Homepage 1450-1600 Barbary Coast Piracy in Decline
The seventeenth century is widely recognized as the “golden age of piracy”. It is the most romanticized of all pirate time periods. This is where we get the images of “peg-legged” pirates with patches over their eyes, a parrot on their shoulder, and a barrel of rum on their ship. This time of piracy was the era of the buccaneer.
One characteristic that helps buccaneers stand out form other pirates is that they usually occupied island bases, like Tortuga or Port Royal. The fact that distinguishes them the most from their pirate fore fathers is their beginning.
The Spanish settled a great portion of the Caribbean during the glorious age of discovery. Christopher Columbus first discovered the island of Hispaniola (present day Haiti) on his first voyage to the new world in 1492. He named an island off the northern coast La Tortuga which in Spanish means the turtle, because from his ship the mountains looked like the shell of a sea turtle. The Spanish colonized these islands, brought slaves over and built plantations. However they were all but abandoned by the 1520’s when the prospect of Gold and Silver in Mexico caught Spain’s attention.
Hispaniola, after being abandoned for nearly a century had returned to a wild state. Forests grew back, and the cattle that the Spanish had brought over multiplied rapidly. This attracted English and French indentured servants on the run. Here they were able to hunt cattle and subsist off of the meat. However using Indian techniques they were able to cure the meat, and trade it and the hides to passing ships. The way this was accomplished was by cutting the meat into long thin strips and cooking it on wooden stoves. These stoves were made from damp sticks that were held up by four forks. The damp wood kept the fire from becoming too hot and drying out the meat to quickly. Than fat and bone was added to the fire in order to create more smoke. This gave the meat a rich flavor like that of beef jerky.
The stoves they used were called were called boucanes and for this they were labeled by the French as boucainers, or in English buccaneers. There was no real piracy involved with buccaneers at this point. However they had established a little trade of their cured meat to merchantmen passing by the island. In 1631 the Spanish, from Santo Domingo, upset that these runaways were profiting from their old settlement attacked the buccaneers on Hispaniola.
After the attack the surviving inhabitants decided they needed to move. They chose the island of Tortuga off the North coast of Hispaniola. Here they continued their hunting of cattle and trading of meat and hides. This is how the buccaneers first stepped into piracy. English ships would stop there to get water, or trade for supplies, and would recruit men off the island for privateer missions.
Soon after the move Tortuga came under the authority of the Providence Company, a joint stock company that hired privateers. This is when people of all nations flocked to the Caribbean Island. Deserters and marooned sailors from the English and French Navy as well as indentured servants from Ireland, Scotland, Holland, runaway slaves and criminals. They all came in hopes of either hunting cattle or more likely joining one of these profitable privateer missions.
The new settlers on Tortuga lived a life that was not too different from the romanticized ones described in books, they lived like Caribbean kings. They grew maize and yams, and tobacco. The fruits of the island were tropical and sweet; Mangos, custard apples, sapodillas, coconuts, very sweet oranges, lemons, bananas, and figs. The surrounding sea was loaded with fish crabs, and lobsters. The forest provided spices, pigeons, wood doves, wild boar, and all sorts of small furred animals. They lived in ajoupas (learned from the Indians) these were palm thatch huts, and they shared everything. They came to call themselves the “Brethren of the Coast’.
They buccaneers of Tortuga began to form their own missions. They had acquired a few ships and from these they terrorized the declining Spanish fleets. The crew chose the Captain of the mission, and during battle his word was law. However when the ship was not in battle he was a normal crew member without any special privileges. The crew, in a crude form of Democracy voted on how to run the ship, and what courses to take.
Although to most this system seemed as though they were unorganized however they were actually quite sophisticated. They had a set of rules that all the crew agreed on, and even a form of insurance. If a sailor was injured in battle, depending on the severity of the injury he was awarded compensation.
The buccaneers’ ships were usually a great deal smaller than the large merchant ships they attacked. However, what they lacked in sheer power they made up for in speed and skill. They usually attacked at night, so they could sneak up on the ship and raid it. When the raid was complete they would return to Tortuga and split up the booty evenly. This continued for the next few decades until finally Tortuga came under permanent French control.
The French sailors stayed on Tortuga and continued to plunder Spanish vessels. However many English sailors chose to move to Port Royal, Jamaica and made that their new base of operations. They also went under a transformation, under the control of such great leaders as Captain Sir Henry Morgan they shifted their focus from Spanish shipping to Spanish colonies. They ransacked many of Spain’s Central American holdings, the most noteworthy was Panama City in 1670. By 1687 citizens of Port Royal did not like the reputation that was now associated with their city. Because of this it was no longer considered a safe base for pirates. On June 7th 1692 three earthquakes rocked Port Royal, killing hundreds, damaging property and more or less ending anymore buccaneer activity in Jamaica.
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