THE FIRST SOUTH SEA ADVENTURE: La Serena on the Bay of Coquimbo

Description: La Serena, often known as the “town of Coquimbo,” has a small population and moderate wealth. Known for fairly large exports of grain, along with smaller amounts of cattle hides, tallow, and charqui (tasajo: sun-dried, often salted, beef), the area is also rich with fruit: cherries, apricots, peaches, apples, pears, strawberries, citrus, plums. The beef is said to be good, better than at Valparaiso. La Serena has a fair number of tradesmen, and also a few merchants, some said to be rich.

The town is well-laid out, the streets running perpendicular to each other. The streets, though, are unpaved, and many of the houses are simple, made of mud walls and thatched roofs. Fig, olive, palm, and orange trees, along with strawberries and other fruits, are planted throughout the town, making it appear more of a garden walk than a place to live. There are six monasteries, plus a parish church and an additional chapel.

Nearby in the region are gold, silver, copper, iron, and quicksilver (mercury) mines, but most of their riches do not profit La Serena well. Many mines lay idle for lack of workers. Given that the region spends only 12,000 to 15,000 pieces-of-eight annually on European goods, it is probably not a place that can provide a large ransom.

Scenario: Having been repulsed at Arica with nothing to show for it, and at Ilo with too little to show for it, the buccaneers land at the Bay of Coquimbo on the night of December 3, 1680, seeking plunder and provisions. The buccaneers are hopeful, for many are disgruntled with the plunder so far. Worse, Capt. Sharp has profited well, both by inheriting the shares of Capt. Sawkins, and by winning often at dice. A mutiny is in the offing.

La Serena as depicted in The Buccaneers of America and drawn by Basil Ringrose, 1684.
The Bay of Coquimbo and La Serena in the early eighteenth century.

Forces: Roughly one hundred buccaneers depart for the shore of Coquimbo Bay: thirty-five men in four canoes, the rest in the ship’s launch. As usual, the buccaneers are armed with musket, one or two pistols, a cartouche box holding as many as thirty cartridges (some may have a second box), and a cutlass.

The Spanish defenders, according to the buccaneers, consist of at least two hundred fifty horse and perhaps more, probably along with fewer militia afoot: the Spanish claim to have six hundred men under arms, sixty of which have been provided by Arica. Although some may be armed with arcabuses and carabinas, and possibly a few hunting escopetas (flintlock-type arms), many are armed with lances and swords, especially those on horseback. Buccaneer author and participant Edward Povey writes that of the horsemen, “thay had not all guns, some launces, other Spade’s [spados, an English term for espadas, meaning long Spanish swords].” Many of the mounted lanceros may be armed with “hocksing irons” used for hamstringing cattle when hunting them.

Additionally, the Spanish have a secret weapon, what today is known as a “combat swimmer”—a man with an inflated horse or hog hide to use as a float, with brimstone, oakum, and other combustible materials, and a slow match with which to light them.

La Serena has no fort or similar defenses.

Historical Action: In the darkness of the early morning of December 3, 1680, the buccaneers depart for the shore of the Bay of Coquimbo. Although the distance is but two leagues, the heavily-laden launch falls far behind.

Thirty-five buccaneers in four canoes land first, and are quickly engaged by one hundred to one hundred fifty Spanish horsemen who are just as quickly routed. Hearing the battle, the late-landing buccaneers from the launch race to join their companions. In all, the buccaneer force consists of eighty-eight men, the rest having been left to guard the launch and canoes.

La Serena profile and plan in the early eighteenth century, showing the abandoned Santa Lucia quarter destroyed by pirates.

The Spanish horse retreat a mile and prepare to give battle. When the buccaneers come in range, the Spanish retire, and do so again and again—they are luring the invaders away from La Serena while its inhabitants escape with what valuables they can. The buccaneers kill three or four of the “chief men” of the Spaniards, wound four more, and kill four horses. The attackers break off the engagement and march cross country to find La Serena.

La Serena is largely deserted when the buccaneers arrive. They capture and interrogate a friar and two local men, learning that the Spanish have murdered many of their Chilean slaves to prevent them from uprising and joining the invaders. That evening forty buccaneers, led by the boatswain, sortie from town in search of hidden townspeople and their wealth, but they have been forewarned, and the expedition turns up little of note.

The next day the Trinity anchors within a furlong of the shore near a storehouse at Punta de la Tortuga. Several Spaniards arrive at La Serena under a flag of truce to negotiate for the ransom of the town, and the two sides agree to 95,000 pieces-of-eight to be delivered the following day. But as at Ilo the Spanish are stalling for time. No cattle are delivered, but are promised the next day. That night, the defenders open a sluice and flood the town, hoping to drive the buccaneers out, and if not, to hinder any damage if the invaders set the town alight.

And so the buccaneers do the next morning, burning La Serena. With their plunder they march back to the seaside, fending of an ambush by two hundred and fifty mounted men. When the buccaneers arrive at their ship, they learn that it was almost burned in a night swimmer attack. An intrepid Spaniard has ventured into the bay using an inflated horse or hog skin to aid his swimming and keep his combustible materials dry. Swimming roughly two hundred yards to the stern of the ship, he crammed oakum and brimstone between the rudder and rudder post, and set it afire with a slow match. There is chaos when the buccaneers smell the smoke: some abandon ship, others seek the source and put it out before it can do any great damage.

Buccaneer plunder from La Serena is little more than provisions: beef, pork, wine, brandy, and fruit.

Game Notes: The fighting is entirely mounted Spanish versus buccaneers afoot. Is there a way to use the “combat swimmer”?