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The Buccaneers


Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

How the free traders in the West Indies became smugglers, how by easy
stages they passed from the profession of illicit dealing to piracy,
are matters that concern history rather than legend. Their name of
buccaneers comes from buccan, an Indian word signifying a smoke-house,
in which beef and other meats were dried; as one of the earliest
enterprises of the rovers was the stealing of Spanish cattle in San
Domingo, and the drying of their flesh in the native buccans for use
at sea.

A general hatred or jealousy of Spain, that was shared by the English,
Dutch, and French, led to the first privateering expeditions. Indeed,
throughout the seventeenth century the pirates operated principally
against Spain, and were tolerated because of the injury they did to
her ships, her people, her property, and her trade. Having finally
ruined her commerce, they sacked her colonies, and, the lust for blood
and treasure having been roused to a sort of madness, they cast off
patriotic allegiances and became mere robbers and outlaws. The history
of the successes of L'Ollonois, Morgan, Davis, and the rest, is an
exciting though painful one, inasmuch as all sense of right and mercy
seems to have been crushed in the breasts of these men by their brutal
business. For a handful of dollars they were ready to wreck a city,
reduce even its ruins to ashes, slaughter women and babes, and cut
the throats of the aged. They were as harsh and treacherous toward one
another as they were toward peaceable men, and for acts of rebellion
against a leader they were killed off-hand, while it was customary,
also, to butcher a sailor whenever a chest of treasure was buried,
and place his body on or in the chest, that his ghost might guard it
and terrify intruders. Yet the ultimate influence of the buccaneers
was for good, inasmuch as they wrested a part of the rich Antilles from
the cruel and ignorant Spaniard and gave it to more enlightened powers.

When the freebooting days were at their height there was no harbor
of safety between Rio and Halifax; but there was, in every town the
rascals visited, an element that profited by their robberies: the
keepers of inns, brothels, and gaming-houses, and, lastly, the royal
governors. These bloody-fingered varlets would sack a church, get
tipsy on the communion wine, and demand the blessing of the priests on
the next enterprise of the same kind they had in contemplation. With
the chalices, candlesticks, and altar furnishings, they would go
to the nearest city, where they were sure of finding this friendly
element, and riot away the last piece of metal in their pockets; or,
if pipes of wine were among the prizes, any island would serve for
a long debauch. Devil's Island, the place of Dreyfus's captivity,
was a popular rendezvous, though it is so named not because of these
gatherings, but because of a particularly unmanageable prisoner who
was once confined there.

The governors of some of the West Indies were as keen on the scent
of the sea-robbers as the latter were in the chase of merchant-men,
and they were unable to see a good many sad goings-on when a few
pieces-of-eight were held before their eyes. Gaming was no disgrace
in those times, nor was hard drinking, nor coarse speech, and even
piracy had a sort of sanction when the victims were people of a nation
with whom the buccaneers were at war. Many tales of gamesters' luck
are told, but a couple will suffice. Vent-en-Panne, a Frenchman,
had received five hundred crowns as his share of a robbery, and on
the first night ashore, at Kingston, Jamaica, he staked and lost
it all, with three hundred more that a reckless comrade had lent to
him. Though penniless, he was not discouraged. He became a wine-drawer
and pipe-lighter in the tavern, and with a few pennies received for
tips he bet on the cards again. This time he won, and his fortune
mounted to twelve thousand crowns. With this amount in hand he felt
he could be virtuous, so he took ship for home, intending to settle
in Paris and fulfil the ambition of every honest Frenchman,--to own
a furnished room, fish in the Seine, and hear the bands play. He got
only as far as Barbadoes, for at that island a rich Jew came aboard,
persuaded him to play for a small amount, and lost everything to
Vent-en-Panne,--money, houses, sugar, and slaves. The fever was on
them both, however, and so soon as the Jew could borrow a little his
luck also turned, and Vent-en-Panne was stripped of every sou,--even
the clothes he wore. Paris became an iridescent dream, and the gambler
found his way to the Tortugas, where he doubtless shipped with Morgan,
Teach, or some other of the scourges of the Spanish main.

Two rovers are credited with beating the governor of Jamaica at another
game, after they had lost to him a matter of ten thousand crowns,--the
earnings of several weeks faithfully devoted to privateering. In
order to continue the game (to their complete beggary), the fellows
had borrowed from acquaintances in Kingston, who, seeing no way to get
their money back, decided to have them imprisoned for debt. Hearing of
this plan, the elder of the precious pair reported to the governor that
he had a negro whom he would like to sell, cheap, in order to pay his
debts and start in a mechanic trade, such as he had followed in years
gone by. The governor bade him have the fellow brought in, and finding
him to be a sturdy, intelligent man, with a skin as black as the ten
of clubs, he bought him and set him at work. Next day the negro had
disappeared. Notice and offers of reward were sent to all parts of the
island, but nothing came of it. The two ex-pirates followed a peaceful
and thriving trade of making keys, possibly for burglars, and in a few
years had saved enough to enable them to return to England. Before
sailing they called on the ex governor, who had drank and gambled
himself into poverty, and emptied a fistful of gold before him.

"That's for the nigger, with interest," said one.

"The nigger? What, the one that ran away?" asked the governor.

"Oh, he didn't run far. Here he is." And the speaker clapped his
companion on the shoulder. "He had only to curl his hair with a hot
iron and rub charcoal on his chops to deceive a governor."

The tickled old fellow drank their health and wished them a safe
journey, out of Jamaica.

While luck seemed to bide with the rovers, it was not always smooth
sailing on the Spanish seas. Now and then the buccaneers attacked
an innocent looking ship that waited until they had come within
musket-reach, when it ran up the Spanish standard, opened a dozen
ports, and let fly at them with hot-shot and a hail of bullets. Now
and again a mutiny would occur, and the victorious either forced the
defeated to walk the plank or marooned them on some desolate sand
key to perish of thirst and sunstroke.

Blackbeard's men once found a fishing-vessel drifting off the Burmudas
and eagerly boarded her to look for treasure. In a minute they tumbled
out of the cabin and scrambled into the sea like the swine possessed
of devils. The vessel had but one living man on board, and he had not
many hours of life before him, while corpses strewn about the floor
were spotted with small-pox. Half of the pirate crew were slain by
the pestilence.

When Roberts was cruising off Surinam a supposed war-ship bore down on
him in a fog. He pelted her with all his guns, but she kept her way
unheeding. The fog then breaking showed that it was not a frigate,
but a sloop, which had been magnified by the mist, and he quickly
grappled her and sent his men to see what manner of ship she was. Ten
or twelve Spaniards lying about the deck with their throats cut proved
that some other buccaneer had been before him. As the men were about
to leave their floating charnel-house to hold her way whither the
gales might send her, a furious swearing in Spanish caused them to
shiver and look back. Were the dead speaking? Had some crazed sailor
escaped, and was he gibbering from the roundtop? No: it was a parrot
in the rigging, and he was saying all he knew.

Montbar, having discovered a company of Spanish on one of the Windward
Islands, went ashore with guns, knives, and axes, and destroyed them
all, except one. This man told how he and his fellows had been put
ashore. They were the crew of a slaver, and were on their way from
Africa to Cuba with a cargo of slaves, when the ship began to leak
badly. The carpenter, accompanied by several of the more intelligent
of the blacks, made a careful inspection of the hold, yet could find
no leak; so the constant inflow, that kept all hands at the pumps,
was at length declared to be the devil's work. The slaves wailed and
wrung their hands, the captain swore and prayed, the crew toiled to
exhaustion. When it seemed as if the ship could not float for another
day the island appeared ahead, and quickly loading arms, provisions,
and water into the boats, the Spaniards abandoned ship and left the
negroes to their fate. Great was their surprise and dismay when the
slaves ran, cheering, over the deck, hoisted all sail, and squared away
for the eastward, the vessel rising higher in the water as her former
crew sat watching her. These blacks, who were confined in the hold,
had got possession of knives with which they cut through the outer
planking, causing the ship to leak alarmingly. They had also fitted
plugs to these leaks, and packed them with oakum, so that when the
carpenter made his rounds no water came in. As soon as he returned
to the deck the holes were opened again, for it was known that the
Antilles were near, and the scheme to frighten their captors to land
was successful. These facts the crew learned from the negro cook,
who had accompanied them to shore.

The devil, who was supposed in this case to have been the enemy instead
of the ally of the slavers, often mixed in the affairs of a class
that must have filled him with admiration. Some of the pirates are
reported to have placed themselves entirely in the hands of the foe of
the human race, swearing on strange objects to give their souls to him,
and formally burying a Bible on shore as a token that they were through
forever with religion and mercy. Yet they were a superstitious lot,
fearful of signs and portents, and do not, therefore, appear to have
been trusting subjects of His Satanic Majesty. They always had an ear
and a coin for a fortune-teller, and early in the eighteenth century
there were negroes and Indians in the West Indies and the tropic
Americas who openly practised that trade and art of witchcraft for
which their white brethren in Salem had been hanged. Their principal
customers were pirates and buccaneers, who went to them for a forecast
of fortune, and also bought charms that would create fair winds for
themselves and typhoons for their enemies. These witches kept open
ears in their heads, and information carelessly dropped by the outlaws
they sold for an aftermath of gain to the Spaniards, who found truth
in so many of the prophesies that they respected the soothsayers and
fully believed that the English were the chosen of the fiend.

Among the most trusted of the witches was a withered Indian woman
of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. She was close upon her fifth
score of years before she departed this life, but the rumor that she

had lived in New Providence since the flood was not denied, for it
made her the more regarded. Her best commodity was strings. For a
large price she would sell a string in which she had tied several
knots, each one of which represented the particular wind that the
captain might wish to prosper him on his way. Captain Condent was a
blaspheming corsair from the wicked town of New York, who had left
that port as quartermaster on a merchant-man and next morning had
appeared with a battery of pistols and had calmly taken the ship out
of the hands of her officers. This fellow had bought a string from
the witch that carried him to the Cape Verdes and back to America,
but when he had cut off all the knots, except two or three, he feared
that he might run out of winds altogether; so he put upon certain
servants of the Lord the task for which he had paid the servant of the
devil. He had with him two or three Spanish monks whom he had stolen
in the Cape Verdes, though what he wanted of them neither he nor they
could have guessed. They were having a most unhappy time of it. Now
and then the scallawag sailors would force them upon all fours, and
sitting astride their backs would compel them to creep about the deck,
pretending to be horses, while Condent whipped them smartly with the
rope's end. Thinking to save his precious twine, he ordered these
monks to pray for favoring winds, and he kept them on their marrow
bones petitioning from daylight until sunset. Often they would fall
exhausted and voiceless. At last, believing that the wind peddler
of Nassau had more power over the elements than a shipload of monks,
he threw the wretched friars overboard, and, as luck would have it,
the wind he wanted came whistling along a few minutes after.

He came to the end of his string at Zanzibar, where he was caught
in a tremendous storm, and was in hourly peril of destruction. His
masts had cracked, his sails had split, his water barrels had gone
by the board. It was time to hold the witch to her bargain. He swung
the cord about his head three times, called the woman's name, and
although eight thousand miles of sea and continent lay between them,
she heard the call. The string was pulled through his fingers so
smartly that it made them burn, and was whisked out of sight in the
wind and the spray. Within an hour the gale abated. Next day Condent
attempted to make his way by dead reckoning, but whenever he went
wrong a bird flew in his face, and a ship crowded with skeletons
approached him in the mist. He presently gained the Isle of Bourbon,
or Reunion, where his stealings enabled him to cut such a figure in
society that he married into the family of the governor and died in
an odor of--well, maybe it was sanctity. At all events, he died.

It was a witch also that had foretold the march of the buccaneers
across Panama isthmus, and her warning was considered of such
importance that the Spanish troops and merchants were notified, though
they made but a feeble resistance when the foray actually occurred.

One of the Spanish slavers bound for our coasts was overhauled by the
English pirate Lewis. She was a fast sailer and had nearly escaped
when Lewis ripped a handful of hair from his head, flung it to the
wind, and shouted, "Ho, Satan, keep that till I come." Instantly
the wind rose to a gale. In a few minutes the Spaniard was in the
hands of the pirates, and the slaves, being only an encumbrance,
were tossed overboard to the sharks, as one might fling away a damaged
cargo. One of the black men was a dwarf, gnarly, wrinkled, misshapen,
with eyes that blazed like a cat's in the dark. No sooner had this
man been pushed over the side than he uttered an ear-splitting yell,
and seemed to bound back to the deck. It was a cat, however, not a
human being, that was seen to rush into the cabin, and it looked into
Lewis's face with the same shining, menacing eyes that he had seen
in the dwarf. A negro boy who had been spared to act as a servant for
the captain having unconsciously roused his anger, Lewis rushed upon
him with his sword, cut him through the heart and beat his corpse,
the cat sitting by and squealing with glee at the sight. When a mate
struck at the animal in a tort of disgust and fear, the creature leaped
at him and almost blinded him with its claws. From that time the cat
became Lewis's familiar; was before him at the table, on his pillow
when he slept, on his shoulder when he gave orders. The crew agreed
that it could be none other than the devil himself. On Lewis's last
night alive, while he was quite drunk, the cat seemed to be whispering
into his ear. He arose and staggered away, saying, "The devil says
I shall be killed to-night." An hour later his ship was boarded by
French pirates, and Lewis was despatched. After scratching the faces
of nearly all the enemy, the cat ran up the mainmast, throwing off
sparks and screeching, scrambled to the end of the topsail-yard,
and leaped off into the night.

Morgan, the English sea robber, had captured a number of Spanish
prisoners in Panama, among them a woman of beauty and distinction, who
had been left without other protection than that of a faithless servant
during her husband's absence in Peru. The dignity and refinement of
his prisoner made a certain impression on Morgan. After he had put to
sea a cabin was reserved for her, she was treated with respect by the
crew, but a guard kept her in sight always. The gross nature of the
pirate disclosed itself in a few days, when, fresh from a debauch and
reeking with the odors of rum, he forced her cabin door and attempted
to embrace her. She sprang back with a cry of loathing, and grasping a
dagger swore that if he ever intruded himself in her presence again she
would drive the weapon into her own heart, since she could never hope
to reach his by any means, violent or gentle. In a fit of anger, the
pirate ordered his sailors to cast her into the hold among the slaves
and hostages, there to endure fever, crowding, hunger, and thirst.

A week or two later these lean, half-dead wretches were kicked out of
their dark and stifling dungeon to be sold to some planters. A woman
among them asked for a few words with Morgan. Haggard, tear-stained,
ragged, neglected as she was, the captain did not at first recognize
her as the one whom he had insulted by his show of love. When he did
recall her name and state he asked indifferently what she wanted. She
told him that an injustice had been done; that she had at first told
him it was in her power to buy her liberty, believing it to be so; but
her hope was destroyed, and she was so ill and wasted that she would
be useless as a slave. As she was going on board of the ship she had
whispered to a couple of Spanish priests telling them where her money
was concealed, and asking them to pay her ransom with it. They also
were under guard, but they persuaded one of the buccaneer officers to
go with them, recovered the money, bought their own freedom with it,
and ran away. Hearing this, Morgan sent the woman back to Panama,
succeeded in capturing the priests, and sold them into slavery.

It is said of Morgan that he had a fire ship, which he would tow
as close as possible to the fleets of his enemies, both to draw
their fire and kindle a more disastrous one. What appeared to be
its crew were logs of wood, placed upright between the bulwarks,
each log surmounted by a hat. As to fire, it is recorded that Teach,
or Blackbeard, now and then shut himself into his cabin and burned
sulphur to prove to his crew that he was a devil. He used to tie his
whiskers with red ribbons into pigtails that he tucked over his ears,
and he looked the part. Yet he was less of a monster than L'Olonnais,
who so hated Spaniards that he would not only slaughter his prisoners,
but would bite their hearts like a savage beast after he had cut them
out. Beside Blackbeard there was a Redbeard and a Bluebeard. All three
of these gentlemen had castles in St. Thomas, and that of Bluebeard
had a room in which it is alleged that he killed his wives after the
fashion of his Eastern relative.

Next: The Boat Of Phantom Children

Previous: The Mysterious Islands

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