The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

The Last Days of Piracy

Piracy was on its way out in our islands in the Eastern Caribbean when it got a new revival. When the revolution started in Venezuela under Simon Bolivar against Spain suddenly piracy was popular again. The businessman Louis Brion of Curacao made his fleet of schooners available for the support of the revolution to Simon Bolivar who had spent time on Curacao. Brion even became an admiral of Venezuela and is one of the National heroes of that country. The Venezuelan revolution triggered revolutions against Spain all over Latin America.

Monument to Simon Bolivar on Saba

Monument to Simon Bolivar on Saba

Simon Bolivar did not win all battles of course and at the end of his life he proclaimed that he had plowed the sea. He became known as the man of a thousand battles and at the end of his life he was disillusioned. The Gran Colombia which he had liberated from Spain was split up into three countries, namely Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. It is claimed that Bolivar said that he had left behind Ecuador as a convent, Colombia as a university and Venezuela as an army barracks. Brion employed some men from Saba on his schooners, and Simon Bolivar even visited Saba and was welcomed here in 1816. With nothing else to do some Saban former pirates joined Bolivar and the revolution when he departed from our island.  A bust of the Liberator commemorates his visit and his stay on Saba and is situated on the museum grounds in Windwardside.

Before the Venezuelan revolution began the newspapers in England carried various articles on piracy in the West Indies and even after the independence of the South American republics after Saba came under Dutch rule in 1816 there were periodic reports in the English press on acts of piracy. Commander Edward Beaks was dismissed from office because of his alleged role in acts of piracy. Of course the Dutch Government did not pay the Saba Governor a salary so the poor man had to find a way to make a living. Besides that his nephew Hiram Beaks was a famous pirate and credited with using the term:” Dead men tell no tales.”

Recently young Ryan Espersen shared with me some of his research in the old newspapers from England at the time from which for this article I will quote some of the things taking place after 1800 here in the West Indies. Also after England declared it illegal to trade in slaves their warships forever had to deal with slave ships of nations like the United States which did not abolish slavery until 1863. Pirates were taking advantage of the slave trade and trying to find a way to get past the warships of England.

Back then Saba and St. Eustatius functioned like one island. Many of the Saban pirates were regular schooner captains who traded between the islands and also carried cargoes to North America. For them it was an easy switch from a respectable schooner captain at home to being a pirate at sea.

In the 1700’s there was much profit to be had from being a pirate. The Oxford Journal of 26 August 1758 gives an idea as to the extent of money involved in the capture of vessels of other nations. We quote from the Oxford Journal: “A according to an account lately published in Holland, the English privateers have taken 21 ships homeward bound to Amsterdam from St. Eustatia and Curacao valued at 3,547,000 Guilders; 35 outward bound, valued at 5,144,000 Guilders; and by the computation of the damage sustained by the pillaging and forcibly taking provisions, &c. from ships belonging to Amsterdam, the amount is calculated at about 439, 191 Guilders more; so that the Town alone has sustained from the English privateers no smaller loss than 9,140,691 Guilders.-By the same account, the inhabitants of Eustatia, by the taking and pillaging of the ships, and small craft belonging to them, have suffered a loss of about 1,059,579 guilders, and those of Curacao 309,684; which two sums added to the above, makes the total loss, from the depredations of the English, no less a sum than 10,509,954 guilders.”

We should explain here that “privateer” means a thief licensed by their governments to prey on ships of other nations with who they may or may not have been at war. Pirates are your regular thieves who were active in stealing any nation’s ships for themselves.

Here follow some items from the newspapers of England at the time:

Leeds Mercury 24 January 1807: “It is stated from St. Kitt’s that two or three small privateers from St. Eustatia did them much mischief and it was feared would harass the trade of that island during the loading of ships… and the “Trio” (Capt. Robertson) from St. Bartholomew’s, was cut out of Sandy Point Bay, on the 5th of December, by a French privateer, and carried to St. Eustatia.

Caledonian Mercury 23 July 1808: “A sloop, laden with 500 barrels of flour, 10,000 shingles, &c. from Halifax to St. Croix was taken 24th May by a French Privateer, and carried into St. Eustatius. The privateer had captured four other vessels.

Morning Post-Friday 4 September 1818

Accounts received from Panama, via Porto-Bellow, state that the insurgent privateers were swarming in the South Sea, and that many valuable captures had been made by them. In fact, such was the vigilance of these cruisers, that even canoes or boats, plying along shore, could not escape their depredations. The brig “St. Jago”, bound from Africa to St. Jago de Cuba, with slaves, arrived not long since off the harbor of St. Bartholomew’s, having been taken possession of by the crew, who had murdered the Captain, Supercargo, and the Officers, and carried her into Saba, where they represented her to be a prize to the Independent squadron of BRION, and protected her with her own guns. The slaves were disposed off at that island, and the mutineers wished to destroy the vessel, but were prevented by a Buenos Aryean Officer, who seized her in the name of his Government, when the crew absconded, some into the mountains, and the remainder proceeded to the Island of St. Thomas.

Curacao July 4.- “While the schooner “Admiral Kikkert” was lying at St. Thomas’s, accounts reached that island, by a launch from Carupano, of BRION having proceeded to Margarita with the transports he had under convoy, where he landed their cargoes of naval and military stores, and again proceeded to sea. A few days after the arrival of the launch from Carupano, a schooner arrived at St. Thomas from St. Bartholomew, the Captain of which stated that on his passage he fell in with the frigate commanded by BRION, and a corvette and a brig, having a large ship, much disabled, in tow, supposed to be a frigate, and also a brig towing a schooner; the whole apparently proceeding towards the Five Islands. GAVASO, who commanded the Spanish squadron lately blockading the Orinoco, has returned to Puerto Cabello.

One of the privateers, which have been off this island for some days past, overhauled on Wednesday last a small schooner, from Coro to this port, to which the privateer’s men behaved politely, and on quitting her, presented the schooner with a bag of bread and some beef.

By an arrival yesterday from St. Eustatia, we learned that a Council of War was held lately on board BRION’s ship, the “Victory”, and the result has been that three officers, belonging to his squadron, were found guilty of having committed acts of piracy and insubordination, and in consequence condemned to be hanged. It is also stated that BERNARD, who formerly commanded the “India Libre”, and who was outlawed by BRION for committing piracy, has been captured between St. Eustatia and Saba.”

The London Standard 19 November 1828: “The accounts from St. Bartholomew’s state that the British brig Aurora, of Liverpool, bound to Jamaica, with an assorted cargo, had been seized by the Governor of Saba, having been sent there by a piratical schooner. One of the crew gave information (if the report is true) of a most diabolical murder of the whole of the British crew and passengers, including two females. The man, who informed, as well as the prize, had disappeared from Saba, and the court of St. Eustatius had awarded one-third of the amount of the vessel and cargo, as salvage, to the Governor of Saba. The Governor of St. Barts would not admit privateers or prize cargoes direct: they are compelled to bring a clearance from another island.

The Governor of Saba at the time was Edward Beaks Sr. His nephew the pirate Hiram Beaks (the one with the established policy of  ‘dead men tell no tales’) around that time is listed as a property owner on St. Barths.

The London Standard – 19 November 1828

–        From Saba the “Victor” sailed on Thursday, and arrived at St. Eustatius on Saturday morning, where during an hour’s stay, Capt. Lloyd and Lieut. Colonel Harper had some communications with the Commandant. About nine o’clock, the “Victor” got under way for this island; and when rather more than halfway across the channel, a schooner was descried full of men, standing for St. Eustatius and exactly answering the description which had been received of the privateer that had captured the brig. On seeing the “Victor”, the schooner hoisted Colombian colors, and when the ship fired to bring her to, she threw out Dutch colors, being very near the land, and put out sweeps to facilitate her escape. Captain Lloyd (although she was completely within range of the Victor’s guns, and a fatal broadside might have been poured into her), in respect to the Dutch flag, permitted her to run into the port, on entering which she hoisted Buenos Ayrean colors, and exhibited a signal, a black S on a white ground, similar to one hoisted on board the “Carraboo” when she lay off St. Eustatius previously before going to Saba.

The Carraboo or Caribou was from Liverpool. It had been captured off Gibraltar by the pirate ship the ‘Damas Argentina’s”. It went first to Statia where two seamen boarded her and conducted her to Saba where she arrived August 13th, 1828 in the Ladder Bay. Part of the cargo was unloaded from her. Governor Edward Beaks tried in vain to get the Captain to come ashore to no avail. He could not even hinder the crew and 8 passengers from coming ashore. Old property records from Saba found on St. Maarten after hurricane Louis has pages of information on this episode of our history.

On the 15th of August 1828, the crew and passengers went in a sloop to St. Bartholomew. Thomas P. Richardson the Acting Commander of St. Eustatius took the pirate ship to St. Eustatius. Her cargo was estimated at twenty thousand pounds. The English authorities demanded the vessel. The “Damas Argentinas” with 21 members of crew was taken to St. Kitts from the harbor of St. Eustatius by an English warship and 15 of them were hanged. The ship had been commissioned in 1826 on St. Thomas and had captured 12 ships in a short time, 2 Spanish, one from the USA, six Portuguese, one English and two French.

Johannes Graaf van den BoschCommissioner General Johannes Graaf van den Bosch in 1828 had been given the order, besides Curacao, to visit the Windward Islands and to give recommendations as to what could be done to develop the islands. Governor Wilhelm J.L. van Raders, of St. Eustatius, Vice Commander Edward Beaks Sr. of Saba and Council President of St. Martin, Diederick van Romondt asked van den Bosch for instructions on how to deal with the pirates. Van den Bosch did not think anything wrong with St. Eustatius and Saba dealing with pirates who would bring their booty for sale here. He actually thought that the taxes raised from this trade would help the islands financially. In 1828 St. Eustatius, once the emporium of the Caribbean and known as the “Golden Rock” had very little trade. They formerly had successfully traded with St. Kitts, Nevis and Antigua which had a combined population of more than one hundred thousand people. In 1822 the harbors of the English islands were all closed again to trade with the Dutch islands. And in 1827 the United States made a deal with Sweden and St. Barths with its fine harbor Gustavia, became a large trade center. Also the Danish island of St. Thomas was a tough competitor for St. Eustatius. On Statia the Dutch introduced extra taxes on goods not imported from Holland, which goods from Holland only consisted of butter (rancid most probably), cheese and Jenever (gin) and that decision was the death knell of the Golden Rock.

In 1829 Holland recognized Columbia as a sovereign nation on condition that it would eliminate piracy. In 1830, on February 11th, Lt. Colonel E. B van den Bosch informed the Governor – General in Paramaribo that piracy here was a thing of the past.  And so it was indeed!

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