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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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The Buccaneers
By Cindy Vallar

The original buccaneers were hunters who lived on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. Their name came from the boucans they used to smoke the meat of wild animals. These tough, lawless men dressed in rawhide and skins and armed themselves with muskets, knives, and on occasion, swords. Eventually, the Spaniards drove them off Hispaniola, which fueled the buccaneers’ hatred of the Spanish. Those who went to Tortuga formed a brotherhood that became known as the Brethren of the Coast.

By the 1630s, they were no longer hunters, but seamen. They wore coarse shirts, woolen breeches, and hats, or whatever other clothing they acquired from plundering ships. The common weapons of the buccaneering period included the matchlock musket, flintlock pistol, and hanger. The buccaneers initially used small flyboats or pinnaces to sneak up on larger Spanish vessels. Under cover of darkness, they jammed the ship’s rudder to prevent escape and boarded her before anyone aboard raised the alarm. Expert marksmen, they killed the helmsman and officers. Their barbarous reputation, especially when victims failed to yield, grew until surrender became the norm in hopes that the pirates would spare them.

The buccaneers also raided Spanish towns. Their attacks resembled modern commando-style raids: fast, hard-hitting, achieved with surprise. Rather than approach a town from the sea, they landed farther down the coast and attacked from the land. Henry Morgan perfected this type of raid, and his attack on Porto Bello in 1668 was a classic example of how the buccaneers accomplished this feat.

Much of what is known of the buccaneers comes from journals written by men who sailed with them. The best known of these is Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America. Basil Ringrose, another surgeon, sailed with Bartholomew Sharp for two years. He kept a detailed journal of the 1680-1682 journey along the Pacific coast of South America.

By the sixteenth century the Caribbean became known as the Spanish Main, and another hundred years passed before Spanish dominance of these waters ended, in part because of the buccaneers and also because the French and English established colonies in this part of the New World. Unable to protect their new lands, they enlisted the buccaneers to prey on enemy ships while protecting the colonies from attack.

Spanish GalleonThe buccaneers and their predecessors sought the fabulous riches of gold and silver the Spanish loaded aboard their treasure galleons. These ships usually sailed in convoys called Flota. Between 1530 and 1735 the treasure fleet made annual voyages from Seville to the Spanish Main where they split into three groups. One sailed to Porto Bello to collect the silver mined in Peru before sailing to Cartagena to load Ecuadorian gold, Columbian emeralds, and Venezuelan pearls. The second contingent went to Vera Cruz where Mexican silver and Oriental silks and spices awaited shipment to Spain. The smallest group landed at Honduras to collect indigo and spices from Central America. Once their cargoes were stowed on board, they sailed to Havana and reassembled into one convoy bound for Spain.

L'OllonaisThe buccaneers raised cruelty to an art form. They used terror as a weapon, and as a result their brutality became legendary. Two of the worst were L’Ollonais and Braziliano. When Jean David Nau joined the buccaneers in 1692, he became known as L’Ollonais. His career lasted only seven years, but during that time he earned a reputation as one of the cruelest buccaneers.

Rock Braziliano was a Dutch buccaneer during the 1670s, whose thirst for violence made him renowned. His last name came from Brazil, where he lived for a time. He became a buccaneer after quarreling with a captain and making off with the ship’s boat. He once took a ship laden with gold and silver, then was captured and tortured by Spaniards in Campêche and/or Spain where they eventually sent him. He escaped and returned to Port Royal. One of the crueler tortures he inflicted on two Spaniards involved spit roasting them while alive over a fire because they wouldn’t feed him. Exquemelin wrote, “[he] would roam the town like a madman. The first person he came across, he would chop off his arm or leg, and anyone daring to intervene, for he was like a maniac.”

Henry MorganSir Henry Morgan (c. 1635-1688) was perhaps the best known of the buccaneers. A natural leader, this Welshman mounted some of the largest expeditions and garnered fame more from raiding cities than attacking ships. His successes earned him a knighthood and the governorship of Jamaica, but his buccaneering career lasted only ten years. In 1664 he and his men began a two-year voyage that included plundering three cities. On his return to Jamaica, he purchased his first plantation, married his uncle’s daughter, and became friends with the governor. When he was arrested and taken to England seven years later, his influential friends kept him from prison and trial.

One Frenchman, Michel de Grammont, commanded the buccaneers and earned the title “Chevalier.” With Laurens de Graff, he captured 4000 citizens in a raid on Veracruz and held them for ransom. In 1686 during the waning years of the buccaneers, his ship sailed from the Yucatán along with the rest of the buccaneer fleet in an attempt to evade a storm. He became separated from the other ships, and was never heard from again.

A joint expedition between the buccaneers and French navy occurred in 1697. They captured Cartagena and demanded a ransom from its citizens. They delivered to their captors emeralds weighing more than 1000 pounds, a statue of Madonna wearing a silver robe encrusted with precious stones, and gold and silver bullion worth 7,500,000 francs. While the plunder brought the buccaneers great wealth, the attack proved to be their last great raid.

© 2002 Cindy Vallar
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