The Buccaneers

The Coming of the Buccaneers. 1630-1641
We have seen in our previous meeting how the Spanish conquered all the kingdoms of Hayti and reduced the Tainos to slavery. The Spanish quickly plundered the island and used it as a port to control their other possessions in the New World. They established the capital of the colony in the eastern part of the island in a city they named Santo Domingo, (in present day Dominican Republic). Meanwhile, Hernan Cortes’s conquest of Mexico and Peru in 1521, resulted in the Spaniards abandoning Espanola for these richer lands. The Indians were decimated and the reserves of gold had quickly expired by 1548. The prestige and importance of Santo Domingo had thus lessened in the eyes of Spain. The colonists left the island by hundreds for Mexico and Peru.The Spaniards had abandoned north and western part of the island by the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Although thousands of Spaniards still lived in and around Santo Domingo in the sought, those parts of the island were nearly deserted. In those areas, there were ruined plantations.. These regions were quickly invaded by dense tropical forests and thickets sunk back to their primeval desolation. The only closely settled regions in the island lay in the plains of the south east behind the city of Santo Domingo. There were a few scattered cattle ranches stretching back to the northern woods and these afforded a link with the illicit Dutch traders who frequented various harbors on the coast. Corsairs often visited those ports for the purpose of watering, victualling and refitting their ships. Many stragglers from their crews remained behind and were joined by refugees from wrecked vessels by fugitive black slaves, cimarones or maroons who had escaped the Spanish settlements. Men who had been marooned as a punishment also joined them; these men were thrust ashore from the ships to fend for themselves on the desolate coast among the maroons.

The forests roamed of vast herds of wild cattle and swine. These were descendants of the farm animals left behind when the Spanish settlers moved away. They became free to wander on their ownand these animals quickly returned to the wild. And since they were without natural enemies, they multiplied until Haiti swarmed with cattle and pigs. The wanderers of the island found a precarious means of survival by hunting them for their meat. This precarious mode of life quickly transformed them into a wild and lawless company of dwellers in the woods. Before 1631 they were simply known as the “cow killers”. Later the English and the Dutch applied a specialized name to them calling them buccaneers. Here there seems to be a disagreement between anglophone and Francophone writers. Anglophone writers seem to call everyone associated with cow killing in the island buccaneers. The pirates wandering the seas are not distinguished from the sedentary hunter of the island. The Francophone writers on the other hand distinguish between “flibustier” and “boucanier”. Pirates were called flibustiers because they were accustomed to use light craft like the Dutch “fly-boats” in their attacks upon the Spanish vessels that came near their coasts. Did the French word “filibuster” originated from the English word “fly-boat”? That seems acceptable. Similarly, Francophone writers called boucanier the hunters of the island. We will use the English term in this paper that is buccaneer, which encompasses both the sea pirates and the hunters.The buccaneers are so called from the word boucan, which is a sort of wooden grid iron made of several sticks placed upon four forks upon which the buccaneers broiled their hogs. They fed themselves without eating any bread. At first, they were an unorganized horde from all countries made expert and active by the necessity of their exercise which was to go in chase of cattle to obtain their hides and from their incessant chase by the Spaniards. Since they would never tolerate any chiefs they passed for undisciplined men. Most of them took refuge in the islands and were reduced to this condition to avoid the punishments due for the crimes, which they had committed in Europe. Most of them were homeless and possessed only the products of their hunts. They slept precariously under sheds covered with leaves to keep off the rain and to store the skin of the beasts they had killed. There they waited for some vessels to pass and exchange with wine, brandy, and line arms with them.Their attire consisted of a pair of drawers and a shirt at the most, shod with the skin of a hog’s leg fastened on the top and behind the foot with strips of the same skin. It was girded around the middle of their body with a sack serving them to sleep in as a defense against the innumerable insects, which bit and sucked the blood of uncovered body parts. In the decade between 1620 and 1630 the buccaneers mostly frequented the harbors on Espanola’s coast. The Dutch settled near Cape San Nicolas where there were salt-pans; the French were at La Gonave to the west of the island and the English at Samana in the east. All three nations particularly visited the harbor of Tortuga, an island close to the north coast of Espanola. A year before 1630 the hunters had established something of a rough place of settlement on Tortuga where there grew up a systematic victualling trade between them and the rovers. Early in 1631 the Spaniards from Santo Domingo raided this new nest of robbers and drove them out leaving a small garrison of twenty-five soldiers to prevent their return.

When the Spaniards destroyed the English settlement in Nevis in 1629, Anthony Hilton, a ship master and leader of the colony decided to find another place where he could combine planting with piracy and he determined to establish himself in Tortuga. Hilton’s new colony in Tortuga was brought under the control of the Providence Company in 1631 and it rapidly grew as wandering Englishmen and Frenchmen were attracted to it by the opportunities it afforded of finding employment on the privateers who made it their base. There were constant desertions of indentured servants from the hard discipline and constant labor of St. Christopher and Barbados and the laxity and excitement of life in Tortuga which alternated logwood cutting and cattle hunting in the Espanola forests with the prospects of adventure and booty at sea made the new settlement the goal of every fugitive scoundrel in the Caribbean.The island was the scene of disorder and excess of every kind and in 1633 the Audiencia of Santo Domingo resolved that the desperadoes must be cleared out once more and a ruthless lesson taught to any who were tempted to follow their pernicious example. But it was not until 1635 when the dissension between the English and French in Tortuga became so acute as to lead to constant fights that the Spaniards took advantage of the situation to descend upon the settlement in force. It fell into their hands with hardly a show of resistance for the English governor fled at once on board a ship that happened to be in the harbor and left the colonists to their fate. A few of them managed to make their escape in the Espanola forests but nearly 600 men women and children fell into the Spaniards hands and they met small mercy. The women were carried off into what was little better than perpetual slavery while most of the men were massacred.

Buccaneers and the birth of piracy
The Caribbean islands were one of the most important yet also one of the weakest Spanish possessions. Stretching from the Florida Keys to the Venezuelan coast, these islands extend for two thousands miles east and west across the Caribbean. In the Greater Antilles, slaves carved plantations out of the forests and looked after cattle and hogs brought from Europe. These colonies prospered until the 1520’s when many settlers left for the gold rich territories of Mexico and Peru. The populations of the islands tumbled. Most of the smaller islands, or “Lesser Antilles” were deserted or never settled in the first place. Foreigners, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Dutchmen needed no invitation to take what the Spaniards couldn’t or wouldn’t use. Beginning in the early 1600’s small groups of adventurers settled on St. Christopher (St. Kitts) Nevis, Barbados, Antigua, and Montserrat. These islands seemed like Paradise to men used to the gray, weeping skies of northern Europe. Their offshore waters teemed with bass, tuna and red snapper. A regular trade developed between these trespassers and Europe. Ships brought new men and supplies returning with cargoes of sugar, rum and indigo a valuable blue dye. It was from these islands and these ships that buccaneers were recruited to man the ships that would terrorize the Atlantic.
It all began innocently enough. Homeward bound English, French and Dutch vessels from North America would put in along the northern coast of Espanola for last minute repairs before braving the Atlantic. The ship’s crews found it easy to kill a few animals for fresh meat. They preserved the meat in a method inherited from the Indians. The animal was skinned and the best cuts of meats were slice into long and narrow strips which were laid over a grill and a fire started in a bundle of green wood. The wood’s dampness prevented the fire from becoming too hot and drying the meat too quickly. Waste fats, skin and bone were slowly added to the fire, creating clouds of thick smoke. This method created an especially tasty piece of meat, red like corned beef that could keep for weeks. The Indians called the meat bukan. The hunters, most of whom were French, called themselves “boucaniers” or buccaneers in English.The buccaneers numbers grew along with their reputation. They came from many walks of life but all had certain things in common. None was rich, powerful nor of noble birth. Most were from France, but there were some british and dutch nationals among them also. One found in their ranks unemployed laborers and refugees from religious persecution. Many were criminals on the run. No one looked twice at a cow killer with a big T for Thief branded under his left eye close to the nose. Others were wanderers seeking their fortune anywhere in any way. Tortuga became a magnet drawing adventurers from the Caribbean islands and beyond. The buccaneers governed themselves by a strict set of rules called The Custom of the Coast. Although these rules were not set down in law books, the brethren knew them as well as they knew their own names. According to the custom articles were drawn up before a voyage for everyone to sign with his name or mark an X or other design if he couldn’t write. These articles were really a constitution spelling everyone’s role, responsibilities and rewards. They chose the captain for his sailing skill, fighting ability and luck. His word was law during battle, obeyed instantly and without question. However, when the ship was not in action he was like anyone else on board. He had no silver plates or music for him at mealtimes nor did he give orders. It was better to save his breath since no one would listen to him anyhow. The crew decided through discussion and voting how to run the ship. The captain did as his men wished or was dismissed.

Yet discipline aboard a buccaneer vessel was strict and punishments usually deadly. A sneak thief for instance was given his warnings. The first offense cost him an ear or his nose. A second offense brought marooning. The culprit was marooned stranded on one of the hundreds of tiny desert islands that dot the Caribbean. He was given a bottle of water some bread and a loaded pistol. Days later when hunger and thirst became unbearable the pistol gave him a quick way out. Articles also mentioned how the loot was to be divided. “No prey no pay” was the rule in money matters. Nobody was entitled to a reward just for coming along. If no prizes were taken well that was just too bad. Whatever loot that did come their way was divided into portions or shares. Everyone got something although not the same amount. The captain as war leader was allowed five shares to the ordinary sailor’s one. The ship’s doctor gunner and carpenter claimed two or three shares each because of their special skills. They invented a type of accident insurance or aid those who were wounded in action. Different injuries were worth different amounts. Loss of the right hand was most serious since the buccaneer couldn’t earn a living without his sword hand. Anyone so crippled received six hundred pieces of eight, Spanish silver coins worth about three dollars in today’s money. A lost leg brought four hundred to five hundred pieces of eight. You could still fight on a wooden leg and “Peg leg” was a popular nickname aboard buccaneers ship. A missing finger or eye was a minor handicap worth only one hundred pieces of eight. A black patch over an eye was a badge of honor in the taverns of Tortuga.

Before going to sea each man brought aboard his share of gunpowder and bullets. Food was no problem with such fine bukan available. As an added treat the buccaneers captured giant tortoises some over a hundred years old which were laid on their back bellow decks. The skills of guerrilla warfare learned in the high country easily carried over to the Caribbean. At sea as on land boldness and speed were equalizers against a larger enemy. The buccaneers favored the sloop an open sailing boat of about twenty five tons for their raids. Although tiny next to a galleon the sloop was more than a match for the warship. It handled like a dream answering the helmsman’s slightest touch on the wheel. Lying low in the water it could be hidden behind small islands and approach a victim without standing out against the horizon. The single latten sail used every breath of wind to overtake an enemy and dodge his gunfire. Ability to dodge was important since buccaneer craft were always outgunned by Spanish warships. A sloop carried no more than six light cannon; a galleon mounted at least thirty heavy cannons on each side. These cannons fired different kinds of shot, depending upon the kink of damage the captain wanted to do an enemy. Solid iron balls could break a ship to pieces. Chain shot, a smaller version of a weightlifters’ barbells tumbled through the air with the force of a buzz saw. It could tear sails and rope lines to shreds or rip a man apart. For close work there was grape shot, canvas bags filled with musket balls that sprayed an enemy with a hailstorm of lead. “Angrage” sounds like anger and rage; it was a devil’s mixture of nails, nuts bolts, chain and odd scraps of metal that blew across an enemy’s deck.

A gunnery duel against such odds would have meant suicide for buccaneers. During an approach the sloop’s helm was turned over to a sea artist the Captain or crewman most skilled in ship handling. The sea artist relied upon darkness to come as close to his victim as possible without coming under canon fire. The best time to attack was before dawn or sunset when a small vessel was barely visible but a large one easily seen. The sea artist really earned his extra shares if galleon’s lookouts were on the job. From the distance, the buccaneers could hear the ship’s drummers beating the call to battle stations. Long battle streamers were unfurled at the mast tops. The Spanish captain tried desperately to turn his vessel broadside to the oncoming sloop to allow his guns to fire all at once. But the sea artist was wise to that game. He kept his attention riveted on the ship ahead following its every twist and change of course. Whatever it did the sloop did that instant as long as he kept on her stern she could not turn to deliver crushing cannon shots broadside. The only cannon the buccaneers had to worry about were the four light pieces in the galleon’s stern. Now their skill with the musket paid off.Tortuga Island became famous as the birthplace of piracy in the Caribbean. Before long, those fearless adventurers achieved wordlwide fame. They terrorized the New World with their extraordinary feats. Among them we shall note Peter the Great originally of Dieppe, France. One of his greatest feats was to take over the galleon of a Spanish Vice-Admiral although he had only a sloop armed with 4 cannons and a crew of 28 men. Other buccaneers of Tortuga who achieved notoriety include Nau the Olonese, an especially cruel pirate captian, and Mombars from a region of France called Languedoc.The establishment at Tortuga will soon attract the support of the French government. Not that the French Crown supported piracy, however Louis XIV was intent on protecting any of his subjects against the Spanish. As French influence became stronger, mosty of the british pirates would abandon Tortuga as a a base and establish themselves on Jamaica. From there they continued to wreak havoc on the high seas and even became organized enough to seize cities. Most responsible for the pirates change of tactic would be one Morgan from Wales better known as Captain Morgan.Tortuga on the other hand will know quieter times. Over the later part of the 17th century, the french foothoold on that island would be transformed into the colony of Saint Domingue.

(courtesy of discoverhaiti)