Pirate Isles
The Mysterious Times when the Archipelago Teemed with Lawless Characters and Some English Privateers

December 11th, 2011
by Thomas Tomczyk


Cities in the Bay of Honduras like Trujillo, Omoa, inland San Pedro Sula, Puerto Barrios were all vulnerable to pirate attacks and fell to them at one point or another

Cities in the Bay of Honduras like Trujillo, Omoa, inland San Pedro Sula, Puerto Barrios were all vulnerable to pirate attacks and fell to them at one point or another

The period of the XVI – XVIII centuries was a volatile time in the Bay of Honduras. Spanish ships sailed twice a year from Trujillo to Spain with Honduran gold and silver. The Spanish Armada sailed periodically from Panama and Cartagena to Havana, passing near the Bay Islands.

The newly discovered American coast successfully settled by the Spanish created a growing interest amongst Spain’s European competitors–England, France and Netherlands. The competitors resorted to the strategy of plundering the newly built and little defended Spanish Caribbean ports and raided the armada ships by any means possible.

The Bay Islands served as an ideal base for pirates and privateers in the Western Caribbean to attack these Spanish ships and raid newly founded cities. Trujillo, Puerto Cabellas and Santo Tomas were all nearby Spanish ports vulnerable to attack and usually insufficiently prepared to guard Spanish treasure before its transport across the Atlantic.

Ship convoys bearing South American silver and gold to Spain left Panama and headed to Havana, passing just east of the Bay Islands. The Bay Islands also provided fresh water, wood needed for ship repair, and fruits and meat to supply pirate crews.

Honduras as well offered some tempting places to loot for the pirates. Nearby Trujillo was a city that prospered from the gold mined in Olancho and when gold and silver was discovered near Tegucigalpa in the 1570s, the British and Dutch refocused even further at this prosperous and strategically situated city.

The first European pirates in the gulf were French. In the 1530s Captain Tutila managed to capture for ransom the Governor of Honduras Francisco Montejo’s wife and daughter.

By the early 1600s the Dutch pirates were doing more damage to the Spanish shipping enterprise than anyone else. Acting under the protection the West India Company, the Dutch were far more efficient at piracy than their far more numerous English cousins.

English pirates captured four Spanish frigates in the Gulf of Honduras in 1564. Then they fled to one of the Bay Islands they called “Agua Baja”–likely Utila.

While the Spanish periodically chased the pirates out of the Bay Islands, their efforts were unsuccessful as the pirates would only regroup and come back. At that time the pirate structures on Roatan and Guanaja were temporary–made of wood with thatched roofs, or just tents. The shelters weren’t meant to be used longer than for a couple of weeks, maybe a couple months.

The Spanish felt that the Paya Indians provided support to the pirates and by 1639 they decided on removing the natives from the islands by persuasion and force. While they did succeed in moving a few hundred Paya, their plan proved unsuccessful.

In 1642 English pirate William Jackson attacked Trujillo with 16 ships and 1,500 men. Jackson practically leveled the town, kidnapped many of its richer folk for ransom and moved his base of operations to nearby Roatan.

Jackson also arranged for transport of 120 Bay Islands Paya to be returned from the coast where the Spanish had relocated them, to Roatan and Guanaja. From that time on the Paya allied themselves formally with the pirates and even joined them in raiding parties on the coast.

The Spanish understood the danger to their security and the threat to prosperity of their shipping routes that came from the alliance of the Paya and English pirates. In 1650 they organized an expedition of 450 soldiers that overran the pirate settlement on Roatan. The Spanish forces then spent nine days looking for stragglers and natives hiding in the forest. The Spanish then continued to Utila and Guanaja, rounding up all the Paya natives they could find. The Paya were taken several hundred miles away to settle an area around the San Tomas Fort at the entrance to Rio Dulce.

In all of the Caribbean and Western Caribbean in particular, the Spanish-English conflict intensified from around 1638 until 1782. The Bay Islands served as a stage to a series of colonization schemes, pirate settlements and even English military occupation. Duringthat period Spain, although weakened, never relinquished its rights to the Bay Islands.

An engraving portraying of the taking of a ship by pirates at sea

An engraving portraying of the taking of a ship by pirates at sea

The peak of pirate activity in the Caribbean took place in the late XVII century.

Pirates frequently gathered in large numbers under one leader to conduct raids on Spanish port towns and convoys of ships. Roatan’s Port Royal was a preferred place for them, even though it wasn’t as easily abandoned in emergency as Guanaja. The safety of pirates lie in numbers, which were easily accommodated at Port Royal.

Guanaja served as a base for smaller groups of pirates that appreciated its large lagoon flanked by cays and reef and offering seven escape routes in case of an attack.

Eventually the pirates raids stifled the economic growth in the area of the Gulf of Honduras and the strategic importance of the Bay Islands dwindled compared to that of Panama, Havana and Cartagena.

Below are stories of some of the pirates who’s paths crossed with Bay Islands.

François l’Olonnais (1635-1668) was a particularly cruel and successful French pirate. He arrived in the Caribbean as a French indentured servant in the 1650s. After serving his contract he wandered the Antilles, eventually becoming a pirate preying on Spanish ships. He was shipwrecked in Mexico and only survived a Spanish attack by pretending to be dead. He took Tortuga for ransom and in 1667 captured a Spanish ship rich with treasure. Leading 600 pirates on eight ships, he took Maracaibo, destroying its defenses. He tortured its inhabitants to find out where they had hid their gold. For two months l’Olonnais and his men raped, pillaged and eventually burned much of Maracaibo. He then proceeded to nearby Gibraltar, killing, pillaging and robbing at such a scale that the major export port for cacao nearly ceased to exist. His cruelty made him infamous and hated by the Spanish. Around 1667, with 700 pirates under his command he pillaged Puerto Cabello and likely visited Roatan. On his way to San Pedro l’Olonnais was ambushed by a large force of Spanish soldiers and narrowly escaped with his life. He tortured one of the Spanish he captured, but didn’t live much longer. He sailed south to Panama where he ran aground in Darien. He was captured and eaten by the Kuna natives.

Nicholas van Horn (1635 – 1683) was one of the more successful Dutch pirates operating in the Western Caribbean. He began his career as a Dutch merchant and eventually turned to privateering on Dutch fleets. In 1666 the French gave van Horn a commission to harass and capture Spanish vessels. He continued to raid the American coast. On one occasion he gained the trust of the Spanish in Puerto Rico to let them lead a flotilla of ships under his protection only to gain control of the convoy well out at sea. In another exploits he took Vera Cruz in 1683. He died nearby after being wounded in a duel with a fellow pirate.

Bartholomew Sharp (1650 – 1702) became an accidental pirate when buccaneers lost a captain while rounding the Straights of Magellan, the first Englishman to do so going eastwards. He became their new captain and proven himself a good leader. Under his command the pirates took 25 ships and plundered the Spanish Caribbean coast. Since Spain and England were not at war at the time, the Spanish demanded that Sharp be prosecuted for piracy. But Sharp had bought the graces of the English King Charles II with a gift of extremely valuable maps. He ended his three-year pirating careen settling down in the Danish island of Saint Thomas. He died in prison for his attempt to flee the island to avoid paying debts.

Ned Low (early XVIII) was thought to be insane and earned a reputation for being really cruel. In one such case he killed 53 officers of a Spanish galleon. In another gruesome account he forced one sailor to eat his fellow sailor’s heart. Low was sent out on a boat to die by his own crew. Picked up by a passing French vessel he was tried and promptly hung. Philip Ashton, a Boston sailor, escaped from Ned Low’s cruel treatment in 1723 while the pirates were looking for supplies in Port Royal. He stayed on the uninhabited Roatan for 16 months eventually being picked up by a British schooner.

William Jackson (1639-1645) was an English privateer employed by Providence Island Company based on Guanaja and Roatan. Between 1639 and 1641 he harassed the Spanish of the nearby coast, capturing a slave ship heading for Trujillo. With the ransom of indigo and gold paid for the ship, Jackson sailed for England to sell his goods and fund another privateering expedition. Earl of Warwick took an interest in Jackson and provided the privateer with a three-year letter of marque and a fleet of prominent privateers to command. It was this fleet under Jackson’s command that captured Jamaica for England.

Captain John Coxon (late XVII), was one of the most prominent members of the Brethren of the Coast, terrorizing the Spanish coast for over a decade. Coxon came into prominence after he ransacked the town of Santa Maria, kidnapping its bishop and governor to Jamaica. With other pirates he captured rich bootie in the Gulf of Honduras: indigo, coco, tortoiseshell, etc. According to one source he lived on Roatan from 1687 to 1697, but his name is not present on any of the XVII century maps of the island. It is first seen in an 1843 map. With Bartholomew Sharp and Robert Allison he then proceeded to Panama’s Porto Bello, capturing much gold and other bounty. His behavior drew the attention of Jamaica’s governor, Lord Carlile, who issued warrants for Coxon’s arrest. In one of the most daring raids of Caribbean pirate history, Coxon crossed the Panama isthmus and took many Spanish ships stationed on the Pacific side. He returned to Jamaica as a legendary pirate hero. He continued to pirate under other names, was captured but always escaped. To this date no one knows what was John Coxon’s end.

The cruelty of the Ned Low was legendary. He was said to rip a heart of one Spanish prisoner and feed it to another

The cruelty of the Ned Low was legendary. He was said to rip a heart of one Spanish prisoner and feed it to another

John Morris was a pirate and privateer active in the 1660s and 70s. He specialized in raids on far inland Spanish cities that didn’t expect a raid from pirates. He did this in Nicaragua, Mexico and Honduras in a two-year odyssey. He took Trujillo, after which he visited the Bay Islands. At the time of the raids, raids on Spanish possessions had been prohibited, but the captains pretended to be acting under a privateering commission issued by the Jamaican governor, Thomas Modyford. He displayed loyalty to England when he raided the ship of a Portuguese pirate raiding English ships. Morris continued to raid his pirate career until he was appointed by Jamaica’s governor as pirate hunter with explicit instructions to arrest privateers who continued acts of piracy against Spain.

Edward Teach (1680 – 1718), or Blackbeard, was a notorious Englishman in the Caribbean and American colonies. Unlike many other pirates who ruled by force, intimidation and with cruelty, Blackbeard used his personal fearsome image and charisma to lead. He did not murder his hostages and gained quite a following by his crew. He is portrayed with fuses lit and hanging from under his hat, an intimidating image to anyone facing the pirate. Recent discoveries of what is presumed to be Queen Ann’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship on a sandbar off Beaufort, North Carolina, connect Blackbeard with the Bay Islands. In March 1718 Queen Ann’s Revenge was spotted off the Belizean coast. Farther south around the Bay Islands the pirates added a ship and four sloops to their pirate force. In April they departed towards grand Cayman and up north into the Gulf of Mexico. Then near his ultimate demise in North Carolina, Blackbeard robbed merchant ships and blockaded the busy port of Charleston. Even though he obtained a pardon, he reverted to piracy and was killed in battle against a party of English sailors.

Sir Henry Morgan (1635-1688) is perhaps the most famous privateer ever. His rivalry with Sir Francis Drake was legendary. Morgan amassed great pirate fleets under his control and was able to raid big Spanish cities. His most famous raids were on Portobello in 1668, on Maracaibo in 1669, and on Panama in 1671. Knighted by King Charles II, he moved to Jamaica where he was acting-governor when the real governor was not present. He eventually died a happy and rich man. Morgan’s name appears an just about every corner of Roatan. The reason for that isn’t that the privateer spend so much time here, but that he is perhaps the most famous and well described pirate of the XVII century, if not ever. Many places are still named after him: Morgan’s Valley in Jamaica and Morgan’s Cave on San Andres Island. His likeness adorn a popular rum and hundreds of resorts, hotels, bars and stores all over the Caribbean and Europe. [/private]

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