From the very earliest days of history there have been pirates, and it is, therefore, not at all remarkable that, in the early days of the history of this continent, sea-robbers should have made themselves prominent; but the buccaneers of America differed in many ways from those pirates with whom the history of the old world has made us acquainted.
It was very seldom that an armed vessel set out from an European port for the express purpose of robbery in American waters. At first nearly all noted buccaneers were traders. But the circumstances which surrounded them in the new world made of them pirates whose evil deeds have never been surpassed in any part of the globe.
These unusual circumstances and amazing temptations do not furnish an excuse for the exceptionally wicked careers of the early American pirates; but we are bound to remember these causes or we could not understand the records of the settlement of the West Indies. The buccaneers were fierce and reckless fellows who pursued their daring occupation because it was profitable, because they had learned to like it, and because it enabled them to wreak a certain amount of vengeance upon the common enemy. But we must not assume that they inaugurated the piratical conquests and warfare which existed so long upon our eastern seacoasts.
Before the buccaneers began their careers, there had been great masters of piracy who had opened their schools in the Caribbean Sea; and in order that the condition of affairs in this country during parts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be clearly understood, we will consider some of the very earliest noted pirates of the West Indies.
When we begin a judicial inquiry into the condition of our fellow-beings, we should try to be as courteous as we can, but we must be just; consequently a man's fame and position must not turn us aside, when we are acting as historical investigators.
Therefore, we shall be bold and speak the truth, and although we shall take off our hats and bow very respectfully, we must still assert that Christopher Columbus was the first who practised piracy in American waters.
When he sailed with his three little ships to discover unknown lands, he was an accredited explorer for the court of Spain, and was bravely sailing forth with an honest purpose, and with the same, regard for law and justice as is possessed by any explorer of the present day. But when he discovered some unknown lands, rich in treasure and outside of all legal restrictions, the views and ideas of the great discoverer gradually changed. Being now beyond the boundaries of civilization, he also placed himself beyond the boundaries of civilized law; Robbery, murder, and the destruction of property, by the commanders of naval expeditions, who have no warrant or commission for their conduct, is the same as piracy, and when Columbus ceased to be a legalized explorer, and when, against the expressed wishes, and even the prohibitions, of the royal personages who had sent him out on this expedition, he began to devastate the countries he had discovered, and to enslave and exterminate their peaceable natives, then he became a master in piracy, from whom the buccaneers afterward learned many a valuable lesson.
It is not necessary for us to enter very deeply into the consideration of the policy of Columbus toward the people of the islands of the West Indies. His second voyage was nothing more than an expedition for the sake of plunder. He had discovered gold and other riches in the West Indies and he had found that the people who inhabited the islands were simple-hearted, inoffensive creatures, who did not know how to fight and who did not want to fight. Therefore, it was so easy to sail his ships into the harbors of defenceless islands, to subjugate the natives, and to take away the products of their mines and soil, that he commenced a veritable course of piracy.
The acquisition of gold and all sorts of plunder seemed to be the sole object of this Spanish expedition; natives were enslaved, and subjected to the greatest hardships, so that they died in great numbers. At one time three hundred of them were sent as slaves to Spain. A pack of bloodhounds, which Columbus had brought with him for the purpose, was used to hunt down the poor Indians when they endeavored to escape from the hands of the oppressors, and in every way the island of Hayti, the principal scene of the actions of Columbus, was treated as if its inhabitants had committed a dreadful crime by being in possession of the wealth which the Spaniards desired for themselves.
Queen Isabella was greatly opposed to these cruel and unjust proceedings. She sent back to their native land the slaves which Columbus had shipped to Spain, and she gave positive orders that no more of the inhabitants were to be enslaved, and that they were all to be treated with moderation and kindness. But the Atlantic is a wide ocean, and Columbus, far away from his royal patron, paid little attention to her wishes and commands; without going further into the history of this period, we will simply mention the fact that it was on account of his alleged atrocities that Columbus was superseded in his command, and sent back in chains to Spain.
There was another noted personage of the sixteenth century who played the part of pirate in the new world, and thereby set a most shining example to the buccaneers of those regions. This was no other than Sir Francis Drake, one of England's greatest naval commanders.
It is probable that Drake, when he started out in life, was a man of very law-abiding and orderly disposition, for he was appointed by Queen Elizabeth a naval chaplain, and, it is said, though there is some doubt about this, that he was subsequently vicar of a parish. But by nature he was a sailor, and nothing else, and after having made several voyages in which he showed himself a good fighter, as well as a good commander, he undertook, in 1572, an expedition against the Spanish settlements in the West Indies, for which he had no legal warrant whatever.
Spain was not at war with England, and when Drake sailed with four small ships into the port of the little town of Nombre de Dios in the middle of the night, the inhabitants of the town were as much astonished as the people of Perth Amboy would be if four armed vessels were to steam into Raritan Bay, and endeavor to take possession of the town. The peaceful Spanish townspeople were not at war with any civilized nation, and they could not understand why bands of armed men should invade their streets, enter the market-place, fire their calivers, or muskets, into the air, and then sound a trumpet loud enough to wake up everybody in the place. Just outside of the town the invaders had left a portion of their men, and when these heard the trumpet in the market-place, they also fired their guns; all this noise and hubbub so frightened the good people of the town, that many of them jumped from their beds, and without stopping to dress, fled away to the mountains. But all the citizens were not such cowards, and fourteen or fifteen of them armed themselves and went out to defend their town from the unknown invaders.
Beginners in any trade or profession, whether it be the playing of the piano, the painting of pictures, or the pursuit of piracy, are often timid and distrustful of themselves; so it happened on this occasion with Francis Drake and his men, who were merely amateur pirates, and showed very plainly that they did not yet understand their business.
When the fifteen Spanish citizens came into the market-place and found there the little body of armed Englishmen, they immediately fired upon them, not knowing or caring who they were. This brave resistance seems to have frightened Drake and his men almost as much as their trumpets and guns had frightened the citizens, and the English immediately retreated from the town. When they reached the place where they had left the rest of their party, they found that these had already run away, and taken to the boats. Consequently Drake and his brave men were obliged to take off some of their clothes and to wade out to the little ships. The Englishmen secured no booty whatever, and killed only one Spaniard, who was a man who had been looking out of a window to see what was the matter.
Whether or not Drake's conscience had anything to do with the bungling manner in which he made this first attempt at piracy, we cannot say, but he soon gave his conscience a holiday, and undertook some very successful robbing enterprises. He received information from some natives, that a train of mules was coming across the Isthmus of Panama loaded with gold and silver bullion, and guarded only by their drivers; for the merchants who owned all this treasure had no idea that there was any one in that part of the world who would commit a robbery upon them. But Drake and his men soon proved that they could hold up a train of mules as easily as some of the masked robbers in our western country hold up a train of cars. All the gold was taken, but the silver was too heavy for the amateur pirates to carry.
Two days after that, Drake and his men came to a place called "The House of Crosses," where they killed five or six peaceable merchants, but were greatly disappointed to find no gold, although the house was full of rich merchandise of various kinds. As his men had no means of carrying away heavy goods, he burned up the house and all its contents and went to his ships, and sailed away with the treasure he had already obtained.
Whatever this gallant ex-chaplain now thought of himself, he was considered by the Spaniards as an out-and-out pirate, and in this opinion they were quite correct. During his great voyage around the world, which he began in 1577, he came down upon the Spanish-American settlements like a storm from the sea. He attacked towns, carried off treasure, captured merchant-vessels,—and in fact showed himself to be a thoroughbred and accomplished pirate of the first class.
It was in consequence of the rich plunder with which his ships were now loaded, that he made his voyage around the world. He was afraid to go back the way he came, for fear of capture, and so, having passed the Straits of Magellan, and having failed to find a way out of the Pacific in the neighborhood of California, he doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed along the western coast of Africa to European waters.
This grand piratical expedition excited great indignation in Spain, which country was still at peace with England, and even in England there were influential people who counselled the Queen that it would be wise and prudent to disavow Drake's actions, and compel him to restore to Spain the booty he had taken from his subjects. But Queen Elizabeth was not the woman to do that sort of thing. She liked brave men and brave deeds, and she was proud of Drake. Therefore, instead of punishing him, she honored him, and went to take dinner with him on board his ship, which lay at Deptford.
So Columbus does not stand alone as a grand master of piracy. The famous Sir Francis Drake, who became vice-admiral of the fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada, was a worthy companion of the great Genoese.
These notable instances have been mentioned because it would be unjust to take up the history of those resolute traders who sailed from England, France, and Holland, to the distant waters of the western world for the purpose of legitimate enterprise and commerce, and who afterwards became thorough-going pirates, without trying to make it clear that they had shining examples for their notable careers.