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America's war against Cuban Pirates

Author: Lisa Jensen

A great deal of popular pirate literature and historical examination is devoted to what's known as the Golden Age of piracy—roughly from the 1650s to around 1725. This is the era of Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, Black Bart Roberts, and Captain Kidd. Romantic in legend, if not in deed, the famous pirates of this era maintain their grip on the popular imagination. As colorful as these real-life pirated were in fact, their standard-bearer may be that fictional dandy Captain Hook, in his long, curly wig and high-heeled, silver-buckled shoes, expensive lace dripping from his sleeves.

But piracy, of course, has existed in all eras and taken many forms. A less well-known, but no less fascinating chapter of pirate history is the rise of the so-called Cuban or West Indian pirates operating in Caribbean waters a century after the end of the Golden Age. Largely stripped of the romance of the earlier pirates, the Cuban pirates of the 1820s are remembered as a far grittier lot of desperados, most significant for the actions taken to rout them out by the fledgling United States Navy. Occurring in a cultural period much closer to our own, America's war against the Cuban pirates has eerie similarities to our own time.

At the end of the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic wars, international maritime commerce began to thrive once again in the waters of the Caribbean Sea. This coincided with the revolt of the South American colonies against Spain, led by visionary patriots like Simon Bolivar. This ongoing revolution provided lucrative opportunities not only for South American seamen in revolt against Spain, but seafaring rogues of all nations to sign on as privateers out of rebel ports like Caracas and Buenos Aires. Much of their activity was centered around the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. The passages between these islands were the principal shipping lanes to and from Europe, and since few of these privateering vessels bothered to confine their looting to the merchant shipping of Spain alone, they were tacitly protected by the authorities in Havana, who often earned a tidy commission on plunder sold there at auction. Wrote one Lt. Joseph W. Revere in his memoir, Forty Years of Military and Naval Service, "It was very difficult to secure the trial and conviction of the corsairs in Havana, however evident their guilt, for the Spanish authorities were notoriously interested in the profits of their nefarious calling."

The trade became so brisk, the privateering ships were joined by growing numbers of runaway slaves, fisher folk and other poor, dispossessed island peasants on their own account mounting guerilla attacks from hidden lagoons and shallows along the Cuban coast. Fancy fighting ships were not required; often attacks were mounted from a small boat going alongside an unsuspecting merchantman with a crowd of desperate men concealed on board, drawing in close enough to board their prey and overwhelm the merchant crew.

With exotic names like Raphaelina and Domingo (along with a few expatriate Europeans and Yankees, like infamous Rhode Island native Charle Gibbs), Cuban-based pirate captains earned reputations for villainy of almost mythic proportions—especially as reported in the eyewitness accounts of intended victims who had escaped their clutches. Conflicting reports about the death of a notorious pirate captain called Diabolito ("Little Devil"), variously reported as having taken place in April, and again in July of 1823, might be chalked up to erroneous news accounts of the day, or dubious scholarship in collecting and interpreting the data later on. But it might also suggest that more than one pirate adopted this celebrated name for himself—or was so called by his victims.

The targets of these pirates were not the richly laden treasure flotillas of a century earlier, but ordinary merchant vessels carrying lumber or manufactured goods into the Indies, and sugar, rum, dye, and coffee out. Pickings were often scarce, and the Cuban pirates robbed them not only of whatever lucrative cargo and specie might be on board (if any), they also demanded the clothing of the crew, food from the galley (along with the cooking utensils), spare rigging, masts, and spars, flags, nautical instruments, and anything else that was not bolted down.

The brutality of the pirate crews during the commission of these robberies further enflamed the public; surviving captains and even passengers reported being beaten and threatened with torture and murder if they did not produce money supposed to be secreted somewhere in the ship: men were hammered over the head with the flat sides of cutlasses, stabbed and bled, hung by the neck until almost dead, or trailed over the side by ropes to encourage them to reveal the whereabouts of the hidden money. In his 1824 memoir The Atrocities Of The Pirates, English seaman Aaron Smith wrote of his captivity on board a Cuban pirate schooner two years earlier. Smith recounts how the master of his merchant ship was taken below decks and lashed to the pumps with combustibles piled round him by the pirates in order to extort a confession from him of where the money was hidden. (At one point the pyre was actually lit, although it was later doused when the pirates deemed the master had given them all the money he had.) Stripped of their valuables, ships were often disabled or set adrift, or set afire with their crews locked in the hold—although it's significant to remember that these sensational incidents were reported by surviving crews who had in fact managed to escape with their lives, along with their broken ships (if not their valuables). Even Smith's fiendish captor allowed the rest of the merchant crew to sail off in their plundered ship without further injury.

In counterpoint to the most hair-raising tales is the experience of Jacob Dunham, master of the merchant schooner Combine out of New York. Included in his memoir Journal Of Voyages, Dunham writes of pirates who captured his ship off Cape Antonio, Cuba, in October of 1821. Dunham found the pirates no less brutal in their threats and beatings, but he also reported an elaborate ruse staged by his captors in which the men were locked in the forecastle, brought up one-by-one, and questioned as to the ship's valuables. When their answers were not to the pirates' liking, the men below heard an ominous pistol blast and assumed their comrades had been killed. But when it was Dunham's turn to go above and face his bitter end, he found the pistol balls had been fired into the sea and all the crewmen had been bundled into the cabin still alive, all in hopes of terrifying those still below into divulging the whereabouts of the imagined money. After the Combine had been stripped of all valuables and provisions, with no secret money in evidence, the pirates let their victims sail off.

Like pirates in any era, the Cuban pirates were expert terrorists, unleashing devastating psychological and physical tortures on their captives in hopes of extracting information about money. But while all of them were certainly capable of terrorizing their intended victims into submission, the evidence suggests that not all of them were bloodthirsty murderers. Impoverished and opportunistic, most were in the trade for profit, more interested in cash than cold-blooded killing for its own sake. In many accounts, the bloodiest mayhem more often occurred within the ranks of the pirates themselves, or was directed at armed merchant crews who dared to fight back, or the warships that pursued them so doggedly.

However tall the tales might have been surrounding the Cuban pirates, one fact was clear: the United States saw its commercial interests in the West Indies imperiled by the pirates of Cuba. At the same time its newborn Navy, overstocked with heroes from the late war and facing drastic postwar cutbacks in ships, materials, and funding, found itself with nothing much to do. An undeclared war on the pirates seemed like the perfect solution to both problems. Spurred on by America's shipping interests, Congress enacted a series of drastic anti-piracy laws, including the death penalty for convicted pirates. What's more, the Executive was granted exceptional leeway in pursuing pirates or anyone even suspected of piracy; U. S. ships were empowered to search "suspicious" vessels, and ferret out suspected piratical nests along bays and coasts beyond American territorial jurisdiction. Pirates were the terrorists of their day, and no law was considered too sacred to be bent in pursuing them.

But still the deprivations continued, and more muscular solutions were sought. The first West India Squadron, consisting of three ships, was sent out by President James Monroe in 1819 under the command of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. However, after two months in the service, while cruising up the Orinoco River in Venezuela searching for pirates, the 34-year-old Perry succumbed to the deadly yellow fever that was rapidly spreading among his crew.

Commodore David Porter was another war hero, famed for capturing British warships off the coast of South America aboard the frigate Essex during the War of 1812. In February of 1823, he resigned his office as Navy Commissioner to take command of the West India Squadron. Naval ships and officers had continued to skirmish against pirates since 1819, but in 1822, Acts of Congress were passed to appropriate $500,000 to fit out an expedition to destroy the Cuban pirates. Porter set out with a most impressive fleet, many of whose ships were paid for out of his own pocket. The most noteworthy vessel was a steamship (a "steam galliot" in the parlance of the day) called Sea Gull, carrying three guns, the second steam vessel in the U. S. Navy, and "the first steam-propelled man-of-war engaged in actual warfare," according to Francis B. C. Bradlee in Piracy In The West Indies And It's Suppression.

In addition, Porter sailed with eight schooners of between 47 to 65 tons, each of which carried three guns and a crew of 31 men, and the transport ship Decoy, with six guns. Rounding out the Squadron were five river barges aptly named Gnat, Midge, Mosquito, Sandfly, and Gallinipper, for chasing pirate boats upriver into shallow water and pursuing their crews directly into their inland hideaways. Collectively, these vessels were referred to as the "Mosquito Fleet," a more appropriate name than anyone imagined at the time. They joined another six U. S. warships already operating in Caribbean waters, along with a fleet of British naval warships. The Americans set up a base on Thompson's Island (now Key West, Florida), from which to patrol the coastal waters of the Spanish islands.

The Yankee crews, however, were unprepared for the nature of the warfare that awaited them, let alone the inhospitable climate and diseases of the tropics. As Edward Ellis suggests in his article, Perry, Porter, and the Pirates, in Sea Classics magazine (August, 1988), American naval maneuvers against the West Indian pirates was as thankless a task as the U. S. army campaign in Vietnam in the 1960s. Sea battles were rare; instead there was a great deal of marching on foot through steaming swamps and insect-infested jungles to hidden pirate lairs on shore, working up shallow waters in barges, the constant threat of ambush, and savage hand-to-hand combat.

The mobility of Porter's ships allowed naval crews to pursue pirates directly into the coastal swamps and marshes that concealed their bases of operation. A typically hazardous, but less bloody than usual encounter of this kind was recorded in the journal of Lieutenant David G. Farragut, later the renowned Civil War Admiral, who was a junior officer on the expedition and Porter’s young protégé. In July of 1823, after searching for pirates in coastal waters, two squadron ships, Greyhound with Farragut aboard, and Beagle, anchored off Cabo Cruz on the southern coast of Cuba and sent a boat ashore to look for game. The shore party was fired upon by pirates hidden behind the dense scrub and chaparral. A grueling subsequent patrol on foot through thickets of thorny bramble and across a hidden lagoon brought the seamen under fire from "a volley of musketry and a discharge from a 4-pound swivel." When one of the naval schooners worked in near enough to return fire, the pirates scattered into the underbrush. But Farragut and his men found a hastily abandoned pirate settlement of several wooden houses, a dozen boats, and equipment for turtling and fishing. Nearby was a vast cave containing all manner of pirate plunder, "many articles marked with English labels," saddles and clothing. Farragut and his men carried off the plunder and the cannon, then burned the village and boats to the ground. "My only prize on this occasion was a large black monkey, which I took in single combat," Farragut wrote. "He bit me through the arm, but had to surrender at discretion."

But it was yellow fever, transmitted by the ever-present mosquito (although no one knew it at the time), that proved to be at least as formidable and treacherous an enemy as the pirates themselves. In his 21 months in the service, Porter survived two bouts of the deadly fever that decimated his crews, crippled his fleet, and sent him home to the States twice to recuperate.

It was not fever, however, but his temper and a touch of hubris that cost Porter his command of the West India Squadron. In October of 1824, an American-owned warehouse on the island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands was raided by unknown marauders, who carried off a great many goods and supplies. One of Porter’s squadron ships, the Beagle, sailed off in pursuit across the channel to the town of Fajardo on the coast of Puerto Rico. Lt. Platt of the Beagle, accompanied by a midshipman, went ashore in civilian clothing and was detained for an entire day by the Alcalde (or governor) of the place, denounced as a pirate, and threatened with imprisonment before finally being ordered to depart the island. When Porter heard of this outrage against his officer, he sailed himself to Fajardo with three warships, and sent a letter to the Alcalde demanding an apology. Waiting for his reply, Porter saw suspicious activity on one of the shore batteries overlooking the beach that protected the town. Further outraged, he sent a party on shore to spike the guns in the battery, then marched into the town and forced the Alcalde to write and sign a formal apology.

Although effective under the circumstances, Porter’s impulsive action was considered arrogant back home, where it blossomed into a diplomatic scandal known as the "Foxardo Affair." (The contemporary misspelling of "Fajardo" in that era.) Porter was recalled from his command in December of 1824, tried by court martial, and suspended from the service for six months. Rather than accept this sentence, he resigned from the navy altogether. He accepted a commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Navy, an office in which he served for another five years.

But by this ignominious end to Porter's command of the West India Squadron, the heyday of Cuban piracy was coming to a close. Shortly after the incident at Fajardo, there was an upsurge of bloody piratical activity, shocking for the wholesale cruelty of the perpetrators. Most notorious were incidents involving the American merchant brig Betsey, wrecked off the coast of Cuba in December, 1824, and the New Brunswick merchant sloop Eliza Ann, overtaken by a pirate schooner en route to Antigua in March, 1825. In both cases, the merchant crews were unceremoniously butchered by their pirate captors. A lone survivor reported that one pirate called the Betsey crewmen his "prisoners of war," suggesting a sea change in the attitude of the pirates, who had come to consider merchant crews as legitimate enemies in the war waged against them by the U. S. Navy.

Captain Lewis Warrington took command of the Squadron after Porter's departure, and the fleet was maintained in West Indian waters for a few more years, but by then their work was more of a peacekeeping action. The Squadron steamship Sea Gull and the barge Gallinipper joined a party of British warships in capturing pirates off the Cuban coast and pursuing their boats on the 24th and 25th of March, 1825, the last notable action in the American naval campaign against the West Indian pirates.

AUTHOR BIO: Lisa Jensen is a newspaper columnist and film critic in Santa Cruz, California. For 13 years she also reviewed historical fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle. She spent 12 years researching the Cuban pirates for her historical novel The Witch From The Sea, published in 2001.

Website: www(.)lisajensenonline(.)com