Images of swashbucklers with gold teeth, black eye patches, and peg legs come to mind. Or Johnny Depp. But in reality, many of the pirates who navigated the waters just off Quintana Roo’s shores from as early as the 1600s were men with unlikely backgrounds for the sport they took on. A handful were full-fledged gentlemen, most had seafaring backgrounds. Many were sanctioned by queens or governments. A few even ended up with titles, and some were hailed as heroes.
The word “privateer” better describes these romantic buccaneers. In an era when spices, slave trading, and territorial expansion sparked the economics of the globe, the nations of Europe, England, France, Holland and Spain waged their wars on the high seas. With Spain’s recent discovery of the New World and its riches, the only unity on the Atlantic was the common goal of sacking all Spanish galleons.
Adventurers by nature, highwaymen by design, “pirate” conjures familiar names from history such as Jean Lafitte, Sir Henry Morgan, and Sir Francis Drake. However, lesser known names such as Giovanni de Verrazno (The Frenchman) and Fermin Mundaca have equally compelling stories.
Pirates and Early Treasure Hunters of British Honduras
In his book Guatemala and Her People of Today with Chapters On British Honduras 1909, writer Winter Nevin O. writes about his first hand impressions of turn of the century British Honduras as Belize was then known:
“It was with romantic feelings that I sailed along the coast of British Honduras, past the numerous little coral reefs, called cays, and into the beautiful harbour of Belize. For many years these shores were the rendezvous of organized bands of pirates, who practically ruled the Caribbean seas during a good part of the seventeenth century. Each wooded island and cay has its legend of buried treasure, but no one has ever been able to locate a single cache although expeditions in search of this fabled treasure-trove are still organized and as often fail. Each new leader feels that he has discovered the true key to this hidden wealth, and comes to these shores armed with magnetic needles or divining rods, which will be sure to point out the exact location of the buried gold.
“The pirates who sailed the Caribbean waters were of many nationalities, Dutch, French, Spanish and British. An old Scotch buccaneer, named Peter Wallace, with eighty companions, was the first to enter the port of Belize, which name was originally given to the whole settlement. These men immediately erected houses at that place enclosed by rude palisades for defense. From here they set out on their expeditions after stray merchantmen.
“It was not long, however, before the shrewd Scotchman discovered that there was more and surer money in marketing the native woods than in the uncertain and dangerous occupation of robbing ships. Logwood at that time was in such demand for the manufacture of dyes that it sometimes brought as much as one hundred dollars a ton, and is now worth not one-tenth of that price because of the cheaper chemical dyes. So prosperous had this colony become by 1733 that Yucatan sent troops and attempted to drive away the colonists by force. England had at one time laid claim to the Mosquito Coast, which is now a part of the Republics of Honduras and Nicaragua, and which was at that time nothing but a howling wilderness occupied by a hybrid race called Zambos.”
While Morgan and Lafitte are said to have walked the shores of Isla Mujeres (Quintana Roo) and buried treasure there, Isla’s most notorious resident was Fermin Mundaca, a slave trader who transported African slaves to Antilles, preferring the more respectable title of pirate. Mundaca was a native of the Basque country between France and Spain and in his youth devoted himself to cultivating pears. In 1860 when the British campaigned against slavery, Mundaca took a powder on the white sand beaches of Isla Mujeres. There he rented out his boats to the Yucatan Government to capture rebel Maya natives along this coast who were then sold into slavery to large Cuban sugar plantations, which hardly endeared him to the locals.
On Isla Mujeres, Mundaca used his wealth to build a large hacienda named Vista Alegre which he filled with livestock, birds, and exotic gardens, still viewable today. The entrance arch, El Paso de La Triguena (The Brunette), was named for a beautiful girl from the village, Martiniana Gomez Pantoja, with whom the elderly pirate fell in love, after seeing her just once. He nicknamed her the brunette. But the dark-haired beauty, 37 years his junior, married her childhood sweetheart and Mundaca grew isolated, lonely, and mad. He died at age 55 in Merida still in love with the girl. To be near his lost love, he built a tomb which remains empty and is to be found in Isla Mujeres’ colorful, crowded cemetery, one street before North Beach. Etched on the headstone are the symbols of the pirate – skull and crossbones with the words he carved as his epitaph, “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be.”
Jean Lafitte, born in either Haiti or St. Malo, France, liberated New Orleans first of high tariffs by supplying stolen goods to customers without a middleman, and then liberated the city of the British in the U.S. Battle of 1812. Targeted at first by Andrew Jackson as a bandit and a rogue, he was later renamed a gentleman and a patriot, for without him, one of the war’s most decisive battles against Britain would have been lost. Soon after, he was named Terrirotial Governor of Galveston, (still Mexican soil at that time) but with changing times, he was harassed by stricter U.S. policies which restricted his maritime activities.
As his farewell and parting shot, he torched Galveston, then according to legend, sailed into the Caribbean. Rumour has it he stopped on Isla Mujeres, then moved onto the Gulf of Mexico. In the Yucatan, in the small pueblo Dzilam de Bravo not far from Progreso, a CEDAM (Club de Exploraciones y Deportes Acuaticos de Mexico) memorial plaque commemorates him. In the town’s cemetery, CEDAM workers found a weathered tombstone with the epitaph,” Jean Lafitte ReExhumed.” Could it really be the grave of Lafitte?
The Quintana Roo coast is rife with pirate stories. Xcalak (100 miles south of Cancun and right on the border with Belize) was a known haven for pirates, Bacalar narrowly escaped their ruin, and Ascension Bay was one of the great pirate harbors of the 17th century. Wild and isolated, its treacherous mud flats must have sent countless vessels to their doom, while pirate ships waited in hiding for the passage of these Spanish galleons laden with gold, fighting against trade winds on their way to Santiago de Cuba.
In the Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal (Quintana Roo) one display tells how pirates used Banco Chinchorro to their gain. Chinchorro is a deadly circular string of rocks on a low lying limestone shelf extending out from the sea, 30 miles long and 20 miles wide, just off the shores of Majahual. Pirates put lanterns along the reef, signaling ships this was clear passage. But actually, it lured them to their doom onto the treacherous rocks. It is rumoured that thousands of ships had their downfall on Chinchorro Reef.
For more pirate tales, stop by the excellent Subacuatico-CEDAM Museum in Puerto Aventuras north of Tulum. Check out Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal, and Posada del Capitan Lafitte, four kilometres north of Playa del Carmen, to see the white sand beaches that may have attracted one pirate extaordinaire.
Locate a copy of CEDAM founder Pablo Bush Romero’s Under the Waters of Mexico. Venture over to Isla Mujeres‚ newly renovated Hacienda Mundaca and see the pirate’s gardens now made into a small zoo. Walk through the cemetery there, or drive to Dzilam de Bravo, Yucatan, to view Lafitte’s commemorative plaque and find the gravestone with his name on it. Ahoy, matie! There’s treasure to be found.
– © Copyright Belize.com Ltd. and Contributing Editor Jeanine Lee Kitchel