Magazine For Isla Mujeres Charities

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Pirates Of Isla Mujeres: Part 1 by Ronda Winn Roberts

Spaniards Visited Isla Mujeres & Moved On
 Leaving it to Pirates & Cuban fishermen

     When Spaniards sailed to Isla Mujeres from Cuba in 1517, they found no people or signs of settlement on the island. They broke the female idols in the Mayan temple, replacing them with an icon of the Virgin Mary, and moved on. The island became a refuge for pirates during the colonial period. 
        The isle was a haven for pirates & smugglers until the Lafitte brothers and their cohorts were ousted by the 1820's, leaving their observation towers behind. They also left a few descendents  & some buried treasure, if you believe the legends.
         In the 1840's, visitors found the island deserted, except for a couple shacks used by Cuban fishermen. Between 1847 and 1855, the Caste war cut the population of the Yucatan in half. The first town on Isla Mujeres was founded by refugees from that war, who learned to make their living from the sea with assistance from Cuban fishermen.
             The isle's most famous pirate, Fermin Mundaca,  purchased about forty percent of the island, built a hacienda, & become infatuated with a beautiful local woman, half his age. He built beautiful gardens dedicated to her, but she rejected him, and he was described as "moody" by an English speaking visitor in the 1870's. 

 Seeking Slaves & Exploring: Spaniards Sail to Isla Mujeres From Cuba

Isla de las Mujeres was discovered by Spanish conquistador Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba, who left Santiago, Cuba on Feb 8, 1517 with ~110 men in two warships and a brigantine. The bloody, ill-fated expedition was piloted by Antón de Alaminos, who had navigated for Christopher Columbus. Bad weather blew them off course, and it took a month to make the hundred mile trip from Cuba to Isla Mujeres. 
     They named the island for the female figures they found in the Mayan temple at the southern end of the isle. After leaving the isle, they engaged in multiple battles as they traveled the coast, resulting in injuries to all the men, except one who disappeared in Florida. Cordoba died shortly after returning to Cuba. 
         Although there is controversy over the issue, it is generally accepted that the Spaniards were both exploring and hoping to return to Cuba with Indian slaves. This was the first European expedition to return with reports of an advanced civilization with fantastic buildings & the likelihood of riches to be plundered.

Route of Cordoba to & from Isla Mujeres

Pirates of Isla Mujeres Attacked Veracruz & Campeche: Important Colonial Ports 
Routes of Spanish Plate Fleets
Route of Spanish Armada Treasure Fleet. Map from Division of Historical Resources Bureau of Archaeological Research
      In the Caribbean, the Spanish treasure fleet sailed through the Lesser Antilles, to the ports of the Spanish Main, northwards into the Yucatán Channel, and stopped at Veracruz, before catching the westerly winds back to Europe.  
       Veracruz was the window for trans-Atlantic trade from New Spain, handling 37 percent of the global Spanish ship traffic. It connected the Caribbean with the vast interior of  what is now Mexico and the US Southwest. Its adverse weather and dangerous sea conditions gave the port some protection from enemies, and ships that arrived in May or September were at less risk of sinking.    

      Campeche was the most important port in the Yucatan,  located between Cuba and Veracruz. It was the main port for the valuable logwood trade in the area, and was frequently attacked by pirates. In the late 1600's the Spanish spent nearly twenty years building fortifications and putting a wall around the city.
       LINK   to list of pirate attacks on the Yucatan peninsula.

 The Golden Era of Caribbean Piracy

         English and French pioneers began to settle on the island of Hispañola around 1630. They were called buccaneers because they cooked meat on wooden 'boucan' frames. ("Boucanier" means to smoke meat in French). The Spanish believed they could force the buccaneers out by removing their food supply, so they sent hunters to slaughter the wild pigs that were the settler's primary source of food. With the pigs gone, many buccaneers turned to piracy to survive. It is said they used their smokey fires to lure ships near for trading, and would seize them. In the 1600's, British pirates used Jamaica as their main base, while French pirates sailed from the isle of Tortuga, near Haiti. 
At  LINK this map from 1696 is zoomable. 
        Busy with the various wars in Europe, the mother countries were unable to provide adequate military reinforcements for their colonies, so monarchs and governors issued "letters of marque" which allowed private ships to attack ships from rival nations.  When buccaneers were commissioned as mercenaries, their ships were called "privateers". The crews were not paid, but they received  portions of the value of any cargo they captured. Generally, it was impossible to restrain the activities of privateers within the legitimate bounds of their commissions. Pirates who sailed under the command of a king, holding documents authorizing their "acts of war" were also called "Corsarios" and their documents were called "Carte Blanche".
    Contrary to popular belief,  most of the spoils of the pirates were not from capturing other ships, but rather from the assault on Spanish populations. They not only plundered riches, but also carried prisoners, and their booty included ransoms paid by families to recover their loved ones.
        This era of "legal" piracy came to an end around 1700, when European countries had enough troops and ships to protect the important colonies in the West Indies and the Americas without relying on mercenaries. With regular military forces stationed in the Caribbean, letters of marque became rare.
        In 1717, piracy increased along the coasts of the Yucatan peninsula after Spain's breakup of the English logwood settlement at Campeche. In 1720, there was a new wave of piracy, fueled by an abundance of unemployed sailors after the War of Spanish Succession. A treaty gave British slavers a thirty year contract to provide slaves to Spanish colonies, which allowed English merchants and smugglers access to formerly closed Spanish markets, causing an economic revival in the area. 
     By 1730, large numbers of pirates were chased from the Caribbean high seas (and ousted from Nassau) by the English Royal Navy squadron based at Port Royal, Jamaica; and by a  group of Spanish privateers known as the Costa Garda (Coast Guard). Meanwhile, Isla Mujeres continued to be a haven for smugglers & pirates.

 ~~~Isla Mujeres Pirates~~~

     Isla Mujeres historian Fidel Villanueva Madrid wrote that pirates of Isla Mujeres included  Pata de Palo, Diego El Mulato, Abraham,  Lorencillo, and the Lafitte brothers. 
       He said their adventures around the isle are preserved as local folkloric legends and imprinted upon the island culture. There are people who claim the Lafitte brothers left descendents on Isla Mujeres, and some historians believe the pirate Van Hoorn was buried on the isle.

Isla Mujeres Pirates of the 1600's

Pata de Palo: First famous "Peg Leg" Pirate
     Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol, aka "Pata de Palo",  joined the Dutch Company of the West Indies and rose rapidly to the rank of admiral, before becoming a pirate. The Dutchman was known for his courage, his skill as a navigator and his courteous treatment towards prisoners. He crossed the Atlantic nine times to attack Spanish and Portuguese fleets along the coast of Brazil, and was active against the Spanish in the throughout the Caribbean and Spanish Main  during the 1630s and 40s.

Diego el Mulato: From Slave to Pirate Captain
   Diego el Mulato Martín was an escaped slave from Havana, Cuba who was eventually given a pardon and a commission from Spain, after terrorizing the Gulf of Mexico during the 1630's.

"Pata de Palo & "Diego el Mulato" Attacked Campeche in 1633 
       On August 11,1633, ten ships attacked Campeche, with 500 men under the command of  "Diego the Mulatto" and Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol, who was nicknamed "Pata de Palo"  (Peg-leg). When the defenders of the city claimed that they did not have the money to pay the ransom, the pirates burned it down.

Abraham: Terror & Trade from New York to Jamaica
  Abraham Blauvelt (a.k.a. Abraham Blewfields, Abraham Bluefields) was a Dutchman who explored and mapped the coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua in the early 1630's, helping establish settlements in remote regions, which still bear his name. He enlisted as a privateer in the Swedish East India Company and was in command of his own ship by 1644, preying on Spanish shipping vessels from Dutch New Amsterdam (modern day New York) to a harbor in  Jamaica. When peace arrived between the Dutch and Spanish in 1648, Captain Blauvelt  was no longer welcome in New Amsterdam,  due to political fallout from his raiding of Spanish ships. He divvied up his loot,  and headed south from Rhode Island in 1650. He joined Capt. Sir. Christopher Myng in a raid on Campeche in 1663 and was not heard of afterwards, so is presumed to have perished in the attack.

"Abraham" Attacked  Campeche in 1663
     Campeche was sacked in February, 1663, by fourteen ships with 1400 pirates aboard, among them such notorious privateers as Henry Morgan and Abraham Blauvelt. The fleet was commanded by Christopher Myngs.

1671 map
"Lorencillo":  Had More Booty Than Blackbeard & Inspired "La Bamba"
  Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf  or "Laurencillo" was said to be a handsome, cultured man who carried a violin and trumpet, which he played to entertain his crew. He was well read and knew large sections of Shakespeare by heart, which he would recite in Dutch and Spanish, particularly his favorite: "King Lear".  
Many historians consider Lorencillo a more successful pirate than Blackbeard or Captain Kidd, whose his adventures were never well published in English. De Graaf was born in the Netherlands and became known as the Scourge of the West and the Plaga del Caribe.  After his first wife divorced him, he proposed to his second wife while she pointed a gun at him. He had insulted her, and offered marriage by way of an apology. (She was also pregnant with his child).  In 1679, Lorencillo moved up as a pirate when  he captured a 24 gun Spanish warship with a crew of 200 from a squadron he had served with years earlier. He was born in Holland when it was part of Spain, and some reports say his military service was forced, prompting a deep hatred for the monarchy.
     In 1682 he took the (former) French warship, Princesa, from the Spanish, killing 50 of her crew during the battle and winning 120,000 pesos in Peruvian silver. To retaliate, the Spanish confiscated a cargo of slaves from fellow Dutchman Nicolaas van Hoorn. The two pirates later conspired together, after the Princesa's captured crew revealed that two richly laden Spanish ships would be arriving in the Gulf of Honduras, and Van Hoorn captured the two vessels. Then both Dutchmen rendezvoused with  French pirates Michel de Grammont (Agrammont) and  Pierre Bot and planned a massive attack on Veracruz, using Isla Mujeres as a refuge.
 Van Hoorn:  Buried On or Near Isla Mujeres
*Nikolaas van Hoorn:  Dutchman Nicolas van Hoorn was said to possess natural intelligence and to be an excellent captain. He was also known to be harsh and heartless. He was a sailor before he joined the French Army, then he gave up that career to seek wealth as a pirate. He liked to be well groomed and enjoyed wearing adornments such as a large pearl necklace with a magnificent ruby.

"Agramont":  French Pirate Attacked Veracruz & Campeche
*Monsieur de Grammont, "Agramont " was a French pirate captain who assisted Lorencillo with  the attack on Veracruz in 1683 and the attack on Campeche in 1685. Then they parted ways because Lorencillo objected to Agramont  executing prisoners whose ransoms hadn't been paid. Agramont was born in Paris 1650, and  had to leave France at age 14 after killing official in a duel who was courting his sister. He enlisted as a marino (a sailor in the navy) and was a captain by the age of 24, before seeking wealth as a pirate.  

Successful Seige of Veracruz & Retreat to Isla Mujeres  
  Veracruz was a strongly defended Spanish port with at least 700 soldiers, plus 300 soldiers in the fort off the coast at San Juan de Ulúa. The pirates, Dutchmen Lorencillo & van Hoorn, and Frenchmen Agramont & Bot, amassed a fleet of a dozen vessels and 1200 men, and took Veracruz by surprise on May 18th, 1683. 
        The arrival of the Spanish Armada had been delayed by wind conditions, and the pirate fleet approached with their two captured Spanish galleons in the lead, lulling the inhabitants into a false sense of security, until the pirates descended from all sides under the cover of darkness  Lorencillo's men attacked by sea and van Horn's troops went overland to attack from the rear. The Governor was found hiding in a loft and later ransomed for 70,000 pieces of eight. 
 Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de GraafHe was known as  LorencilloEl Griffe (Spanish), Sieur de Baldran, de Graff (French) and Gesel van de West (Dutch; "Scourge of the West"). By Howard Pyle
Catedral de la Asunción      By the time the pirates left for Isla Mujeres three and a half days later, 400 people had died in Veracruz. Most of the population of 5000 had spent those days and nights locked inside the Catedral de la Asunción, while the pirates surrounded it with gunpowder,  threatening to blow it up &  burn it down. The terrified Veracruzanos were packed in like sardines, without food or water, in searing heat. Some climbed to the top of the bell tower and leapt to their deaths.
      The wealthiest citizens were taken to the Isle of Sacrifices to be ransomed, and thirty of the prettiest girls were taken to the pirates base at Laguna de Terminos for their pleasure. Van Hoorn wanted to behead a few captives to apply pressure to obtain more money. When Laurencillo refused to allow this, a duel ensued. Van Hoorn received a slash to the wrist, which  turned gangrenous and killed him after they had left Veracruz to take the loot to Isla Mujeres. Some accounts say he was buried on Isla Mujeres, while others say he was laid to rest on a small island called Loggerhead Key, near "Cayo de Mugeres", in June, 1683.   (Mujeres was often spelled "Mugeres"). 
photos by Stacks-BowersLLC
     The people of Veracruz were saved when Spanish warships commanded by Diego Zaldívar were spotted on the horizon. The pirates abandoned the local girls they had taken, and slipped past the Spanish, sailing around the peninsula to Isla Mujeres.  When they got to the island, they divided the spoils, whose value was estimated between 4 million and 7 million pesos. It is said each man got 800 pieces of eight. (Eight-reales were the currency of the time). They took 1500 slaves, and lost 35 men.      

 This Seige of Veracruz Inspired "La Bamba" 

This song that was made popular by Richie Valens, and sung by Los Lobos, immortalized this battle and became a wedding song, long before it inspired a movie. The citizens trapped in the church climbed the bell tower ladder to escape the pirates and the heat, going "arriba & arriba", which also means faster & faster, and the tempo speeds up.
Para bailar la bamba,                                    To dance la bamba
Se necesita una poca de gracia.                     You need a little grace (mercy/ humor/panache/prayer)
Una poca de gracia para mi para ti.          
A little gracia for me and for you
Arriba y arriba  Y arriba y arriba,             
Up & up and Up & up!(faster & faster)
 por ti sere,Por ti sere. Por ti sere.             I'll be there for you
Yo no soy marinero.
Soy capitan.              I'm not a soldier, I'm a Captain!
Bam-ba, bamba....

    "Bamba" is a  word of African origin which means party or celebration. "Bambarria",  means "to try and prevent something after it has already happened." (This refers to the authorities who fortified Veracruz after the attack. )  "Bambolear" means swinging or swaying, and a "bambollero/bambollera" is a someone who likes to boast (e.g., "I'm not a sailor, I'm a captain!").
      When the infamous pirate Lorencillo and his men were arriving to attack Veracruz, the news spread across the countryside and the tolling of chapel bell at the nearby Hacienda Malibrán summoned workers and their families. They feared becoming victims of robbery, rape and murder, and were deciding whether to fight or flee.
      Hacienda owner Doña Beatríz del Real thought the workers would not be able to fight back, because they were not marineros.  (They were civilians, not sailor-soldiers.) Her loyal foreman Malanga replied repeatedly that althought they weren't marineros, they would now have to become soldiers to defend their themselves. They prepared their defenses, and then learned the pirates had already passed about ten miles to their north, and proceeded to celebrate. 
     A visiting musician named "El Guaruso", from nearby Tlalixcoyan wrote "La Bamba" about the brave villagers who were prepared to take a stand, who said  "No soy marinero".  The phrase "Soy Capitan!" is said to represent their confidence and courage. 
     The second verse is about the desperate Veracruzanos climbing up a  long ladder, then a short ladder, to leap to their deaths from the bell tower of the Catedral de la Asunción :

Para subir al cielo                                                     To go up to heaven
Se necesita
Una escalera grande                                                    You need  a big ladder
Y otra chiquita                                                                And another small one
Ay arriba y arriba Y arriba y arriba,                         And up & up and up & up
Arriba iré                                                                   Up I'll go
    Many verses have been added to this song & you can hear some of them sung by a musician from Vera Cruz who plays at Iguanas restaurant at Marina Paraiso, usually on Sundays. It became a celebratory song that was traditionally played at weddings while the bride and groom danced over a ribbon, tying it into a bow. Here is an example (If you can't see it, here is the LINK).


   Escape from Isla Mujeres to Cuba
After Three Month Siege of Campeche & Countryside

          After the successful attack on Veracruz, and escape to Isla Mujeres, in December 1683, Lorencillo took two large Spanish men-of-war, sending a message to the Governor of Cartagena, thanking him for the Christmas presents, and naming the larger 42-gun galleon "Neptune".
     In July, 1865, Lorencillo and Agramont attacked Campeche with a thousand men and a dozen ships. The Spanish soldiers abandoned the city, leaving the citizens at the mercy of the pirates for the rest of the summer. The pirate troops spread through the countryside looting haciendas and villages, stealing the harvested food, as well as objects of value. This terrible event led to the fortification of Campeche. 
        Three months later, in September,  Lorencillo set sail from Isla Mujeres with his wife, aboard the Neptune laden with treasure. They were accompanied by Pierre Bot, aka Blot. The two Dutchmen turned tail when they were spotted by a Spanish squadron. Both jettisoned valuables and guns to lighten their ships. Bott's ship was captured and he was taken prisoner. Lorencillo's "Neptune" took 14 hits broadside, and one of the Spanish ships fired 1600 rounds. He refused to surrender, and  escaped with “only a couple of spars shot away, even though he was being attacked from both sides within musket range.” A moderate but steady wind from the southeast was fortuitous and he sailed to Isla de Pinos, south of Cuba, to recuperate.
      Mexican military officer Robles reports seeing Lorencillo in Isla Mujeres between Sat June 8 & Thursday June 13 1686, "que estaba muy malo",  (in a bad state),  but the pirate survived.

1706 map is zoomable at LINK    

Piracy in the early 1800's
   In the early 19th century, piracy along the East and Gulf Coasts of North America, as well as in the Caribbean, increased again. Records of the US Navy indicate that hundreds of pirate attacks occurred in American and Caribbean waters between  1820 and 1835.  Jean Lafitte is considered the greatest pirate/privateer of this time, operating in the Caribbean and in American waters from his havens in Texas and Louisiana during the 1810s.
   The Lafitte brothers occupied the island of Isla Mujeres in the early 1800's. Later, Mundaca purchased ~40% of the island, after giving up piracy. The Lafitte's watch towers were still present when the Le Plongeons visited in the 1870's. To Be Continued.


  1. I love your historical perspective of an island I love. Only dispute is translation of "marinero" as soldier. It means sailor.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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