In 1687 Captain William Phips arrived in English waters with forty tons of treasure rescued from the wreck of the Concepcin, sunk forty years before in the middle of the ocean. The great British treasure-hunting boom had begun. Over the next two centuries, many such adventures, most based on extremely dubious information, were begun. World-renowned historian Peter Earle returns with an extraordinary history of outstanding bravery, exceptional recklessness, and above all, dreams of treasure.
Peter Earle is emeritus reader in economic history at the University of London and the author of The Pirate Wars.
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Peter Earle is Emeritus Reader in Economic History at the University of London. He has written widely on many subjects and his books include A City Full of People, The Making of the Middle Class (Published in the US by University of California Press), The World of Defoe and Monmouth's Rebels.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One Santa Catalina Land ahead on the starboard bow!' It was noon on 25 May 1666 when the ageing privateer, Captain Edward Mansfield, heard the lookout's cry. He clambered up into the rigging to check his position. One quick look through his perspective glass and he could relax. There was no mistaking the rugged hills, over a thousand feet high, of the lonely island which the English called Providence and the Spaniards called Santa Catalina.1 The old captain glanced back at the rest of his squadron. All four ships were still in sight, spread out across the otherwise empty sea. They all looked as though they had been a long time out of port, weather-beaten, paint faded, sails patched, but still moving well through the water, their bottoms clean after a recent careening. Three of them were very small, lateen-rigged sloops with no deck or cabin to protect their cramped crews from sun and sea and rain; and even the fourth was only about fifty tons, a small, square-rigged, half-decked frigate which, like Mansfield's own similar ship, had been recently captured from the Spaniards off the Central American coast. None of them carried many cannon, but no one who saw them would have been in any doubt that they were best to be avoided. Small, fast ships like these, crammed with men who knew from experience that four muskets could do as much execution as one cannon,2 had terrorized the waters and coastal settlements of the Caribbean for decades. Mansfield signalled the frigate to furl her topsails to reduce visibility and crept forward towards his goal. By late afternoon he was only twelve miles from the southernmost point of the island, and the squadron hove to until nightfall. Tomorrow, with any luck, the island would be his. Mansfield badly needed to capture something to retrieve his reputation. He had made an almost complete circuit of the Caribbean in the past six months and had virtually nothing to show for his pains.3 It was, however, rather doubtful whether the capture of a Spanish island would win him much favour with the authorities in his home port of Port Royal, Jamaica. These were the days of the Second Dutch War, and Mansfield, a professional privateer, was sailing with a commission issued by Sir Thomas Modyford, the English Governor of Jamaica, which allowed him to attack and plunder the Dutch. So far, his voyage had done little damage to that maritime nation. The privateers had rendezvoused on the south coast of Jamaica in November 1665 with the clear intention of attacking and capturing the Dutch commercial base on the island of Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela. Some six hundred privateers had turned up and were said to be 'very forward to suppression of that enemy'. Their first move had, however, been in the opposite direction. Christmas had seen them off the south coast of Cuba, demanding 'victualls for their money'. The Cubans who, like all Spanish settlers, were prohibited from trading with foreigners had refused, whereupon 'two or three hundred privateers . . . marched forty-two miles into the country, took and fired the town of Santo Spirito, routed a body of 200 horse, carried their prisoners to their ships, and for their ransom had 300 fat beeves sent down.4 When asked why privateers with commissions against the Dutch should attack the Spanish, they had looked rather hurt. It almost sounded as if they were being accused of piracy. The privateer captains, after a short search amongst the papers in their cabins, had produced Portuguese commissions issued by the French Governor of Tortuga. This, of course, made everything legal. Portugal had been in revolt against Spain for twenty-six years. By the middle of January 1666, their victualling completed, the privateers were ready to sail again. They chose Captain Mansfield as their admiral and assured an emissary from the Governor of Jamaica that they 'had much zeale to his Majesty's service and a firm resolution to attack Curaçao'. But this resolution soon wilted during the long beat east straight into the prevailing trade winds. The expedition seemed all wrong. The whole tradition of privateering in the West Indies was to attack Spaniards, not Dutchmen. Ship after ship drifted off to make use of their Portuguese commissions against the Spanish settlers of Cuba and Hispaniola. Mansfield continued to beat to windward, but eventually he, too, was faced with mutiny and his crew refused to go any farther, 'averring publiquely that there was more profitt with lesse hazard to be gotten against ye Spaniard which was there onely interest'. As we shall see, this was sadly only too true, and it seems unlikely that Mansfield was particularly unhappy as he gave the order for the ships to go about and run with the wind down to the coast of the Spanish Main. One of his captains was later to make the best of it in a report to the Governor of Jamaica. They had tried to beat up to in Curaçao, he said, 'as much as they could, but was so long on their way that they spent their victuall and were forced to fall down with the wind and current to Boco Tauro [Boca del Toro] to recruit'.5 Mansfield still had fifteen ships under his command when he arrived at Boca del Toro on the borders of Panamá and Costa Rica, a favourite haunt of the privateers. Here the original fleet split up into two squadrons. Mansfield sailed with seven ships up the coast to Costa Rica, where he landed and marched inland across the coastal lowlands and then began to ascend the Cordillera with the intention of crossing the mountains to raid the city of Cartago. He was checked by shortage of food and a vigorous resistance by the garrison of Turrialba, ninety miles inland and 2,500 feet above sea level, and the invasion ended in an ignominious retreat.6 The survivors, 'exhausted and dying of hunger', re-embarked and made their way back down the coast to Boca del Toro. Here two more ships deserted Mansfield, and the old Admiral was left with the dreadful prospect of returning to Jamaica discredited and completely empty-handed, a failure in the eyes of the privateers and an embarrassment to the Governor. It was now that he had the idea of attacking and capturing Santa Catalina. It was true that the island was Spanish and his Jamaican commission only gave him permission to attack the Dutch; but maybe the Governor of Jamaica would look kindly on the man who captured this particular Spanish island, for it had not always been Spanish. It had in fact been one of the very first English colonies in the New World, settled in 1630 by men sent out from Bermuda and England by the Puritan Providence Island Company.7 The island was at that time uninhabited, and the Company's avowed intention was to develop their fertile and isolated colony as a godly plantation where pious men raised exotic crops for the greater glory of God and the profit of the London-based shareholders. It is clear, however, that this was simply wishful thinking, and from the beginning the colony's main function was 'to annoy the King of Spain in the Indies'. Providence Island, as it was now called, was ideal for this purpose--only 450 miles of easy sailing from Cartagena, the largest and richest city on the Spanish Main, and even closer to Portobello, the terminus of that maritime lifeline of the Spanish colonial empire, the annual silver fleets. Providence was fertile enough to maintain a large garrison and several privateering ships and, once properly garrisoned and fortified, extremely difficult to capture. A ring of reefs almost completely surrounded the island, and the one good port was commanded by huge rocks and cliffs. When the harbour had been fortified it was nearly impregnable, as the Governor of Cartagena was to discover when the expedition he led against the island in 1635 retired with the loss of many men, 'being much torn and battered by the ordnance from the forts'. The Spanish attack was taken as sufficient cause to issue large numbers of privateering licences, and for the next six years Providence was to be the very worst enemy of Spain in the West Indies. A second Spanish attack was beaten off in 1640 but, in the following year, the Captain-General of the silver fleet, Francisco Diaz Pimienta, mounted an invasion force so strong that the English and Dutch defenders of the island had no chance. Pimienta's landing with an advance force of six hundred seasoned Spanish soldiers was fiercely opposed, but to no avail, and he marched across the island to the settlement at New Westminster where he laid siege to the Governor's house and the church. Resistance soon collapsed and, on 26 May 1641, High Mass was celebrated and a Te Deum sung in the town square of New Westminster in the presence of the Spanish troops and the four hundred heretical English and Dutch prisoners. The booty was immense--six hundred black slaves and over half a million ducats' worth of treasure, the former property of Spaniards captured by the English and Dutch corsairs. It was the greatest Spanish triumph in the West Indies for many years, and Pimienta became a famous and much-fêted man.8 Now Edward Mansfield, anxious not to return to Jamaica 'until he had done some service to his Majesty', resolved to recover this property of the King of England and make it once again a hugely fortified advance base for the Jamaican privateers. And what better day to do it than on 26 May 1666, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the capture of the island by Pimienta? Since 1641, Santa Catalina's garrison and fortifications had been badly run down.9 The Spaniards had considered abandoning the island on several occasions, for it seemed to be rather a useless drain on the very scarce resources of men and money that were available for the defence of the Spanish Main; but always the thought of a second occupation by the English had changed their minds, for the English were now even more formidable than they had been in the 1630s. The capture of Jamaica in 1655 had led to a huge increase in the scale of depredations carried out by privateers who used the island as a base. A second smaller but closer Jamaica, entirely devoted to privateering, was a nightmare. And so the small, rugged, mountainous island, once again called Santa Catalina, was retained. But now, in 1666, it was no longer the mighty fortress that had given 'the Spaniards' whole armada' such a fight in 1641. Lack of money, lack of men, indifference, corruption and apathy had all taken their toll, and the island's situation was not improved by a long-running argument between the Governor of Cartagena and the President of Panamá as to which of them had the financial responsibility for its defence. In the absence of an agreement, each man naturally spent as little as possible on the upkeep of the island, and ships from the mainland only rarely brought fresh supplies of food, weapons and comforts for the miserable garrison. The results of such neglect were only too predictable. Many of the English guns and fortifications remained, rusty and crumbling through disuse, but only one fort was still garrisoned. This fort, known as La Cortadura, overlooked the port and stood in the few yards of sea which separated the main island from the small and fairly easily defended islet of Isla Chica at the north end of the island. The garrison of Santa Catalina was supposed to comprise 140 regular soldiers, but no garrison in the Spanish Indies was ever up to strength and, in 1666, there were only ninety soldiers on the island, twenty of whom were too old or too sick to bear arms. Many men in the garrison had come out to the island with Pimienta's invasion force in 1641 and had stayed there ever since, quietly vegetating in their lonely tropical fastness. Others had been sent there as exiles; four years in Santa Catalina was a common punishment for delinquents from the mainland. Women who lived scandalous lives in the cities of Cartagena or Panamá were also likely to find themselves removed to this convenient dumping-ground for the human trash of the Spanish Main. Such people, together with their children, 150 slaves and a few Indian herdsmen, formed the population of Santa Catalina. Contrary to all military principles, they were scattered throughout the island, living on their own small farms in huts and shacks and neglecting their military exercises for the more important tasks of raising maize and manioc, pigs and goats for their own sustenance. What else could they do if they received no food from the mainland? The men did have posts to which they were supposed to run in case of attack, and there were elaborate signalling systems to give the alarm. It is possible that many of the men would have recognized those signals if they had seen or heard them, but was there likely to be any such signal? The English had not been near the island for twenty-five years. Why should they come today? Such, clearly, was the attitude of Pedro Perez and Luis de Aguiar, the two soldiers whose turn it was, on 25 May 1666, to serve as sentinels on the Cerro de la Hermosa at the south end of the island. Each pair of soldiers spent two days on sentry duty on this lofty peak, and no doubt it was felt to be an uncongenial duty. On a clear day it was possible to see out to sea in every direction for fifteen or twenty miles, but Perez and Aguiar saw nothing as Edward Mansfield's five ships approached the island, their masts and yards silhouetted against the setting sun. Was it clear that day? 'No', said Pedro Perez, giving evidence later. 'There was no sun and it was so cloudy that he could not see the headland of the Playa de los Naranjos at the southern end of the island.'10 'Yes,' said Domingo de Soza, a Portuguese captive of the English who was on Mansfield's own ship. It had been cloudy in the early afternoon, but later it cleared, and during the two hours before nightfall the sky was crystal clear. The sentinels could not possibly have failed to see the ships if they had been looking. One fears that the Portuguese was telling the truth and that the two sentries took a long siesta on that lovely afternoon. It was just bad luck that it had to be their turn to be on duty. Captain Mansfield was no doubt well informed as to the numbers, competence and morale of the island's garrison, for as he had run with the trade wind down to the Spanish Main and along the coast to Boca del Toro he had picked up many other prisoners in addition to Domingo de Soza--merchant seamen, fishermen, herdsmen. Anyone cruising along the coast or loitering unsuspectingly on the seashore was likely to end up on the deck of a privateer. And then, as the famous travel-writer and former buccaneer, Captain Dampier, tells us, they would be examined 'concerning the country, town, or city that they belong to . . . how many families, whether most Spaniards? . . . whether rich, and what their riches do consist in? . . . if fortified, how many great guns, and what number of small arms? Whether it is possible to come undescried on them? How many look-outs or centinels . . . and how the look-outs are placed? . . . And if they have any former discourse of such places from other prisoners, they compare one with the other; then examine again, and enquire if he or any of them are capable to be guides to conduct a party of men thither.'11 Amongst Mansfield's prisoners on this occasion were a mestizo called Montes and a Spaniard called Roque, both of whom knew Santa Catalina well and had agreed to guide the privateers for a share of the prize. They would need good guides, because their proposed invasion of the islands would take them by a route that was dangerous enough in daytime and was believed to be impossible at night. Such, at least, was the belief of the island's Governor, Don Estevan de Ocampo, who wen...
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