Lets go for an Adventure in Historyland with author Greg Flemming, in his excellent new guest post; Crossbones Preview: Blackbeard’s Other Caribbean Hideout.
As NBC’s new miniseries Crossbones premiers this week, featuring Blackbeard the legendary pirate (John Malkovich), much of the action unfolds on an island nestled in the Bahamas. With the onset of the greatest wave of piracy in the history of the Atlantic, pirates like Blackbeard took over much of the Bahamas in the early 1700s. Many new pirates stole away to the islands after looting gold, silver, pearls, and jewels from the wrecks of a large Spanish fleet that sank off the coast of Florida in July 1715. Many of these looters — “rogues, adventurers, and unemployed seamen,” as Colin Woodard notes in his book, The Republic of Pirates — used the islands of the Bahamas as their base. But the Bahamas were not Blackbeard’s only hideout. There are several other secluded islands much further to the west, just off the coast of Honduras and Belize, that were favored by generations of pirates — not only Blackbeard, but other notorious sea villains like Edward Low, Francis Spriggs, and George Lowther.
This area, known as the Bay of Honduras, was so popular with pirates because it offered plenty of hidden harbors and coves but also drew a steady stream of trading vessels that came to fill their holds with logwood, a rare tree that grows only in the Central American regions of present-day Honduras, Belize, and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. What made logwood so valuable was its dark inner wood, so rich in color that when a piece of the wood is placed in a pail of water, the water turns blood red. The purplish-red heartwood of the logwood tree was used for centuries throughout Europe as a dye for clothing and fabric. The high price paid for logwood meant that it was one of the most valuable exports from all of the American colonies during this period, second only to tobacco.
Hundreds of vessels from England and New England headed to the Bay of Honduras. At times there could be two dozen sloops and other vessels anchored just off the coast, loading logwood cut by workers known as Baymen. “The wood-cutters are generally a rude, drunken crew, some of which have been pirates, and most of them sailors,” wrote Nathaniel Uring, a sea captain who’d spent time with the Baymen. “Their chief delight is in drinking; and when they broach a quarter cask or hogshead of wine, they seldom flit from it while there is a drop left.”
Spain tried for decades to end logwood cutting in the area. At almost the same time as the shipwreck of the Spanish fleet near Florida, Spain also launched an aggressive campaign to destroy the camps of the English logwood cutters working on the Yucatan Peninsula and to drive them off the land. In early 1716, the Spanish captured more than one hundred Baymen and burned every ship they found. Many of the men who had been cutting logwood soon went to the Bahamas, the new pirate base, and became pirates themselves. John Hope, the governor or Bermuda, blamed the surge in Atlantic piracy on the Spanish campaign. “Revenge very soon enters an injured mind,” Hope wrote in August 1724. “[I]t is no great wonder if they embrace the only thing left them to do…. This, my lords, is the reason and source of piracy.”
Indeed, the steady stream of trading vessels sailing into the Bay of Honduras, typically well-stocked for their long journeys, not only attracted the Spanish. This area was popular among pirates, as well, and pirates were just as serious a threat to the logwood traders as the Spanish. In early April 1718, a trading vessel from Boston was nearly done loading a cargo of logwood when a large ship and four sloops bore down on the crew. The captain of the merchant ship, William Wyer, knew almost instantly from the black and red flags flying on the approaching ships that they were pirates — and he had little doubt it was the pirate named Edward Teach, the infamous Blackbeard. Teach had followed Wyer into the bay, stung by Wyer’s refusal to surrender to some of the pirate’s crew just eleven days earlier off the coast of Roatan.
Blackbeard was enraged that Wyer had gotten away from his crew and he was now determined to destroy Wyer’s ship. He told another ship captain he captured in the area that he refused to let Wyer go free and “brag when he went to New England that he had beat a pirate.” But Wyer’s men were not ready to battle to the full force of Teach and the hundreds of men on his crew. As the pirates bore down on Wyer’s vessel anchored in the bay, Wyer called his crew onto the deck and asked them if they would defend their ship. The men said that if the attackers were Spanish they would fight back, but if they were pirates they would not. Seeing that it was Blackbeard, Wyer’s crew quickly abandoned ship: “all declared they would not fight and quitted the ship, believing they would be murdered by the sloop’s company, and so all went on shore.”
Three days later, Blackbeard sent word ashore for Wyer to come aboard his ship. Wyer agreed to go, and Teach told the captain that he would let him go free, but he would burn his ship because it was from Boston, where six pirates had been hanged three years before. The next day, the pirates boarded Wyer’s ship, still packed full of logwood ready to be shipped back to Boston, and set fire to it. The blazing ship sank into the sea. Blackbeard then let Wyer sail home with another captured sea captain, and the men arrived back in Boston at the end of May.
Wyer’s ship was just one of dozens of logwood vessels that were captured by pirates during the early 1700s, many of them taken over by the crews or burned. Pirates would also chase down and attack Spanish ships they encountered. In March of 1723, the pirate Edward Low and his crew massacred as many as fifty of the Spanish sailors, butchering some of the men and hacking their bodies into pieces, according to the report from one sea captain who witnessed the attack. Seven of the Spanish sailors survived only when they jumped overboard and frantically swam ashore. Low’s former partner, George Lowther, also cruised in the Bay of Honduras and several of Low’s men who split off and started their own crews, including Francis Spriggs, also captured logwood vessels and battled with British warships in the area. All of these pirates, including Blackbeard, would frequently stop at the secluded harbors of the island of Roatan to repair their ships and get fresh drinking water. The Bay of Honduras was so dangerous that within a year or two, a British warship would be sent to patrol the bay on a nearly continuous basis, hunting down both pirates and Spanish vessels and escorting convoys of logwood ships on their sail between the coast and Jamaica.
Gregory N. Flemming is the author of At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, published in June. Read more at www.gregflemming.com.