Roatan was the Favorite Base for the Brethren of the Coast
In 1683 Roatan hosted the largest meeting of pirates in history; they planned a series of attacks on Spanish towns and shipping routes. These pirates known as ‘Brethren of the Coast” raided Spanish cities and burned towns, captured and sold slaves and executed hostages, sewing terror from Florida to South America. These buccaneers defied laws and civility, no one was safe from their greed and cruelty.
While many people glorify them, today that loose coalition of pirates and privateers would be called terrorists with behavior surpassing that of the Islamic State. Some of these buccaneers carried ‘Letters of marque and reprisal’ that regulate their relationships with their European benefactors and themselves. The Brethren were almost always English Protestants, Dutch Lutherans and French Huguenots that saw their Catholic, Spanish and French counterparts as legitimate targets of ruthless treatment. Their actions were the extension of ruthless European religious wars in the New World.
This was the largest and the last convocation of The Brethren of the Coast to be held on Roatan, and it was convened at the behest of Dutch sea rover Nicholas “Claas” Van Hoorn, who had persuaded two of the most flamboyant and successful pirates of the era to accompany him on the mission. They were Le Chevalier Michel de Grammont, a French nobleman who had fled France and turned to piracy after killing his sister’s lover in a duel over her honor.
The other leader of the group was Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf, who harbored a deep hatred for the Spanish after being captured on a Dutch merchant vessel and forced to work as a galley slave and later to labor on their plantations for several years before escaping. De Graaf, known simply as “The Devil” to the Spanish, was so successful in his piratical activities in the Caribbean that they sent their special, fast, pirate-chasing fleet, called La Armada de Barlovento, or Windward Fleet, under the command of Andrés de Ochoa in pursuit of him.
Furthermore, Henry Morgan was now a reformed character assigned an as acting governor of Jamaica. Morgan had sent the 55-gun frigate the “Norwich,” with 240 men aboard, to hunt down de Graaf in order to appease the Spanish. Four years earlier, De Graaf had turned the tables on the Spanish and attacked the boats chasing him, capturing two of their vessels, the “Tigre” and the “Princesa,” the flagship of the Barlovento fleet, off Santo Domingo, along with 120,000 silver Peruvian pesos, which he shared equally with his crew.
De Graaf renamed the second boat “Francesca” and used her as his own flagship for years to come. To keep himself and his 200 crewmen entertained, the popular De Graaf employed an orchestra of musicians, replete with guitars, violins, and trumpets, who lived permanently aboard the ship.
In retaliation for this great insult and loss, the Spanish confiscated the first Dutch-flagged boat that sailed into Santo Domingo. This ship, which belonged to Nicholas Van Hoorn, contained a valuable shipment of 900 African slaves to be sold in Martinique. Van Hoorn was so aggrieved by its loss that he immediately sailed to the French-ruled western part of Hispaniola and demanded and received from the governor a letter of marquee and reprisal against Spanish property.
Armed with this valuable permit to attack the Spanish, Van Hoorn met up with Grammont at their base in Pétit-Goâve and sailed in his own triple-decker warship, the “St. Nicholas Day,” along with 300 men, to rendezvous with De Graaf on Roatan.
Van Hoorn’s ship, the largest operating in the Caribbean, had been paid for with part of a bullion shipment of two million gold livres which the Spanish had paid Van Hoorn to protect on its way from Hispaniola to Cádiz, and which he had stolen once the convoy left port.
By chance, they encountered John Coxen and his ship the “Dorado” off Jamaica. Coxen, who had temporarily retired from piracy (only for one year!), Was himself under Morgan’s orders to hunt down and capture another Dutch corsair, Yankey Willens, a former cohort of Morgan, for a reward of 200 English pounds. They explained to Coxen their plan to attack Vera Cruz and invited him to join the team, but he demurred, and they continued towards the Bay Islands.
Van Hoorn was so eager to retaliate against the Spanish that he diverted his boat to attack Trujillo on Honduras’s mainland. Trujillo proved easy to capture, as it had fewer than 200 men under arms to defend it.
There they found two large Spanish galleons, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción and Nuestra Señora de la Regla, awaiting a valuable shipment of indigo which was to arrive by mule train from the south. Unfortunately for the townsfolk and the soldiers guarding Trujillo, the boats sat idle and empty. This infuriated Van Hoorn, who already had a reputation for his arrogance and cruelty towards prisoners, and he ordered his army to kill the garrison of the fort and to murder the entire population of the town, after which he ordered Trujillo to be torched and burned to the ground. This act of insanity caused the Spanish viceroy in Guatemala to order Trujillo to be completely abandoned as indefensible; it would not be repossessed by Spain for another 97 years, leaving it a free port for smugglers.
Van Hoorn and Grammont then sailed with their two new prizes to French Harbour. Unbeknownst to either man, Laurens de Graaf and his colleague Michiel Andrieszoon also had plans to seize the two cargo ships and were waiting patiently on Guanaja, careening their boats, until the cargoes of indigo arrived at Trujillo, and were appalled and angered by Van Hoorn’s actions. The animosity between Van Hoorn and de Graaf would turn deadly within less than two months.
The animosity between Van Hoorn and de Graaf would turn deadly.
With England and Spain being in a state of peace for eleven years, the men gathering at French Harbour for the raid were almost exclusively Dutch and French, with only two English captains, George Spurre and Jacob Hall in attendance. The rest of the pirate captains were Michiel Andrieszoon, Jan “Yankey” Willens, Jacob Evertson, Francois Le Sage, Pierre De L’Orange, Nicolas Bregeult, Nicolas Bot, and Antoine Bernard. They spent over a month on the island, careening boats and hunting and fishing, their enforced stay caused by the news from their spies that Ochoa, with 1,200 marines and the Armada de Barlovento, was in Vera Cruz, preparing to sail to Cuba to look for de Graaf.
As soon as the coast was clear, the Brethren departed in five large boats and five smaller vessels. Late on the night of May 17th 1683, Van Graaf boldly sailed into Vera Cruz harbor in the two Spanish-flagged vessels from Trujillo, and, along with Yankey Willens, silently landed over 200 men.
Meanwhile, Grammont and Van Hoorn moored their boats down the coast, and with another 200 men marched overland into the rear of the town and took over a hundred horses from the garrison’s stables. They attacked the fort at dawn.
The Spanish were so surprised by the Dutch cavalry charge on their own horses that they quickly surrendered without a fight. The sea rovers quickly spread out through the town, herding most of the population into the large church, to be bartered for ransom. Captain Spurre found the town’s governor, Don Louis de Cordua, hiding under some straw in a stable, and would later successfully ransom him for 70,000 silver pesos.
After a week of looting the town, De Graaf learned that another heavily armed Spanish fleet was soon to arrive from Cartagena and hastily retreated to La Isla de Sacrificios two miles offshore, taking his Spanish hostages and over 1,500 black and mulatto slaves and freemen with them. The latter would be dispersed and sold throughout the Caribbean, a sad crime which the people of Vera Cruz never forgave De Graaf for.
While awaiting the ransom for their Spanish hostages to be sent from Mexico City, Van Hoorn became impatient; he ordered the decapitation of twelve of the hostages, intending to send their heads back to the mainland as a warning. When De Graaf stepped in to prevent the execution of the Spanish, a drunken Van Hoorn attacked him with his sword. A duel ensued and ended when De Graaf slashed Van Hoorn badly on the wrist, and then ordered him confined to his boat in chains.
After receiving their ransom, the sea rovers sailed to Isla de Mujeres, off present-day Cancún to split their booty. Laurens de Graaf, Jacob Evertson, Michiel Andrieszoon, Jan “Yankee” Willens, George Spurre, and Michel de Grammont shared the equivalent of $30,000 each, while their men each received 800 pieces of eight, worth perhaps $7,000 today. In addition, there were some 1,500 slaves to dispose of.
Grammont and Jacob Hall took 400 slaves north to sell in North Carolina; Hall would use his profits to retire in Virginia. De Graaf, Evertson, Andrieszoon, and Spurre sailed directly to Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) to auction off the remaining slaves; over the next four months Spurre would drink himself to death there.
Meanwhile, Andrés de Ochoa, the Spanish commander of Vera Cruz and Admiral of the Fleet of Barlovento (on the present-day Colombian coast), hell-bent on capturing “Laurencillo” de Graaf and the pirates who had raped his town and destroyed his citadel, embarked on a two-year mission to hunt them down. On August 4th, on his 450-ton flagship, the San José, accompanied by three pursuit galleons of 350 tons each, Ochoa had success off of Little Cayman, where they captured two ships involved in the raid, Pierre d’Orange’s Dauphinand Antoine Bernard’s Prophète Daniel, along with their crews and stolen plunder.
A week later, on the evening of August 11th, they chased down Yankee Willens, who was captaining La Señora de Regla, one of the cargo ships captured by Nikolaas Van Hoorn in Trujillo. Willens set fire to the ship, and then escaped on a smaller vessel in the smoke, dusk, and confusion, eventually making it back to Saint-Domingue, having left behind 90 slaves, who put out the fire and were rescued by Ochoa. The French captains and their crews were publicly executed by garrote on the waterfront, as were 14 Englishmen who had participated in the raid and were captured in a failed attack on Tampico in early 1684.
Along with Yankey Willens, silently landed over 200 men.
On August 22nd Ochoa returned to Vera Cruz; there he would stay for ten months while overseeing the rebuilding of the city.
In October 1683, the remaining Brethren of the Coast–minus de Grammont, who was attacking Spanish settlements in Florida–were offered the opportunity to attack Santiago de Cuba by the governor of Saint-Domingue. The one condition was that the raid would be accompanied by a detachment of French soldiers and that the overall command would be undertaken by the pompously titled Major Jean de Goff, Sieurde Beauregard.
A brutal martinet, de Goff displeased the Brethren so much that they mutinied before the venture got under sail, and instead turned their attention to another Spanish target, Cartagena, a heavily fortified citadel surrounded by 11 kilometers of walls and ramparts.
With over a thousand men, they moored outside Cartagena’s bay for three weeks while calculating how to infiltrate the city’s formidable defenses. Their presence became known to the Spanish governor, who on Christmas Eve dispatched a force of some 800 men on three ships: the 40-gun San Francisco, the 34-gun La Paz, and the 28-gun galliot Francesca.
However, the large Spanish ships were outmaneuvered by the dexterity of the Dutch captains. The San Francisco ran aground on a sandbar, and the other two boats were captured with all on board. Ninety Spanish soldiers were killed in the battle; on the Dutch side, only 20 men were lost. De Graaf refloated the San Francisco, renaming it the Neptune and making it his flagship; Andrieszo on was given the La Paz, renaming it the Rascal; and Willens was rewarded with de Graaf’s former flagship Princesa.
Three weeks later Willens would use this ship to capture a passing English sloop named the James, thus angering the governor of Jamaica so much that he doubled the price on Willens’s head from 200 to 400 pounds.
De Graaf ransomed the surviving soldiers back to Cartagena. Upon receiving the extortion money, he sent a messenger thanking the governor for his Christmas present. With his cohorts, he then sailed back to their main base at Petit-Goâve, where he would remain on his sugarcane plantation with his family for the next year while plotting his next raid.
In June 1685 de Graaf returned to Roatán to await the passing of the Spanish treasure fleet on its way to Guatemala and thence to Cuba. Thwarted when the fleet was delayed by bad weather, he reconvened a meeting of all the Brethren of the Coast on Cuba’s Isla de Pinos (now Isla de la Juventud).
From there he sailed with Michel de Grammont and the entire team who had accompanied him at Vera Cruz and Cartagena—minus Hall and Spurre, who had been replaced by the Frenchman Pierre Bot, who captained La Señora de Regla, and the English pirate Joseph Bannister, aboard his ship Golden Fleece—and a total force of 750 men and 30 boats to launch an attack on Campeche, Mexico. Campeche ranked alongside Havana, Cartagena, and Vera Cruz as one of Spain’s most valuable shipping ports.
He withdrew to Trujillo,now a virtual ghost town.
Forewarned of the attack, the governor of Campeche, the 50-year-old veteran soldier Felipe de Barreda, ordered the women and children to leave the town, taking with them most of its valuables, while he remained to organize Campeche’s defenses. The first assault group of pirates, arriving on July 6th, was repulsed by Barreda’s 200 defenders upon landing. However, the pirates regrouped, infiltrated the town at night, and emerged victorious from a pitched battle with the remaining Spanish militiamen as well as two other detachments of 200 soldiers sent from Mérida.
The pirates then stormed Merida, only to find it mostly devoid of treasure. Enraged, de Grammont sent 200 mounted French and Dutch cavalry riding stolen horses throughout the country in a radius of up to 50 miles from the town, burning farms and hacienda sand killing two thirds of the province’s population.
De Graaf then sent two ransom demands to Juan Bruno Téllez de Guzmán, governor of the Yucatán, insisting that he send 80,000 pesos and 400 head of cattle to prevent the town from being burned to the ground. Guzmán refused both notes, saying that the pirates could do what they wanted, but that Spain, being powerful and wealthy, would simply rebuild the town. This provoked de Grammont into hanging six of its leading citizens in the town square. He was about to execute six more, including Barreda, when de Graaf intervened. Finally, having spiked the fort’s cannons, the pirates sailed away on September 5 and scattered up and down the coast.
Meanwhile, on learning that de Graaf was holed up on Roatán, Andrés de Ochoa scoured every bay and inlet on the island in search of the nemesis he had been hunting for over two years. Unable to find any trace of him, he withdrew to Trujillo, now a virtual ghost town, to await de Graaf’s return. When a messenger boat arrived from Mérida to report that de Graaf was attacking Campeche, the gravely ill Ochoa set sail north on September 8th with five galleons.
Three days later, he espied three sails 53 kilometers north of present-day Cancún and gave chase, catching up with part of de Graaf’s heavily laden fleet at Cabo Catoche and eventually capturing Bot’s slow-moving galleon, with its crew of 130 Frenchmen, over 200 weapons, and 30 African slaves taken at Campeche, as well as a sloop, while another sloop was sunk.
The Spanish continued to tail De Graaf for four days until, at Alacrán Reef, having dumped much of his cargo overboard to lighten his ship, De Graaf turned and daringly engaged and outmaneuvered the Spanish warships Santo Cristo de Burgos and Concepción. Though the two pursuit vessels fired over 1,600 cannon shots at the Neptune, luck was on De Graaf’s side. After his rigging was crippled by Spanish chain shot and it looked as if he would be taken, a cannon blew up on Ochoa’s flagship, killing several men and severely damaging the superstructure, making further pursuit impossible.
De Graaf returned to Roatán to await the passing of the Spanish treasure.
Ochoa died the following morning from a combination of fever and battle fatigue, and the chase ended. The disappointed Spanish fleet turned north for Vera Cruz, giving De Graaf the chance to escape after jettisoning all his cannons. However, the unlucky Pierre Bot, his officers, and six Spaniards sailing under his flag were immediately executed.
The Englishman Joseph Bannister was as unlucky as Bot. On his way back to Jamaica, his boat was intercepted by HMS Ruby and he and his men were taken to Port Royal, accused of piracy against English vessels, and sentenced to be hanged. Bannister appealed the sentence, and while awaiting a retrial, made a daring nighttime escape with some of his men. They sailed the Golden Fleece to Sabana Bay, Santo Domingo, where he successfully outgunned the English naval frigates Falcon and Drake which had been sent to capture him.
Joseph Bannister then fled to Honduras’s Mosquito Coast, hiding out in an Indian village before being recaptured and returned to Jamaica. The governor of the island was so incensed by Bannister’s disregard for English law that he immediately had him hanged onboard the ship in the harbor without trial.
Michel de Grammont, aboard his flagship Hardi, teamed up with Nicolas Brigaut, making Roatán their base of operations for two months while preparing for an attack on St. Augustine, Florida. Leaving Roatán, the two Frenchmen split up at Matanzas inlet, the plan being that Brigaut would capture guides and interpreters to assist them with intelligence before the raid.
When Brigaut’s ship ran aground, it was attacked by a much larger Spanish force and his entire crew of 40 men was annihilated. Brigaut himself was captured and taken to St. Augustine, where he was hanged at the end of May at the age of 33. Michel de Grammont’s luck also finally ran out. In an attempt to rescue Brigaut, his ship Hardi capsized in a storm and he drowned along with all of his crew, aged 41. The other Frenchman of the Brethren, François Le Sage, would survive a further nine years before being killed while accompanying De Graaf in a successful raid on Jamaica in 1694.
Joseph Bannister was as unlucky as Bot.
Of De Graaf’s three remaining Dutch officers and leading captains, only Michiel Andrieszoon survived along with De Graaf to live into middle age. After the raid on Campeche, Andrieszoon retired from piracy to live out his life on Petit-Goâve. Yankee Willens partnered up with Jacob Evertson, his old comrade of many years, sailing the Princesa, the ship De Graaf had given him, around the Caribbean while being hunted by both the Spanish and English navies, before both men reportedly drowned in a storm in the Gulf of Honduras in 1688.
Laurens de Graaf was, after Henry Morgan, perhaps the greatest privateer of the Golden Age of Piracy, which would end at the beginning of the 18th century with the introduction of strong Dutch, French, English, and Spanish naval patrols and the elimination of such pirate bases as Roatán, Petit-Goâve, Tortuga, Port Royal, Providence, and Isla de Pinos. The Brethren of the Coast would never reunite; their time was over.
De Graaf, however, would continue to lead a charmed life into his 50s, continuing daring raids until the end of 1690s. In March 1693, when he was 39 years old, he married a beautiful woman known as Anne Dieu-le-Veut (Anne Who-God-Wants), one of the very few known female buccaneers (Mary Read, Ann Bonny, and Jacquotte Delahaye being the others).
Having fallen in love after she challenged him to a duel for some slight, they lived together for 12 years. He died either in Louisiana while attempting to start a new colony there or back on his plantation in Saint-Domingue. The date of his death is given as 1705, making him 50 or 51 years old at the time, slightly younger than Henry Morgan, who died in 1688 at age 53 after a heavy drinking bout in Jamaica.