|Pirates and Privateers
The History of Maritime
Cindy Vallar, Editor
P.O. Box 425,
Keller, TX 76244-0425
Cartographer, Huguenot, Corsaire
April 1573. Dawn.
Bells clang. Deep. Many.
The ambushers stir. Get
into position. They wait and
Mules appear. They
trudge along the earthen road.
Sure-footed. Steady. Laden with
heavy packs that rock as the mules
With them come soldiers.
Fewer. Scattered among the browns,
grays, and blacks. Helmeted.
Breast-plated. Muskets. Lances.
Closer . . . closer . .
. close . . .
Alack, we must not get ahead of ourselves.
Better to begin our story earlier. In a
small fishing village on the coast of Normandy,
France around 1509, the birth of a son is
He is named Guillaume Le Testu (sometimes
styled as Têtu, Tetu, or Tutila).
Scant details of his early life have
survived, although he attended the École
de Dieppe, a group devoted to
cartography. Le Testu was one of several
cartographers who became known for maps
that showed France’s efforts to colonize
newfound lands. In 1550, he received a
royal commission from King Henri II to map
the coastline of Brazil. Upon his return,
he worked on a nautical atlas, which was
published in 1556 and dedicated to Gaspard
II de Coligny, the Admiral of France
and a leader of the Huguenots
(French Protestants) during the Wars
of Religion. La
contained fifty-six maps of the world,
including newly discovered lands.2
This atlas was (and is) considered an
important work, even though Le Testu
integrated twelve charts of Jave le
Grand/Terra Australis, of which he
admitted were created “only by
imagination” because “there has never yet
been any man who has made a certain
discovery of it.” (Siebold)
That same year he was designated “Pilote
royal” for Le Havre. Philippe
Strozzi, a general and cousin of Catherine
de Médeci, considered Le Testu a “très
excellent pilote.” (Anthiaume, 139)
Among his duties was the supervision of
the other pilots who guided vessels into
and out of the port. He also oversaw the
anchoring and docking of vessels visiting
Le Havre, and trained people to assist him
in his duties. He held this position for
In 1557, Le Testu participated in an
expedition to France Antarctique (a small
island in the bay of Rio de Janeiro,
Durand de Villegaignon had founded
the colony two years earlier, and the
purpose of this voyage was to strengthen
the colony. While there, Le Testu could
have taken part in raids on Spanish
shipping and settlements.
Ten years later, the Second
War of Religion broke out in France.3
IX, who now ruled, dawdled in
implementing the promised freedoms
dictated in the Edict of Amboise, which
ended the First War of Religion. At the
same time, alterations to those freedoms
were instituted. Rumors also spread that
he and his mother, Catherine de Médeci,
intended to slaughter all heretics (this
was how some Catholics viewed their
Protestant counterparts, the Huguenots)
not only in France, but also in Spain.
When war broke out anew, Le Testu joined
the Huguenots and fought at sea, where he
was captured by Spaniards, who accused him
of attacking and plundering their
country’s vessels. He was taken to
Flanders (Belgium) in the Spanish
Netherlands where he was incarcerated.
For whatever reason, King Charles sent his
ambassador to seek Le Testu’s release in
1570. He had committed the alleged
attacks, but the ambassador decried such
accusations as “pure calomnie”
(sheer slander). After a visit to see Le
Testu, the ambassador wrote to his majesty
that “ils le laissent mourir de faim
dans la prison” (they let him starve
in prison). (Augeron, 456). On hearing
this, Charles let his counterpart in
Spain, Felipe II, know that if Le Testu
died, Charles would be “très mécontent
et aur[ait] une juste raison d’être très
indigné” (very unhappy and have just
cause to be indignant). (Augeron, 456) Felipe
II finally acquiesced and pardoned
Le Testu in January 1571.
After all his suffering, Le Testu hated
Spaniards and was determined to seek
vengeance for what he had endured. He set
sail for the Caribbean and became a flibutor
or fribustier (a French
pirate or freebooter in the Americas,
especially in the second half of the
In March 1573, Le Testu was aboard his
ship, the Havre, with seventy men,
all of whom were in desperate straits.
They had no water, which forced them to
drink a concoction of cider and wine that
had soured and made them sick. On the
25th, strange sails were sighted. The
visitors proved to be English pirates led
Drake, who sent over the much-needed
Even though the two
captains shared commonalities – a hatred
of Spain and a belief in a Protestant God
– they remained wary of each other. The
French outnumbered the English (70 to 31),
but were weak from thirst and sickness.
Testu’s eighty-ton Havre surpassed
Drake’s vessels, a twenty-ton frigate (a
captured prize newly built) “and our
Pinnace nothing neere ten Tun.”4
(Think blue whale versus a barracuda and a
cod.) On the other hand, if Drake wished
to succeed in capturing Spanish silver, he
needed reinforcements; his prior attempts
had ended in failure. The first step in
establishing amity had already been taken.
It was time for Le Testu to make the next
move. He did so by gifting Drake a brace
of pistols and a scimitar that once
belonged to the late French king, Henri
II. Drake’s offering was “a chaine of Gold
and a Tablet which he wore.” (Nichols,
Now, the two captains could meet
face-to-face on equal footing. They
chatted about news from home, including
the murder of Admiral Coligny, who was
slaughtered in Paris the prior August
during the Saint
Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.6
(Already wounded from an assassination
attempt, Coligny was beaten and tossed out
Eventually, Drake got down to business. He
had a single goal: to capture one of the
daily mule trains (recuas) that
transported gold and silver from the city
of Panamá across the isthmus to Nombre
de Dios, where the treasure was
loaded onto ships for transport to Havana
and then Spain. Once he met with Le Testu
and gauged his willingness to strike out
against the Spanish, Drake believed their
combined crews would succeed where his
previous attempts had failed.
Le Testu selected twenty of his men to
accompany him and Drake and his company of
fifteen. Cimarrones (escaped
slaves), who trusted Drake but were wary
of the French, also joined the expedition
to fight, scout, and guide the Europeans.
During their absence, Drake told Robert
Doble, who was left in command of the
frigate, “to stay there, without
attempting any chase untill the returne of
our Pinnaces.” (Nichols, 317) The
expedition party traveled in pinnaces
along Rio Francisco until it was time to
disembark. Drake told those remaining
behind to return in four days.7
Le Testu, Drake, and their men headed
toward el Camino Real (the Royal
Road), which required them to traverse
jungle terrain for seven leagues (roughly
They reached their destination on 29 April
in the evening. Five miles southwest of
Nombre de Dios, they were close enough to
hear the knocking of hammers on wood as
carpenters repaired ships of the treasure
fleet. (It was cooler to work in the
evening than during the hottest part of
the day.) Drake believed that since the
Spaniards didn’t expect anyone audacious
enough to attack the recuas so
close to the city, they were not likely to
have a vanguard of soldiers patrolling
ahead of the mules.8
Drake was both wrong and right in his
assumptions. His belief in the absence of
soldiers ahead of the mules was correct.
His belief in a single train was
incorrect. On this particular day, the
pirates struck the mother lode. Instead of
one recua, there were three: “one
of fifty Moyles, the other two of seaventy
each, every of which caryed 300. pound
waight of silver, which in all amounted to
neere thirty Tun.” (Nichols, 318)
The land chosen for the ambush was open
fields where little natural cover existed.
A few of the forty-five ambushers seized
the mules at the head and end of the recuas.
These animals halted and laid down; those
in between did the same.
Thus, we arrive at the point where our
To be continued . .
1. In 1517, King
Francis I had a new harbor built and
named it Havre-de-Grâce. It became an
important seaport providing access to
La Manche (the English Channel), and
is better known as Le Havre.
2. The full title of
Le Testu’s book is Cosmographie
universelle selon les navigateurs
tant anciens que modernes (Universal
Cosmography according to both
ancient and modern navigators).
Le Testu identifies himself as a “pilote
. . . de la ville françoise de Grace,”
meaning a pilot from the French
village of Grace.
In addition to the maps, Le Testu
included artwork depicting people in
local costumes, their weapons,
battles, flora, fauna, fish, boats and
ships. For example, one depiction is
of Francisco Pizarro’s brutal
subjugation of the Inca and is “one of
the first visual representations of
the horror of the Conquest.” (Whatley,
The reason for the inclusion of
fictional elements on the maps, as
well as the artwork, was “to inspire
hesitant French monarchs to finance
expeditions and underwrite colonies.”
3. The French Wars
of Religion covered a
thirty-six-year period of civil unrest
between the Catholics and Protestants
of France. Eight wars were fought
between 1562 and 1598. At the time,
18,000,000 people lived in France;
upwards of 4,000,000 died during the
4. In this time
period, a pinnace was a light boat
that could be transported unassembled
in a vessel’s hold until needed. It
was used to ferry men and supplies
from ship to shore, or to go in
shallower water where larger vessels
5. Philip Nichols,
a minister, collected remembrances
from Christopher Ceely, Ellis Hixom,
and others who accompanied Francis
Drake on his third voyage to the
Caribbean in 1572 into a single
volume. Drake edited the manuscript
prior to his death. The original
manuscript, which provided the best
retelling of the raid, was given to
Queen Elizabeth in 1593.
6. This pogrom
against Huguenots was but one event in
France’s Wars of Religion. The
slaughter took place on 24 August
1572, and only one royal ever wrote
about what occurred. Marguerite de
Valois was the daughter of the Queen
Mother, Catherine de Médeci; sister of
the King, Charles IX; and the six-day
bride of Henri III, king of Navarre.
She was Catholic; he was Protestant.
Theirs was a political union meant to
cement peace between the two sides.
Instead, wholesale murder occurred,
first in Paris and then spreading to
the provinces. She wrote in her
King Charles . . . now
convinced of the intentions of the
Huguenots, adopted a sudden
resolution of following his
mother’s counsel . . . [T]he
“Massacre of St. Bartholomew” was
that night resolved upon.
. . .
chains were drawn across the
streets, the alarm-bells were
sounded, and every man repaired to
his post, according to the orders
he had received, whether it was to
attack the Admiral’s quarters, or
those of the other Huguenots. M.
de Guise hastened to the
Admiral’s, and Besme, a gentleman
in the service of the former, a
German by birth, forced into his
chamber, and having slain him with
a dagger, threw his body out of a
window to his master.
perfectly ignorant of what was
going forward . . . The Huguenots
were suspicious of me because I
was a Catholic, and the Catholics
because I was married to the King
of Navarre, who was a Huguenot.
This being the case, no one spoke
a syllable of the matter to me.
when I went into the bedchamber of
the Queen my mother . . . my
sister seized me by the hand and
shedding a flood of tears [cried]:
“For the love of God . . . do not
stir out of this chamber!” . . .
The Queen again bade me go to bed
in a peremptory tone. My sister
wished me a good night, her tears
flowing apace, but she did not
dare to say a word more; and I
left the bedchamber more dead than
as I reached my own closet, I
threw myself upon my knees and
prayed to God to take me into his
protection and save me; but from
whom or what, I was ignorant . . .
As soon as I beheld it was broad
day . . . I bade my nurse make the
door fast, and I applied myself to
take some repose. In about an hour
I was awakened by a violent noise
at the door, made with both hands
and feet, and a voice calling out,
“Navarre! Navarre!” My nurse,
supposing the King my husband to
be at the door, hastened to open
it . . . a gentleman . . . ran in,
and threw himself immediately upon
my bed. He had received a wound in
his arm from a sword, and another
by a pike, and was then pursued by
four archers . . . I jumped out of
bed, and the poor gentleman after
me, holding me fast by the waist.
I did not then know him; neither
was I sure that he came to do me
no harm, or whether the archers
were in pursuit of him or me. . .
. I screamed aloud, and he cried
out likewise, for our fright was
mutual. At length . . . M. de
Nangay, captain of the guard, came
into the bed-chamber, and, seeing
me thus surrounded, . . . was
scarcely able to refrain from
laughter. However, he reprimanded
the archers very severely for
their indiscretion, and drove them
out of the chamber. At my request
he granted the poor gentleman his
life, and I had him put to bed in
my closet, caused his wounds to be
dressed, and did not suffer him to
quit my apartment until he was
perfectly cured. I changed my
shift, because it was stained with
the blood of this man, and . . .
[a]s [I] passed through the
antechamber . . . a gentleman of
the name of Bourse, pursued by
archers, was run through the body
with a pike, and fell dead at my
feet. As if I had been killed by
the same stroke, I fell, and was
caught by M. de Nangay before I
reached the ground. . . . (de
Valois, Letter 5)
A mob consisting of Paris residents
and soldiers went on a frenzy, killing
nearly all Protestants in the city.
Estimates of the slaughtered totaled
nearly 70,000. High-ranking Catholics
throughout Europe, including Pope
Gregory XIII and Felipe II of Spain,
rejoiced at the news. Authorities in
Protestant nations, especially
England, denounced the atrocity.
7. No Panamanian
river has this name today. It has been
suggested that Rio Francisco is most
likely Rio Cuango today.
8. The Spaniards
called these mule trains recuas.
They regularly departed Panamá for
Nombre de Dios, where the cargo was
transferred onto waiting treasure
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John. “More Light
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