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Raiding the South Seas

The buccaneers arrived off Panama shortly before sunrise. It was the morning of 23 April 1680, a day of good omen because it was dedicated to St George, the patron saint of England. The men had been rowing since four o’clock the previous afternoon and had kept going through the night, following the coastline but staying a few miles offshore to avoid detection. As the light increased they could see the church towers and tiled rooftops of the great city. To the east were the ruins of the old town, which had been burnt down following its capture by Sir Henry Morgan. The wooden buildings had gone but prominent among the remaining stone structures was the old cathedral, ‘the beautiful building whereof maketh a fair show at a distance, like unto that of St Pauls at London’.1

Of more immediate concern to the buccaneers were the ships lying at anchor nearby in the lee of the island of Perico. Among the smaller local craft they could see five large merchant ships and three Spanish warships. As soon as the leading canoes of the buccaneers were sighted, the warships weighed anchor and got under sail. The Spanish had been warned of their presence in the area and had orders to intercept them and to give no quarter to those they captured. The ships had the wind behind them and, steering directly for the canoes, seemed intent on running them down.

The buccaneers were exhausted after rowing more or less continuously for twelve hours and there were only sixty-eight of them, the rest having stayed behind at El Real de Santa Maria. Thirty-two of them were in a heavy piragua, a large dugout vessel made from the trunk of a cotton tree. The remaining thirty-six buccaneers were in five canoes commandeered from the local Indians. These were extremely unstable craft. Ringrose recorded, ‘Here in the Gulf it went very hard with us whensoever any wave dashed against the sides of our canoe, for it was nigh twenty foot in length, and yet not quite one foot and a half in breadth, where it was at its broadest so that we had just room to sit down in her, and a little water would easily have both filled and overwhelmed us.’2 His canoe had in fact capsized during their journey to Panama but somehow they had survived and managed to save their weapons.

While the buccaneers were aware that the odds were heavily against them, having come so far they were in no mood to surrender. As John Cox later recalled, ‘we made a resolution rather than drown in the sea, or beg quarter of the Spaniard, whom we used to conquer, to run the extremest hazard of fire and sword’.3 The Spanish forces bearing down on them were overwhelming. They had a total of 228 men on their three ships and they were led by experienced commanders. The leading ship was commanded by Don Diego de Carabaxal, who had a crew of sixty-five men. This was followed by the flagship, commanded by Don Jacinto de Barahona. He was ‘High Admiral of those seas’ and had a crew of eighty-six Biscay men, who were reckoned the best mariners and soldiers among the Spaniards. The third warship was commanded by Don Francisco de Peralta, ‘an old and stout Spaniard, native of Andalucia’. His ship was manned by seventy-seven Negroes.

Although tired and outnumbered, the buccaneers were a formidable fighting force. They appear not to have been affected by the heat, the humidity and the swarms of mosquitoes and they evidently had extraordinary reserves of stamina. They had survived a gruelling march across the Isthmus of Panama during which they had had to cut their way through the jungle. They had crossed mountains and fast-flowing rivers and endured days of being drenched in tropical downpours. Most of them had a long history of raiding coastal settlements and they had recently captured two Spanish towns. They were armed with pistols and cutlasses but their most deadly weapons were their long-barrelled muskets.4 These apparently unwieldy guns were made in France and came to be known as fusils bucaniers. They were extremely accurate in the hands of experienced sharpshooters and had proved deadly during Morgan’s attacks on Spanish treasure ports.

In addition to their proven marksmanship the buccaneers had the advantage of being able to manoeuvre their canoes in any direction – unlike the Spanish ships, which were dependent on the strength and direction of the wind. As the first of the warships bore down on them the buccaneers simply rowed past and got to windward. Four buccaneers were wounded by a broadside from the ship’s guns as she passed but a volley from the buccaneers’ muskets shot dead several men on her decks. The admiral’s ship now drew abreast of the canoes and this time the buccaneers managed to shoot the helmsman. With no hand at the helm the ship rounded up into the wind and lay helpless with her sails aback. The buccaneers rowed up under her stern and shot every man who attempted to take the helm. They also shot through the ship’s mainsheet and the braces (the ropes controlling the sails), an astonishing feat to achieve with muskets from a moving canoe.

The third ship, commanded by Don Peralta, now headed towards the flagship, intending to assist the admiral and his beleaguered crew. But before he could reach the admiral, Peralta’s ship was intercepted by the heavy piragua with its thirty or more buccaneers led by Captain Sawkins, which came alongside, ‘both giving and receiving death unto each other as fast as they could charge’.5 By this time the first ship had tacked and come about and was also intending to come to the aid of the admiral who was observed standing on his quarterdeck waving a handkerchief to attract the attention of his captains. To prevent the two ships joining forces the canoe of Ringrose and the canoe commanded by Captain Springer headed for the first ship and let loose a murderous fire which killed and wounded so many men that there were scarcely enough left to sail the ship. Don Carabaxal decided to take advantage of the freshening wind to flee from the scene of battle and save the lives of the few men who had escaped the buccaneers’ musket balls.

The canoes of Ringrose and Springer now joined the canoes besieging the flagship and, coming close under her stern, managed to wedge her rudder, preventing the crew from getting the ship under way. They also shot dead the admiral and his chief pilot, ‘so that now they were almost quite disabled and disheartened likewise, seeing what a bloody massacre we had made among them with our shot’.6 Having refused up till now to surrender, the few Spaniards who remained alive cried for quarter. Captain Coxon, who was one of the leading buccaneers, climbed on board, taking with him Captain Harris, who had been shot through both legs.

With one ship captured and the other having fled, it was time to deal with the ship commanded by Don Peralta, the ‘old and stout Spaniard’. He and his crew of black Africans were putting up a desperate fight and had three times beaten off attempts by Sawkins and his men to board the ship. Two canoes were despatched and these fired a volley of shot as they came alongside. As they did so there was an explosion on deck which was so fierce that it blew men into the air, some falling on the deck and others falling into the sea. Ignoring the shots directed at him, Don Peralta dived overboard to rescue his men and succeeded in getting several of them back into the ship. While he was rallying his men to renew the fight, another barrel of gunpowder exploded on the foredeck, causing several more barrels to take fire and blow up. Taking advantage of the thick smoke and confusion Sawkins boarded the ship, which surrendered to him.

When Ringrose climbed aboard he discovered that ‘not one man there was found, but was either killed, desperately wounded, or horribly burnt with powder. Insomuch that their black skins were turned white in several places, the powder having torn it from their flesh and bones.’7 He later boarded the admiral’s flagship and found that only twenty-five of the eighty-six Biscay men were still alive, and of those twenty-five only eight were still fit to bear arms, the rest being grievously wounded. ‘Their blood ran down the deck in whole streams, and not scarce one place in the ship was found that was free of blood.’

The battle had begun half an hour after sunrise and ended around noon. Of the buccaneers, eighteen men had been killed and twenty-two wounded. The Spanish casualties could only be guessed at because it was not known how many had died on the warship which had fled, but the accounts of Ringrose, Coxon and Bartholomew Sharp (who missed the battle but rejoined the buccaneers two days later) suggest that the Spanish lost more than 100 dead and a similar number were wounded. In Sharp’s opinion scarcely half a dozen escaped unharmed, ‘the rest being either killed or wounded, or else sadly burnt with the powder’.8 During his time as a prisoner of the buccaneers Don Peralta, who had himself been badly burnt during the fight, constantly praised the valour of his captors. The buccaneers in their turn were impressed by the fierce resistance they encountered, and Ringrose concluded that ‘to give our enemies their due, no men in the world did ever act more bravely than these Spaniards’.9

To capture two warships and force a third to beat a retreat was a considerable achievement but the most useful outcome of the fight was the acquisition of the large merchant ship lying at anchor off Perico. Don Peralta tried to dissuade Captain Sawkins from taking the ship by telling him that it was manned by a crew of 350 but one of his men who lay dying on deck contradicted him. He told Sawkins that all the crew had been taken off to man the warships. When the buccaneers rowed across to the merchant ship they discovered that the dying man was correct and there was no one on board. An attempt had been made to scupper the ship by starting a fire and making a hole in the hull. Having extinguished the fire and stopped the leak, they found themselves in possession of a fine ship of 400 tons called La Santissima Trinidad. With her name anglicised to Trinityshe served as a hospital ship for the wounded and then became the buccaneers’ flagship. During the next two years she would be used for carrying out a series of raids up and down the coast of South and Central America. According to Spanish sources the cost of the damage inflicted by this group of buccaneers on their ports and shipping amounted to more than four million pesos. During the course of the raids at least 200 Spaniards lost their lives and some twenty-five ships were destroyed or captured.10

The Trinity’s cruises along the Pacific coast were frequently interrupted by mutinies and changes in the leadership of the buccaneers. Unlike the autocratic regimes on naval and merchant ships, where the captains ruled supreme, the buccaneers ran their ships on democratic lines. The loot was shared out equally; agreed sums of money were put aside to recompense men who suffered injuries in battle; and captains were voted in and out of office by all members of the crew.11 When he came to write the introduction to his Cruising Voyage Round the World Woodes Rogers was scathing about the buccaneers’ exploits and their democratic ways:

I must add concerning these buccaneers, that they lived without government: so that when they met with purchase, they immediately squandered it away, and when they got money and liquor, they drank and gamed till they spent all; and during those revels there was no distinction between the captain and crew: for the officers having no commission but what the majority gave them, they were changed at every caprice, which divided them, and occasioned frequent quarrels and separations, so that they could do nothing considerable.

He was also scornful of the romantic accounts of their adventures and concluded that ‘they scarce shewed one instance of true courage or conduct, though they were accounted such fighting fellows at home’.12

The first mutiny and change of leadership took place during an eighteen-day visit to the Juan Fernández islands. The buccaneers had been running short of food and water and so they left the coast of Chile and headed out into the Pacific, intending to renew their supplies, carry out necessary repairs and have some respite from coastal raiding. On Christmas Day 1680 they anchored in a bay on the south side of the main island – until a rising onshore wind caused the anchors to drag and they were forced to seek another anchorage. Ringrose was able to take a party ashore to hunt for goats and replenish their supplies of wood and water but was stranded when the ship had to put to sea again because her anchor cable parted. So rough was the weather that it was two days before the shore party could get back on board. The conditions continued to be difficult owing to fierce gusts of winds from the shore every hour or so. This may have contributed to the growing dissent among the buccaneers.

Captain Bartholomew Sharp had taken over the leadership following the death of Captain Sawkins but his authority was under threat. According to Dampier he was ‘by general consent, displaced from being commander; the company being not satisfied either with his courage or his behaviour’. He was replaced by John Watling, a veteran privateer who was considered a stout seaman. On 12 January 1681, ten days after Watling had taken over command, three Spanish warships were sighted, heading towards the island. The buccaneers on board the Trinity fired guns to warn the men ashore. As soon as the shore party had got back on board they weighed anchor and stood out to sea. Deciding on this occasion that discretion was the better part of valour, the buccaneers did not engage the enemy but set a north-easterly course towards the coast of South America. They left behind on the island a Miskito Indian called Will ‘because he could not be found at this our sudden departure’. He had been in the woods hunting for goats. He would be marooned on the island for the next three years.

Will was not the first castaway on Juan Fernández. While they were anchored off the island Ringrose was told by the pilot of the Trinity that, many years before, a ship had been wrecked in the vicinity and only one man had survived. He had lived alone on the island for five years before being rescued.13 Will would have been sorely missed by the buccaneers because they relied on the fishing and hunting skills of the Miskito Indians to supply them with food. Dampier devoted several pages of his journal to a description of this remarkable race. He described them as tall, well-made and strong, with long, copper-coloured faces, lank black hair and stern expressions. They came from the stretch of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua which is still labelled the Costa de Mosquitos on modern maps.14 Brought up as hunters from a young age, they became adept in the use of spears and bows and arrows. So expert were they at catching fish and turtles that one or two Miskito Indians in a ship could feed 100 men. They were also bold in a fight, proved excellent marksmen if they were supplied with guns, and had ‘extraordinary good eyes, and will descry a sail at sea farther, and see anything better than we’.15 They preferred to offer their skills to ships with English commanders and crews, having no love for the French, ‘and the Spaniards they hate mortally’.

Within a week of leaving Juan Fernández the buccaneers had decided that their next objective would be the coastal town of Arica. This was the principal port for the silver mined in the region, and in particular the silver from the mountain at Potosí, which lay some 350 miles inland. The buccaneers had planned a raid on Arica the previous year but had been foiled by heavy seas which had prevented them from landing, and by the defensive precautions taken by the inhabitants, who had been warned of their coming. This time they hoped to take the town by surprise. On 27 January they anchored the Trinity forty miles south of their objective and set off in canoes. They landed at sunrise on a rocky coast a few miles away from Arica, which was a modest settlement of single-storey mud houses defended by a fort. What the buccaneers did not know was that 400 additional soldiers had been despatched from Lima and the town was now defended by 600 armed men and the fort by a further 300. Having left a party of men to guard the boats, ninety-two buccaneers, led by Captain Watling, marched towards the town. Their initial attack was ferocious ‘and filled every street with dead bodies’ but they were soon overwhelmed by the defenders, who threatened to cut off their retreat to the boats. Watling, two quartermasters and twenty-five other buccaneers were killed and eighteen others were gravely wounded. Choking and almost blinded by the dense clouds of dust raised by the guns of the fort, the survivors beat an ignominious retreat, chased by horsemen who kept up a continuous fire until they had launched their canoes and put to sea.

The death of Watling enabled Bartholomew Sharp to resume command of the Trinity – until another mutiny took place. On 17 April they anchored near the Isla la Plata, a barren island on the equator not far from Guayaquil. Here the grumblings of the men came to a head. They were still divided between those who wished to abandon the privateering cruise and head home via the Caribbean, and those who wished to carry on with their coastal raids. The shortcomings of Captain Sharp as a leader continued to be a source of division among them. A council was held on board the Trinity and, in the words of Dampier, ‘we put it to the vote; and upon dividing, Captain Sharp’s party carried it. I, who had never been pleased with his management, though I had hitherto kept my mind to myself, now declared myself on the side of those that were out-voted.’16 This resulted in a major parting of the ways. Fifty-two men, including Dampier and the surgeon, Lionel Wafer, opted to leave the Trinity. Under the command of Captain John Cook they headed north in the ship’s launch and two canoes. They made for the Gulf of San Miguel, where they went ashore and marched across the Isthmus of Panama and back to the Caribbean.

The remaining sixty-five men, including Basil Ringrose, William Dick and John Cox, stayed with Captain Sharp and the Trinity. They headed south. On 29 July 1681 they captured the ship El Santo Rosario, which proved to have on board a prize arguably more precious than gold or silver. It was a volume of Spanish charts covering the entire coast of Central and South America from Acapulco to Cape Horn with ‘a very accurate and exact description of all the ports, soundings, creeks, rivers, capes and coasts belonging to the South Seas’, together with sailing directions on how to work a ship into every port and harbour.17 The information contained in the volume was of such strategic value to an enemy of Spain that, according to Sharp, ‘They were going to throw it overboard but by good luck I saved it.’18 In fact the charts may well have saved the lives of Sharp and two of his associates.

Having sailed the Trinity round Cape Horn and along the coast of Brazil to the West Indies, the buccaneers separated and by March 1682 most of them were back in England. When the Spanish ambassador in London learnt of their return he demanded that they be put on trial for piracy and murder. On 18 May Bartholomew Sharp, John Cox and William Williams were arrested and sent to Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. Sharp had already contacted the chartmaker William Hack and arranged for him to make copies of the Spanish charts, and for English translations to be made of the sailing directions. King Charles II had asked to see the charts and it seems likely that he or his advisers brought some influence to bear on the High Court of Admiralty, which acquitted Sharp and his shipmates of piracy on 10 June. Sharp subsequently dedicated a handsome presentation copy of the charts to the King and was rewarded with a captain’s commission in the Royal Navy. Instead of taking advantage of this he returned to the West Indies and resumed his old buccaneering life. When Admiral Benbow paid a visit to the island of St Thomas in 1699 during his search for the notorious Captain Kidd, he was informed by the Danish Governor that Captain Sharp, ‘the noted pirate’, was living there. Sharp would have been aged fifty-one at the time.

Basil Ringrose did not live to see his journals published. He joined the crew of the 16-gun privateer Cygnet, commanded by Captain Charles Swan, which sailed from England in October 1683. Swan’s attempts to carry out legitimate trading with Spanish towns on the Pacific coast of South America were a total failure, so he joined several English and French buccaneer ships operating off the coast of Mexico. They had hoped to capture the Manila galleon but failed to sight the ship, which slipped past them and arrived safely in Acapulco. On 19 February 1686 Swan and his men captured the small town of Santa Pecaque, fifteen miles inland from the mouth of the Rio Grande de Santiago. A party of the buccaneers were returning from the town, leading horses laden with looted provisions, when they were ambushed by the Spaniards. When Captain Swan and the rest of his men arrived at the place of the ambush ‘he saw all his men that went out in the morning lying dead. They were stripped, and so cut and mangled, that he scarce knew one man.’19 Ringrose was among the dead. He was only thirty-three but he left a remarkable legacy of journals, sailing directions, maps and coastal profiles of the Pacific coast of South America.

Dampier, who survived his years among the buccaneers without injury, was among those members of Swan’s crew who arrived shortly after the ambush had taken place. Since leaving Captain Sharp and the Trinity in April 1681 he had spent a year cruising the Caribbean, lived several months in Virginia and then joined a buccaneer ship commanded by Captain John Cook which was bound for the Pacific. During an extended voyage which took them across the Atlantic to the Cape Verde Islands and the coast of Africa, the buccaneers captured a Danish slave ship of 36 guns which they took over and renamed the Batchelor’s Delight. They sailed her round Cape Horn and headed for the Juan Fernández islands. On 22 March 1684 they sighted the mountain peaks of the island and the next day dropped anchor close inshore in a bay at the southern end. Launching a canoe, they went ashore to look for Will the Miskito Indian.

Will had seen the Batchelor’s Delight approaching under sail the previous day and, believing that she was an English vessel, he had killed three goats and dressed them with cabbage leaves ‘to treat us when we came ashore’. He was waiting to greet them when they landed on the beach. Among the shoregoing party was another Miskito Indian, called Robin. He was the first to leap ashore, and ‘running to his brother Mosquito man, threw himself flat on his face at his feet, who helping him up, and embracing him, fell flat with his face on the ground at Robin’s feet, and was by him taken up also’.20 There are echoes of this touching scene in Robinson Crusoe. It will be recalled that when Crusoe first met Man Friday and rescued him from being killed and eaten by a raiding party of ‘savages’, Friday prostrated himself at Crusoe’s feet and laid his head upon the ground. Friday, like the Miskito Indians, was tall and well-built, with long black hair which was straight rather than curly, and his skin was a dun olive colour.

Dampier’s description of how Will survived his three solitary years would have provided Daniel Defoe with some useful material:

He had with him his gun and a knife, with a small horn of powder, and a few shot; which being spent, he contrived a way of notching his knife, to saw the barrel of his gun into small pieces, wherewith he made a harpoon, lances, hooks and a long knife, heating the pieces first in the fire, which he struck with his gunflint, and a piece of the barrel of his gun, which he had hardened; having learnt to do that among the English.21

With these home-made tools he had caught and killed seals and goats and fish. Half a mile from the sea he had built a small hut which he had lined with goat-skins, and in this he had constructed a bed out of branches which was raised two feet off the ground. The bedding for this was likewise made from goat-skins.

With Will back on board, the Batchelor’s Delight headed north to the Galápagos Islands and then due east to Isla la Plata. It was there that they joined forces with Captain Swan and the Cygnet. For several months the two ships cruised together, making a number of raids on coastal towns and villages until 25 August 1685, when the ships parted company. Dampier elected to join the crew of the Cygnet because he knew Captain Swan intended to sail to the East Indies, ‘which was a way very agreeable to my inclination’. It took them fifty-two days to cross the Pacific to the island of Guam, and from there they sailed on to the island of Mindaneo in the Philippines. The subsequent wanderings of the Cygnet were recorded by Dampier but are not relevant here. Dampier left the crew at the Nicobar Islands and made his way home via Cape Town and the island of St Helena. He returned to England in September 1691. He was aged forty and had been away for twelve and a half years.

While he wrote about earlier and later periods of his life, Dampier left no account of how he spent the next seven years. However, his more recent biographers have discovered that he left London for a few months to join an expedition which was planning to salvage Spanish treasure ships wrecked in the West Indies.22 Before leaving Europe the expedition was hijacked by Henry Avery, who was second mate of one of the four ships which had assembled in the harbour of La Corunna in Spain. Avery led a mutiny of eighty-five sailors, seized one of the ships and sailed off to the Indian Ocean. He subsequently became a pirate legend by capturing a ship belonging to the Great Mogul of India which carried a fabulously rich cargo of gold and silver. Dampier did not join the mutiny but on his return to London in February 1695 he had some difficulty in convincing the High Court of Admiralty that he had not assisted the mutineers. He was acquitted but failed in his attempt to recover his unpaid wages.

During his travels with the buccaneers Dampier had managed to preserve his journals from rain and sea water by enclosing them in lengths of bamboo sealed at the ends with wax. Following advice from a number of eminent scholars and naturalists, he set about preparing his journals for publication. Early in 1697 he published the first of his books, A New Voyage Round the World. It was printed by James Knapton and dedicated to Charles Montague, Earl of Halifax and President of the Royal Society. The book was an immediate success; four editions were published within two years and it was translated into Dutch, French and German. In addition to its popular success the book made Dampier’s reputation. The wandering West Country seaman with a dubious past became a much respected travel writer with an enviable record as a navigator and explorer. He was invited to address a meeting of the Royal Society and Robert Hooke produced a summary of his book for the Society’s Transactions. On 6 August 1698 John Evelyn noted in his Diary, ‘I dined with Mr Pepys, where was Captain Dampier, who had been a famous buccaneer … He was now going abroad again by the King’s encouragement, who furnished a ship of 290 tons. He seemed a more modest man than one would imagine by relation of the crew he had assorted with.’23

Dampier’s fame led to his appointment as the commander of a naval expedition of discovery to New Guinea and Australia. His ill-fated voyage in HMS Roebuck, and his equally disastrous voyage to the Pacific in command of the St George and the Cinque Ports, will be discussed later. Both voyages demonstrated all too clearly his failings as a leader but they did not undermine his standing as a navigator. On returning to England in 1707 he found that the Bristol backers of a new expedition to capture the Acapulco galleon wished to make use of his skills and his experience. This time he would not be the commander of the expedition but would be employed as pilot for the South Seas, a role for which he was uniquely well qualified.

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