The First Jew in Atlantis

April 28, 2011 | By

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In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh needed an expert in metals to help him make sense of American geology on his first trip to the New World. So he brought along Joachim Gaunse, a Jewish engineer from Bohemia.

Gaunse became the first Jew on record to set foot in America. Raleigh’s team was the first to discover copper in the New World, an expensive and useful building material. However, skirmishes with Native Americans and sickness crippled the expedition, and Raleigh’s men hitched a ride back to England on the ships of fellow explorer Sir Francis Drake.

Gaunse lived in Bristol for the next four years, where he taught Hebrew to Christians. In 1589, he was accused of heresy–specifically, rejecting the divinity of Jesus–by a local Christian clergyman, and sent to London for trial in a British court. But there’s no record of the trial ever taking place. Historians speculate that beneficiaries of his discoveries smuggled Gaunse out of the country to avoid potential incarceration, or worse. He left little more behind than a reputation for genius–which was later immortalized in Francis Bacon’s book The New Atlantis, which starred a clever Jewish scientist with a very similar name, Joabim.

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