October 21, 2014

Sea Stories

Pirates in Southwest Florida? Who were they? And why in the world did they end up here? The short answers are: "yes"; "they were renegades"; and "because it was such a rotten place, no one else wanted to come here." But there's more to the story.

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, Spain's empire was still producing riches, but its Navy in the West Indies couldn't protect the sea routes. So British, French and Dutch seamen began plundering the cargo ships coming to Havana from Tampico (Mexico), Colon (Panama) and Cartegena (Colombia). Repercussions from the panic that ensued are evident to this day: I've been to jungle locales on the coasts of Panama and Colombia where grandmothers still admonish their babies to be good, or "Drake will get you!"

Those thugs and thieves would often hide out in the Gulf coast's bays and rivers, which were both isolated and fairly empty. European settlers were scarce in Southwest Florida in those days. With its hostile Indians, strange diseases and scary critters, it wasn't exactly a hospitable place for new immigrants.

By the late 18th century, many of the "pirates" were renegade thieves on the run from the United States or the West Indies. Most government officials looked the other way, as towns like Galveston, New Orleans and Havana became notoriously tough places. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Caribbean islands and Florida were rife with dangerous characters who often plundered ships. Government officials were harangued by ship owners, cargo shippers, merchant captains and insurers demanding to know when the piracy plague was going to end.

The good times finally began to wane for pirates when the United States obtained Florida in 1821. The incessant wars between Britain and France were over; and the British Royal Navy was back in the Caribbean with a vengeance, protecting its shipping interests. And it was about time, too-for the situation was out of control, with more than 3,000 attacks on vessels in the previous few years.

That year, Congress increased the U.S. Navy's funding, with serious orders from the president to eliminate piracy. Together, the Americans and Brits began the dangerous job of rooting out nests of pirates. They also went after maritime slavers, considered pirates under British and American laws. In 1822, the West Indies squadron of the U.S. Navy, under the command of such naval luminaries as David Porter and James Biddle, scoured the Gulf coast, sailing deep into the bays and combing the islands of Southwest Florida. Most of the vessels of the Mosquito Squadron (as sailors called it) were schooners built specifically to poke around the pirates' shallow-water hideouts. These small warships were usually about 85 feet long, drew eight to 10 feet of water and were armed with 12 six-pounder cannon; typically crews of 70 to 80 men crowded into their hulls. From 1822 to 1832, 10 to 12 of these ships were patrolling Florida and the West Indies at any one time. The Navy also used a few rowing barges; one, the Gallinipper, took its name from (appropriately enough) an old slang term for a stinging mosquito.

Three of the best-known naval schooners were the Enterprise, the Alligator and the Shark. Alligator Reef in the Florida Keys was named after the Alligator, which wrecked there in November 1822; and the Shark River just north of Cape Sable took its named from the first U.S. naval vessel that explored it. It was also on the Shark that Lt. Mathew C. Perry (famous for his expedition to Japan) took possession of an island the Spanish called Cayo Hueso. He named it Thompson's Island in a rather blatant attempt to curry favor with the Secretary of the Navy. Today the island is Key West.

The Enterprise, which patrolled the Florida and Cuban coasts, was a particularly successful ship, capturing 13 vessels in one year. Her captain even parlayed with Jean Laffite, the most famous pirate of them all, along the coast of Mexico in 1822. The ship's luck ran out in July of 1823, when she wrecked at Little Curacao Island in the Caribbean while on patrol.

Frequently the U.S. Navy had to land on Cuban and Puerto Rican soil to root out pirate strongholds-and that usually meant American causalties. The last of the large pirate and slaver operations, hidden on the porous coast of Cuba near Matanzas, wasn't wiped out until the early 1830s.

As for Laffite, he died of disease near Merida, Mexico, in 1826 after escaping violent death a dozen times. On the Gulf coast, two young renegades remained in hiding long after piracy's mid-1830s demise-Juan Gomez on Panther Key in the Ten Thousand Islands, and Black Augustus on Black Island by Estero Island (Fort Myers Beach). They laid low for well over a half-century, always fearing someday they'd be found and hung for piracy. Neither was; and by the 1890s both were telling tales (embellished by ample quantities of rum) of their wild youth to pioneer settlers in the area.

But perhaps the most legendary of the Florida pirates is Jose Gaspar. The story goes that Gaspar, a former Spanish naval officer, moved his pirate operations to a Gulf coast island subsequently named for him, Gasparilla Island, around 1800 or so. Apparently his officers lived on Gasparilla, and the common seamen stayed at Low Town on Cayo Pelau just to the east. On this island for wayward thieves, everyone was free-spirited but (usually) gentlemanly.

In truth, Gaspar didn't exist. Gasparilla Island had its name almost 30 years before the mythical man supposedly arrived; renowned cartographer Bernard Romans noted as much in his chart of Florida in the early 1770s. Cayo Pelau was home not to pirates but seasonal Cuban fishermen. Gaspar was actually the creation of land speculators trying to lure Northerners to the Gulf coast in the late 19th century. So raise a glass of rum instead to the Navy men who fought that dirty, deadly little war back in the 1820s and '30s. They're the true heroes.

Matlacha's Robert N. Macomber is the award-winning author of the Honor series of naval fiction. Contact him at www.robertmacomber.com

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