyssinian coast.4 When Pereira entered the Red Sea, they sailed to the Red Sea city of Massawa thinking that they had been undetected. As they passed Massawa, an Ottoman in a small boat hailed the admiral on his easily identified flagship and assuring him that he was a friend of the Portuguese, offered to supply them with fresh water or other provision.

Pereira gave this some thought, but declined the overture and sailed on to the east. In stopping, he was now both identified and delayed. The Ottoman powers in Massawa got a message to Sefer informing him of Pereiras presence. By the time Pereira made it to Kamaran on the west coast of Yemen, Sefer had set a trap.

Upon Pereiras arrival, the flagships lookout called out below that a very large solitary vessel with Arabic markings lay dead ahead. Pereira reasoned that the ship likely carried valuable spices or other treasure an opportunity to seize a rich vulnerable prize. Pereira ordered his lone vessel to attack the defenseless merchantman. The vessel turned out to be Sefers war galley disguised with bogus sails and merchant-like rigging as bait for a trap.

As Pereira bore down on what he thought was easy prey, Sefer signaled three light galleys to emerge from a well-concealed hiding place in a nearby islet. The four Ottoman ships now quickly closed in to do battle with Pereira. This became a chase that lasted through the day and into the night. Pereira made his escape in the darkness and sailed into the strait of Bab al-Mandab, the passage connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Djibouti and Eritrea by the Horn of Africa, to wait for the rest of his fleet to join him.

They eventually arrived, but so did Sefer with his galleys after he deduced the likely new Portuguese position. The Portuguese admiral decided that his best option was to lighten his ships and rapidly sail away. This was poorly executed and in these tricky winds and currents Pereiras vessel nearly capsized. Sefer decimated most of the fleet. Only two vessels managed to escape from the Ottomans clutches.

Sefers exploit deserved recognition, usually a promotion to admiral, but Rustem Pasha, the grand vizier of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, temporarily blocked his advancement. The Pasha favored an acolyte Seydi Ali for the title, even though the Seydis fleet had been defeated in 1555. The elderly Rustem Pasha was losing political power. Sufi Ali Pasha, now the newly appointed governor of Egypt, in turn, blocked Seydis promotion. Rustem Pasha finally acquiesced, thus Sefer was given supreme command of the Ottoman Empires Indian Ocean fleet.

Sefers new appointment as admiral was accompanied by increased Ottoman shipbuilding in the Suez, but had little effect on Sefers modus operandi.5 Sefer invented a unique Ottoman naval strategy that produced control over the seas against the Portuguese who naively operated as if they were in the Mediterranean. Most of their naval operations were essentially amphibious assaults to capture fortifications or at least control land based centers of logistics. Sefer, however, did not storm fortresses or engage in sieges. His victories were not measured in conquered land, but in the ships he captured and the increased customs revenues in the ports of Mocha in Yemen, Jiddah in what is now western Saudi Arabia, and Suez in northeastern Egypt.

Sefer continued to use his base in Mocha rather than Suez. Because his strategy of small-scale raids against Portuguese shipping worked so well, the Portuguese now sailed in formidable fleets or armadas. For example, one consisted of twenty-three oared vessels two galleons and six hundred and fifty soldiers. With good intelligence, Sefer was able avoid clashes with the armadas. In the meantime, like a swarm of privateers, they plundered stray Portuguese merchant vessels who were largely unaccompanied.

As Sefer and his men were scoring many successes against Portuguese shipping, Ottoman merchants were developing a vast network of commercial relationships in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps the analogy of Sefer as a privateer was partly correct.6 He was successful by always being a threat, a predator against which the Portuguese had to expend precious resources and be constantly on alert.

In 1565, Sefer was ordered to oust the Portuguese from East Africa, but became ill and died in Aden. With his death the project was abandoned, but Sefers schemes of naval harassment remained in place. Because of this, the added costs of vigilance to the Portuguese trading nation became intolerable. Political compromises ensued between the Ottomans and the Portuguese, and, in time both, nations prospered within the contested regions.

There are no data regarding Sefers birth, if he was married, had a family or what part of the Ottoman Empire he called home, but that likely may have been Egypt. The question now arises was Sefer Reis really a Jew? Reis was a common Portuguese surname and spelled in Portuguese mode rather than that in a commonly used Ottoman idiom. Therefore the family was likely part of the 1497 diaspora from the Portuguese Inquisition and since they left, it is unlikely that they were conversos. They were not immigrants from European lands conquered by the Ottomans, but refugees seeking asylum from Christian persecution in their country of origin.

The word sefer is Hebrew for book.7 It is unlikely that he would have been given such a name if he were not Jewish.

A renowned Ottoman naval captain was Sinan Reis, the Jew. His battle flag carried a six-pointed star called the Seal of Solomon by the Ottomans. In 1546, Sinan fell ill. According to Portuguese Red Sea Merchant sources, his son was appointed as a sea captain to succeed him by the sultan himself. It is likely that Sinan and Sefer were father and son.8

Also it is well known that members of the Iberian Jewish diaspora became agents of the Ottoman State to ease the trade using informal ties with Jewish merchants in the Red Sea, Egyptian and Indian Ocean ports. That noted, there are no archival records to confirm Sefer Reiss faith or if he practiced any at all, but the circumstantial evidence of his Jewishness is compelling.

Although Jews have not been renowned in maritime history, they have made significant contributions in this area. Abraham Zacuto constructed a reliable copper-alloy astrolabe and published astronomical tables used by Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus during their expeditions.

Uriah Philip Levy, the first Jew to be named a commodore in the United States Navy, was a leader in the abolition of flogging onboard American naval ships.9

Albert Ballin, the general director of the Hamburg-American Line, made his steamship line the largest in the world in the early twentieth century.10

Admiral Hyman Rickover is the father of the American nuclear navy. He developed plans for the first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus. Admiral Jeremy Michael Boorda served as the 25th Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), the only American sailor to rise through the enlisted ranks to become CNO. Jewish involvement in the maritime professions over the course of history may not have been large, but obviously their contributions have been significant.

1 The twelve tribes of Israel were descendants of the Patriarch Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, plus his concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah. Leah six sons were Reuben, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. The other women each produced two sons named as follows: Rachel bore Joseph and Benjamin, Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher; and Bilhahs sons were Dan and Naphtali. Each of these sons headed a tribe identified by a specific symbol.

2 Giancarlo Casale, Safer Reis: An Ottoman Corsair of the 16th-Century Indian Ocean, in Gnay Kut and Fatma Bykkarc Ylmaz eds. Uygurlardan Osmanlya: inasi Tekinin Ansna, (Istanbul: Simurg, 2005), 271-84.

3 Lincoln Paine. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). 416.

4 Giancarlo Casale, Ottoman Age of Expansion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). 109.

5 Ibid., 110.

6 Daniel R. Headrick Power Over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.) 77.

7 Of possible related interest, Sefer is also the Hebrew word a nautical chart.

8 Ibid., 113.

9 The title commodore was an honorary rank, the United States Navys highest until the rank of admiral appeared during the Civil War. Levy and Commodore Robert F. Stockton convinced congress to outlaw the flogging of naval sailors. Levy was an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and purchased Monticello to preserve it. In 1923, Levys heirs sold Monticello, now a National Historic Landmark, to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

10 Ballin achieved his success by emphasizing dependability, safety, size, comfort and luxury over speed. This became the standard in the passenger-ship industry. The steamship line had over a hundred ocean-going vessels that put into as many as 350 ports of call.


from the July 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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