When Pyrates Ruled the Caribbean
Many Caribbean countries are steeped in pirate history, but how many of them were actually named after one of their buccaneering forefathers?
Around 1638, Peter Wallace, a notorious Scottish buccaneer who once served as Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1st Lieutenant, was governor of the Caribbean island of Tortuga. After being driven from office by the Spanish, Captain Wallace settled just outside of what is today Belize City at Haulover Creek, where he sold smoked turtle meat to passing ships.
According to legend, the country of Belize, as well as the Belize River, where he established the first English settlement, were named after Peter Wallace. It's all because his name was often misspelled and is shown as "Willis" in some documents.
The Annals of Jamaica 1827 read:
"Willis, the notorious Buccaneer, was the first Englishman who settled on the banks of the river to which he gave his name. The Spaniards called it Walis, and the corrupting influence of time has softened it to Belize."
A contemporary Spanish historian has shown how the name has been written at various times. It started as Wallace, became Willis, then Walis, and then went through several variations until it finally became Belize.
The Pyrates of Belize
Pirates favored the Bay of Honduras (Belize), also known as the Bay Colony, as a home port for several reasons: They could hang out in the waters just outside Belize’s coral reef, which is the second longest coral reef in the world, and raid Spanish ships carrying gold and silver back to the king of Spain. They could flee in their much smaller vessels through openings in the reef and into the protected waters of Belize and hide where the deeper draft Spanish ships couldn’t follow.
Inside the reef as well, there are over 200 small offshore islands called Cayes (pronounced Keys, as in Florida, but with the old English pirate spelling retained), which were perfect places for pirates to hole up during bad weather, work on their boats, get fresh water, hunt for fresh meat, or just drink rum and party.
The pirates also found potential wealth in Belize, something nearly as valuable as Aztec gold, the dense forests of Belize were filled with the precious mahogany tree.
When in 1667 a treaty was passed that outlawed buccaneering, many out-of-work pirates turned to the mahogany trade in Belize. During this period, mahogany was used as dyewood in England and was indispensable in the process of dyeing cloth black, gray, purple or dark red. Initially, the value of mahogany was not known to the pirates. When capturing ships filled with logwood, as the pirates called the mahogany, they used it for firewood, until one day a certain Captain James sold his surplus of logwood and was shocked to realize its value.
William Dampier, himself a buccaneer, explorer and naturalist, spent two or three years with the logwood cutters, and describes the life of buccaneers turned log cutters:
“Some fell the tree, others saw and cut them into convenient logs and one chips off the sap, and he is commonly the principal man; and when a tree is so thick that after it is logg’d, it remains still too great a burden for one man, we blow it up with gunpowder.
“The logwood cutters are generally sturdy strong fellows, and will carry burdens of three or four hundred weight; but every man is left to his choice to carry what he pleaseth, and commonly they agree very well about it: For they are contented to labor very hard. But when ships come from Jamaica with rum and sugar, they are too apt to misspend both their time and money.”
The fact that Belize remained a British ruled, English-speaking country was in large part due to the pirates who settled modern Belize, which was then known as the Bay of Honduras. They became known as the Baymen. The earliest date that we know of Baymen being in Belize is 1670.
In 1682, Governor Lynch of Jamaica sent a Captain Coxen to Belize with ships to take away the Baymen, but then Coxen and his men became enamoured with the pirate's life, mutinied and became privateers.
The Baymen, of course, led a wild life; drinking binges could last a week or more. They were known to spout off all manner of swear-words and blasphemies, and their ways horrified the captains who visited them. In 1682, Governor Lynch of Jamaica sent a Captain Coxen to the Bay of Honduras with ships, to take away the Baymen. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, Coxen and his men became enamoured with the pirtate lifestyle, mutinied and "went on account" - which in pirate speak means they became pirates.
In 1739, the armistice ended when some Spanish soldiers cut off the ear of Robert Jenkins, an English captain. When Jenkins took his ear back home, pickled, and showed it to the House of Commons, thus began “The War of Jenkins Ear” between England and Spain, which raged until 1748.
The Baymen had developed their own constitution of sorts by 1765, called Burnaby’s Code, named after Admiral William Burnaby, commander-in-chief of Jamaica at the time. The final battle between the Baymen and the Spanish was on September 10, 1798, took place just off the coast of Belize City where the Baymen had a settlement on St. George’s Caye, a small island that would become the first capital of Belize.
The InFamous Pyrates of Belize
It seems that this fellow was raised to be a pirate. He grew up in a family of thieves and, while still small, his older brother used to carry him in a basket on his head so he could steal people's hats.
As an adult, Lowe went to Belize to steal timber. Once in Belize, he had a falling-out with his captain so he separated from the rest of the crew and took off with twelve other men in a small boat.
Due to his horrific treatment of prisoners, Edward Lowe came to be known as one of the cruelest pirates ever, and yet, it is said that he wept about missing his orphan son who lived in Boston. In 1723, Lowe sailed for the west coast of Africa, never to be seen again.
Captain Charles Johnson
When you hear the word “pirate” do you imagine a fellow with terrible whiskers and a wooden leg, being stuck round with pistols? This is the description Captain Charles Johnson, the pirate biographer, gave in 1724 of Captain John Taylor, who after a long career as a pirate ended his days trading in logwood from Belize.
In the year 1677, when English pirates came to Belize to cut logwood, a Spanish priest called Fray Joseph Delgado and his Spanish and Maya men were camped on a river in Belize when a band of pirates captured them. The pirates took the men to Casina Caye, now St George’s Caye, where they met Bartholomew Sharp, who treated them in a friendly way. Sharp, it appears, was in Belize with the intent to cut logwood. He knew the famous pirate Sir Captain Henry Morgan, also active in the Caribbean at that time. Sharp and some of his men were later tried for piracy, but were acquitted for lack of evidence.
Captain Henry Morgan
One of the most infamous pirates in history was Henry Morgan, a Welshman and son of a farmer. Morgan was born in 1635 in Wales. As a young man Henry craved adventure, as many young men do, and so ran off to Bristol, and from there eventually set sail to Barbados in the West Indies. In Barbados he began to associate with the pirates who roamed those islands, while he also held down gainful employment on the sugarcane plantations.
As is the case with many pirates, historians know very little about Morgan's early career. In 1662, when he was about 27 years old, he moved to Jamaica, which would become his home for the rest of his life. It is from this island that Henry “went on account.” His name was mostly unheard of until 1665, when he was made second-in-command of a group of buccaneers (like privateers, buccaneers were "licensed" pirates) who had fought the Dutch in the Anglo-Dutch War.
His first major exploit was to capture the town of Puerto Principe, Cuba. However, dissatisfied with the booty, he immediately sailed for Panama and sacked the city of Portobello - a stunt that instantly made him famous and rich. After that, his name and reputation spread quickly.
Throughout his career, Morgan roamed the islands of the Caribbean Sea, wreaking much havoc and burying plenty of treasure (a claim made of almost every pirate). None of Morgan's treasures has ever been found.
Morgan and The Gray Lady
Morgan was very active in the Belize/Honduras area, frequenting the waters to such an extent that three anchors, three cannons and a breech adding swivel cannon have been found along the reef off the coast of Ambergris Caye Belize. These are believed to come from one of Morgan's ships, the Oxford.
Told by the islanders of Belize, there is the legend of the Gray Lady. The famous legend centers around Captain Morgan's lady, who he brought with him during one of his sojourns to Belize. This lady it seems was a very independent and tempestous woman. One stormy night, after a particularly fiece quarrel, having to do with the seaman who was standing watch the night before, Captain Morgan forced his lady to walk the plank into the ocean off of St. George's Caye. She wore a grey gossamer gown on that fateful night walk, one which billowed around her in the wind, and so she became forever known as the 'Gray Lady.'
Captain Morgan's greatest feat occurred on January 19, 1670 when he led a fleet of 36 pirate ships against the City of Panama. At the time, the city was rumored to be the richest in the world. It was a main jumping-off point for Spanish gold on its way to Europe. Morgan sailed into port and destroyed a much larger force led by the local governor. He burned the city to the ground and made off with 400,000 pieces of eight, later on stealing much of it from his own men.
The attack, however, took place only days after Britain had signed a treaty with Spain, and Morgan was arrested and taken back to England. In 1673, when England began a new war with the Dutch, the King sought Morgan's advice on Caribbean affairs. He was apparently so impressed by Morgan's knowledge that he released him and made him deputy governor of Jamaica. Sir Henry Morgan rose to great success as a pirate, and is considered not only as one of the greatest of all the buccaneers to this day, but as one of the bravest, most intelligent and successful swashbucklers who ever lived.
Edward Teach (c. 1680 - November 22, 1718), was better known as Blackbeard, the notorious King of Pirates who roamed the Caribbean Sea and western Atlantic during the early 18th century. He quickly gained his fearsome reputation after only one or two ship attacks and after that he didn't meet with much resistance. There is no record of Blackbeard ever killing anyone until the day he was killed in battle.
Blackbeard often fought, or simply showed himself, wearing a big feathered tricorn, and having multiple swords, knives, and pistols at his disposal. It was reported that he had hemp and matches (that would be lit during battle) woven into his enormous black beard. Accounts of people who saw him fighting say that they thought he "looked like the devil" with his fearsome face and the smoke cloud around his head. This image, which he cultivated with finesse, has made him the premier image of the seafaring pirate. In reality, he was actually a brilliant statistician and a master at public relations.
Blackbeard and Women
Blackbeard had a way with women and wherever he went, he stopped at a tavern, where groups of women flocked to him. He would drink with them, watch them dance, and out of that group, he would fall in love with one, and propose marriage to her. Then they would go aboard his ship the Queen Anne's Revenge and get married. This happened some 13 times!
Blackbeard is most famous for his blockade of Charleston, South Carolina in late May of 1718. Blackbeard entered the mouth of Charleston harbor with the Queen Anne's Revenge and three lighter vessels. He plundered five merchant freighters attempting to enter or leave the port. No other vessels could transit the harbor for fear of encountering the pirate squadron.
Shortly afterward, Blackbeard ran two of his vessels aground at Topsail Inlet (now Beaufort Inlet), including the Queen Anne's Revenge. He has been accused by many, including his own crew, of doing this deliberately in order to downsize his crew and increase his own share of the treasure. Deliberate or not, he stripped three of the ships of all treasure, beached or marooned most of his crew, and went to Bath, North Carolina, where he finally accepted a pardon under the royal Act of Grace. He then went off to Ocracoke Inlet in the last of his four vessels, the sloop Adventure, to enjoy his loot.
After receiving a pardon in 1718 in North Carolina, Teach sailed for Belize. On the way there, he met up with Stede Bonnet, a retired British army officer and plantation owner in Barbados who suddenly turned pirate to escape, some say, a nagging wife.
After a few days though, Blackbeard could see that Bonnet knew nothing about maritime life, so he calmly took over Bonnet's ship. The two ended up on Turneffe Island in Belize, where they stopped to take on fresh water. There they met up with a David Herriot, captain of the Adventure from Jamaica. Blackbeard convinced Herriot to join them, after which the threesome spent a full week celebrating.
After their "spring break" in Belize the trio set out pirating and came upon a large ship and four sloops in the waters of Belize. The sight of three vessels flying pirate flags and a blast from Blackbeard's cannon frightened the captain and crew of the large ship such that they abandoned ships and rowed safely to the Belizean shore. After plundering all the vessels, the largest ship was burned because it was owned by persons from Boston, where some pirates had recently been hanged. Then sailing out of Belizean waters for Grand Cayman, the trio continued their pirating.
Having accepted another pardon, Teach had apparently retired from piracy. However, Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia became concerned that the notorious freebooter lived nearby. Spotswood decided to eliminate Blackbeard, even though he lived outside of Spotswood's jurisdiction.
Blackbeard was now operating in coastal waters and in areas where it was difficult for ships of the line to engage him in battle. To counter this situation two smaller hired sloops were put under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, with instructions from Spotswood to hunt down and destroy Blackbeard.
Blackbeard's superior knowledge of the inlet was of much help. However, on the day Maynard finally caught up with him, Blackbeard and his small crew had the misfortune of having spent the night drinking in his cabin, a situation which resulted in Blackbeard making the serious tactical error of boarding Maynard's ship with only ten men during the battle, when he saw Maynard's decks mostly empty.
Despite the best efforts of his men, Blackbeard was killed, and the battle ended. Blackbeard was reportedly shot five times and stabbed more than twenty times before he died. He was decapitated by Maynard, who then hung Blackbeard's head from his bow.
Adapted from Dalton Gonzales' Pirates of Belize article