A previous blog mentioned the island of Hispaniola and focused on the history of the Dom Rep people, with lots of wars and fighting on the Spanish side. Amidst all that strife in Hispaniola, the seeds were planted for the fabulous Pirates of the Caribbean. A rough bunch of escaped criminals, castaways, and runaway bondsmen roamed the pristine coasts, rivers and mountains in the remote areas of nowadays Haiti. They hunted wild cattle and pigs, and used a specific frame, called a ‘boucan’, to cure the meat. The meat and hides were traded for ammunition and goods with the ships along the coast.
The Spanish settlers did not like this group of rogues, outcasts and bandits hanging around and interfering with their trade monopoly. They mockingly called them ‘Buccaneers’ and persistently pestered and harassed them. Eventually, the ragtag group of men was forcefully evicted from Hispaniola and driven to the nearby Island of Tortuga. This laid a solid foundation for their sworn hatred of the Spanish. Being secluded to smaller hunting grounds they combined their forces in the ‘Confederacy of the Brethren of the Coast’ and aimed their efforts at the sea. The buccaneers made canoes and got sea-bound, on the hunt for Spanish galleons. Their surprise attacks were very effective, and they soon upgraded to larger and more sophisticated vessels.
With the expanding fleet came larger hunting grounds. With the looted guns and ammunition their base in Tortuga was fortified. With each successful raid, the pirates of the Caribbean gained new recruits. They grew stronger and bolder and raided ships further and further away from their base. The Buccaneers were battle-hardened and well accustomed to the climate and their surroundings. They were fearless, ruthless, lawless, and cold blooded. Making use of their previously acquired skills in roasting pigs and cattle, they built themselves a solid reputation: The legend goes they often roasted men alive and cut out the tongues of those who refused to disclose the location of treasures.
Tortuga soon became too small for this rapidly growing enterprise. A bigger venue with a ready market and a place with great potential for amusement was searched and found in Port Royal (Jamaica). The English settlers welcomed the Buccaneers and their Spanish loot, at first, as they had a common enemy in the Spanish and they did not have their own naval fleet.
By the early 1680s, the plantation owners of Jamaica felt that the Buccaneers were doing more harm than good and wanted to stop their piracy. Furthermore, Jamaica badly wanted to do major trading with Spain. The attacks on the Spanish ships had to stop. The English kicked out the pirates, only to call them back as guns for hire when a new war against the Dutch ensued and they did not have any fleet to protect the West Indies.
Henry Morgan and Port Royal
The Buccaneers helped defend Jamaica. The installation of the pirates in Port Royal deterred the Spanish from attacking. The pirates supported attacks on several Dutch islands, yet it proved increasingly difficult for the governor to control the unruly bunch. After each conquest, the Buccaneers would take the spoils back to Port Royal and drown out the fatigue, pains and sorrows with lots and lots of rum. As soon as the drink is in the man all sorts of weird-wonderful-wicked things started happening. Port Royal was not just the place where the Buccaneers lived, it was where they partied and decompressed from the terrors of the sea and a pirate’s life. It was the place to be for partying, gaming, eating, trading and leading the good life. It attracted pirates from all over the world, as far away as Madagascar. Just like some kind of completely out of control holiday resort it boasted great luxury and excess, as well as complete debauchery. Rum punch and pub crawl were invented there. At the height of its popularity, the city boasted one drinking house for every 10 residents. Anything money could buy could be got there. Merchants, chancers, lucky-go-getters were attracted to the place like moths to an oil lamp. At their own peril or pleasure… In this highly volatile environment, quarrels about the loot were quickly resolved by manual persuasion or eliminating contenders. The mob got out of control very easily. Yet it was also a place of opportunity and innovation. Drunken men gave huge sums of money to women just to see them naked, preceding today’s strip joints. Port Royal was the largest city in the Caribbean and earned the reputation of ‘richest and wickedest city in the world’.
The governor soon realized the pirate mercenaries were way too undisciplined to be relied on as a defensive fighting force (apart from the pirate code of conduct they did not respect much). Until the governor found an alley in Captain Henry Morgan. Like most of the early English colonists, Morgan arrived in the West Indies as an indentured servant. The rough environment brought his skills to the fore: He was strong, resourceful, and excelled in strategy and tactics. He became a pirate leader, renowned for his brutality, bravery, and relentless energy. Captain Morgan managed to weld the unruly Buccaneers together into one of the best and fiercest fighting forces the Caribbean has ever known. Under Henry Morgan, the Buccaneers rose to the peak of their infamy.
- With a handful of men Henry Morgan managed to capture the well-fortified city of Porto Bello (Panama). They locked all officers and soldiers in a castle, gathered all the gun powder in one spot and blew the castle and its prisoners into oblivion.
- In Maracaibo (Venezuela) Morgan and his men defeated an army that outnumbered them three to one. They forced their way through a well defended narrow strait, plundered the town, and blasted their way through a fleet of ships blocking their escape.
- Morgan’s biggest victory was the attack on the impregnable Panama City, Spain’s jewel in the region. He led 1700 buccaneers up the pestilential Chagres River and through the Central American jungle. For 8 long days the Buccaneers hacked their way through the thick jungle of Panama. Scorched by the blazing sun, soaked to the bone by tropical downpours, munched on by mosquitoes, pestered by chitras and other tropical insects, they ran out of food and water. The fearsome pirates were tired, ragged, starving, and seriously dreading a confrontation with the well-armed, properly dug in force of the Spanish. But Morgan’s iron will and masterful leadership urged them on. On the 9th day, they caught a glimpse of Panama City and were promptly attacked by Spanish horsemen, foot soldiers, and stampeding bulls. Gravelly outnumbered, there was no turning back. With nothing left to loose, Morgan came up with a crafty plan that entirely crushed his enemy. Morgan’s men burnt the city to the ground, and the inhabitants were either killed or forced to flee. This delivered a severe blow to the Spanish power & pride in the Caribbean. For all their effort the Buccaneers were handsomely rewarded: The biggest loot of gold and jewelry ever awaited them! Henry Morgan was knighted and promoted to lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
This promotion coincided with the anti-piracy laws. Pirates were no longer needed to defend the city. Upstanding citizens disliked the reputation the city had acquired and preferred ‘honest’ trade, like selling slaves. Piracy was outlawed and offenders got capital punishment. The Government offered pardons to pirates, who helped bringing down the worst of these high sea criminals. Those who refused to stop pirating ended up in the gallows. Ironically, this was very often at the order of Lt Gov Morgan. Instead of being a safe haven for pirates, Port Royal became noted as their place of execution. Gallows Point welcomed many to their death.
Morgan eventually died in 1688, and was buried at Port Royal.
Port Royal’s days were also numbered. In 1692, the city was destroyed by a massive earthquake that buried it, along with its vast wealth, below the sea. Joining Atlantis on the list of famous underwater cities.
The destruction of Port Royal was dramatic and is often recounted as the wrath of God descending on the Sodom of the Caribbean. Truth is that architecturally the city was not built on a solid foundation: There were about 2000 high rise buildings, crammed in a small area, hosting 6 500 inhabitants of various professions (prostitutes, pirates, goldsmiths, tavern keepers, and a variety of artisans and merchants). The water table was generally only 60cm down before the impact, and the town was built on a slab of 20m deep water-saturated sand. The earthquake basically caused the sand under Port Royal to liquefy and flow out into Kingston Harbour, taking the high rise buildings with it. The earthquake was accompanied by a tsunami. One third of the inhabitants were wiped out by the natural disaster and another third perished due to the after-effects. The English did not rush out to assist the pirates and damsels in distress. They lacked the resources to offer help to such a substantial group and did not feel inclined to hurry.
Despite Henry Morgan’s death and the destruction of Port Royal, sea piracy continued. This was the era of some of the most famous pirates in history (Golden Age of Piracy: 1650 to 1730). After Henry Morgan, many other notorious pirates flourished in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Chief among these were Black Beard and Calico Jack.
Black Beard, born Edward Teach, was an English pirate presumably born in Jamaica (although claims to his birth are made in Bristol, England and Carolina). Little is known about his early life. His pirate career started under Captain Benjamin Hornigold. Together they engaged in numerous acts of piracy, and worked with Stede Bonnet. Teach is one of the first extremely successful PR exercises in time. The guy was no slouch and figured out that with a reign of fear and a solid reputation as a badass you could avoid violence all together. He converted a French merchant ship into an impressive looking fighting machine boasting 40 guns and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. He groomed his fearsome appearance, growing an unwieldy black beard, matching his lunatic composure and mad dog stare, tying burning fuses under his hat and in his beard to frighten his enemies. He was a master in scare tactics and spreading rumors about his wickedness. The shrewd and calculating leader relied entirely on his rep to elicit the desired response from those whom he robbed. They pooped their pants as soon as they saw the Queen Anne’s Revenge approach and surrendered their goods without any bloodshed. Contrary to the stereotype of the tyrannical pirate king, he commanded his vessels with the consent of their crews. There is actually no known account that he ever murdered or even harmed those whom he held captive. Yet his fearsome legend and reign of terror were extremely effective. He even held the inhabitants of Charles Town, South Carolina ransom at some stage. He tried out a landlocked life, by accepting a royal pardon and settling in Bath Town, but soon after went back to sea, spiting the ruling powers. The Governor of Virginia sent a party of soldiers and sailors to capture the pirate during a ferocious battle. Teach died a spectacular death: he was shot five times and cut about twenty times, with one big slash across his neck, spluttering blood all over the show before he finally went down!
Jack Rackham is known as ‘Calico Jack’ because of his fondness for calico prints and general dandy appearance. Rackham began his career as a part of Captain Charles Vane’s crew on the sloop Ranger. Vane was another notorious pirate but was captured, brought to Jamaica, and hung at Gallows Point in Kingston. Calico Jack became more famed than Vane. He was the first one to fly the Jolly Roger flag, a skull with crossed swords (designed by his first mate Karl Starling), starting a new trend. After terrorizing the Caribbean for more than two years aboard the sloop Vanity, he made the mistake of hanging around Jamaica’s north coast too long during one of his vacations. In 1720 Jack and crew were celebrating a series of attacks on the coast. Rackham had anchored in Bloody Bay (Negril) and was enjoying a rum punch party when Royal Navy pirate hunter Captain Barnet tracked him down. The pirate was quickly captured, tried in Spanish Town, and hung. His body was displayed in an iron frame as a warning to other pirates on a small islet off Port Royal – one which is known as Rackham’s Cay to this day.
The capture of Jack Rackham revealed that two of Jack’s most fearsome crew members were women disguised as men: his lover Anne Bonney and Mary Read.
Anne originated from Ireland, moved to the Americas, and eloped with bad-guy James Bonney. He took her to a pirates’ lair in New Providence (Bahamas). When James Bonney accepted the royal pardon and betrayed his mates, Anne was disgusted with him. She fell in love with Captain Jack Rackham, disguised herself as a man and sailed off with him on board a freshly stolen sloop, the Vanity. They couple was very successful taking down Spanish treasure ships off Cuba and Hispaniola.
Mary Read joined their crew when her privateer (government pirates) ship was overtaken by the Vanity. Like Anne, Read was disguised as sailor man and known for her violent temper and ferocious fighting. Read had passed off as a man most of her life, first as a ruse to get child allowance in lieu of a deceased brother, then joining the navy on a Man-o-War and later as a foot-soldier and a cavalry man in a Flanders regiment. She had a brief interlude of feminine dress when she married a fellow soldier and took up domesticated life as a housewife and inn keeper. This ended abruptly when hubby died and money ran out. She put her pants back on and went to sea on a Dutch merchant ship heading to the Caribbean. The merchant ship was taken by pirates, whom she joined, and later on became privateers until they were taken by the Vanity. Anne Bonney and Mary Read realized they were kindred spirits with a shared secret. They joined forces and became blood sisters. In times of action, no pirate was more bloodthirsty or bold than Bonney and Read. Despite her roughness, Read found love on board Vanity.
In October 1720, the Vanity was surprised by a British Man-o-War. The drunken pirates fled the deck and hid below, leaving only Bonney and Read up top to fight. The disguised women fought like demons, yelling at their shipmates to come up, cowards, and fight like men! Bonney and Read were that pissed off, they turned on their own crew. They threatened, goaded, wounded several and even killed one of their own pirates. Eventually the two women were overwhelmed by the British and the whole crew were taken to Jamaica to stand trial.
Just like Rackham, Anne Bonney and Mary Read were condemned to death by hanging, but both women pleaded their bellies. Under British Law, it is illegal to kill an innocent unborn child, and so the women were temporarily saved. Read died of fever in the Spanish Town prison before she could deliver her baby. No record of Bonney’s execution exists. It is rumored she escaped and lived happily ever after.