The Mystery of Joachim Ganz of Prague, North Carolina, Keswick and…Bristol!

We are always told that there were no Jews in England between their expulsion in 1290 and 1656, when they were re-admitted. Nothing could be further from the truth!It is probably true that there was never a time when there were absolutely no Jews in England, and we even know of established communities during this period, even of Jews who openly lived as Jews. Joachim Ganz was in that last category.

It is thought that he was the son of Rabbi Dovid Ganz who settled in Prague in 1564, but Joachim was probably born before that date. Whether Ganz followed in his father`s footsteps as a rabbi, we cannot tell. However, he did become a metallurgist and mining engineer. Some rabbinic families in Prague do seem to have dabbled in alchemy. By 1581 Ganz is in Keswick, Cumberland, where he is advising on mining and the smelting of copper. In fact he invented and introduced new smelting processes which reduced the time required to purify the metal ore from sixteen to four days.

He was regarded as a sufficiently valuable asset to England for Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1584, to enlist his services for his expedition to set up a new colony at Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Ganz was therefore probably the first Jew to set foot in North America! There is archaeological evidence that the new settlers succeeding in smelting copper at Roanoke, but the colony folded in the following year, due to lack of protection from hostile native Americans. Back from America, Ganz probably arrived in Bristol late in 1586. He may well have used the city as his base whilst advising on mining and smelting operations in South Wales, on behalf of Sir Francis Walsingham, a privy council member and the founder of Queen Elizabeth`s secret service. Ganz may even have assisted in intelligence work. Walsingham is known to have had considerable commercial interests in South Wales.In Bristol, Ganz appears to have lived quite openly as a Jew. He even gave lessons in Hebrew to “gentlemen wishing to study the scriptures in their original language.”

The good times were not to last. In 1589, the city was visited by Richard Curtys, Bishop of Chichester. The two men met, and the Bishop was shocked at the reply he received when he asked Ganz whether he believed that Jesus was the son of God…Ganz`s reply: “What need does the Almighty have for a son? He is the Almighty.” promptly got him up in front of the Lord Mayor of Bristol….who seemed to be unable to make any decision as to what should be done about Ganz. Interestingly, Bristol ducked the issue by sending Ganz to London to be interviewed by the Queen`s Privy Council, no less.

An interview that perhaps confirms that he had some pretty powerful patronage; probably via the Royal Mining Company, with which Francis Walsingham also had connections. No further action was taken against Ganz. We might assume that he was either deported or encouraged to leave.
He reappears in Prague some years later, and died there in the early 1600s and is buried in the old cemetery.

Alex Schlesinger, Honorary President

Posted in Bristol, History.