Saturday, September 02, 2017

How a Force of Nature Created the Golden Age of Piracy

Possible tracks of Hurricane Irma - 9-2-17
Hurricane Harvey left a tremendous path of destruction in Houston, Texas and surrounding areas just a week ago. Hurricane Irma is expected this week along the many possible paths shown in the map above and is expected to be as powerful as Harvey, if not worse. Its most likely track takes it along the Florida coast. 

In my opinion, Irma possibly emulates another hurricane that struck July 30, 1715 along the same path and was the most likely cause of the upsurge in English piracy that many refer to as the "Golden Age." This hurricane demolished eleven heavily-laden vessels of a twelve-ship Spanish treasure fleet, slamming them into the Florida coast.

While a single wrecked Spanish vessel provided wrecking crews from Jamaica, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and other English settlements with months, even years, of valuable Spanish silver mined in Mexico and Peru, eleven ships would provide an absolute fortune in treasure unparalleled in the annals of the maritime Atlantic community!


Wreck Fishing

“Fishing” wrecks was a common activity all along the American coast, including the American West Indies. This was especially true with North Carolina’s Outer Banks and the Bahamas where wrecks occurred most often. A single wrecked Spanish treasure vessel provided a great deal of profit for English investors and lasted a whole five years!

Wrecking also became more refined after the successes in the 1680s of William Phips, wealthy carpenter of Boston. He was hired by a group of aristocratic investors, eager to fish a wrecked Spanish vessel in the lower Bahamas. 

Charles II, the English king, himself, partnered with Christopher Monck, duke of Albemarle, Sir James Hayes (probable former apothecary master to Carolina naturalist John Lawson from 1677-1683 who later served as apothecary-general to his Majesty’s forces in the West Indies from 1692-4), Viscount Falkland (Hayes’ step-son), Sir John Narbrough, Isaac Foxcroft and Virginia governor Francis Nicholson to invest in fishing a Spanish wreck of Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion. According to the duke of Beaufort, the wreck had “lain in the sea forty-two years [wrecked November 2, 1641]” and was being fished “chiefly by the Spaniards that lost her.” So, the English would obtain only the leftovers or residue unrecovered by Spanish divers...

In 1686, Phips left England in the James and Mary to engage in a salvage expedition for these partners. There, he recovered twenty-six tons of silver valued at over £200,000 from the Spanish wreck of Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion. The massive silver remaining after the original Spanish recovery from this single ship ran out for the British wreckers only by 1691. Beaufort estimated Albemarle’s portion at £40,000-50,000. Illustrating the immensity of the fortune, Hayes would rebuild his four-story manor of Great Bedgbury in Kent with his part of the proceeds. Also, the dangers of this venture were illustrated by the armament carried by the wrecker vessels involved, as shown in Table 1.


Phips employed only four native divers, probably from the Bahamas, home of the most experienced wreck fishers and later, home of Benjamin Hornigold's "Flying Gang" of pirates. Most likely, they made use of a diving bell, a large weighted device that forced trapped air below the surface which enabled divers to breathe under the surface with shorter dives at the intended salvage. While the salvage proceeded, Phips and crew were joined by at least eight ships and forty-eight smaller craft, all hunting for the treasure, as illustrated in Table 1 below. Maritime researcher John E. Ratcliffe assures that “The speed with which these scavengers appeared is evidence of a flourishing small-scale salvage industry based out of islands like Jamaica, Bermuda, and the Bahamas.”

Table 1
One can barely conceive of the massive wealth provided by only one already salvaged Spanish treasure ship - try to imagine eleven vessels, heavily laden with treasure, basically as yet un-salvaged, and in shallow waters where the fishing would be easier than with Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion!  Not only did the hurricane of July 30, 1715 deposit these eleven treasure ships in shallow waters of the Florida coast, but famous astronomer Edmund Halley had recently invented a new diving bell that would make fishing wrecks even more efficient for the British. 


Edmund Halley's "diving bell" 1690

Hurricane of July 30, 1715 - the Fleet of 1715

General of the Windward Squadron Pedro de Ribera vacillated constantly on his fleet’s time of departure. He first prepared his fleet to sail in late 1712 from Havana, Cuba, but it did not sail until three years later.  A second fleet, in mid-1712, under Juan Estaban de Ubilla arrived in Veracruz, Mexico with eight more vessels, ordered to load with bullion, passengers, and merchandize and return to Spain as soon as possible. Neither of these fleets left on schedule. A large part of the postponement centered upon news of the concessions of October 1711 and the coming peace treaty in the Dutch city of Utrecht the next year that would end Queen Anne's War. The dangers of both weather and anti-Catholic pirates, namely British, also figured prominently in their debates. 

The Spanish Navy at this time was also handicapped by favoritism, officer appointments occurring more because of important connections rather than merit and ability. The British Royal Navy, however, was little better. Arguments between fleet officers happened often, especially with haughty and arrogant men like Ubilla. Ribera, arrogant enough on his own, defied the subordinate Ubilla’s complaint of who could fly the command flag on their combined voyage home. Ribera, assured Ubilla of “his right to fly the command flag from the masthead of his ship,… ‘by ancient law and privilege.’”  General Ubilla never reacted well to Ribera’s assertions of authority. 


Furthermore, frequent postponements plagued the scheduled departure dates. The next march, Ubilla was delayed by procrastinating local merchants. His wealthy connections influenced the Junta, or ruling council, to reschedule for May, depending upon the weather. Still, it was postponed again until August, which drove Ubilla nearly mad. As a result, the aggravated Ubilla became involved in a duel and apparently suffered an injury. Fears of a winter passage, sightings of English pirates passing Cuban posts, Ubilla’s recuperation from sword wounds, and word of the peace treaty delayed departure once again. 


Juan Estaban de Ubilla decided to reduce the tension in his letters to the Viceroy and he received another departure date of March 1714. All of his eight vessels, waiting in port, had been continuously careened and repaired. Again, Ubilla was ready to leave when news of the treaty came. The wait played on Ubilla, who added ascerbicism once again to his writing. Furthermore, six English ships were sighted east of Cuba and eighteen off Puerto Rico. By July, a nasty storm had threatened his fleet, not simply the frequent nortes (cold northeasterly windstorms) of the Mexican shores.  Summer passed and another departure date postponed. During another storm that September, Ubilla wrote another letter that seemed to indicate he had completely lost his senses. The storm drowned five vessels in the harbor - fortunately, however, none of his. 


That fall of 1714, the Vicereoy wrote and expressed his disappointment over Ubilla and especially for the tone of the accusations in his letters. Ubilla fell into deep depression, still not fully recovered from his physical wounds. Ubilla’s biographer Lowell W. Newton said that his response “degenerated into a string of incoherent phrases that seem to represent a rambling, disjointed attempt to justify his earlier demands to the Viceroy and his conflict with Ribera over the command flag.”  Furthermore, his finances were exhausted. His expenses then relied solely on credit and he incurred heavy debt. The loss of royal confidence, Newton declares, came close to finally breaking his spirit.


Reconciliation occurred when Ubilla finally cowed before royal chastisement. His authorities sent pay for him and his men and set a new departure date for March 1715. One urca, or cargo ship under Miguel de Lima had to be remasted and Ubilla did not leave until that May to rendezvous in Havana with the galleones fleet. On the way, Ubilla’s flagship had been demasted in another storm and, once he arrived, he engaged in another argument with one Gen. Don Antonio de Echeverz, the new leader of the Havana squadron. The argument involved Echeverz demand to accompany Ubilla’s fleet to Spain. Once that was settled, the entire squadron of Ubilla and Echeverz totalled eleven vessels plus one Frenchman. They transported “merchandise, 14,000,000 pesos in silver, and significant quantities of gold; much-needed bullion for merchants whose trade had been victimized by the war and the long delay since the 1713 Peace of Utrecht, and by a monarchy overwhelmed with war debts.”  Only one of the vessels, the French ship La Grifon, ever reached home.


Four days out of Havana, on July 30, 1715, the fleet met with a hurricane near Cape Canaveral, at latitude of 28 deg north. Two ships sank in deep water, one went down in the shoals near shore, another ran ashore (Urca de Lima, now one of Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves), two ships destroyed, and the flagship got off a single boat before taking 225 people, including Juan Esteban de Ubilla, to the reputed Davy Jones’ locker.



As Newton inferred the British were “particularly successful in their attempts to seize Indies bullion,” by whatever means, essentially making the most effective pirates.  This wreck event became the quintessential natal event of the Golden Age. Piracy, as our culture has come to understood it ever since, began with the hurricane’s passage through the Florida Straits and destruction of the massive treasure fleet of Ubilla and Echerverz on July 30, 1715.


As I have previously detailed in "American Pirates in the News!," the entire Atlantic community came to fish the wrecks. Many simply waited for others to do the work of fishing and then, pirated them as they left the Florida coast. All pirates preyed on all nations - anyone with bullion on board. Afterwards for these mariners, it became a simple matter to ignore already weak British legal constraints and continue taking these vessels long after the wrecks ran out of bullion. 

In the Boston News-Letter, occurrences of the term "pirate" appear more often after the hurricane of July 30, 1715

The Boston News-Letter, the premier newspaper of the time, began to refer to British pirates following this event. For their eleven-year existence prior to the hurricane of July 30, 1715, they mentioned only "pirates" of French or Spanish origin. The most common term was "privateer," which indicated that these brigands had official sanction from at least one government. The point being that they did not prey on vessels of their own national patron. After the hurricane, however, pirates preyed upon everyone. 

The "Golden Age of Greed" was born!


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Hopefully, at the end of 2017, I will be finished with my newest book: Dictionary of Pyrate Biography, 1713-1720 which will attempt for the first time ever to re-discover pirate history without using A General History. I guarantee a lot of surprises!




Please keep up with updates on my website at baylusbrooks.com.




Meanwhile, visit my Lulu page for already published material, including Quest for Blackbeard! 

Quest for Blackbeard is 15% OFF ALL PRINT FORMATS now at: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/bcbrooks

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