With Pirates Week in full swing, the Caymanian Compass decided to take an historical account of piracy, pirates and privateers in the Cayman Islands. This is the third of a four-part series
In 1680, a Spanish vessel took a French ship off Grand Cayman and the captor noted the Islands were frequented by French corsairs, who had made Cayman Chico (Little Cayman) their headquarters.
May 1681, the French Ambassador Barrillion records that Captain Herbouin of ‘La Royale’ was traveling from St. Christopher, carrying salt and brandy when it stopped at Cayman to collect turtles. Two leagues from the Cayman Islands it met with an English privateer who was armed with several canons and a crew of 50 men. The French vessel was taken and the men were offloaded into the longboat with a barrel of water and a few pounds of salted turtle. Herbouin then landed on a small islet, where they remained for three weeks eating fruit and roots, before finding their way to Jamaica and from there to France.
In 1682 Captain Ubinet who operated a French Pirate ship and held a commission from Tortuga, admitted to the Spanish in a confession that pirates regularly resorted to Cayman. He said ‘Cayman was used as a base for French pirates and they would work together with English pirates, raiding Spanish settlements, sometimes guided by local Indians.’
In 1683 Sir Thomas Lynch wrote to Secretary Sir Leonine Jenkins and explained that privateers use Cayman as a rendezvous point to stop off and distribute their booty after successful expeditions.
In 1684, Captain Joseph Bannister was the commander of a merchantman, the Golden Fleece. In June of that year he fled Port Royal in his 30 gun ship, recruited more than one hundred men and allegedly armed with a French commission he set of a privateering voyage. On 27 July, Bannister was captured by the navy ships the HMS Ruby and HMS Boneta that were out looking for pirates. Banister was apprehended in the Cayman Islands while stocking with turtle. Governor Sir Thomas Lynch said ‘they took him (Bannister) at Caymanos; he had about 115 men on board, most the veriest roghues in these Indies.’
In January 1685, while awaiting a trial on charges of piracy Bannister escaped the Port Royal gaol and seized a sloop and managed to get out of the bay despite several direct hits on the sloop from the 14 guns under the command of Major Peter Beckford at the fort. Eventually on 28 January, 1687, Captain Spragg on HMS Falcon succeeded in capturing Bannister, ‘this day the Drake arrived with Bannister; he and three of his partners hanged at the yard arems, and severall other prisoners.’
In the autumn of 1681 the flamboyant Dutch pirate Nikolaas van Hoorn was in possession of the British slaving vessel the Mary and Martha of 400 tons and carrying 40 guns.
According to the contemporary historian Oexmelin he took several Dutch ships and then headed to Cayman where he ‘spoke with some privateers and sent for others to meet him in the Bay of Honduras.’
This meeting was part of the preparations for an assault on Vera Cruz. By May, Van Hoorn had assembled a fleet of five ships and eight smaller vessels and he was joined by leader of the buccaneers in Samana Bay, Laurens de Graaf and the notorious French pirate Grammont and another Dutch privateer Yanky.
On 17th May more than 1,000 pirates attacked Vera Cruz and for three days they pillaged and plundered the churches, houses and convents. In a dispatch from Governor Lynch of Jamaica he noted, ‘they threatened to burn y great church, and as the prisoners were over 60,000 so then they sent into y country for money and gave them, so the fourth day they left y town and went with their pillage to a cay, and there divided it…Yanky got first to Caymanas and is bound for Spaniola.’
In 1716, the most notorious of all the pirates Black Beard, otherwise known as Edward Teach was on board the 40 gun sloop the Queen Ann’s Revenge when he took a small turtling vessel anchored off Grand Cayman. According to Captain Charles Johnson, ‘Edward Teach then sailed on towards Havana.’ Blackbeard reputedly had 14 wives and he would force them to dance by firing pistols at their feet.
In 1721 George Lowther was the second mate on the Gambia Castle, a vessel involved in the slave trade for the Royal African Company. In May of that year, Lowther led a mutiny and renamed the vessel Delivery.
He then hoisted the pirate flag and set off for Grand Cayman with 50 mariners. Arriving off the coast, Lowther came across Edward Low anchored near a white sand beach and he offered him the position of leuitenant. Low accepted the position and his 12 crew members joined Lowther on the Delivery. Low’s vessel was then abandoned and deliberately sunk somewhere off the coast of Grand Cayman. Presumably the remains of the vessel are still lying on the seabed today.
The pirates then set off and seized a number of vessels. Phillip Ashton was one of the men captured by the pirates. He provided this description: ‘A vile crew of miscreants to whom it was a sport to do mischief, were prodigious drinking, monstrous cursing and swearing, hideous blasphemies, and open defiance of Heaven, and contempt of hell itself, was the constant employment.’ In 1723 Low captured a Portuguese ship. The captain threw his hoard of gold (11,000 moyodores) into the sea rather than letting it fall into the hands of the pirates and in retaliation, ‘Lowe cutt off the said Master’s lipps and broyl’d them before his face,’ before murdering the entire crew of 32 sailors.
Lowther and Low later split up. Lowther and his pirates were eventually tracked down on the Island of Blanco, a number of the crew were captured and later hanged, Lowther appears to have shot himself, ‘he was found dead with his pistol busted by his side.’ George Low was reportedly set adrift by his own men. He was picked up by a French boat from Martinique and was later hanged.