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Galleons, Pirates And Treasure


Christopher Columbus put the Americas on the map in 1492. Shortly after, this ignited over 250 years of treasure hunting and vicious competition with the English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese, who all wanted to claim the gold, silver and other treasures for personal gain. They were willing to sink galleons, kill and do whatever it took to have these riches in their hands. Colombia- Museo del Oro

Museo del Oro in Bogota, an important gold museum that showcases the Pirate’s legacy, from gold, silver and gems to many other treasures that were of extreme importance. Museo del Oro contains close to 34,000 gold pieces, plus 20,000 bone, stone, ceramic, and textile articles belonging to 13 Pre-Hispanic societies: Tumaco, Nariño, Cauca, Calima, San Agustín, Tierradentro, Tolima, Quimbaya, Muisca, Urabá and Chocó, Malagana, Zenú, and Tairona. The Spanish were then faced with the challenging task of transporting their multitude of treasures home.

Panama City – Camino Real

The Camino Real, a mule trail, was established by the Spanish to provide a land road where slaves were the main transporters of gold, silver and other treasures. The trail ran from Panama City, on the Pacific, to Portobelo, on the Caribbean Sea, while trekking through the jungle as well. Upon reaching Portobelo, the treasures were stored there until the Spanish fleet came to retrieve them and return to their final destination, Spain.

It’s known that the mule trains were heavily guarded, which prevented attacks on them, except for one audacious English treasure hunter, Sir Frances Drake, who attacked the mule trains twice. In order to travel the Camino Real, the trail had to be paved. This was accomplished by bushwhacking through the dense, thick rainforest. The trail was made wide enough for two mule carts to be able travel. One cart would bring in necessities while the other cart was left with the treasures.

The Spanish shipped over hundreds of African slaves to pave the trail and while the ones that escaped were called cimarrones and lived up in the hills, the slaves that didn’t escape were forced to drive the mule trains along the treacherous path. There were many obstacles and challenges to overcome while making this ten to fourteen day trek and many were lucky to get out of this alive. From snakes, coral snakes, poisonous frogs and jaguars to malaria and yellow fever, there were no shortage of potential tribulations. Pirate attacks were also another great challenge they faced.

Map of Camino de Cruces by viragoslog blogspot


Often times, the cimarrones, enslaved Africans in Panama, who had escaped from their Spanish masters and lived together as outlaws, were recruited to help the pirates attack the mule trains. They willingly joined in to take revenge against the Spanish. In the 1570s, they allied with Sir Francis Drake of England to defeat the Spanish conquest and raid their riches. When brought to Panama, they intermarried with the Indians and immediately learned the land in order to outsmart the Spanish. It’s estimated that 3,000 of them lived in Nombre de Dios, a town on the Caribbean side.

Their principal settlement was at Vallano. Many lived in large settlements of in hideouts secreted in the uninviting mountains. They frequently organized raids on the Spanish settlements and had threatened to burn down Nombre de Dios. They often stole treasure from the Spanish and hid it in the river. When the Spanish once prepared to send an expedition against them, they constructed gallows on the main road and threatened to hang and decapitate the Spanish if such a mission was carried out.

King’s Warehouse

The King’s Warehouse was located in Portobello and stored all of the treasure. Galleons weren’t dispatched to collect the treasure until the warehouse was stacked to the rafters. During the 16th century, the quantity of treasure that the Spanish exported increased from 400,000 to 16 million pesos. The warehouse was tightly guarded. It’s known that 253 soldiers guarded the warehouse and they were not allowed to move more than a few meters away. The conditions were less than desirable. The soldiers slept where they could. They ate all of their meals here, got drunk and played dice. Only two fleets were sent twice a year. One came from Seville and the other one was from Cadiz. The ‘los galleones’ ship carried the most treasure and was more heavily armed.

Nombre De Dios

Nombre de Dios was a storage town for the vast amounts of gold and silver that the Spaniards brought to the coast on an almost monthly basis. In 1572, Sir Francis Drake, who was an explorer, seafarer, soldier and privateer, traveled to Nombre De Dios, Panama in search of the Spanish treasure being carried from Peru across the Isthmus of Panama. Drake was given a letter of marque, which was a royal commission that would allow him to plunder Spanish ships and ports in the New World. The relationship between England and Spain during the Tudor period was very complicated, and mutual hostilities repeatedly flared into conflict. For many English and Spanish privateers, the only thing distinguishing them from criminal pirates was the letter of marquee. They used the situation to gain riches.. Drake was granted his commission, making the queen herself a shareholder in the expedition. Drake was a notorious pillager and was active in the slave trade. The first Cimarron he encountered was named Pedro Mandiga (or Mandinga), who helped guide Drake and his men across the Chagres River to Spanish outposts.

Sir Frances Drake

Sir Frances Drake

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, England in 1544. He was the eldest of the twelve sons of Edmund Drake (1518–1585), a Protestant farmer, and his wife Mary Mylwaye. The first son was reportedly named after his godfather, Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. Due to religious persecution during the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, the Drake family fled from Devonshire into Kent.

While they were there, his father obtained an appointment to minister to men in the King’s Navy. He was ordained deacon and made vicar of Upnor Church on the Medway. Drake’s father apprenticed Francis to his neighbour, the master of a barque , used for coastal trade transporting merchandise to France.

The ship master was so satisfied with the young Drake’s conduct that, being unmarried and childless at his death, he bequeathed the barque, which is a type of sailing vessel with three or more masts having the foremasts rigged square and only the after-mast rigged fore-and-aft.

In 1572 Drake set sail on his first major independent venture. He planned an attack on the Isthmus of Panama, This was the point at which the silver and gold treasure of Peru had to be landed and sent overland to the Caribbean Sea, where galleons from Spain would pick it up at the town of Nombre de Dios.

Drake left Plymouth on May 24, 1572, with a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, the Pascha and the Swan, to capture Nombre de Dios. In 1573, Drake joined Guillaume Le Testu, a French buccaneer, in an attack on an opulently overloaded mule train. Drake and his group discovered that they had captured around 20 tons of silver and gold. They couldn’t carry all the treasure so they ended up burying some of it. Wounded, Le Testu was captured and later beheaded.

The small band of adventurers lugged as much gold and silver as they could carry back across approximately 18 miles of jungle-covered mountains to where they had left the raiding boats. When they got to the coast, the boats were gone. Drake and his men, disheartened, exhausted and hungry, had nowhere to go and the Spanish were not far behind. Without many options left, Drake rallied his men, buried the treasure on the beach, and built a raft to sail with two volunteers ten miles along the coast to where they had left the flagship.

When Drake finally reached its deck, his men were alarmed at his dishevelled appearance. Fearing the worst, they asked him how the raid had gone. Drake pulled a necklace of Spanish gold from around his neck, which signified the success of the raid and by August 9th, 1573, he had returned to Plymouth. Drake’s seafaring career continued into his mid-fifties. In 1595, he failed to conquer the port of Las Palmas, and following a disastrous campaign against Spanish America, where he suffered a number of defeats, he unsuccessfully attacked San Juan de Puerto Rico, eventually losing the Battle of San Juan.

The Spanish gunners from El Morro Castle shot a cannonball through the cabin of Drake’s flagship, which he survived. However, not more than a few weeks later, in January 1596, he died of dysentery at approximately 55 years of age, while anchored off the coast of Portobelo, Panama, where some Spanish treasure ships had searched for shelter. Following his death, the English fleet withdrew. Before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin, near Portobelo.


"Privateer ship Lynx in Morro Bay, CA privateer-ship-lynx-morro-bay" by Mike Baird

A galleon is a large, multi-deck sailing ship used mainly by European states from the 16th to 18th centuries. The galleon was designed to protect the annual treasure fleets sailing between Spain and the New World. Most galleons weighed 300-500 tons. They held a lot of cargo and were built with three masts called the foremast, mainmast and mizzenmast. They also had tall forecastles and enormous stern-castles, which made them cumbersome and hard to sail.

Most of the sails were square, requiring that the galleons sail with the wind coming from near the stern. The galleons were large enough to hold up to 60 cannons and 200 crew members. The galleons were also known to carry many Spanish soldiers to help fight off pirate boarding parties.

However, the galleons main drawback was that they were heavy and slow. The original galleons used to explore the lands across the oceans rarely surpassed the size of a modern-day fishing boat. Pirate ships could easily catch up to them, get past the cannon fire and come alongside to attack. The early vessels lacked the capabilities that Spain needed. They required seaworthy ships that were capable of making extensive voyages while being weighed down with a wide range of cargo. This led designers to borrow the best characteristics from existing ships to build this dream vessel. They combined elements of the caravel and the carrack, which resulted in the galleon.

This new vessel combined square and lateen sails rigged on three or four masts with a longer ratio of length to beam and castles more integrated with the structure of the ship. On the other side, many of the English privateers, including Francis Drake, used much faster, smaller ships called ‘Race-Built Galleons.’ These became the main ships in the English navy, which had sleek hulls, low structures and powerful cannons. One of the most famous shipwrecks of a galleon was the San Pedro in 1733, wrecked by a hurricane.

The 287-ton Dutch-built ship was owned by Gaspar de Larrea Berdugo and captained by Gaspar López de Gonzales. The ship was full of New World goods including silver, cochineal, indigo, Chinese porcelain, and other common goods. After the hurricane struck, San Pedro passed over the reef before sinking in Hawk Channel, off Lower Matecumbe Key, 1.25 nautical miles south of Indian Key. The vessel was full of water, but almost all of the cargo was rescued and taken to a nearby salvage camp on Indian Key.

Life On Board The Galleon

Although the new galleons that were being built were larger in size, life aboard the galleon was no different. The wealthy or influential passengers and their servants could potentially put the total number of people aboard a galleon at two hundred soldiers and sailors and up to fifty civilians, which made for extremely confined quarters. A typical Spanish galleon had a number of decks: forecastle, upper or weather deck, main deck, lower or orlop deck, poop deck, and quarterdeck. The crew’s quarters were in the bow while the officers and passengers lived in cramped cabins in the waist or center section of the galleon.

The larger galleons also had a surgeon on board. Furthermore, in addition to the crew, there was also a carpenter, sailmaker, cook and cooper. The captain or admiral occupied the Great Cabin, which was more luxurious than the other living quarters. The Great Cabin contained large windows, a bigger space and added comfort. In contrast from the above deck, the crew slept and ate on the gundecks where it was dark and damp with a foul smell. There were also the unsightly insects and rats and foods were often spoiled. The galleon was a delicate structure and although there were threats from their enemies, the most distressing damage was caused by nature, the sea and the wind. Hurricanes and rough seas sank more than one treasure ship during the period the galleons sailed.

Codes Of Conduct In Piracy

It was common that things were handled fairly democratically on a pirate vessel. Their rules included a dress code, no women, and some ships had no smoking. Everything from the rules, the punishment for breaking them to the living arrangements would be decided on with the entire group before departure. They all took an oath that they would not betray their fellow crew members. The pirates were required to sign a document called, The Ship’s Article, which determined the percentage of profit each crew member would receive. Once on the ship there were typically no racial divisions and in some cases, pirates of African descent served as the captains.

If there were disagreements among the pirates included fighting until first blood or in extreme cases, abandoning the person on an uninhabited island, being whipped 39 times and even being killed by firearm. In times of battle, the pirate captain always maintained all power including decision making. After the crew captured the wealth, it was split in a systematic way by rank. The captain received five to six shares, individuals with a senior position like the quartermaster received two shares, the crewman received only one share and the junior position received half of a share.

Captain Morgan

Sir Henry Morgan was a Welsh privateer, pirate and admiral of the English Royal Navy who made a name for himself, mainly through his raids in Spanish settlements. His reputation was classified as one of the most notorious and successful privateers in history, and one of the most callous. Captain Morgan’s career spanned over ten years. He traveled to many cities where his intention was to raid each one. Morgan captured and destroyed Puerto Principe, his first stop, where he collected ten ships with 500 men. Portobelo, Panama was his next place of attack. This city was considered the center of Spanish trade due to their warehouses containing the goods and valuables of many wealthy merchants.

Other raids followed in Cartagena, Maracaibo, Gibraltar and he also recaptured the island of Santa Catalina on December 15, 1670 and then on Decemeber 27, he gained possession of the fortress of San Lorenzo in the Caribbean coast of Panama, killing 300 men of the defense force, while leaving only 23 alive. Morgan was diagnosed with “dropsie”, although it was also likely that he contracted tuberculosis in London and died on August 25, 1688.

Cartagena And Colombia

Cartagena is a large port city on the north coast of Colombia. It was discovered in 1533 by Don Pedro de Heredia and was named after the port of Cartagena in Spain’s Murcia region. Cartagena was major port of the Spanish Main but was located near the beginning of the trade route instead of the end. Within a few years of the Spanish arrival a walled military fortress was erected to protect the city against the plundering of English, Dutch and French pirates. Despite the safety measures, the city was attacked multiple times.

There were several pirate attacks on Cartagena, beginning in 1551 when the French pirate Roberto Baal forced Governor Pedro de Heredia to flee. Additional attacks followed. French pirate, Martín Cote arrived in Cartagena demanding a ransom to prevent a total destruction of the city. Maridalo had put up a stiff resistance but the loot taken by Cote was enormous. Francis Drake was the most famous pirate to attack the city. In1568, another English pirate, John Hawkins attempted for seven days to take the city but left empty handed.

By the 1600s, the Spanish began improving their city defenses and many of the fortresses built at this time remain intact today. The improved fortifications did much to stop the continual attacks by organized large-scale attacks by pirates and privateers of nations at war with Spain. The most serious threat to Cartagena after Drake was most likely Captain Henry Morgan’s terminated attack in 1668. However, while Morgan was at Cow Island, his ship inexplicably exploded, which killed approximately between 300 and 900 of Morgan’s men. This defeat deterred him from pushing forward on this attack and chose to raid on the harbor town, Maracaibo. Although this was successful, he earned only a small portion of loot.

Port Royal

Port Royal was the capital of piracy in Jamaica. It was built on a small island off the coast of Jamaica in the harbor across from what is now Kingston. In the 17th century, Port Royal was known throughout the New World as a headquarters for piracy, smuggling and debauchery. It was described as, “the most wicked and sinful city in the world” and “one of the lewdest in the Christian world.” A large amount of taverns and notorious punch houses were staples in Port Royal, which could’ve also been called brothels for attracting a crew of vile prostitutes. The most famous one was Mary Carlton, an actress and thief who had been transported to Jamaica from London in 1671.

Among these less than desirable qualities, Port Royal was also the center for a form of legalized piracy carried out by the buccaneers and privateers. It was believed that if the buccaneers made Port Royal their base, their presence would dissuade the Spanish from recapturing the island. The pirates made no charade of acting legally and they would attack any ship they thought was worth plundering. Eventually, the pirates couldn’t continue to get away with this and authorities needed to take action, which resulted in scores of pirate executions between 1680 and 1830. The most famous pirate to be hanged there was Calico Jack Rackham.

Calico Jack Rackham

John Rackham was commonly known was Calico Jack. He was a Cuban-English pirate captain working in the Bahamas and Cuba during the early 18th century. His nickname was drawn from the brightly coloured calico clothing he wore. Although Calico Jack’s career was short, spanning just four years, he still has a strong place in history. The two main things he was widely known for consisted of overthrowing Charles Vane as captain of the pirate ship, The Treasure.

In 1717, Calico Jack smuggled Anne Bonny to sea disguised as a man. Shortly after, these two were joined by another female pirate, Mary Read. She was Calico Jack’s Lieutenant who revealed her true identity in response to advances from Anne Bonny. These two women were widely feared by the crew and were responsible for the deaths of many sailors including shipmates that crossed their path.

Calico Jack was also known for the design of his Jolly Roger flag, a skull with crossed swords. Rackham made a career of plundering small vessels close to shore.  After they captured ‘The Kingston,’ a small Jamaican vessel, he made it their flagship.  The Kingston had a rich cargo, and guaranteed to be a big score for Rackham and his crew.  However, the Kingston had been taken within sight of Port Royal, where outraged merchants equipped bounty hunters to go after him.  They caught up with him in February 1719, while his ship and the Kingston were anchored at Isla de los Pinos off of Cuba.

Rackham and his men escaped capture because they were on the shore at the time, hiding in the woods.  However, their ship and rich trophy were taken away. In October 1720, Rackham sailed near Jamaica, capturing numerous small fishing vessels, and terrorizing fishermen along the northern coastline.   An armed sloop that was sent by Governor Nicholas Lawes attacked Rackham and his crew and captured them.  They were brought to Jamaica, where Rackham and almost all of his crew members were sentenced to hang.  Rackham was hanged in Port Royal on November 18, 1720.  His body was then displayed on a gallow in an area now known as Rackham’s Cay.

Black Beard And Black Beard’s Tower

Blackbeard's-Statue-by-Bart-HeirdEdward Teach, born in England in 1680, was commonly known as Blackbeard. Teach captured a French merchant vessel and renamed it Queen Anne’s Revenge and equipped the ship with 40 guns.

He became a notorious pirate and his nickname resulted from his thick black beard and frightening appearance.  Blackbeard braided his beard and tied the braids with black ribbons. He stuffed burning rope under his hat to make himself look more vicious and menacing. He scared everyone.

The pirates often determined a ship’s nationality first and then raised that country’s flag on the pirate ship so they could fool them into appearing friendly. This allowed the pirates to closely approach the other ship.  It wasn’t until the very last moment that the pirates raised Blackbeard’s flag.

Many merchant crews would surrender when they saw Blackbeard’s flag and those who didn’t were quickly approached by the pirates.  Typically, their first target was the sailor at the ship’s wheel. Then, while the pilotless ship drifted aimlessly, the pirates captured it with firm hooks, pulled it closer, and jumped aboard.

When the attack ended, the pirates took the passengers and crew hostage and raided cabins looking for coins, gold, silver, and jewelry. Blackbeard was known to repeat this scenario over and over again. In 1718 Blackbeard returned from sea to his favorite hideaway off Ocracoke Island.

While Blackbeard was enjoying his untamed pirate get-together full of drinking, dancing and building bonfires, the governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, received word of this and started to plan how to capture Blackbeard for the very last time.  The end of Blackbeard came when a navy seaman came up from behind and slashed his throat.

pirate-flag-of-Jack-Rackham---Calico-Jack---1682---1720The End Of The Golden Age Of Piracy

Although the Golden Age of Piracy began in the mid 1680s, it was less than a century later that it came to an end in the early 1730s.  Due to increased military presence and international anti piracy laws, this banished almost all of the pirates, which led to the conclusion of the Golden Age of Piracy.  The elimination of piracy from European waters expanded to the Caribbean in the 18th century, West Africa and North America by the 1710s and by the 1720s even the Indian Ocean was a difficult location for pirates to operate.

Piracy became tremendously rare in the Caribbean as European military and naval forces became too widespread and active for any pirate to pursue a lucrative career for long. The British Royal Navy ships endlessly hunted down pirate vessels and were victorious most of the time.  When the pirates were captured, they were put on trial and had to be convicted according to the testimony of witnesses and other hard evidence.

The trials were very lengthy and expensive so in order to make these quicker, seven commissioners were created from colonial and naval officers to try all piracy cases.  The pirates had no legal representation and ultimately led to the execution of 600 pirates. Additionally, the loss of the pirates’ last Caribbean safe haven at Nassau was a crucial element in the end of piracy.