Samuel Pallache

Last week, Monique touched on the importance of acknowledging the existence of people who don’t fit neatly into specific social categories. In a similar vein, today I’m featuring a man who did not fit neatly into given social spaces. Meet Samuel Pallache, a Portuguese Jew who lived and worked in Muslim-ruled Morocco and both Catholic- and Protestant-ruled parts of Eurasia in the early 17th century. Despite belonging to a marginalised religious minority that existed in tension with all of the aforementioned, Pallache exemplifies the permeability of identities and borders in a period that is generally considered to have observed hard and fast religious divisions.

Pallache came from a family that had relocated to Morocco after the mass expulsion of Jews from Portugal. In 1603, Morocco became a site of civil war between the Sultan’s competing sons. The Spanish crown opportunistically intervened in these conflicts, often employing Jewish intermediaries. Jews became targets for looting, and were subjected to specially-imposed taxes by rival claimants. Many converted to Islam as a survival tactic. Pallache chose instead to leave.

From 1603 to 1607, he worked in Spain and Portugal, currying favour with the Spanish monarchy (mostly by supplying intelligence about North Africa). Some of Pallache’s co-religionists converted to Catholicism in order to work for nobles in Spain and Portugal, where some also provided Jewish instruction to conversos* eager to reconnect with their roots. Pallache avoided converting, though biographers Mercedes García-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers suggest that tutoring conversos is probably what caused him to come under inquisitorial suspicion in 1607 (no known records indicate a fully-fledged trial).

Under suspicion, Pallache returned to Fez before moving to Amsterdam in 1609. In the same year, he gained a new royal benefactor, Sultan Muley Zaydan, for whom he worked as an agent, brokering commercial and military deals between Morocco and the Dutch Republic. Pallache lost favour with Zaydan in 1614 when (true) rumours spread that he had been informing the Spanish about Moroccan intelligence for years. His position lost, he hastily left Morocco and privateered his way to England, where he was arrested, tried and acquitted of piracy.

As his eclectic résumé suggests, Pallache undertook a lot of risks in his career, often crossing the already blurry lines “between legitimate commerce, smuggling, and privateering.”[1] Pallache returned to Amsterdam where complaints against his dodgy dealings had mounted in his absence. The Dutch and Moroccan governments were disenchanted with him, but he remained an informer for the Spanish crown. After a career of extreme peaks and valleys, Pallache died in poverty in 1619.

Pallache is not a paragon virtue; he’s more of an anti-hero (anti-hottie?) than anything. But he embodies the complexities of identities and spaces that can initially seem mutually exclusive. As a Jew, Pallache was marginalised in both Christian-ruled Eurasia and Muslim-ruled Morocco. However, his world was one in which (much like today) a variety of religious, socio-political and economic factors paradoxically mutually reinforced and undermined hostile social divisions. Though he died broke, during his career Pallache played different prejudicial regimes against one another in order overcome (to an impressive degree) the marginalisation that Jews faced in North Africa and Eurasia alike.


*converso is the term generally used to refer to Jewish converts to Christianity, forced or voluntary.

This post is indebted to García-Arenal and Wiegers’ revisionist biography of Pallache.

[1] Mercedes García-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers, A Man of Three Worlds: Samuel Pallache, a Moroccan Jew in Catholic and Protestant Europe, trans. Martin Beagles (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 75.



Samuel Pallache

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