Monday, 7 May 2018

Was Raleigh really Jewish?

Raleigh in a portrait of 1588: ‘dark with a prominent nose, high forehead and narrow face’.  Revealing facial traits, according to two American authors

The search for one’s forefathers (and foremothers of course) has become even more fascinating with the advent of DNA testing, explaining the never-ending popularity of shows like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ It’s just another aspect of the inter-connections in our global village.

Those who cling firmly to notions of racial purity will be a bit put out by the theories published in recent years by researchers like the American academic Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman, a professor of marketing at Rutgers University.

When Scotland Was Jewish was the title of a book she published in 2007. Its thesis was that ‘DNA evidence, archeology, analysis of migrations, and public and family records show twelfth century semitic roots’ for many Scots; not surprisingly one reviewer wrote that the volume would enrage some and puzzle others, but ‘hopefully open some new avenues for thought and inquiry’.

Five years later, in 2012, comes a further volume entitled Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America: A Genealogical History, co-written with Donald N. Yates.  Dr Yates, who describes himself as the owner and Principal Scientific Investigator of DNA Consultants in Longmont, Colorado, is quoted as being of English-Scottish-Irish-Welsh and Choctaw-Cherokee descent and has a doctorate in classical studies from the University of North Carolina.

The Louis Round Wilson Library    
Image credit: Yeungb

Well, the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina has the biggest collection in the world of documents and publications pertaining to Sir Walter, and I imagine that Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America was immediately added.

The key assertion in the book is that people like the Champernouns, Gilberts, Drakes, Carews and of course Raleighs, ‘the remarkable group of landowners and privateers from Cornwall and Devon who changed the course of English, American and world history’, as the authors quite rightly call them, were of crypto-Jewish origin.

The authors’ thesis is that these counties, way back in the mists of time, had attracted peoples from Mediterranean regions such as Phoenicians and Carthaginians, many of them Semitic-speaking, because of the tin mining. This, they suggest, would explain the presence of names like Tamar – meaning date palm in Hebrew and Arabic.*

A portrait in Westminster Abbey, thought to be of Edward I 

Their descendants had remained in the south-west of England, seemingly as Jews, until 1290 when King Edward I decreed that all Jews should exit the country or accept conversion to Christianity.  

The West Country gentry whose names we know so well, like the Raleighs, may have been practising Protestants, but for Professor Hirschman and Dr Yates their portraits show them to have been ‘uniformly dark with prominent noses, high foreheads and narrow faces – not unlike Iberian and Moroccan Jews’!

A depiction of Joachim Gans and Thomas Hariot, scientists employed by Raleigh, in the workshop which they set up on Roanoke Island. In the 1990s, when archaeologists uncovered the site of the mineral laboratory, they discovered traces of copper from which silver was likely extracted. Image credit: National Park Service

This casts a new light on Raleigh’s choice of the Jewish metallurgist Joachim Gans to advise on mining matters arising from the New World expeditions, including the 1585-86 Roanoke Island colony under Governor Sir Ralph Lane. 

Joachim Gans, born in Prague and described as the first American Jewish colonist, went to England in 1581 to introduce an improved method that he had invented for smelting copper. He was employed at the Mines Royal near Keswick, and later at Neath near Swansea, and following his success in these operations was chosen to accompany the Lane colony and provide expertise in mining for minerals.  

In 1589, having returned to England, he was arrested in Bristol as an infidel, admitting that he was a circumcised Jew who did not believe in the Christian religion. He was taken to London for trial, but probably because he was known to Raleigh and Secretary of State Walsingham, no trial seems to have taken place. 

Professor Hirschman and Dr Yates write in their book of many further indications that Raleigh had what seems to have been a natural inclination to recruit people of Jewish ancestry for his enterprises: the two Richard Hakluyts,  and ship captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe  are just some of the people whose names indicate such a supposed link.  Ultimately of course the authors’ theories need to rely on DNA evidence.

I liked the notion put forward in the book that Raleigh was unpopular for his religious scepticism at the same time that he was celebrated as an advocate of religious tolerance. These ambiguities are consistent with a crypto-Jewish background, the authors argue, quoting the example of Spanish Jews who were, famously, naturally tolerant of others’ religious background.

One more trait in Sir Walter’s character, I feel, that endears him to me. And perhaps a trait appreciated by a Queen who prided herself in not making ‘windows into men’s souls’.    

*I found further fascinating linguistic links between English place names and Hebrew words proposed by writers like Dr. Caitlin L. Green and Rabbi Bernard Susser. See

You can read more about Joachim Gans at


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