Sugar, Slaves and Sunken Treasure

The Caribbean was in many ways an ideal location for pirates and it is not at all surprising that it should have been the setting for an explosion of piracy in the early eighteenth century. The string of large and small islands stretching in an arc from the Florida Keys to Trinidad and Tobago enjoyed a sunny climate which was in stark contrast to the grey skies and cold winters of the lands bordering the North Atlantic, or the energy-draining humidity of the jungles of Panama and the Spanish Main. The heat of the sun was tempered by offshore and onshore breezes, while plentiful rain ensured the luxuriant growth of plants, trees and shrubs. Sailors dropping anchor in one of the thousands of bays and lagoons of the Caribbean usually had little difficulty in finding fresh water and food. Coconut groves lined the beaches, turtles and turtles’ eggs were abundant and a variety of fish lived among the coral reefs. There were sheltered coves in hundreds of deserted islands where a pirate ship could hide for weeks undetected, and shelving white sands where the ship could be run ashore so that she could be repaired and cleaned of weed and barnacles.

These attractions were offset by some serious drawbacks: the annual hurricane season sometimes caused widespread destruction of houses, crops and shipping; mosquitoes and sandflies were rife, particularly among the mangroves and swamps which were a feature of many islands; and most deadly of all were the diseases. Malaria and yellow fever were the chief killers but there were also many deaths from dysentery, dropsy and some of the diseases brought over from Africa such as guineaworm and leprosy. It is unlikely that the pirates were too worried about these hazards because most of them were of the same mind as Bartholomew Roberts, who is credited with saying, ‘A merry life and a short one shall be my motto.’ As far as the pirates were concerned the overwhelming attraction of the West Indies was the ever-increasing procession of merchant ships of all sizes waiting to be plundered as they made their way on predictable trade routes to and from the ports of North America, Europe and West Africa.

The Spanish, following in the wake of Columbus, had been the first to establish settlements on the larger islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Jamaica in the years between 1496 and 1515. The British were next on the scene and during the 1620s and 1630s laid claim to Antigua, Barbados, Montserrat, Nevis and St Kitts. The islands were at first valued for the production and export of tobacco, cotton, ginger and indigo, but it was the introduction of sugar plantations in the 1640s which transformed the economy of many of the West Indian islands. Like oil in the twentieth century, sugar was in huge demand in Europe. It made those who controlled its production wealthy and caused islands to be fought over and change hands. In 1655 the British ousted the Spanish from Jamaica and by the end of the century had added Grenada and St Lucia to their Caribbean empire. The French meanwhile had laid claim to Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Barts and had taken over the western part of Hispaniola, Haiti.

The native populations of Arawak and Carib Indians had no defence against the invaders. Columbus had been impressed by the peaceable nature of the Arawaks and had noted, ‘They would make fine servants … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’ The harsh treatment of the Spanish who enslaved them, and European diseases from which they had no immunity, led to their rapid decline. Within a few decades of the arrival of the white men, the Arawaks and Caribs had been wiped out, apart from a few isolated groups on some islands. As slave labour was needed to work on the sugar plantations the Spanish began shipping black Africans across the Atlantic. A report presented to King Ferdinand of Spain as early as 1511 declared that the work of one black slave was equal to that of four Indian slaves – the Indians, in common with most Europeans, lacked the physical stamina to work in the cane fields in the heat of the day.1 In due course the British and French participated in the slave trade and the numbers of black Africans shipped across the Atlantic increased dramatically. Between 1650 and 1675 nearly 370,000 slaves were exported from trading stations on the coast of West Africa. Between 1675 and 1700 the total number of slaves exported rose to 600,000, an annual average of over 24,000 and most of these went to the islands of the Caribbean.2

The slave trade proved to be even more profitable than the sugar plantations. A cargo of slaves from the African coast was worth at least twice as much as the barrels of sugar which occupied the same space – provided that the majority of the slaves survived the voyage.3 The mortality rate on slave ships was around 10 per cent, because the slaves went down with dysentery or smallpox, or were so traumatised by the horrific conditions that they committed suicide.4 The so-called triangular trade operating between Europe, Africa and the West Indies enriched generations of white plantation owners, merchants and shipowners. Many of England’s noble families were involved and were able to build splendid houses on their country estates in the English counties, as well as fine houses on their plantations in the Caribbean. Sugar was a labour-intensive industry and by 1667 the small island of Barbados had 50,100 black slaves and a white population of 15,400.5

The ports serving the sugar-producing islands grew as rapidly as the plantations. By 1692 the population of Port Royal, Jamaica, was around 6,500. The wharves were lined with storehouses, ships’ chandlers and sail lofts. There was an Anglican church, a Roman Catholic chapel, a court house, two prisons, several markets, dozens of shops and taverns and a great number of brothels. Lists of trades and professions at this date show the town had one baker, two barbers, four blacksmiths, eleven coopers, four masons and ten tailors. Not surprisingly for a busy port there were fifty-three mariners, four sailmakers, three shipwrights and four fishermen, but there were also forty-four tavern keepers and 125 merchants. An examination of the ships and cargoes coming in and out of Port Royal in the 1680s gives some idea of the plunder available for privateers and pirates cruising in the vicinity of the Windward Passage. Two hundred and forty ships arrived in the port from England and Africa, and 363 from the North American colonies, in the years between 1686 and 1691. The incoming cargoes included black slaves, wines and beers, muskets and pistols, ploughs and cartwheels, and naval stores such as canvas, tar and cordage. Outgoing cargoes included sugar, tobacco, tortoise shells, hides, cotton, indigo, ginger and pimento. In 1686 no fewer than 225 ships arrived in the Port of London from the West Indies, and when we take into account the ships travelling to and from other ports, such as Bristol, Liverpool, Boston, Charleston and the Atlantic ports of France, Spain and Portugal, we can see why the pirates had no shortage of victims.

Most of the merchant ships travelling to the West Indies from London between 1650 and 1750 ranged from 150 to 200 tons, while those travelling from the smaller ports were mostly of 100 tons or less.6 The crews were relatively small compared with those of privateers and pirate ships. A typical merchantman of eighty to 100 tons would have a crew of eleven or twelve, consisting of the master, the first mate, second mate, a carpenter, cook, half a dozen able seamen and a boy. A larger merchantman of 150–200 tons would have a crew of fifteen to twenty men and this would usually include a gunner and a boatswain in addition to those already mentioned.7 Most ships would be equipped with a few carriage guns and a supply of small arms, but since the crew were unlikely to have had much practice in gunnery or hand-to-hand combat they stood no chance against a privateer or pirate ship armed with anything from ten to forty guns and a crew of between fifty and 150 men armed with muskets, pistols and cutlasses.

In the early years of the eighteenth century it was the privateers rather than the pirates who were the major threat to merchantmen in the Caribbean. During the War of the Spanish Succession the governors of the West Indian islands were generous in issuing privateering commissions, which allowed an enterprising merchant sea captain with a letter of marque and a well-armed ship to make a small fortune from captured prizes, while former pirates who managed to obtain commissions could become patriots and legitimately plunder enemy merchantmen. The Spanish coastguards (guardacostas) who operated around the coasts of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico joined in the privateering bonanza. Instead of restricting their operations to the protection of Spanish shipping many of them launched indiscriminate attacks on vulnerable merchant ships. One commentator observed that the governors of Spanish settlements ‘grant commissions to great numbers of vessels of war, on pretence of preventing interloping trade, with orders to seize all ships or vessels whatsoever, within five leagues of their coasts, which our English ships cannot well avoid coming, in their voyage to Jamaica’.8

The Council of Trade and Plantations in London was besieged by complaints from colonial governors and merchants. ‘We have been sadly pestered by our enemy privateers, who have taken several ships and vessels in sight of the island,’ wrote the Governor of Jamaica in 1710, and he pointed out that French privateers ‘are in swarms around us’.9 Lieutenant Governor Hodges of Montserrat reported that seven privateers from neighbouring French islands ‘having on board between 6 and 700 men made an attack on us about 10 in the morning …’.10 The privateers took forty-five ‘very fine slaves’ from one English family in Montserrat and twenty-five slaves from another family.11 Lieutenant General Hamilton of Antigua complained of ‘the daily insults committed by the enemys privateers’ and pointed out that it was impossible for one man-of-war to adequately guard the islands because the privateers ‘narrowly watch the motion of the man of war, that when she is to windward they are commonly to leeward and appear even at the mouths of our very harbours’.12 A merchant from the same island wrote, ‘The Caribee Isles are so much troubled with the French privateers from Martinico, that no vessels can pass in or out of them.’13

Edmund Dummer, the founder of the mail service to the West Indies, received increasingly alarming reports from the captains of his packet boats and passed the information on to Mr Popple, the Secretary of the Council of Trade and Plantations. In 1709 he said he had been receiving great complaints from Jamaica and the Bahamas about the recent Act of Parliament for the encouragement of privateers, ‘which tends to the ruin of all trade with the Spanish West Indies, disabling the men of war and merchant ships of seamen …’.14 A year later he had received news of ‘the multitude of privateers upon and about the Leeward Islands, by whom they fear every day to be plundered as St Eustatius has been. And from Jamaica they say their trade with the Spaniards is nearly ruined by our own privateers, for under that licence all nations, French, Dutch, Spanish and English consort together …’15 He was in no doubt that privateers posed a serious threat for the future and issued a gloomy warning: ‘It is the opinion of everyone, this cursed trade will breed so many pirates that when peace comes we shall be in more danger from them than we are now from the enemy …’16

Dummer’s warning would prove to be justified but the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 did not result in a sudden and dramatic rise in piracy. For two years there was an ominous lull in pirate attacks. The Royal Navy laid off thousands of sailors, and privateering commissions against enemy merchant ships ceased to be valid, but the former privateers and the unemployed sailors thronging the seaports on both sides of the Atlantic did not immediately turn to piracy. The newspapers and the correspondence of colonial governors were surprisingly free of reports of pirates during 1713–14. There was a rumour passed on from Jamaica that hundreds of pirates were gathering in the Gulf of Darien, and an ominous report from the Governor of Bermuda that three sets of pirates using open boats had been operating among the Bahamas and warning that these islands might become ‘a nest of pirates’. But there was very little else.

Two separate events appear to have sparked off the surge in piracy which began to gather way in 1716 and was in full swing by 1717–18. The first was the wrecking of the Spanish treasure fleet on the coast of Florida in 1715, and the second was the expulsion by the Spanish of the logwood cutters from the Bay of Campeche and the Bay of Honduras. Both these events led a considerable number of tough and potentially dangerous men to head for the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. The sheltered harbour at Nassau became the meeting place for a miscellaneous group of treasure hunters, logwood cutters, privateers and unemployed seamen. This group spawned a generation of pirates who would be made famous by Captain Charles Johnson’s book of 1724, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Their exploits would lead to Captain Woodes Rogers being despatched to the Bahamas with a squadron of naval ships and orders to drive the pirates from the islands.

The wrecking of the Spanish treasure fleet was one of a series of maritime disasters which took place during the early years of the eighteenth century. In November 1703 southern England and the English Channel were swept by the Great Storm which wrecked three warships on the Goodwin Sands, destroyed the Eddystone Lighthouse, sank or wrecked numerous coastal vessels and fishing boats, flooded much of the east coast and caused a loss of life which was estimated at anything between 8,000 and 15,000. Then in 1707 Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was returning with a fleet of warships from the Mediterranean when three of his ships foundered on the rocks of the Scilly Isles with the loss of 1,315 men, including the admiral himself. This disaster was the result of navigational error and would lead to the Longitude Act of 1714, which offered a generous financial reward to anyone who could solve the problem of accurately determining longitude at sea. In 1712 Jamaica was devastated by a hurricane which sank or drove ashore fifty-four vessels in Port Royal harbour, including a naval sloop.17 Two slave ships were among those sunk: half the crew and 100 slaves on the Ann Galley were drowned and the Joseph Galley lost all her crew and 107 slaves who were chained below deck. And then in the summer of 1715 came the news that all ten ships of the Spanish treasure fleet which had set out from Havana on 24 July had been driven ashore on the reefs off the coast of Florida. It was one of the worst shipwreck disasters in Spanish history.

The war had held up the annual sailings of the treasure fleet from the New World for three years and so the fleet which sailed in 1715 carried an unusually rich cargo. There were chests of gold and silver coins, gold bars and gold dust; there were pearls, Colombian emeralds and gold jewellery from Peru; and from the Manila galleons there were silks, spices and precious K’ang-Hsi Chinese porcelain. In overall command of the fleet was Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla and on his ship alone were 1,000 chests of silver coins, each chest containing some 3,000 coins. The total value of the cargo carried by the entire fleet is estimated to have been seven million pieces of eight, which in today’s terms would be worth more than £135 million.

Making use of the Gulf Stream, the fleet sailed north in calm weather until the morning of 30 July, when the sun disappeared ‘as though behind a muslin cloud’ and the ships began to roll in an increasingly heavy swell. By noon it was so dark that the ships were ordered to light their stern lanterns. By evening the wind had increased to storm force and the ships were labouring in mountainous waves. A survivor would later recall: ‘It was so violent that the water flew in the air like arrows, doing injury to all those it hit, and seamen who had ventured much said they had never seen the like before.’18 During the night the fleet was scattered before the full force of the hurricane and driven towards the lines of breakers along the Florida coast. The first ship to hit the reefs was the former British warship Hampton Court of 70 guns. She had been captured by Dunkirk privateers in 1707 and sold to Spain. Dismasted and rudderless, she was broken on the rocks and 223 of her officers and men lost their lives.19 By the morning of 31 July all ten ships had been driven ashore or sunk. More than 1,000 men died in the storm and the survivors were scattered along an inhospitable shore between St Augustin and Palmar de Ayes (near present-day Sebastián).

The senior officer to survive the storm was Admiral Don Francisco Salmon and he sent the flagship’s pilot and eighteen men in a boat to Cuba to inform the Governor of the disaster. It took ten days for the boat to reach Havana and the response was immediate. Ships with government officials and soldiers were despatched, and divers were rounded up to dive on the wrecks. By late October over five million pieces of eight and considerable quantities of gold and silver had been recovered. News of the loss of the treasure fleet spread rapidly across the Caribbean and along the east coast of North America. Casual looters and more organised expeditions set out to find and plunder the wrecks.

In Port Royal the captain of HMS Diamond reported that sailors were deserting his ship at the rate of five a day. He was concerned that if he stayed a week longer in harbour he would not have enough crew to sail the ship home. In a report to the Admiralty he observed that the mariners in the vicinity were ‘all mad to go a wrecking, as they term it, for the generality of the island think they have [the] right to fish upon the wrecks, though the Spaniards have not quitted them’.20 Lord Hamilton, the Governor of Jamaica, was determined to benefit from the gold rush and, after failing to persuade the commanders of the naval ships at Port Royal to head for Florida, he decided to send privateers to loot the wrecks. He had for some time been assembling a small fleet of armed merchantmen as a defence against raids by Spanish privateers and pirates, and he had no difficulty in persuading the captains of two of these local vessels to ‘go a wrecking’. Their privateering commissions officially directed them ‘by force of arms to seize, take and apprehend all pyratical ships and vessels’ but this was used as a cover for what amounted to an unofficial treasure-hunting expedition.

The leader of this expedition was Henry Jennings, ‘a man of good understanding, and a good estate’, who was the commander of the forty-ton ship Barsheba, which was armed with 8 carriage guns and carried a crew of eighty men. He was accompanied by the thirty-five-ton sloop Eagle, with 12 guns and eighty men under the command of John Wills.21

Near the entrance of the Florida Straits the privateers intercepted a Spanish mail boat. Her commander, Pedro de la Vega, not only knew where the main camp for the Spanish salvage operations was situated but he was persuaded to lead them to the spot. As the three ships sailed north along the coast they passed the remnants of two of the ships wrecked in the storm as well as the remains of camp fires and wooden crosses marking the graves of victims of the disaster. By the evening of 26 December 1715 they were in the vicinity of the Spanish camp, a fortified enclosure guarded by some sixty soldiers.

Jennings treated the raid like a military operation. He anchored the ships offshore and waited till the early hours of the morning to make his attack. One hundred and fifty armed men were selected for the raid and were divided into three companies. Armed with muskets and cutlasses, they rowed ashore in three boats and landed at daybreak. With a drummer and a flag bearer at the head of each company they marched towards the camp, causing such panic that many of the Spaniards fled. Admiral Don Francisco de Salmon realised he stood no chance against such a force and surrendered. He asked Jennings whether war had been declared but was told that the privateers had simply come to fish on the wrecks and claim the mountain of wealth. The Spanish admiral declared that the treasure belonged to His Catholic Majesty the King of Spain. He offered them 25,000 pieces of eight if they would leave peacefully but the offer was refused. He had no alternative but to reveal the whereabouts of the chests of silver which had been buried within his camp. The privateers sailed away with treasure valued at 120,000 pieces of eight as well as four bronze swivel guns.

The Barsheba and Eagle headed first for the Bahamas, the nearest islands under nominal British control. After a brief stay in the harbour of Nassau they sailed on to Jamaica and arrived at Port Royal on 26 January 1716. It was evident to Lord Hamilton that the very large amount of treasure brought back in such a short time could not have been salvaged by fishing on the wrecks but must have been stolen from the Spanish ashore. He would later declare that he took no share of the treasure himself ‘for that I heard it was taken from the shore’, but he made no move to arrest Jennings and White for exceeding their commission and committing piracy.

Two months later Jennings headed off on another cruise to the Spanish treasure wrecks, this time accompanied by the fifty-ton sloop Mary, and the smaller sloops Discovery and Coco Nut. Off the north-eastern coast of Cuba he encountered Sam Bellamy and Paul Williams, two pirates in command of a band of men who had been attacking small merchant ships using piraguas. The privateers and the pirates joined forces to capture a handsome French merchant ship, the St Marie, which was commanded and part-owned by Captain D’Escoubet of La Rochelle.22 The ship was cut out from her anchorage in naval fashion by Bellamy’s pirates, who came alongside in their native canoes and let loose a fusillade of musket shot. Most of the crew of the St Marie were ashore and D’Escoubet surrendered without firing a shot. The pirates found themselves in possession of a ship of 16 guns, which they later increased to 32 guns, as well as a valuable cargo and 30,000 pieces of eight. To maintain the now shaky pretence that he was still a legitimate privateer Jennings forced D’Escoubet to write a letter to Lord Hamilton which assured him that ‘those gentlemen treated me very civilly’ and explaining that the privateers ‘took my vessel because she was fit for the expedition they were going on’.23

Before returning to Jamaica with his prize, Jennings again called in at Nassau to stock up on water and provisions and divide up the loot. The harbour and the town which stretched along the waterfront had become home to an ever-increasing number of pirates and was rapidly gaining a reputation as a den of iniquity. While Jennings was ashore his crew ransacked the cargo of his French prize. By the time he returned and managed to restore order much of the loose coin and some of the cargo was missing. He decided to cut his losses and headed back to the Spanish treasure wrecks. His arrival in the Barsheba with the St Marie and another Jamaica privateer apparently frightened off the Spanish guardships because an observer later reported that twenty-four English vessels, some from Jamaica and some from Bermuda, were fishing on the wrecks, presided over by the St Marie, which would ‘not permit either French or Spaniards to come here’. When Jennings eventually returned to Jamaica he received a hostile reception. The Spanish Governor of Havana had learnt that Lord Hamilton was part-owner of the ships which had raided the treasure camp on the Florida coast. He demanded the return of the treasure and the punishment of the perpetrators. And the French Governor of Hispaniola had sent a delegation to Jamaica which included Captain D’Escoubet, demanding that the St Marie and her cargo, and another stolen French vessel, be restored to their rightful owners.

In addition to his involvement in the looting of the treasure wrecks Lord Hamilton was suspected, with good reason, of supporting the Jacobite plot of 1715 to dethrone King George I and replace him with James Stuart, the son of the deposed King James II. Hamilton was related to many of the Scottish leaders of the rebellion and his enemies believed that he had intended to use his flotilla of privateers to further the Jacobite cause in Jamaica and other West Indian colonies. In July 1716 the British warship Adventuresailed into Port Royal bearing an arrest warrant for Hamilton. He was to be sent back to England and replaced as Governor of Jamaica by Peter Heywood. A few weeks later another ship brought a proclamation which declared that Henry Jennings and his associates were henceforth to be regarded as pirates. By this time the former privateers were back in the Bahamas, their ships and their crews swelling the numbers of vessels and disaffected men who would pose a serious threat to the trade of the West Indies.

Meanwhile the Spanish had decided to seek revenge for the attacks on the treasure wrecks by sending a force to root out the mainly English logwood cutters from the coastal jungles of the Bay of Campeche and the Bay of Honduras. Dampier had spent a year as a young man working alongside these men who toiled in the most difficult conditions imaginable. On the banks of creeks infested with alligators and mosquitoes they were subject to intense heat and tropical storms. ‘During the wet season, the land where the logwood grows is so overflowed, that they step from their beds into the water perhaps two feet deep, and continue standing in the wet all day, till they go to bed again.’ Dampier described the logwood cutters as strong and sturdy and able to carry burdens of three or four hundredweight. Most of them were former sailors and when they were not earning a hard living from felling trees they would spend days on end getting blind drunk on rum. Unable to continue this work, not surprisingly they turned to piracy. In the words of Captain Johnson, ‘being made desperate by their misfortunes, and meeting with the Pyrates, they took on with them’. And Johnson neatly summed up the circumstances which created the pirate community at Nassau: ‘The rovers being now pretty strong, they consulted together about getting some place of retreat, where they might lodge their wealth, clean and repair their ships, and make themselves a kind of abode. They were not long in resolving, but fixed upon the Island of Providence, the most considerable of the Bahama Islands …’24

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