Buccaneers and Pirates of our Coasts - F. R. Stockton

Exit Buccaneer; Enter Pirate

The buccaneers of the West Indies and South America had grown to be a most formidable body of reckless freebooters. From merely capturing Spanish ships, laden with the treasures taken from the natives of the new world, they had grown strong enough to attack Spanish towns and cities. But when they became soldiers and marched in little armies, the patience of the civilized world began to weaken: Panama, for instance, was an important Spanish city; England was at peace with Spain; therefore, when a military force composed mainly of Englishmen, and led by a British subject, captured and sacked the said Spanish city, England was placed in an awkward position; if she did not interfere with her buccaneers, she would have a quarrel to settle with Spain.

Therefore it was that a new Governor was sent to Jamaica with strict orders to use every power he possessed to put down the buccaneers and to break up their organization, and it was to this end that he set a thief to catch thieves and empowered the ex-pirate, Morgan, to execute his former comrades.

But methods of conciliation, as well as threats of punishment, were used to induce the buccaneers to give up their illegal calling, and liberal offers were made to them to settle in Jamaica and become law-abiding citizens. They were promised grants of land and assistance of various kinds in order to induce them to take up the legitimate callings of planters and traders.

But these offers were not at all tempting to the Brethren of the Coast; from pirates rampant  to pirates couchant  was too great a change, and some of them, who found it impossible to embark on piratical cruises, on account of the increasing difficulties of fitting out vessels, returned to their original avocations of cattle-butchering and beef-drying, and some, it is said, chose rather to live among the wild Indians and share their independent lives, than to bind themselves to any form of honest industry.

The French had also been very active in suppressing the operations of their buccaneers, and now the Brethren of the Coast, considered as an organization for preying upon the commerce and settlers of Spain, might be said to have ceased to exist. But it must not be supposed that because buccaneering had died out, that piracy was dead. If we tear down a wasps' nest, we destroy the abode of a fierce and pitiless community, but we scatter the wasps, and it is likely that each one of them, in the unrestricted and irresponsible career to which he has been unwillingly forced, will prove a much more angry and dangerous insect than he had ever been before.

This is what happened to these buccaneers who would not give up a piratical life; driven away from Jamaica, from San Domingo, and even from Tortuga, they retained a resting-place only at New Providence, an island in the Bahamas, and this they did not maintain very long. Then they spread themselves all over the watery world. They were no longer buccaneers, they were no longer brothers of any sort or kind, they no longer set out merely to pillage and fight the Spaniards, but their attacks were made upon people of every nation. English ships and French ships, once safe from them, were a welcome prey to these new pirates, unrestrained by any kind of loyalty, even by any kind of enmity. They were more rapacious, they were more cruel, they were more like fiends than they had ever been before. They were cowardly and they no longer proceeded against towns which might be defended, nor ran up alongside of a man-of-war to boldly board her in the very teeth of her guns. They confined themselves to attacks upon peaceable merchant vessels, often robbing them and then scuttling them, delighted with the spectacle of a ship, with all its crew, sinking hopelessly into the sea.

The scene of piratical operations in America was now very much changed. The successors of the Brothers of the Coast, no longer united by any bonds of fellowship, but each pirate captain acting independently in his own wicked way, was coming up from the West Indies to afflict the seacoast of our country.

The old buccaneers knew all about our southern coast, for they were among the very first white men who ever set foot on the shores of North and South Carolina before that region had been settled by colonists, and when the only inhabitants were the wild Indians. These early buccaneers often used its bays and harbors as convenient ports of refuge, where they could anchor, divide spoils, take in fresh water, and stay as long as they pleased without fear of molestation. It was natural enough, that when the Spanish-hating buccaneer merged into the independent pirate, who respected no flag, and preyed upon ships of every nation, he should feel very much at home on the Carolina coasts.

As the country was settled, and Charles Town, now Charleston, grew to be a port of considerable importance, the pirates felt as much at home in this region as when it was inhabited merely by Indians. They frequently touched at little seaside settlements, and boldly sailed into the harbor of Charles Town. But, unlike the unfortunate citizens of Porto Bello or Maracaibo, the American colonists were not frightened when they saw a pirate ship anchored in their harbors, for they knew its crew did not come as enemies, but as friendly traders.

The early English colonists were not as prosperous as they might have been if the mother country had not been so anxious to make money out of them. They were not allowed to import goods from any country but England, and if they had products or crops to export, they must be sold to English merchants. For whatever they bought they had to pay the highest prices, and they could not send into the markets of the world to get the best value for their own productions.

Therefore it was that a pirate ship was a very welcome visitor in Charles Town harbor. She was generally loaded with goods, which, as they were stolen, her captain could afford to sell very cheaply indeed, and as there was always plenty of Spanish gold on board, her crew was not apt to haggle very much in regard to the price of the spirits, the groceries, or the provisions which they bought from the merchants of the town. This friendly commerce between the pirates and the Carolinians grew to be so extensive that at one time the larger part of the coin in circulation in those colonies consisted of Spanish gold pieces, which had been brought in and used by the pirates for the purchase of goods.

But a pirate is very seldom a person of discretion, who knows when to leave well enough alone, and so, instead of contenting themselves with robbing and capturing the vessels belonging to people whom their Charles Town friends and customers would look upon as foreigners, they boldly sailed up and down the coast, seeking for floating booty wherever they might find it, and when a pirate vessel commanded by an English captain and manned principally by an English crew, fell in with a big merchantman flying the English flag, they bore down upon that vessel; just as if it had been French, or Spanish, or Dutch, and if the crew were impertinent enough to offer any resistance, they were cut down and thrown overboard.

At last the pirates became so swaggeringly bold and their captains so enterprising in their illegal trading that the English government took vigorous measures, not only to break up piracy, but to punish all colonists who should encourage the freebooters by commercial dealings with them. At these laws the pirates laughed, and the colonists winced, and there were many people in Charles Town who vowed that if the King wanted them to help him put down piracy, he must show them some other way of getting imported goods at reasonable prices. So the pirates went on capturing merchantmen whenever they had a chance, and the Carolinians continued to look forward with interest to the bargain days which always followed the arrival of a pirate ship. But this state of things did not last, and the time came when the people of Charles Town experienced a change of mind. The planters were now growing large quantities of rice, and this crop became so valuable that the prosperity of the colonies greatly increased. And now the pirates also became very much interested in the rice crops, and when they had captured four or five vessels sailing out of Charles Town heavily laden with rice, the people of that town suddenly became aware of the true character of a pirate. He was now in their eyes an unmitigated scoundrel who not only stole goods from all nations, which he brought to them and sold at low prices, but he actually stole their goods, their precious rice which they were sending to England.

The indignant citizens of Charles Town took a bold stand, and such a bold one it was that when part of a crew of pirates, who had been put ashore by their comrades on account of a quarrel, made their way to the town, thinking they could tell a tale of shipwreck and rely upon the friendship of their old customers, they were taken into custody, and seven out of the nine were hanged.

The occasional repetition of such acts as this, and the exhibition of dangling pirates, hung up like scarecrows at the entrance of the harbors, dampened the ardor of the freebooters a good deal, and for some years they kept away from the harbor of Charles Town, which had once been to them such a friendly port.