In its different variants, a black flag with a skull and crossbones is today synonymous with adventure, almost always linked to literature or cinema. In reality, this is only the romantic image that was given of piracy in the 19th century to exalt the free spirit of those who were not willing to submit to the established order, its laws and its borders.

Of course, the other side of that way of life was much more sinister, full of assaults, kidnappings, crimes… which did not take away its adventurous character nor did it prevent its practitioners from submitting to a common code. And a pirate named Bartolomeu Português would have much to say about it.

Bartolomeu acted, as can be imagined, in the Caribbean and during that Golden Age of piracy that infested that sea between 1620 and 1795 approximately. The first stage of this period, which took place exclusively in the 17th century, was dominated by the buccaneers, a modality that began in the French language and was centred on Hispaniola, the island now divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Map of pirate activity in the Caribbean / Image: Cuaderno de Historia y Geografía

The word buccaneer is a little confusing because originally it did not designate criminals but a group of inhabitants of the northwest of the island -abandoned by the Spaniards- who hunted feral cows and pigs, cutting up their meat to dry it in the sun and smoking it with aromatic woods. The Indians called this process bucan, in reference to the type of grill used, and their product was sold to the ships that anchored in the region because the prices were cheaper than in the ports.

Most of the buccaneers were Welsh colonists from the island of Saint Kitts in the Lesser Antilles, from where they had been expelled in 1629 by Admiral Fadrique de Toledo. Some went into farming and others into buccaneering. As the Spanish crown imposed a rigid commercial monopoly, these people found a trading post on the edge of neighboring Tortuga Island, located just a couple of miles away, prospering enough to establish a social structure.

Tortuga Island, here on a 17th century map, owes its name to its characteristic shape / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The conversion of the buccaneers into pirates was gradual, as the Spanish authorities again unleashed a chase against them to drive them out of Hispaniola, exterminating or capturing the animals with which they maintained their business. This led them to move to Tortuga, where a strange community grew up without laws but governed by a French governor, as it would later happen in Nassau. It didn’t take long for the filibusters that were beginning to operate in those waters to join, as well as delegates from the English government of Jamaica, which was conquered in 1655, offering letters of marque.

By then a Portuguese buccaneer named Bartolomeu had arrived in the Caribbean who, like many other colleagues in the trade, discovered that piracy provided more benefits and required less work. Being an outlaw in the 17th century, we know practically nothing about his previous life: neither his place of birth nor his exact date of birth (presumably around 1635). The only thing that we do know is that he appeared in history in those latitudes in the early 1660s, that he was a devout Catholic – he did not separate himself from a crucifix that hung around his neck – and that in 1663 he received one of the aforementioned Jamaican letters of marque.

In Cuba he had taken over a small four-gun ship, probably a cutter or a sloop, which were the preferred vessels for this activity because their speed allowed them to surprise and reach the large ships weighed down by their cargo, while with their shallow draft they could take refuge from the galleons by going up the river mouths and then hide in the undergrowth by dismantling their only mast. That same year he carried out his first known action: on the Cuban coast he assaulted a Spanish merchant ship carrying one hundred thousand pounds of cocoa and a load of ammunition.

Bartolomeu Português in a 17th century engraving / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

During the following four years, that Portuguese grew in importance and reached a certain status among the members of the Brethren of the Coast. This was an organization that arose in Tortuga that integrated buccaneers and filibusters under a common regulation that, apparently, was created by Bartolomeu. No written document has been preserved from the piracy code, which was adopted by all, and it has only come down to us through oral tradition, so it is not possible to quote a specific number of articles.

We do know how some were clearly libertarian: one man, one vote, without prejudice to nationality, race or religion; suppression of private property; individual freedom, with no obligations or punishment (conflicts would be settled between those involved); exclusion of women (white, of course); and provision of compensation for the injured or disabled. These rules of social coexistence on land were completed with the creation of an executive authority embodied by a governor and a council of elders.

Other pirates, like Bartholomew Roberts, for example, would later add other more specific instructions for life at sea, such as the distribution of the booty by merit and hierarchy, the prohibition of betting money on cards, the obligation to keep weapons in good condition, the banning of women and children on board (although there were exceptions with some female pirates), the personal contribution in cash to a common fund and others that concerned behaviour, both in combat and outside it.

One of the flags used by Bartholomew Roberts; the acronym stands for A Barbadian’s Head and A Martinican’s Head, in allusion to the heads of the governors of Barbados and Martinique, who were chasing him / Image: Orem on Wikimedia Commons

Bartolomeu sailed with impunity through the Caribbean waters, especially along the coast of Campeche (Yucatan Peninsula, today’s Mexico), where the city founded by Francisco de Montejo in 1540 had prospered so much and in such a short time that as early as 1557 it began to receive periodic attacks by pirates and corsairs of various nationalities; some would be as famous as the Englishman Henry Morgan or the Dutchman Cornelius Jol.

However, despite the image that has taken root, the life of the pirate was not so simple. Attacking Campeche and other coastal cities became increasingly dangerous as Spain, aware of the situation, fortified them, so that at a certain point they could only be a target for more or less numerous fleets. Those who acted on their own had to be content with capturing lone merchants, assuming the risk that some, warned of the pirate plague, had been artilled to defend themselves.

Even so, the appearances of Bartolomeu’s small boat were so fast that they always took their victims by surprise and it didn’t take long for another important prey to appear: a Spanish galleon from Maracaibo bound for Havana and loaded again with cocoa… but also with seventy thousand pieces of eight, a type of coin minted in silver and also known as the Spanish dollar that was the most important in the world, to the point that it was used well into the 19th century. The loot was, therefore, a real fortune and it is not strange that the Spanish crew defended it tooth and nail, especially with twenty cannons and twice as many troops as the aggressors… but half of them perished in the end after frustrating two attempts of boarding.

Piece of eight or Spanish silver dollar coined between 1621 and 1665, reigning Philip IV / Image: Centpacrr on Wikimedia Commons

It should be noted that the size of the pirate ship did not allow for too many men on board and it is estimated that there were no more than thirty, of whom one third died in the battle. A small troop if it was to be faced with warships, as was soon to be the case. The idea was to take the captured treasure and ship to Port Royal, then the capital of Jamaica, to deliver the corresponding part; however, strong headwinds diverted the ship’s course towards the Gulf of Mexico… and on the horizon the fearsome silhouettes of three Spanish warships in search of the stolen money were cut out.

The pirate ship now weighed more than normal, had lost its speed and since part of its diminished crew had to take care of the other one as well, the Spaniards quickly shortened the distance and caught up with them. Those twenty corsairs had no chance, being soundly defeated at Cape San Antonio, in the western end of Cuba. Bartolomeu was locked up in one of the three ships, but a storm separated it from the others, and it had to seek refuge in Campeche. There, the prisoner had not left a good memory and, of course, he was recognized, which meant an inexorable fate for him, given his curriculum vitae: hanging.

However, he proved to be as fearless as he was resourceful. Because he had been kept locked up on the ship, he managed to snatch a knife from the watchman that night and stab him. He had a problem, though: the ship was anchored in the middle of the bay and if he wanted to escape he had to jump into the water, but he couldn’t swim (strange as it sounds, this was something that happened to many sailors in the past). The solution he found marks one of the great moments in his eventful biography: he tied a pair of empty wine demijohns around his waist to act as floats, so that he could reach the shore.

Bartolomeu Português’ recreation for a cigarette brand / Imagen: MET on Wikimedia Commons

However, he was in hostile territory and twice over, since on the one hand the Yucatan belonged to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which put him in search and capture, while on the other hand, to reach a port that could transfer him to Port Royal he had to go through the dense Yucatan forest. The latter was the option he chose, thus accomplishing a small feat when crossing, chased by dog patrols, almost two hundred kilometers of exuberant vegetation, wild beasts, mosquitoes, swamps, heat and humidity in a fortnight. But he was successful and reached the other side of the peninsula, a place called El Golfo Triste where French and English pirates used to land, thus being able to embark towards Jamaica.

He still had episodes of interest ahead of him. The first was the unprecedented audacity of hiring a score of men with whom he returned to Campeche to recover his boat. He did not find it. Or maybe he did, but he changed his target as he went, because the other one he had been imprisoned on was anchored in the dock and had part of his precious cargo in the hold: he still had six hundred kilos of cocoa and some seven hundred gold coins. Bartolomeu managed to board it and take possession of it, setting sail and fleeing to the stupefaction of the authorities.

Old map of Port Royal (Jamaica) in 1692; the blank structures were lost in that year’s earthquake / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

But he was unlucky and adverse weather caused him to run aground in the Gardens, as the treacherous reefs surrounding the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth), located in southwestern Cuba, near Pinar del Rio, were known, which Columbus had christened The Evangelist and which is considered to be (or at least one of the candidates) the one described by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel Treasure Island, the one where Jim Hawkins and John Silver travel on La Hispaniola following Captain Flint’s map. There was Treasure, of course, although it went to the bottom of the sea.

Bartolomeu survived the shipwreck, although he was seriously injured. But that did not prevent him from resuming his trade once his convalescence in Port Royal was over. Unfortunately, we have no more news of his travels, except that most of them did not bring him much benefit, hence his nickname of the hapless Pirate.

Some say he died in the earthquake that struck Jamaica in 1692 and others on the same island but before that, in 1669; in both cases he was plunged into absolute poverty. Ironic, considering how immensely rich he was for a few days.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 16, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Bartolomeu Português, el bucanero luso que creó el código de la piratería


Piratas en América. Testimonio de un filibustero francés (Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin) / A gross of pirates. From Alfhild the Shield Maiden to Afweyne the Big Mouth (Terry Breverton) / Piratas, bucaneros, filibusteros y corsarios en América. Perros, mendigos y otros malditos del mar (Manuel Lucena Salmoral) / Piratas y corsarios en Cuba (Saturnino Ulivarri) / Breve historia de los piratas (Silvia Miguens) /Wikipedia

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