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Joachim Gaunse

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, received a royal patent to explore the Virginia territory and found a permanent settlement. The queen hoped that the colonists would discover copper, silver and gold, or at least find a passageway to the Orient. Sir Walter recruited Joachim Gaunse, a Bohemian (Czech) Jewish metallurgist and mining engineer, to join the Virginia expedition. Gaunse thus became the first recorded Jew to set foot on English soil in North America.

Invited to England by the Royal Mining Company in 1581, Gaunse completely revamped English methods for smelting copper. In 1584, Britain was preparing for war with Spain and desperately needed copper, a critical element in the production of bronze from which the English manufactured the accurate cannons that gave their warships an advantage over the Spaniards’ inferior cast iron cannons. The superior firepower provided by bronze cannonry proved crucial in the English navy’s victory in 1588 over the much larger Spanish Armada.

Gaunse’s contributions to English bronze manufacture were monumental. Before his innovations, English smelters required a minimum of 16 weeks to purify a batch of copper ore. Gaunse’s process reduced that time to just 4 days. As an added bonus, Gaunse found a way to use the impurities removed from the ore in textile dyes. In an age when many still believed in alchemy (the "science" of turning base metals into gold), Gaunse pioneered modern scientific research methods. Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England and advocate of scientific research to advance English supremacy, probably used Joachim Gaunse as the model for the heroic Jewish scientist, Joabim, in his utopian novel, "The New Atlantis" (published in 1627).

Because of his reputation, Sir Walter Raleigh asked Gaunse to serve as metallurgist and mining supervisor to the Roanoke expedition. Lumps of smelted copper and a goldsmith’s crucible discovered by archaeologists among the ruins of the Roanoke site have been attributed to Gaunse.

Despite the discovery of copper, the Roanoke colony did not endure. Worn out, homesick, fearful of conflicts with the Indians and discouraged by the failure of the royal mining company to send additional supplies, the Roanoke colonists accepted an offer from Sir Francis Drake, whose fleet was passing nearby, to carry them to England. Joachim Gaunse and his comrades left the New World.

Soon after, Sir Walter Raleigh fell into Elizabeth’s disfavor, in part at least because many believed that he did not accept the divinity of Jesus. As a member of Raleigh’s circle, Gaunse attracted unfavorable attention. Having moved to the town of Bristol, Gaunse gave Hebrew lessons to English gentlemen who wanted to read the Bible in its original tongue. In 1589, Reverend Richard Curteys visited Gaunse and, learning that he was a Jew, asked Gaunse, "Do you deny Jesus Christ to be the Son of God?" Gaunse replied, "What needeth the almighty God to have a son, is he not almighty?"

Having spoken "blasphemy," Gaunse was brought before the mayor and aldermen of Bristol. Had Gaunse been a Christian, he might have been burned as a heretic. As the archival record indicates, however, Gaunse "affirmeth and sayeth that he was circumcised and hath been always instructed and brought up in the Talmud of the Jews and was never baptised." Thus, Gaunse could not be a heretic, but simply an infidel, a non-believer, much like a Muslim or a Confucian. Edward I in 1290 had expelled the Jewish population of England, but by the time of Elizabeth’s reign enforcement of the expulsion decree was greatly relaxed. Rather than deal with this Jew who was connected to the Royal Mining Company, Bristol’s town fathers referred his case to the queen’s Privy Council, which was composed of the mining company’s major investors. Gaunse was transported back to London for their judgment.

Frustratingly, at that point the historical record simply ends. Historians speculate that Gaunse was probably protected by his friends on the Privy Council, for whom his metallurgical innovations had reaped rewards. He might have remained quietly in England or he may have returned to Bohemia. In any case, there is no record that Gaunse was punished further, and his name drops from the public record.

Joachim Gaunse’s experience foreshadowed that of many American colonial Jews: he was simultaneously an insider and an outsider, useful as a scientist but unfit for full rights in a Christian society. Recruited to America by Raleigh for his expertise, protected by the Privy Council for the money he earned its members, Gaunse was apparently accepted among the tolerant explorers of Roanoke. He was challenged, however, by orthodox Christians. Gaunse revolutionized English metallurgy and helped England defeat the Spanish Armada, but a year later he was charged with blasphemy and forced to withdraw from public – and the historical record. Despite his contributions to English and American history, as a Jew Gaunse remained on the margins of society.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society