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

The Story Of Roc, The Brazilian

Having given the history of a very plain and quiet buccaneer, who was a reporter and writer, and who, if he were now living, would be eligible as a member of an Authors' Club, we will pass to the consideration of a regular out-and-out pirate, one from whose mast-head would have floated the black flag with its skull and crossbones if that emblematic piece of bunting had been in use by the pirates of the period.

This famous buccaneer was called Roc, because he had to have a name, and his own was unknown, and "the Brazilian," because he was born in Brazil, though of Dutch parents. Unlike most of his fellow-practitioners he did not gradually become a pirate. From his early youth he never had an intention of being anything else. As soon as he grew to be a man he became a bloody buccaneer, and at the first opportunity he joined a pirate crew, and had made but a few voyages when it was perceived by his companions that he was destined to become a most remarkable sea-robber. He was offered the command of a ship with a well-armed crew, of marine savages, and in a very short time after he had set out on his first independent cruise he fell in with a Spanish ship loaded with silver bullion; having captured this, he sailed with his prize to Jamaica, which was one of the great resorts of the English buccaneers. There his success delighted the community, his talents for the conduct of great piratical operations soon became apparent, and he was generally acknowledged as the Head Pirate of the West Indies.

He was now looked upon as a hero even by those colonists who had no sympathy with pirates, and as for Esquemeling, he simply worshipped the great Brazilian desperado. If he had been writing the life and times of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Mr. Gladstone, he could not have been more enthusiastic in his praises. And as in The Arabian Nights the roc is described as the greatest of birds, so, in the eyes of the buccaneer biographer, this Roc was the greatest of pirates. But it was not only in the mind of the historian that Roc now became famous; the better he became known, the more general was the fear and respect felt for him, and we are told that the mothers of the islands used to put their children to sleep by threatening them with the terrible Roc if they did not close their eyes. This story, however, I regard with a great deal of doubt; it has been told of Saladin and many other wicked and famous men, but I do not believe it is an easy thing to frighten a child into going to sleep. If I found it necessary to make a youngster take a nap, I should say nothing of the condition of affairs in Cuba or of the persecutions of the Armenians.

This renowned pirate from Brazil must have been a terrible fellow to look at. He was strong and brawny, his face was short and very wide, with high cheek-bones, and his expression probably resembled that of a pug dog. His eyebrows were enormously large and bushy, and from under them he glared at his mundane surroundings. He was not a man whose spirit could be quelled by looking him steadfastly in the eye. It was his custom in the daytime to walk about, carrying a drawn cutlass, resting easily upon his arm, edge up, very much as a fine gentleman carries his high silk hat, and any one who should impertinently stare or endeavor to quell his high spirits in any other way, would probably have felt the edge of that cutlass descending rapidly through his physical organism.

He was a man who insisted upon being obeyed, and if any one of his crew behaved improperly, or was even found idle, this strict and inexorable master would cut him down where he stood. But although he was so strict and exacting during the business sessions of his piratical year, by which I mean when he was cruising around after prizes, he was very much more disagreeable when he was taking a vacation. On his return to Jamaica after one of his expeditions it was his habit to give himself some relaxation after the hardships and dangers through which he had passed, and on such occasions it was a great comfort to Roc to get himself thoroughly drunk. With his cutlass waving high in the air, he would rush out into the street and take a whack at every one whom he met. As far as was possible the citizens allowed him to have the street to himself, and it was not at all likely that his visits to Jamaica were looked forward to with any eager anticipations.

Roc, it may be said, was not only a bloody pirate, but a blooded one; he was thoroughbred. From the time he had been able to assert his individuality he had been a pirate, and there was no reason to suppose that he would ever reform himself into anything else. There were no extenuating circumstances in his case; in his nature there was no alloy, nor moderation, nor forbearance. The appreciative Esquemeling, who might be called the Boswell of the buccaneers, could never have met his hero Roc, when that bushy-bearded pirate was running "amuck" in the streets, but if he had, it is not probable that his book would have been written. He assures us that when Roc was not drunk he was esteemed, but at the same time feared; but there are various ways of gaining esteem, and Rocís method certainly succeeded very well in the case of his literary associate.

As we have seen, the hatred of the Spaniards by the buccaneers began very early in the settlement of the West Indies, and in fact, it is very likely that if there had been no Spaniards there would never have been any buccaneers; but in all the instances of ferocious enmity toward the Spaniards there has been nothing to equal the feelings of Roc, the Brazilian, upon that subject. His dislike to everything Spanish arose, he declared, from cruelties which had been practised upon his parents by people of that nation, and his main principle of action throughout all his piratical career seems to have been that there was nothing too bad for a Spaniard. The object of his life was to wage bitter war against Spanish ships and Spanish settlements. He seldom gave any quarter to his prisoners, and would often subject them to horrible tortures in order to make them tell where he could find the things he wanted. There is nothing horrible that has ever been written or told about the buccaneer life, which could not have been told about Roc, the Brazilian. He was a typical pirate.

Roc was very successful in his enterprises, and took a great deal of valuable merchandise to Jamaica, but although he and his crew were always rich men when they went on shore, they did not remain in that condition very long. The buccaneers of that day were all very extravagant, and, moreover, they were great gamblers, and it was not uncommon for them to lose everything they possessed before they had been on shore a week. Then there was nothing for them to do but go on board their vessels and put out to sea in search of some fresh prize. So far Rocís career had been very much like that of many other Companions of the Coast, differing from them only in respect to intensity and force, but he was a clever man with ideas, and was able to adapt himself to circumstances.

He was cruising about Campeachy without seeing any craft that was worth capturing, when he thought that it would be very well for him to go out on a sort of marine scouting expedition and find out whether or not there were any Spanish vessels in the bay which were well laden and which were likely soon to come out. So, with a small boat filled with some of his trusty men, he rowed quietly into the port to see what he could discover. If he had had Esquemeling with him, and had sent that mild-mannered observer into the harbor to investigate into the state of affairs, and come back with a report, it would have been a great deal better for the pirate captain, but he chose to go himself, and he came to grief. No sooner did the people on the ships lying in the harbor behold a boat approaching with a big-browed, broad-jawed mariner sitting in the stern, and with a good many more broad-backed, hairy mariners than were necessary, pulling at the oars, than they gave the alarm. The well-known pirate was recognized, and it was not long before he was captured. Roc must have had a great deal of confidence in his own powers, or perhaps he relied somewhat upon the fear which his very presence evoked. But he made a mistake this time; he had run into the lion's jaw, and the lion had closed his teeth upon him.

When the pirate captain and his companions were brought before the Governor, he made no pretence of putting them to trial. Buccaneers were outlawed by the Spanish, and were considered as wild beasts to be killed without mercy wherever caught. Consequently Roc and his men were thrown into a dungeon and condemned to be executed. If, however, the Spanish Governor had known what was good for himself, he would have had them killed that night.

During the time that preparations were going on for making examples of these impertinent pirates, who had dared to enter the port of Campeachy, Roc was racking his brains to find some method of getting out of the terrible scrape into which he had fallen. This was a branch of the business in which a capable pirate was obliged to be proficient; if he could not get himself out of scrapes, he could not expect to be successful. In this case there was no chance of cutting down sentinels, or jumping overboard with a couple of wine jars for a life-preserver, or of doing any of those ordinary things which pirates were in the habit of doing when escaping from their captors. Roc and his men were in a dungeon on land, inside of a fortress, and if they escaped from this, they would find themselves unarmed in the midst of a body of Spanish soldiers. Their stout arms and their stout hearts were of no use to them now, and they were obliged to depend upon their wits if they had any. Roc had plenty of wit, and he used it well. There was a slave, probably not a negro nor a native, but most likely some European who had been made prisoner, who came in to bring him food and drink, and by the means of this man the pirate hoped to play a trick upon the Governor. He promised the slave that if he would help him,—and he told him it would be very easy to do so,—would give him money enough to buy his freedom and to return to his friends, and this, of course, was a great inducement to the poor fellow, who may have been an Englishman or a Frenchman in good circumstances at home. The slave agreed to the proposals, and the first thing he did was to bring some writing-materials to Roc, who thereupon began the composition of a letter upon which he based all his hopes of life and freedom.

When he was coming into the bay, Roc had noticed a large French vessel that was lying at some distance from the town, and he wrote his letter as if it had come from the captain of this ship. In the character of this French captain he addressed his letter to the Governor of the town, and in it he stated that he had understood that certain Companions of the Coast, for whom he had great sympathy,—for the French and the buccaneers were always good friends,—had been captured by the Governor, who, he heard, had threatened to execute them. Then the French captain, by the hand of Roc, went on to say that if any harm should come to these brave men, who had been taken and imprisoned when they were doing no harm to anybody, he would swear, in his most solemn manner, that never, for the rest of his life, would he give quarter to any Spaniard who might fall into his hands, and he, moreover, threatened that any kind of vengeance which should become possible for the buccaneers and French united, to inflict upon the Spanish ships, or upon the town of Campeachy, should be taken as soon as possible after he should hear of any injury that might be inflicted upon the unfortunate men who were then lying imprisoned in the fortress.

Roc the Brazilian


When the slave came back to Roc, the letter was given to him with very particular directions as to what he was to do with it. He was to disguise himself as much as possible, so that he should not be recognized by the people of the place, and then in the night he was to make his way out of the town, and early in the morning he was to return as if he had been walking along the shore of the harbor, when he was to state that he had been put on shore from the French vessel in the offing, with a letter which he was to present to the Governor.

The slave performed his part of the business very well. The next day, wet and bedraggled, from making his way through the weeds and mud of the coast, he presented himself at the fortress with his letter, and when he was allowed to take it to the Governor, no one suspected that he was a person employed about the place. Having fulfilled his mission, he departed, and when seen again he was the same servant whose business it was to carry food to the prisoners.

The Governor read the letter with a disquieted mind; he knew that the French ship which was lying outside the harbor was a powerful vessel and he did not like French ships, anyway. The town had once been taken and very badly treated by a little fleet of French and English buccaneers, and he was very anxious that nothing of the kind should happen again. There was no great Spanish force in the harbor at that time, and he did not know how many buccaneering vessels might be able to gather together in the bay if it should become known that the great pirate Roc had been put to death in Campeachy. It was an unusual thing for a prisoner to have such powerful friends so near by, and the Governor took Roc's case into most earnest consideration. A few hours' reflection was sufficient to convince him that it would be very unsafe to tamper with such a dangerous prize as the pirate Roc, and he determined to get rid of him as soon as possible. He felt himself in the position of a man who has stolen a baby-bear, and who hears the roar of an approaching parent through the woods; to throw away the cub and walk off as though he had no idea there were any bears in that forest would be the inclination of a man so situated, and to get rid of the great pirate without provoking the vengeance of his friends was the natural inclination of the Governor.

Now Roc and his men were treated well, and having been brought before the Governor, were told that in consequence of their having committed no overt act of disorder they would be set at liberty and shipped to England, upon the single condition that they would abandon piracy and agree to become quiet citizens in whatever respectable vocation they might select.

To these terms Roc and his men agreed without argument. They declared that they would retire from the buccaneering business, and that nothing would suit them better than to return to the ways of civilization and virtue. There was a ship about to depart for Spain, and on this the Governor gave Roc and his men free passage to the other side of the ocean. There is no doubt that our buccaneers would have much preferred to have been put on board the French vessel; but as the Spanish Governor had started his prisoners on the road to reform, he did not wish to throw them into the way of temptation by allowing them to associate with such wicked companions as Frenchmen, and Roc made no suggestion of the kind, knowing very well how greatly astonished the French captain would be if the Governor were to communicate with him on the subject.

On the voyage to Spain Roc was on his good behavior, and he was a man who knew how to behave very well when it was absolutely necessary: no doubt there must have been many dull days on board ship when he would have been delighted to gamble, to get drunk, and to run "amuck" up and down the deck. But he carefully abstained from all these recreations, and showed himself to be such an able-bodied and willing sailor that the captain allowed him to serve as one of the crew. Roc knew how to do a great many things; not only could he murder and rob, but he knew how to turn an honest penny when there was no other way of filling his purse. He had learned among the Indians how to shoot fish with bow and arrows, and on this voyage across the Atlantic he occupied all his spare time in sitting in the rigging and shooting the fish which disported themselves about the vessel. These fish he sold to the officers, and we are told that in this way he earned no less than five hundred crowns, perhaps that many dollars. If this account is true, fish must have been very costly in those days, but it showed plainly that if Roc had desired to get into an honest business, he would have found fish-shooting a profitable occupation. In every way Roc behaved so well that for his sake all his men were treated kindly and allowed many privileges.

But when this party of reformed pirates reached Spain and were allowed to go where they pleased, they thought no more of the oaths they had taken to abandon piracy than they thought of the oaths which they had been in the habit of throwing right and left when they had been strolling about on the island of Jamaica. They had no ship, and not enough money to buy one, but as soon as they could manage it they sailed back to the West Indies, and eventually found themselves in Jamaica, as bold and as bloody buccaneers as ever they had been.

Not only did Roc cast from him every thought of reformation and a respectable life, but he determined to begin the business of piracy on a grander scale than ever before. He made a compact with an old French buccaneer, named Tributor, and with a large company of buccaneers he actually set out to take a town. Having lost everything he possessed, and having passed such a long time without any employment more profitable than that of shooting fish with a bow and arrows, our doughty pirate now desired to make a grand strike, and if he could take a town and pillage it of everything valuable it contained, he would make a very good fortune in a very short time, and might retire, if he chose, from the active practice of his profession.

The town which Roc and Tributor determined to attack was Merida, in Yucatan, and although this was a bold and rash undertaking, the two pirates were bold and rash enough for anything. Roc had been a prisoner in Merida, and on account of his knowledge of the town he believed that he and his followers could land upon the coast, and then quietly advance upon the town without their approach being discovered. If they could do this, it would be an easy matter to rush upon the unsuspecting garrison, and, having annihilated these, make themselves masters of the town.

But their plans did not work very well; they were discovered by some Indians, after they had landed, who hurried to Merida and gave notice of the approach of the buccaneers. Consequently, when Roc and his companions reached the town they found the garrison prepared for them, cannons loaded, and all the approaches guarded. Still the pirates did not hesitate; they advanced fiercely to the attack just as they were accustomed to do when they were boarding a Spanish vessel, but they soon found that fighting on land was very different from fighting at sea. In a marine combat it is seldom that a party of boarders is attacked in the rear by the enemy, although on land such methods of warfare may always be expected; but Roc and Tributor did not expect anything of the kind, and they were, therefore, greatly dismayed when a party of horsemen from the town, who had made a wide detour through the woods, suddenly charged upon their rear. Between the guns of the garrison and the sabres of the horsemen the buccaneers had a very hard time, and it was not long before they were completely defeated. Tributor and a great many of the pirates were killed or taken, and Roc, the Brazilian, had a terrible fall.

This most memorable fall occurred in the estimation of John Esquemeling, who knew all about the attack on Merida, and who wrote the account of it. But he had never expected to be called upon to record that his great hero, Roc, the Brazilian, saved his life, after the utter defeat of himself and his companions, by ignominiously running away. The loyal chronicler had as firm a belief in the absolute inability of his hero to fly from danger as was shown by the Scottish Douglas, when he stood, his back against a mass of stone, and invited his enemies to "Come one, come all." The bushy-browed pirate of the drawn cutlass had so often expressed his contempt for a soldier who would even surrender, to say nothing of running away, that Esquemeling could scarcely believe that Roc had retreated from his enemies, deserted his friends, and turned his back upon the principles which he had always so truculently proclaimed.

But this downfall of a hero simply shows that Esquemeling, although he was a member of the piratical body, and was proud to consider himself a buccaneer, did not understand the true nature of a pirate. Under the brutality, the cruelty, the dishonesty, and the recklessness of the sea-robbers of those days, there was nearly always meanness and cowardice. Roc, as we have said in the beginning of this sketch, was a typical pirate; under certain circumstances he showed himself to have all those brave and savage qualities which Esquemeling esteemed and revered, and under other circumstances he showed those other qualities which Esquemeling despised, but which are necessary to make up the true character of a pirate.

The historian John seems to have been very much cut up by the manner in which his favorite hero had rounded off his piratical career, and after that he entirely dropped Roc from his chronicles.

This out-and-out pirate was afterwards living in Jamaica, and probably engaged in new enterprises, but Esquemeling would have nothing more to do with him nor with the history of his deeds.