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The first South Sea adventure: Introduction

By Benerson Little

The Caribbean, 1679

Trade with Spain in goods and slaves has turned the English government against the buccaneers who for almost a quarter-century have wrought havoc on the Spanish Main and served as a deterrent against Spanish attack. Without lawful commissions, the buccaneers will be considered as pirates. Too loyal to the English crown to turn true pirate, several buccaneer captains and their crews accept a three-month commission from the French to cut logwood—and make reprisals against the Spanish if attacked—and by forgery turn it into a three-year commission. They pretend to have good reason to make reprisals: for blood and plunder! For Portobello they sail, to attack the embarcadero of Spanish South Sea silver and goods ferried by mule across the Isthmus of Darien from Panama. Joined by a French flibustier the intrepid rovers sack the Spanish town.

But the plunder is lean. The South Sea, where there is no English law, beckons. Gold from Spanish mines at Santa Maria! Riches at Panama! And north and south of the city sacked almost a decade before by Henry Morgan, a wide range of reportedly rich Spanish towns: Puebla Nueva, Guayaquil, Ilo, La Serena, Arica, and more! And so the buccaneers’ rendezvous at Boca del Toro and make their plans. From there they sail to the Isthmus of Darien where they ally with the Cuna and pretend to serve under a Native American commission. The buccaneers and their Cuna allies, some afoot, some in canoes, make their way across the Isthmus in Morgan’s tracks.

Yet, as Alexandre Exquemelin put it, buccaneering is not as easy as picking pears from a tree. From the beginning, the voyage is beset by dissension, disagreement, and desertion, by competing egos and covetousness, by the desires of greedy independent men in conflict with the teamwork and discipline necessary to prosecute quasi-naval operations in a far-flung sea and coastline. The voyage will be epic: ships will be plundered and towns sacked. Victory will be snatched from the longest of odds and defeat too will come at the hands of like odds. Buccaneers will be killed, wounded, lost at sea, marooned, and incited to desert or mutiny. Some will fight each other as their egos conflict: a pistol drawn and fired in anger, or a duel on a South Seashore. There will perfidy, treachery, and deceit, not to mention cutthroat democracy in action. Success will follow failure and failure success. And in the end, a few buccaneers will be tried for piracy. Most will be acquitted, but not all: some will dance a hempen jig and be left to swing sundried in irons in the sea breeze as a warning to other buccaneers who would follow the same path.

But warnings notwithstanding, many more will follow the paths to the South Sea, for not even death itself will deter the intrepid greed of the buccaneer and filibuster!


Historical Note

This famous South Sea voyage is better documented than any other buccaneer or pirate voyage of the Golden Age, by far. Basil Ringrose, John Cox, and Edward Povey wrote lengthy journals of the voyage from beginning to end, Bartholomew Sharp and William Dick wrote shorter versions, and William Dampier and Lionel Wafer wrote shorter accounts of their association, along with much more detailed accounts of their adventures afterward. Additionally, there are Spanish records of many of the incursions and attacks of these buccaneers. See the suggested reading list at the end.


Suggested Reading

[Cox, John]. The Voyages and Adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp, and Others, in the South Sea. In London: P. A. Esq. [Philip Ayers], 1684.

Dampier, William. A New Voyage Round the World. 1697. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1968.
——. Voyages and Discoveries. 1729. Reprint, London: Argonaut Press, 1931.

[Dick, William]. “A Brief Account of Captain Sharp . . .” In The Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin [John Esquemeling], 257–83. 1684. Reprint, New York: Dorset, 1987.

[Povey, Edward?]. “The Buccaneers on the Isthmus and in the South Sea. 1680–1682.” In Jameson, Privateering and Piracy.

Ringrose, Basil. “The Buccaneers of America: The Second Volume.” In Exquemelin, Buccaneers of America (Crooke, 1684).
——. Buccaneer Atlas: Basil Ringrose’s South Sea Waggoner. Edited by Derek Howse and Norman J. W. Thrower. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
——. “Captains Sharp, Coxon, Sawkins, and Others . . .” In The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin [Joseph Esquemeling], 180–313. 1699. Reprint, Boston: Sanborn, Carter and Bazin, 1856.

Sharp, Bartholomew. Captain Sharp’s Journal of His Expedition. In A Collection of Original Voyages by William Hacke. 1699. Facsimile reprint, edited by Glyndwr Williams. New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1993.

Wafer, Lionel. A New Voyage & Description of the Isthmus of America. 1699. Reprint, London: Oxford, for the Hakluyt Society, 1934.