notes: “piracy the complete history” by angus konstam

notes taken from “Piracy, the Complete History,” by Angus Konstam, Osprey Publishing, 2008

“for almost two centuries this [treasure] convoy followed a set routine.  there were two treasure fleets.  the first of these, the new spain fleet, sailed from seville in april, and after a transatlantic crossing from the canary islands it made landfall in the southern part of the lesser antilles.  in september the tierra firme fleet followed the same route, but once in the spanish main took a different direction.  after collecting the royal quota of the silver p roduced in mexican mines, the new spain fleet wintered in vera cruz, then sailed on to havana in the early summer.  the tierra firme fleet wintered in cartagena, where it collected colombian emeralds and venezuelan gold.  in the spring it continued on to nombre de dios, where it collected the king’s share of peru’s vast silver production, which had been shipped up the coast from lima to panama, then transported by pack mule across the isthmus to the caribbean port.  following drake’s attack on the town in 1572, the treasure terminus was moved just the coast to porto bello, which was considered more defensible.  it then sailed on to join the new spain fleet in havana. p42

by the 1530s the french threat became even more serious.  in 1533 another spanish treasure ship was captured off the azores, while between 1535 and 1547 no fewer than 23 spanish ships operated by the casa de contratacion in home waters.  corsairs captured nine ships in 1537 alone, reducing spanish royal income from the new world by half – to just over 1 million pesos.

conditions on board [the new galleons] were primitive.  the golden hind was less than 70ft (21.4m) long, with a 20ft (6.1m) beam.  below desks space was taken up by the stores, by guns and ammunition, and by the crew of 80 men and boys.  while drake had his own tiny cabin, his senior officers only had alcoves on the deck below.  the crew only had space to swing a hammock amidt the guns of the lower deck. p53

it has been estimated that during the three years between 1589 and 1591, some 236 privateering ships were at sea, and while the majority of these displaced less than 100 tons, at least 16 were much larger – with a displacement of 200 tons or more.  of these, most came from either london or the devon ports.  the picture is repeated in 1589, when some 86 licensed privateers were operating.  this time over a quarter of the ships displaced more than 200 tons, which suggests a general move towards large and better-armed private men-ofwar. p69

during the first years of the 17th century other european powers began establishing small unofficial settlements in the west indies.  in 1600 the dutch colonized the barren island of st eustatius, but the settlement failed, and the island was abandoned.  however, when the dutch west india company was founded in 1821, a fresh wave of dutch settlement began.  a small colony was established on st croix in 1625, then on nearby st martin.  in 1622 the english settled st kitts, and the french joined them on the island three years later.  barbados was colonized in 1625 – part of a privately funded drive ‘to cut the kind of spain at the root and seek to impeach or supplant him in the west indies’.  other colonies would follow throughout the west indies, an area that had never been properly settled by the spanish. p101

[after the spanish attacked the french settlers to st kitts (don fadrique de toledo 1627)] a number of french refugees from st kitts headed west, seeking out a new place to settle somewhere along the deserted northern shore of hispaniola.  they selected the island of la tortuga, off the north-west corner of the island, which seemed to offer everything they needed.  within a few years a thriving tobacco crop was being harvested there, while the island also attracted local boucaniers, dutch and french smugglers, and other refugee ‘interlopers’  it was the dutch who gave this new settlement some degree of legitimacy, as the dutch west india company offered to protect the fledgling colony in exchange for leather hides.  in other words, the greatest pirate den on the spanish main began it life as a backwater trading post.  p102

just as on st kitts, the english and the french co-existed on the same island, although following the death of governor hilton in 1634 the english left the island to join another colony on providence (santa catalina) – an island off the coast of nicaragua.  the providence island colony, first established in 1630, was after all the main focus of the english company’s efforts.  this left the french in sole control of tortuga, altho the y still enjoyed the protection of the dutch west india company.  p103

until the arrival of le vasseur the islanders had busined themselves with growing tobacco, trading with the boucaniers and acting as a trading post for dutch west india company ships.  however, under his leadership tortuga became a haven for fugitives of any nation, who all shared a common distrust of the spanish authorities.  from around 1640 on, these settlers began to attack passing spanish ships.  tortuga lay at the north-eastern end of the windward p assage between cuba and hispaniola , and this busy supping lane became the new hunting ground for le vasseur’s pirates.  the way these attacks were conducted was simple but effective.  the pirates used small sailing or rowing boats (flyboats or pinnaces), and attacked at night.  their aim was to creep up astern of larger spanish ships, then board them before a lookout could sound the alarm.  while marksmen shot the helmsmen and officers, others wedged the ship’s rudder to prevent their prey escaping.  they then swarmed up the side of the enemy vessel, and in most cases the attackers would have outnumbered the spanish crew.  these pirates soon developed a reputation for cruelty and torture, whether deserved or not, and this worked in their favour.  it was often enough to encourage the spanish to surrender without firing a shot in the hope that their lives would be spared. p104

pierre le grand was born in dieppe, and arrived in tortuga soon after 1640.  gathering a group of followers together, he began cruising the waters off tortuga in a small canoe, hoping to intercept a small spanish trading ship.  according to exquemelin he managed to capture a small pinnace, and then used ti to hunt for larger prey.  after months of fruitless searching he finally stumbled across one of the most lucrative prizes on the spanish main – a straggler from a spanish treasure fleet.  he brought his boat up behind the spanish ship then boarded her before the spanish realized they were being attacked.  to encourage his 28 followers to attack he scuttled his own craft, so they had no option but to board their prey.  the spanish ship was duly captured, and rather than take her back to tortuga, pierre le grand sailed her home to dieppe, where he retired on the proceeds of his venture.  if exquemelin is to be believed, pierre le grand was the first real ‘pirate of the caribbean’, and his exploits served to encourage others to follow in his stead.  however, the story lacks any real corroborative evidence, and we are probably expected to see the tale as symbolic of a new breed of pirates, rather than to accept it as a straightforward account.  more interesting than the actual details of the attack is the way in which the french pirate was said to have carried out his raids.  it suggests a trend in the waters off tortuga – small canoes being used to prey on coastal shipping, after which these captured spanish vessels were turned into pirate ships in their own right, cruising a little further afield in search of larger victims. p105

our understanding of buccaneering society comes from exquemelin.  he claims tht the buccaneers of hispaniola operated in hunting parties of six to eight men, pooling their resources and making decisions by consensus.  he also suggests that a pairing of buccaneers was also common – a male union known as matelotage – a term which essentially meant ‘bunk mate’, but which has been more commonly linked to the french word matelot, meaning a sailor.  this union – essentially a single-sex marriage – was recognized in the self-administered buccaneering laws or guidelines knows as ‘the way of the coast’. a matelot stood to inherit the possessions of his partner on his death, and may well have had other rights akin to marriage that have gone unrecorded.  the brethren of the coast was no tightly knit brotherhood, but more a loose confederation built of these smaller partnerships and hunting groups…according to exquemelin, around 1650 the french governor le vasseur imported prostitutes to the island, in an attempt to break up the matelotage system. p106

the following january [1654] juan francisco [montemayor cuenca] landed a powerful expeditionary force on the western side of the island, then marched on the fort du rocher,.  by all accounts he carried the stronghold by a direct assault, then held its defenses in the face of a series of counter-attacks launched from the island hinterland.  within a week the resistance had been crushed, although it soon became clear that the majority of the buccaneers had fled the island before the spanish arrived.  a total of 330 buccaneers were captured, including the french governor’s brother, while another 170 inhabitants – presumably women and slaves – were shipped to santo domingo with the rest of the captives.  all the prisoners would become slaves on spanish plantations.  in addition the spanish captured some 70 artillery pieces, and goods valued at approximately 160,000 silver pesos, or pieces-of-eight  although the spanish left behind a small company-sized garrison, it was evacuated in april 1654 after the troops slighted the island’s defences. this was shortsighted, as within a year the buccaneers started to return to tortuga, and by 1660 the island was fully operational again as a buccaneering haven…in 1664 the french west india company took over the administration of tortuga, and the english governor in jamaica removed the restrictions he had imposed that prevented english buccaneers from using the french island as a base. p107

another large expedition was launched later that year [1665] against the dutch island of curacao, off the venezuelan coast.  its leader was captain edward mansfield, the former deputy of christopher myngs.  however, mandsielf was unable to make his buccaneers attack their fellow protestants, and so he bowed to the inevitable and led them against eh spanish instead.  this expedition almost ended in disaster off the coast of what is now costa rica.  having taken on water in teh well-known buccaneering rendezvous of the bocas del toro (mouths of teh bull) archipelago, now in northern panama, mansfield reiaded portere, on teh coasta rican coast.  however, when he marched inland towards the regional capital of cartago he found himself outnumbered by the spanish, who drove the buccaneers hack to his ships.  mansfield was forced to return home empty-handed, but as a consolation he attacked the spanish island of santa catalina as he passed.  the island – once the home of the provicende island company’s colony – was captured and garrisoned by mansfield and his men, who thought it would make a useful base for future raids. p128

morgan visited santa catalina on the way [to sack panama] (now renamed providence island), and discovered that the spanish had recovered the place in 1668, three years after mansfield’s capture of the island.  morgan promptly reclaimed providence on behalf of the jamaican government, although a small spanish garrison still held out on the well-fortified isla chica.  the next morning – on christmas day – the spaniards agreed to capitulate after staging a face-saving ‘mock battle’.  morgan now had a secure base to fall back to if things went wrong in panama. p136

in europe, ports such as dunkirk for the french and bristol for teh british turned into majore privateering havens, while in the caribbean, fort-de-france in martinique, bridgetown in barbados, petit goave in sant dominique and port royal in jamaica were all filled with seaman and captains bearing letters of marque. p152

one of the many drawbacks of being a pirate was that unlike the buccaneers of old, who spent their time raiding the rich treasure ports of the spanish main, the plunder captured usually did not come in the form of coins, which could easily be divided up amongst the crew.  the merchant ships that were the victims of pirate attacks were not the towering spanish treasure galleons of the late 16th century, but everyday trading vessels and transatlantic merchantmen, which sailed through pirate-infested waters to deliver their cargo. p154

the pirate haven on the island of new prividence in the bahamas came about because of a spanish maritime disaster.  on 30 june 1715 the annual spanish treasure flota was homeward bound, heading north up the bahamas channel between florida and grand bahama.  the winds had risen steadily all day, and that evening the fleet ran into a hurricane.  one by one the ships were dashed against the florida coast, and by morning only one of the dozen ships in the flota remained afloat.  it sped back to havana with the news, and the spanish governor wasted no time in sending a salvage expedition to rescue the survivors and to recover the shipwreck silver.  unfortunatey others had the same idea.  in late november a force of some 300 raiders attacked the salvage camp, driving off its small garrison of 60 soldiers and capturing the salvaged treasure.  these men – mainly former privateers from port royal – made off with an estimated 60,00 pieces-of-eight. p155

in november 1715 the privateer-turned-pirate benjamin hornigold arrived off the struggling british settlement on new prividence in teh bahamas and traded with the locals.  by the time he returned a few months later the island population had grown, as a handful of jamaican merchants had established small trading posts there.  by the following summer, when the treasure hunting was in full swing, new providence had grown into a small pirate haven, capable of providing a marketplace for stolen goods, and of supplying the more basic needs of hornigold’s men.  it was inevitable that henry jennings and his salvors would gravitate towards this friendly port, and so new providence grew into a bustling den of pirates, treasure hunters, smugglers and illicit traders.  in june 1716 the governor of virginia wrote to london complaining that pirates had taken over the bahamas, which means that the new pirate den was already well established.  new providence was ideal.  it was close to major trade routes and to the florida wreck sites, and favourable winds allowed an easy passage to these pirate hunting grounds.  its natural harbour of nassau was large enough to hold a hundred ships or more.  the island had a good supply of food, water and timber, vantage points for lookouts, and even a small fort, built by the island’s original (and now heavily outnumbered) settlers.  above all new providence contained a thriving shantytown that provided for the pirates’ ever need. p156

[charles] vane seemed undeterred by being left with a small sloop and a skeleton crew [after calico jack rackham was elected and he was deposed].  he decided to head off towards the gulf of honduras, and so he sailed round the north side of jamaica, capturing a sloop on the way, then made landfall off what is now belize in mid-december 1718.  he established a base on an island that captain johnson called ‘barnacko’, and then used this haven while he raided southwards into the gulf – the home of the logwood cutters.  then disaster struck.. sometime in february 1719 a violent storm hit the two sloops and, after being pummeleled gy the seas for two days, vane and his men were shipwrecked on a small island – probably around what is now lighthouse reef off belize.  as captain johnson claimed, ‘vane himself was saved, but reduced to great straits, for want of necessaries, having no opportunity to get anything from the wreck.’  the pirate castaways survived for several weeks before a ship put in to the island for water.  unfortunately the skipper – a captain holford – recognized vane, and refused to rescue him or his men.  however, the next ship was more obliging, and the marooned men were rescued.  then, in an unlikely twist of fate, the rescue ship encountered the one whose captain had refused to pick up vane and his men, as he knew them to be pirates.  as the two passing ships heaved in the middle of the ocean, the captains yelled greetings to each other, and one invited the other for dinner.  after the feast, as he was returning to his own ship, captain holford spotted vane amongst the crew.  the game was up.  he told the rescuers who the castaways were, and vane and his men were captured.  the pirates were transferred to holford’s ship, which returned to jamaica [hanged march 1720 at port royal] p161-162

whatever the truth behind the lives of anne bonny and mary read [1720], the two women seemed to fascinate, scandalize and titillate contemporary society in equal measure, the most shocking revelation being that both had dressed as men, and had passed themselves off as seamen.  in other words, bonny and read had broken all the rules, and had escaped from the restrictions imposed on the lives of women at the time.  if this was not shocking enough, they had also turned to a life of crime, and had used their bodies to avoid sharing the fate of rackam and his men.  it was little wonder that the newspapers of the day were full of the story, and what was not actually known about the two women was happily made up for the readers.. however, this was probably not the first time that women had followed the black flag.  there was the medieval french noblewoman jane de belleville, who reputedly sided with the english following the invasion of brittany in 1345.  she was supposed to have fitted out three privateers and led them on raids of the normandy coast.  then there was charlotte de berry, a 17th century englishwoman, who according to tradition dressed as a man to follow her husband to sea.  she was captured by a privateer, and after being raped by its captain she engineered a mutiny, which ended with the murder of her assailant.  the trouble with these tales is that they cannot be substantiated, unlike the account of the irish pirate grace o’malley, whose exploits have already been mentioned (see p.35).  another verifiable woman privateeer was lady killigrew, who commanded a ship that operated in the english channel during the mid-16th century.  however, these were very isolated cases, and so female pirates were very much a novelty when bonny and read made the headlines. p167-168

johnson’s description of her [bonny] relationship with ‘calico jack’ rackam is particularly revealing.  ‘here (new providence) she became acquainted with rackam the pirate, who making courtship of her, soon found means of withdrawing her affections from her husband, so that she consented to elope with him, and go to sea with rackam in men’s clothes’.  however, johnson went on to claim that anne became pregnant, and so rackam lodged her with friends in cuba until after the child’s birth.  he also places this before rackam accepted the kind’s pardon, which is virtually impossible given the timing of known events in rackam’s life.  it is much more likely they met after he returned to new providence and signed the pardon. p185

in june 1996 the wreck of what is thought to be the queen anne’s revenge was discovered in the waters off beaufort, and since then the site has been surveyed and systematically excavated.  a bronze bell dated 1705 was found, along with numerous cannons, weaponry, roundshot, and a small venereal syringe.  was it part of the medicine chest  blackbeard demanded from the citizens of charles town?  flakes of gold dust were also found – the kind of thing often carried by the crew of slaves ships who visited the west african coast.  p195

[captain johnson] mentions how they spent their time – living off the land, and amusing themselves by dancing and holding mock pirate trials.  in fact johnson goes into some detail about this bizarre game, which involved the pirates appointing a judge and jury, and then trying one of their own. p247

[thomas tew from newport rhode island]according to captain johnson, tew met up with another pirate off madagascar who had made the same voyage into the indian ocean.  captain james mission and his ship victoire had recently arrived in madagascar, where the french pirate had apparently established a fortified piratical settlement he called ‘libertaria’.  tew and his men certainly spent a few months in madagascar, probably on st marie’s island, and it has even been claimed that tew used the island as a base from which he attacked and captured a dutch east indiaman somewhere off the cape of good hope. p253

not all of these pirates were capable of operating on the high seas – some were little more than collections of local fishermen and bandits, who attacked passing shipping as a means of supplementing their income.  in effect the caribbean had become a dangerous and semi-anarchic place, where a once powerful central authority had been replaced by a patchwork of warlords, revolutionary juntas and petty rulers.  p273

in 1823 the american national newspaper the niles weekly register reported that between 1815 and 1823 over 3,000 acts of piracy had taken place in the gulf of mexico and the caribbean.  in 1820 there were 52 piratical attacks in the florida straits alone, of which 27 were against ships flying the american flag.  that year, insurance premiums were raised to a higher level than during the recent war of 1812, when british and american ships were regularly attacked by each other’s privateers.  p275

modern-day pirates now enjoy all the advantages of technology – radios, radar, satellite navigation, automatic weapons and high-performance boats.  this gives them an advantage over their historical predecessors.  above all there is a lack of regulation on the high seas due to a shortage of interest, of international goodwill and of resources.  p304


About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on February 22, 2010, in pirate, research and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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