The Buccaneers

: 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.