A rather strange burial took place at sea over four hundred years ago. On January 29, 1596, A group of English sailors committed the body of Sir Francis Drake to the deep in a remote corner of the world. At his own request, he was buried in the armor he received when knighted by Queen Elizabeth. To this day, archeologists and divers have been unable to locate his remains and his sleep continues undisturbed somewhere off the coast of Portobello, Panama.
Drake is a fascinating figure who has captured the imagination of everyone from paupers to queens. For those who loved him, he possessed no flaws. For the Spanish of his time, he was known as El Dragon, a devil to be captured and beheaded.
Drake first sailed with the Hawkins family, relatives with whom he demonstrated an exceptional ability to fight, navigate, and lead. But one battle in the Caribbean changed John Hawkins’ opinion of his cousin. In the confusion of battle, they got separated, and Drake sailed away. Hawkins later claimed Drake abandoned him out of cowardice. Reports from eyewitnesses and Drake’s own reputation for bravery seem to discount this claim. Nevertheless, Hawkins cherished a particular animosity for Drake the rest of his life.
As a sailor, soldier, and strategist, Drake was unparalleled. Hired to bring back as much gold as possible from the Spanish Main, he adapted fighting and raiding techniques to the situation much like Special Forces teams today. One of his targets were mule trains loaded with gold and silver headed to Nombre de Dios. The town was buried in a remote jungle far from his plundering ships, but his men adapted to the trek through snake and mosquito infested forests.
Though his initial efforts were unsuccessful, Drake would not be deterred. A chance meeting at sea with French pirate Guillaume le Testu was the stroke of luck he needed. Testu shared with Drake a hatred of Spain and a love for gold. With another raid by Drake farthest from their mind, the Spaniards were unprepared when privateer and pirate struck.
Drake carried off so much gold and silver, his men had to bury part of the booty. This no doubt help to popularize the belief that pirates buried their treasure. Unfortunately, le Testu was captured by the Spanish and beheaded, and the buried treasure reclaimed by the Spanish. Continue reading →
It’s been a busy month for pirates… at least those rascally bucaneers who pillaged and plundered the Caribbean three hundred years ago.
Disney was right to name their amusement attraction and film series by the name Pirates of the Caribbean. Both helped capture the essence of what has made pirates attractive over the centuries though some people I talk to are shocked when I point out Jack Sparrow was just a fictional character.
Books and films have propagated some of the common myths we cherish about pirates like burying treasure every chance they got or entertaining themselves endlessly by making their victims walk the plank.
The fact is pirates were too busy donating their money to impoverished innkeepers in exchange for a little rum to find time to bury it. Why they were even known to assist lonely women down on their luck and their backs in return for a couple of life’s simple pleasures. Their generosity left them broke.
As for walking the plank, it’s difficult but not impossible to find references to this diabolic deed. You can read more about it in me upcoming book Uncommon Mariners. Let it suffice to say, once pirates captured a ship, like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, they set straight to work, searching for all that hidden gold.
Disney would have you believe as would Homer Pyle the painter of pirates that those who didn’t cough up their belongings were forced to walk the plank while a crew of gnarly, smelly pirates chortled and snarled “Aarrrgh.” Sometimes spelled aarrrrgh or arrr, the accent being on the last three letters. The truth is, if murderous pirates were sufficiently annoyed with you or their underwear was too tight that day, they simply threw you overboard.
A lot of people including a number of historians over the years put Blackbeard in this category, but that’s only because they came to believe the Hollywood hype and Blackbeard’s own press releases. Of course, Blackbeard didn’t actually issue press releases. He didn’t have to. His physical demeanor gave the aura of being the nastiest, meanest, most ornery, ferocious pirate in the Caribbean. One look at his snarly beard bedecked with burning fuses struck more fear in a shipload of sailors than a hundred press releases.
The reason I’m telling you this is because December the 10 has slipped into oblivion again this year, the date Stede Bonnet, was hanged in Charleston in 1718. Bonnet was a gentleman pirate and one of Blackbeard’s consorts, but It would be stretching the truth to call him his friend.
Bonnet became a pirate for the most unlikely of reasons. He was tired of his wife’s nagging. If you had to pick him out of a lineup of ten pirates, you’d be wrong nine times. He looked more like a Wall Street type than a thick-bearded ruffian ready to cut your heart out.
Still the fact remains he was a pirate. Strangely enough, he had to buy his ship not steal it, and he didn’t even understand how the whole pirate thing worked: First, you pillage, then you plunder, drink some rum, then pay the crew. Pirates called it: “No prey, no pay!”
Stede’s first mistake was paying his crew before they even left port. Actually, his first mistake was becoming a pirate.
After being resoundly beaten in one of his earlier encounters, he limped into the pirate base of Nassau where it was love at first sight. Not what you’re thinking I guarantee you. Blackbeard was on the dock, and when he laid his eyes on Bonnet’s ship, the Revenge, he knew he had to have it.
The amusing thing is Blackbeard through wit and coercion had Stede Bonnet join his fleet with the gentleman pirate pretty much a hostage on his own ship. “You read yer books in yer fancy library,” he no doubt told Stede, “and I’ll find ye a fine sailing captain to manage the dirty work. Arrrrgh!” I’m not sure Bonnet was ever aware Blackbeard had relieved him of his ship.
A lot of adventures passed under the ship’s keel before Blackbeard and Bonnet parted ways, but you can be sure it wasn’t over until the master of intimidation said it was over.
Bonnet didn’t last long after that. The luckless pirate was caught by mistake off North Carolina when pirate hunters were searching for someone else. He was brought to Charleston, South Carolina where more than a few common folk threatened to riot when he and his men were scheduled to be hanged.
Many of these locals were ex pirates from Nassau and smugglers who made more money than an inside trader on Wall Street. But the thriving days of piracy in the Caribbean were on the wane, and Stede Bonnet’s days were numbered.
Stede Bonnet may not have cut the colorful swath in history Blackbeard did, but you deserve to know that despite the myths, he was Blackbeard’s peer and should be respected for that.
As for this well-educated man with a refined background turning to a life of crime, I have to ask you. What would it take for you to live your pirate dreams?
See you out there on the high seas of life. Arrrgh!
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I have to laugh at these survivor “reality” shows that depict teams of fit athletes, or sometimes couples, naked and afraid, cast into inhospitable conditions then expected to prove their mettle! Meanwhile, a TV crew and backup are prepared to supply them with any basics necessary should an emergency arise. What a joke!
Do you see anyone arriving on your front doorstep when there’s no money in the bank, the roof is leaking, the latest doctor bill is on you because the insurance company rejected your claim, and the landlord just raised your rent again? Now that’s reality!!!
If you want something closer to a real story based on a true life adventure, I suggest you pick up a book that’s nearly 300 years old. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, though written as a novel and published April 25, 1719, relates the story of a man who actually requested to be marooned on an island a million miles from civilization. Continue reading →