THE FIRST SOUTH SEA ADVENTURE:
Born in Stepney, Middlesex in England around 1650, and known familiarly as “Bat” to both friend and enemy, Bartholomew Sharp is an extraordinary seaman, a superb tactician, and a bold commander able to keep a cool head and sharp mind while leading men under fire. The description, “the courage of a lion, the cunning of a fox,” fits him well, yet his self-interest makes him a highly divisive buccaneer captain and admiral, his martial virtues notwithstanding.
On this first epic, South Sea voyage Sharp promises to lead the buccaneers to a thousand
pounds value in plunder each—four thousand pieces-of-eight—but only he ends up so well, mostly by shares from command and winning at dice. Angry that he has more plunder than they and now wants, like the other “thrifty men,” to head home, a majority of buccaneers turn him out of office and replace him with John Watling, at least until Watling is shot dead in action at Arica and the buccaneers beg Sharp to take command again. Ruthless when necessary, Sharp is also known at times for a strong, compassionate loyalty to both friend and enemy.
Beginning his buccaneering career circa 1666 at the age of about sixteen, Sharp almost certainly serves under Henry Morgan at Panama, is believed to have been at the sack of Segovia, possibly in 1675, after ascending the Rio Coco in Honduras, and was likely with Coxon at the sack of Santa Marta in 1677. However, he first comes to our attention as a captain by name as part of the small buccaneer fleet commanded by John Coxon that ascends Rio Dulce, captures Fuerte San Felipe de Lara by surprise, and plunders the bodegas on Lake Izabal of indigo, cochineal, tortoise shell, cacao, silver plate, and pieces-of-eight. Most famously, he is one of the captains who descend into the South Sea to attack the Spanish, and twice serves as commander- in-chief.
After the subsequent epic adventures of Portobello and the South Sea, Sharp is tried and acquitted of piracy in London, helps French flibustiers sack Campeche, and briefly becomes a rather dubiously-commissioned pirate hunter who helps the governor of Bermuda put down a colonial rebellion. Almost certainly Sharp hopes, by doing this, to avoid charges of Campeche piracy. Threatened with legal action by one of the rebels, Sharp, depending on whom you believe, either lights his pipe with the writ or wipes his bottom with it—or both. He is taken prisoner soon after by Capt. St. Lo on charges of piracy and is tried at Nevis—but acquitted again. In 1688 he briefly serves as “commander” (possibly self-appointed) of Anguilla Island until forced out by the French, and soon afterward commands a company of privateers ashore, and probably at sea, under General Codrington in support of English attacks on the French.
In 1696 he retires as a small planter on the Danish colony of St. Thomas. Two years later, his small plantation failing, deep in debt, and having attempted to escape the island, Sharp is imprisoned: “[A]fter sickness had deprived him of the use of his hands, he was still able, through the indiscriminate use of an active and violent tongue, to earn a sentence of imprisonment for life from an indignant governor and council.” In 1700, famous Admiral John Benbow tries but fails to convince the governor of St. Thomas to release the equally famous buccaneer. Bartholomew
Sharp is believed to have died on St. Thomas, in jail, in 1702.
Doubtless learning his trade under Henry Morgan, John Coxon first makes the historical record in 1676, accused of unlawfully accepting a French commission and thus committing piracy.
Undeterred by the English intention to capture him and try him for piracy, he sails in consort with Frenchman La Garde and sacks Santa Marta in June 1677. Soon after encountering the Armada de Barlovento, he returns to Jamaica with the local bishop for ransom.
In 1679, in company with buccaneer captains Bartholomew Sharp, Richard Sawkins, and John Watling he leads the on the Fuerte San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce, and upon the bodegas on Lake Izabal. In 1680 he leads the sack of Portobello, and is the leading captain when buccaneers cross the Isthmus of Darien. However, Coxon’s courage is questioned at the Battle of Perico Island, and before long he and a large number of his followers return to the Caribbean.
Circa 1682 he accepts a dubious—illegal, that is—commission from Captain-General Robert Clarke, governor of the Bahamas. He makes brief reconnaissance of St. Augustine, Florida, capturing a few prisoners but otherwise fails to threaten the city. At Jamaica he enters the service of Governor Lynch, who informs him of the illegality of his commission from Governor Clarke. Coxon is first dispatched to the Bay of Honduras to force English logwood cutters to depart, but instead must put down a mutiny of his own crew. Afterward he dispatched to find Capt. Yankey (Jan Willems) and with him track down and capture the notorious pirate Jean Hamlin, but nothing comes of the effort.
Coxon is reported to continue his piracy over the next few years. In 1686 he is noted as cutting logwood at the Laguna de Terminós in the Bay of Campeche. In 1688 he surrenders to English authorities, his last command being that of the barcalonga Dorado. From now we hear no more of the buccaneer and pirate.
Richard Sawkins, another veteran buccaneer who likely had service under Henry Morgan, is first noted as one of the captains under John Coxon in the 1679 raid on the bodegas on Lake Izabal in the Gulf of Honduras. Two months later he and his brigantine are captured by the HMS Success which has been dispatched to locate and capture Capt. Peter Harris. But the Success runs aground, and Sawkins’s vessel is sent for supplies. He escapes by night, steals a boat, finds his brigantine, and takes command again. Soon after, he is badly beaten by a Spanish ship, then fights a brief engagement with the HMS Hunter and her sloop before slipping away.
In 1680 he joins the buccaneers who have just sacked Portobello, and with them heads to the South Sea. He shows notable valor, above and beyond most buccaneers, in particular at Santa Marta and at the Battle of Perico. After the departure of John Coxon he is elected commander-in- chief but he does not hold the office for long—he is killed in action leading an assault on a barricade at Puebla Nueva. Capt. Sawkins was noted not only for his desperate courage, but also for the high regard in which he was held, and for his religious conviction: as commander-in-chief he would not permit gambling on the Sabbath, and expected the day to be observed.
Little is known of Peter Harris, an Englishman from Kent, prior to his joining the expedition into the South Sea, except that he served in Morgan’s expedition against Panama and has recently captured a Dutch ship of twenty-eight guns. He soon after makes his escape from the HMS Success when she runs aground and tears her bottom out. Doubtless he is an able buccaneer captain, fully capable of commanding a ship of one hundred-fifty tons and twenty-six to twenty- eight guns (some say thirty-two, but many were doubtless swivel guns), and one hundred seven men—a ship of force by buccaneer standards. He is not beloved by all, though, for he and Capt. John Coxon have words at Darien: Coxon fires a pistol at Harris, but Capt. Sharp intercedes before Harris returns the favor, and perhaps with better accuracy.
Harris is extraordinarily courageous in battle, and for this reason he does not live to sail much of the South Sea. Perhaps if he had, the voyage would have turned out differently, perhaps much so. At the Battle of Perico, “Brave vallient capt. Peter Harriss was shott in his canoe through both his leggs, bordering of a greate ship,” in fact the Spanish “admiral” commanded by Don Jacinto de Barahona, founder of Santa Marta, who is himself killed in the action. Harris dies two days later, “the Doctors cutting of[f] one legg itt fester’d so that itt pleased god he died, so wee lost that Valliant brave Soldiar.” His loss was much lamented by the buccaneers.
His nephew, also named Peter Harris, will join the 1684 expedition to the South Sea as a buccaneer admiral commanding a bark and two sloops manned by ninety-nine buccaneers and will gain much fame afterward. In fact, he will avenge his uncle when, commanding a single bark and a few canoes, he engages five armadillo barks from Panama and puts them to flight. It is likely that he accompanied his uncle on the 1680-1681 incursion as well.
An English mariner, Edmund Cook begins his buccaneering career as the honest master of the Virgin Pink sailing from Jamaica to London with a cargo of cacao, logwood, and other goods in which Cook had invested heavily. But on the north coast of Cuba, the pink is captured by a trio of Spanish guardas costas out of Havana, commanded by renegade Irishman Philip Fitzgerald (“Don Phelipe Geraldino”) and Spaniards Mateo Delacruz and Don Francisco Lopez de Andrade.
For years Cook seeks recompense through legal action, even going to Spain until he is recalled by the English crown. In 1675 he receives word that the Spanish crown has ordered the governor of Havana to repay him part of the value of his ship and cargo, although actually recovering the restitution will be impossible given the Spanish colonial attitude of “Obedesco pero no cumplo”—“I obey but I do not comply.”
In early 1679, Cook commands another vessel laded largely with of logwood—and it too is seized, this time by the Armada de Barlovento at Aruba. In reprisal, Cook and his marooned crew lie in wait for a Spanish prize. Soon rewarded with the appearance of a small bark filled with cacao—a plunder most appropriate—hides, and pieces-of-eight, they capture it, murder its crew, and sell its cargo at Jamaica.
Cook soon intends to head back to sea to rove from plunder. In company with Capt. Linch, he recruits Lionel Wafer as surgeon and sets sail for the coast of Cartagena and the
Isthmus of Darien. Cooks joins the group of privateers preparing to attack Portobello and is sent to look for others at Golden Island. “Stress of weather” keeps him from rejoining the gang before it attacks Portobello, but he meets them afterward at the Bastimentes Islands and joins them to cross the Isthmus of Darien.
For a while Edmund Cook serves as a commander, first of his company afoot, and briefly as captain of an 80 ton bark prize taken at the Perico anchorage. He ferries 60 men under Sharp and Sawkins to attack Puebla Nueva. Afterward, 63 buccaneers decide to return to the Caribbean, and they are given Cook’s ship. As a replacement Cook receives the bark captured at Puebla Nueva, but “upon some disgust or other capt. Cooke left his May flower and went on board of the greate Shipp as a private Souldiar.” For the rest of the expedition Cook will serve as a common buccaneer, having “laid down his Commission.”
Later in the voyage he is accused by John Watling, who for a short while commands the expedition, of “unnatural acts” and is thrown in irons. His servant, William Cook, is also searched and is found to have a paper with the all the crew’s names on it, and either Edmund or William is accused of plotting to desert to the Spanish. Bartholomew Sharp disagrees with the throwing of Capt. Cook in irons, and the events surrounding the punishment appear to be political, with Watling removing the only remaining contender to command other than Sharp. Cook appears to have remained with the voyage until its conclusion at Antigua, serving as the Trinity’s master in the final weeks.
Edmund Cook has often been confused with another buccaneer, John Cook. However, a close reading of period documents shows that John Cook departed the South Sea expedition with John Coxon, while Edmund Cook remained throughout, or at least was still present long after Coxon had abandoned the voyage. The Cook who departed with Coxon becomes the quartermaster of Jan Willem (Capt. Yankey), and later will become a captain in the South Sea on a subsequent incursion.
An “old privateer” who has “gained the esteem of being a stout seaman,” John Watling is doubtless the Capt. “Bothing” who accompanies Captains Coxon, Sharp, and Sawkins on the
attack on the bodegas on Lake Izabal in 1679. Likewise, he almost certainly has sailed under Henry Morgan, and his longevity and local fame are enough that Watling Island in the Bahamas is said to be named for him. In the South Sea, he is elected at Juan Fernandez Island to replace Bartholomew Sharp and to put pieces-of-eight into the pockets of buccaneers who have already squandered theirs away, often at dice. Sharp does not think much of Watling as a commander, but Sharp is bitter at losing his office.
Watling knows he has to give his supporters what they want, and also wants to secure his elected office. He orders Capt. Edmund Cook into irons for “unnatural acts” with his servant, and apparently his servant into irons as well. Bartholomew Sharp believes the restraint of Edmund Cook is only an abuse of power. Watling, by “command and common consent,” also orders the keeping of Sunday as a day of religious worship, or at least of reverence, since Richard Sawkins was in command. Soon after the buccaneers sail from Juan Fernandez Island, they sight three armed Spanish ships. There is no engagement, and Watling is excoriated by some for appearing to be “faint-hearted.”
Hoping to permanently establish his command, prove his courage, and improve the fortunes of his supporters, Watling leads a flawed attack on Arica. Although to its credit the town resists stoutly, much of the blame for the defeat rests squarely on Watling’s shoulders. He fails tactically across the board, first by deliberately ignoring intelligence from a poor fisherman that the town is fully prepared to meet the attackers. Rather than accept the bad news and choose another target, he claims the prisoner is lying and orders him shot. At Arica Watling splits his force and by doing so fails to secure the fort, leaving his buccaneers to wage a back-and-forth battle in which the Spanish seize the advantage. In spite of being a good buccaneer and experienced seaman, as a leader he turns out to be politically opportunistic in the worst sort of way, and a bad tactician to boot. He is killed in action during the assault on Arica, shot through the “reins” (the kidneys).
Buccaneer, author, naturalist, navigator, naval commander, privateer, circumnavigator—there is little that William Dampier did not have experience of in the world of the Golden Age sea rover.
Born in 1652, he goes to sea three times as a teenager, first aboard a simple merchantman, then an East-Indiaman, then aboard the HMS Royal Prince. In 1674 he crossed the Atlantic to Jamaica to work as a slave overseer, but quickly abandons the work for a voyage to trade with Campeche logwood cutters. Finding this more to his liking, he spends the next two years sailing with buccaneers masquerading as logwood cutters, making raids in the Bay of Campeche and north along the Mexican coast.
He briefly returns to England, then in 1679 joins the crew of Capt. Richard Sawkins, and with him and other buccaneer captains and crews crosses the Isthmus of Darien into the South Sea. He remained with the expedition for most of the voyage, departing after the defeat at Arica with a large number of buccaneers who returned to the Caribbean via the Isthmus of Darien. He joins the crew of French buccaneer Capt. Tristian, and in 1682 briefly settles on the Chesapeake in Virginia.
A year later, in August 1683 he, Lionel Wafer, and other of their companions join the crew of Capt. John Cook and his Revenge and set sail. At the Sierra Leone River in Africa they steal a Danish ship (an outright act of piracy), rename her the Batchelor’s Delight, and sail to the South Sea. There, among many adventures, they rescue William, the Miskito striker, join with other English and French buccaneers, among whom is buccaneer-author Raveneau de Lussan, and raid much of the Spanish coastline. After the death of John Cook, Dampier serves under his successor, Edward Davis, until he chooses to serve under Charles Swan commanding the Cygnet, among whose crew is Basil Ringrose. The Cygnet misses the Manila galleon, crosses the Pacific to the East Indies, and there Dampier spends several years in various capacities before returning to England.
In 1699 he takes a naval command and sails the HMS Roebuck on a mission of exploration to New Holland (Australia). In 1703 he commands the privateer Saint George in the South Sea, an adventure perhaps best known for the voluntary marooning of Alexander Selkirk of the Cinque Ports, which for a while had been the consort of the Saint George. The maroonings of Selkirk and Will the Miskito inspire Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe.
Dampier’s last sea roving episode is as pilot to privateers Capt. Woodes Rogers of the Duke and Edward Cooke of the Duchess during their 1708 to 1711 plundering voyage to the South Sea. He published three major works during his lifetime.
As with many buccaneers, little is known of Lionel Wafer prior to his joining the Caribbean sea rovers. Part of his boyhood is spent in the Scottish Highlands and parts of Ireland, and from this some of his biographers have suggested that his father may have been a Scots soldier, or a Scots- Irish transplant, or simply well-traveled. Wafer goes to sea early on, probably while teenager, as a surgeon’s assistant aboard the East-Indiaman Great Anne in 1677. From the East Indies he returns to England aboard the Bombay Merchant in 1679. Soon after, he sails for Jamaica where he visits his brother and is soon recruited by Capt. Edmund Cook and Capt. Lynch to join the buccaneers at Darien who will soon cross into the South Sea.
Wafer stays with the South Sea buccaneers until their defeat at Arica—he is the lone surgeon to remain after the battle, having been in reserve with the boats—after which a large number, among them William Dampier, “mutiny” and return, first by sea to Darien, then overland to the Caribbean. But Wafer’s trip home is longer, for he is by accident of drying gunpowder severely burned. He and four other buccaneers remain behind to live among the Darien (Cuna) people until they can return home. The Darien chief, Lacenta, desires Wafer to remain behind and marry one of his daughters, and only by a bit of deceit is the surgeon able to leave. His experience on the voyage and among the Darien is the inspiration for his book, Mr. Wafer’s Voyages, and the Description of the Isthmus of Darien.
Lionel Wafer next briefly serves aboard Capt. Wright, then Capt. Yankey (Jan Willem), both famous buccaneers, and is a member of the English part of the crew that, after a disagreement, mutinies at Petit Goave while the French are ashore. Naming the ship Revenge, they sail under the command of Capt. John Cook to the Chesapeake in Virginia where they make a plan to sail to the South Sea. In August, 1683 they depart, still under Cook’s command, and at the Sierra Leone River in Africa steal a Danish ship, rename her the Batchelor’s Delight, and head to the South Sea where they join other English and French buccaneers on the second great, and arguably greater, incursion.
After his second South Sea voyage, Wafer attempts to settle in Virginia with two companions, but all three are arrested for piracy. They spend much time in the Jamestown jail while the authorities decide what to do. Released in 1690, Wafer returns to England and petitions for the return of his plunder, which in 1692 is granted, less a significant portion which will help found the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, Virginia. A few years later he writes a “secret report” for the Company of Scotland’s effort to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Darien.
The most thorough of the seven buccaneer-writers to document the 1680-1681 South Sea voyage, Basil Ringrose is first noted as a member of the buccaneers who made their rendezvous at Boca del Toro prior to crossing the Isthmus of Darien. He is believed to have been born in 1653 in London, and to have a good, but so far untraced, education.
His service among the buccaneers was as a navigator, common soldier, and occasional linguister, having some ability in French, Latin, and Spanish. He remains loyal to Capt. Sharp throughout the expedition, and finishes the voyage with him. William Dick, also a buccaneer- author, describes him as “a good Scholar, and full of ingeniosity, had also good skill in Languages. This Gentleman kep an exact and very curious Journal of all our Voyage, from our first setting out to the very last day, took also all the observations we made, and likewise an accurate description of all the Ports, Towns and Lands we came to.” Ringrose claims to abhor the senseless violence practiced by some buccaneers, yet does nothing to stop it because, as he says, it would do no good. En route home, the buccaneer-author fights a duel with quartermaster James Chappel on the Isle of Plate.
Ringrose’s atlas of the South Sea, copied from a Spanish derrotero to which he adds many useful notes, is a significant intelligence coup not only to the buccaneers, but to the English Crown. He returns to the South Sea aboard the Cygnet of London, of 180 tons and sixteen guns, Capt. Charles Swan, in 1683 as one of three supercargoes. Intended as a trading voyage, the crew soon turns to buccaneering, in 1684 joining the likes of William Dampier and others who have returned to the South Sea. Ringrose is killed in action in 1686 at Rio Grande de Santiago, Mexico, during a stunning Spanish victory in which mounted soldiers wipe out an entire buccaneer troop of fifty or more.
We know little about this brave buccaneer but for the following: during the fight at Arica, “[O]ne Negro, who had his leg shot off, being offered quarter, refused it, and killed four or five of their men, before he was shot dead on the spot. This fellow had been a slave, whom our commander had freed, and brought from Jamaica.” From context, the commander is almost certainly Bartholomew Sharp.
Although most Africans among buccaneer crews were slaves, there are some, like this man, who are former slaves. From trial records and Basil Rathbone’s journal we know that there are probably at least two other free Africans among the crew, along with a much larger number of African and Native American slaves. Also among the buccaneers are other men of various ethnicities and mixed races.
William, or Will, the Miskito Striker
English buccaneers often recruit one or two Miskito “strikers” from the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua to help provide meat before and during a voyage, turtle and manatee in particular, although the Miskito were known as excellent hungers ashore as well. Typically dressed in European seaman’s clothing while serving with the buccaneers, the strikers are known as fierce warriors and accompany the buccaneers on all their martial engagements.
William, one of at least three Miskito strikers who start the voyage, is busy hunting goats on Juan Fernandez Island when the buccaneers sight three Spanish ships armed against them.
Fearing to be caught defenseless at anchor, the buccaneers rush to the Trinity and set sail, unable to warn William in time, leaving him marooned for three years until buccaneers commanded by John Cook, with whom was William Dampier, rescue him in 1684. William has only a musket, small powder horn, a few small shot, and a knife with him when he is marooned.
He quickly runs out of powder and shot, so he notches his knife and with it saws his musket barrel into pieces, from which he made “Harpoons, Lances, Hooks and a long Knife” by heating the pieces, hammering them with stones, and tempering them. His clothes soon wear out,
leaving him to use goat skins in their place. He builds a small hut, lines it with goat skins, and sleeps on a “barbecue” bed two feet off the ground. Although the Spanish learn that William is on the island, they are never able to capture him. His most lasting legacy is, along with that of Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe.