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Pirates of the early 19th century

To celebrate the release of my forthcoming book, Atlantic Piracy in the early 19th Century: the Shocking Story of the Pirates and Survivors of the Morning Star, following are a selection of the more notorious pirates of the era, examined in the book. There is one glaring omission: Benito de Soto. He will get his own post shortly!

The 19th century is often considered the dawn of steam ships. Yet steam ships were not making long transoceanic voyages until the 1850s. Until then, sailing ships still ruled the seas and they were lighter, faster and larger than ever before.

There were two big differences for the pirates of the early 19th century from their predecessors in the Caribbean. The first was the rise of the tabloid press in the 1830s. Pirates were right up their alley. As the decades slipped by, pirates began to utilise the media for their own benefit.

The second was the prevalence of phrenology. Many a pirate's head was removed and boiled to reveal how the lumps and bumps of his skull told the story of his criminality.

Roberto Cofresi

Few 19th century pirates have enjoyed a more romanticised legacy than Puerto Rico’s Roberto Cofresi. Sanitised over two centuries into a Robin Hood-type figure, in his home province of Cabo Rojo there are beaches and soccer teams named for him and a bronze statue of him sporting a very impressive six-pack. Sorting the fact from the fiction of Roberto Cofresi is now a very difficult task.

Born on 17 June 1791 into a down-on-their-luck noble family, Cofresi went to work at sea from a very young age. The flames of independence were blowing hard in Spanish America by the time he came of age. Yet Puerto Ricans remained loyal to Spain and fleeing Spanish elites sought refuge on the impoverished island. They bought up land and, by extension, political influence. Their presence de-stabilised the island’s economy and political leadership, plunging its residents even further into poverty. The conditions for piracy soon emerged.

Exactly why Roberto Cofresi turned pirate is not known. He may have been engaged as a Spanish privateer against insurgent governments and decided to expand his operations illegally by attacking neutral (British and American) ships. There is also a theory he sought revenge on Spain for plunging Puerto Ricans into further poverty by attacking its British and American trading partners. Whatever the reason, Roberto Cofresi was a vicious, charismatic and successful pirate captain protected by the Puerto Ricans in his homebase. He terrorised Caribbean shipping in the Mona Passage for several years.

He was eventually captured by American Captain John D Sloat. Brought to trial in Puerto Rico, Cofresi claimed to have killed between 300 and 400 men. He was swiftly convicted and sent to his death. While no-one knows exactly how many people perished at his hands, news reports indicated entire crews of several American ships disappeared. On 29 April 1825, Cofresi was executed by firing squad. According to legend, he refused a blindfold.

Pepe el Mallorcan

The Isle of Pines (today known as Isla de la Juventud) is a curious place. Situated in Batabano Bay on the south side of Cuba, it was first claimed for Spain by Christopher Colombus himself. Yet, despite its steady supply of wood and fresh water, it lay forgotten by Spain for centuries.

This made it an ideal re-supply station for pirates. By the early 19th century, the Isle of Pines was privately owned but still a refuge for those escaping the law.

The story of Pepe el Mallorcan and his schooner La Barca has become one of Spanish legend. From his base at the mouth of the Santa Fe River on the north-eastern coast of the island, Pepe commanded around 40 men. Pepe operated for several years but avoided foreign scrutiny by targeting the small boats of the inhabitants of neighbouring islands and remote settlements in southern Cuba.

One day in 1824, the English sloop Icarus came upon their camp and managed to destroy some of the pirate vessels before escaping to Port Royal to report the incident. From there, the British sought and received permission from the Cuban governor in Havana to destroy Pepe’s operation.

To the Spanish, Pepe fought off the English for a full year. His hand was destroyed when his blunderbuss (a type of gun) burst from shooting so many Englishmen. Out of firepower, he was forced deep into the bush to avoid capture where, ‘they say’, he founded a family and died after many years.

According to the English, Pepe only lasted a day. The story sometimes goes that he was hanged from the main mast of the British captain’s ship. A far more credible account states he did flee into the bush but died from his wounds a few days later.

Another story goes that the English removed his head and triumphantly returned with it to England. In the 1820s, the English had a growing fascination with phrenology: the study of a skull’s surface for evidence of the ‘criminal character’. Severed heads were highly sort after for this purpose. So it’s quite possible this is true.

After all, the head of Pepe el Mallorcan would not be the first severed head of a 19th century pirate to find its way to England.

Today, Isla de la Juventud is a popular tourist destination.


Diablocito was the name the British and Americans gave to a pirate operating out of Matanzas, Cuba in the early 1820s. It translated to “Little Devil” and there is no record of his true identity. It could well have been the name for the entire gang instead.

Diablocito operated by blockading the Matanzas harbour and stalking the large American merchant ships that sat becalmed every morning, waiting for the wind to pick up and whisk them on their way.

Matanzas was not a town for the faint-hearted. Even before pirates like Diablocito emerged there it had a reputation for criminality, violence and drunkenness. Locals had begun raiding ships in the harbour from at least 1821. The Spanish in Cuba attempted to stop them but lacked the naval resources to do so effectively. By February 1823 and the emergence of Diablocito, Matanzas sea captains complained they saw pirates openly walking in the streets.

American merchants based in Matanzas spent over six months of 1823 trying to persuade Commodore David Porter of the American West Indies Squadron to begin calling into Matanzas. Eventually two ships called Gullinipper and Mosquito discovered Diablocito and his gang. They were in the process of fitting their new acquisition Catalini with cannons and were caught unawares. A firefight ensued but Diablocito and his men were overwhelmed. Diablocito was believed killed in action but since no-one knew who he was, no-one could tell for sure.

The Americans’ triumph over Diablocito was hailed as the crowning achievement of their piracy suppression campaign in the West Indies. Unfortunately, it was not the case. The Americans did not endeavour to work collaboratively with the Spanish authorities in Cuba. David Porter was a poor choice of leader, prone to offence and using his position for personal profit. The absence of any diplomacy to back the naval effort from the Americans meant that within a year, pirates and privateers were back to raiding around Matanzas.

Jose Buysan

Jose Buysan of the pirate schooner Las Damas Argentinas was a former Spanish naval officer who became a privateer for Buenos Aires in the Cisplatine War with Brazil in 1826. He legitimately took several Portuguese vessels and a Spanish brig out in the Atlantic Ocean. Then his greed overtook him and over the next two years, he began raiding every ship he encountered, including those owned by neutral British, Dutch and American merchants.

His undoing came when he took the British ship Caraboo in July 1828.

Buysan did not have the stomach for outright murder. Once near the island of Lanzarote (Canary Islands), he ordered the Caraboo occupants and five Frenchmen taken in an earlier raid into the Carraboo’s jolly-boat: with no water, sail, suitable clothing, and a gusting offshore breeze. Fortunately, townspeople on Lanzarote managed to see them and eventually rescued them. As Buysan headed across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, the rescued survivors raised the alarm with the British.

The British were no longer the inept naval force of the Pirates of the Caribbean era. A century later, they were the world’s premier naval power. After several successful years hunting pirates around Cuba in the 1820s, they were now adept at finding and prosecuting them.

At the Caribbean island of St Thomas, Lt Col Thomas Harper of the Royal Navy heard about the Caraboo incident. He quickly organised a ship to investigate. His enquiries revealed Buysan was in nearby St Eustatius organising forgeries of paperwork to sell his plunder. Harper eventually captured Buysan and sent him for trial on St Christopher (St Kitts).

Buysan’s English and American crew quickly turned against him. They testified Buysan knew the Caraboo was British and therefore off-limits. It did them no favours. They were all executed with Buysan.

Charles Gibbs

Today we move to the American pirates of the early 19th century. The US has now been independent from British rule for almost 50 years. The Government is commencing a push into Spanish territory in the West but still struggles to control lawlessness in its newly acquired territories.

The big difference in piracy from the 18th century Caribbean was the rise of a new style of mass-produced newspaper: the tabloid. Pirates were right up their alley. Charles Gibbs, pirate and pathological liar, became the master at exploiting the notoriety the tabloids’ gave him.

Charles Gibbs (born James D Jeffers on 5 November 1798) claimed to have commenced his raiding career as a privateer during the War of 1812. No evidence of this exists. He was definitely active from 1816 when he participated in the mutiny that commenced his pirating career. By 1821, he had accumulated a fleet of four ships and was actively engaged in piracy off Cuba. After a narrow escape from the US Navy destroyed his fleet, he claimed to have returned to privateering on behalf of Argentina. There is no evidence of this either.

He re-emerged around 1825 when he signed on to the brig Vineyard as a legitimate sailor. Before long, he and an accomplice had orchestrated a mutiny, killing the captain and first mate, in an attempt to steal the Vineyard’s cargo of silver. They headed for Long Island, where they abandoned the vessel but lost most of the cargo in the rough waters. They were quickly captured and imprisoned in New York City. Gibbs/Jeffers was convicted of mutiny and murder and executed at Ellis Island on 22 April 1831.

Before he died, Charles Gibbs dictated a series of confessions to eager tabloid reporters. At each session, he fabricated even more elaborate fantasies of his exploits, especially with the ladies. These were published in cheap ‘dime-novels’ and the public lapped them up.

Gibbs never personally profited or benefited from his confessions but they are certainly why he is still known today.

Pedro Gibert and Bernardo de Soto

In 1832, the American merchantman Mexican returned to Boston and reported an attack by pirates near the Azores Islands. The media closely followed the resulting trial of Spaniards Captain Pedro Gibert, his first mate Bernardo de Soto, and the other pirates of the schooner Panda for the attack.

The crux of the defence’s argument was that the capture of the Panda crew for the attack was a case of mistaken identity. Off the West African coast, British Naval Captain Trotter had heard about the attack and decided that a ship he had seen was the culprit. He then proceeded to undertake an extremely bungled intervention that resulted in the Panda and any evidence of a crime being destroyed. However, he eventually managed to capture some of the crew, including Gibert and de Soto, who he befriended on the way back to London. Once there, the surviving Panda crew were extradited to Boston to stand trial.

A spirited defence was mounted. It included the improbability of the Panda intercepting the Mexican at the time of the attack; the absence of any evidence of a piratical motive for Gibert and de Soto; Trotter’s befriending of them; and the inability of the Mexican’s crew to identify any of the Panda crew, except one man named Ruiz.

During the trial, Justice Story received numerous pleas from members of the public attesting to Bernardo de Soto’s good character. Several years earlier, de Soto had facilitated the rescue of the 70 crew and passengers of the shipwrecked Minerva. He had risked his own life to save them and shown all of them great kindness.

Justice Story was greatly moved by the pleas, especially as it emerged that an American ship had ignored the Minerva’s pleas for help. He still convicted the Panda crew but allowed an unusually long time before setting an execution date.

The tabloid press quickly stepped in behind Bernardo de Soto with a campaign for a pardon from President Andrew Jackson. More Minerva passengers emerged to support it. The press gleefully reported how De Soto’s ‘pretty and devoted’ wife came out from Spain to appeal for the pardon. Eventually, it came through.

Gibert, Ruiz and the others were executed protesting their innocence. Bernardo de Soto walked out of prison a free man.

This lasted about five minutes until he was arrested again for unpaid legal fees.

William “Babe” Brown

Babe’s story began on 31 July 1843 when residents of New Bedford, Massachusetts discovered a blood-splattered abandoned schooner called Sarah Lavinia floating in the inlet of the Acushnet River.

The news quickly spread around town, then further afield. A local Rhode Island innkeeper remembered seeing three men landing a small sailing boat near Sakonnet. New York authorities managed to track two of the men, George Matthews and a man calling himself David Babe, to a boarding house where they were arrested and detained.

Under questioning, Matthews and Babe’s stories diverged wildly. Both men agreed the captain and first mate were dead. Babe insisted the men fought constantly and had fallen overboard after an altercation with each other. Matthews said the escaped man, Webster, had decided to mutiny then killed them both. Then he claimed that Babe had killed the only other survivor, the cook. Babe argued he was still alive.

Matthews was acquitted. Babe was convicted of murder and piracy, despite the absence of any real evidence against him, including any bodies. The Sarah Lavinia case would become famous in American law for setting the murder without a body precedent.

The media coverage of Babe’s conviction varied wildly: contempt or sympathy was served in equal portions. Babe sought the help of the sympathetic Tabloid King James Gordon Bennett for his quest for a pardon. Bennett’s support, combined with Babe’s strapping physique and good looks, caught the eye of a young woman called Julia Gardiner Tyler. Julia happened to be the much-younger wife of the President.

Faced with pressure from the country’s most influential newsman AND his wife, President John Tyler issued a stay of execution for Babe. He did this six times but could never quite bring himself to pardon him. This he left to his successor, President James Polk who probably pardoned Babe just to rid himself of the whole affair.

Babe disappeared into history, surfacing briefly in Liverpool after an arrest for disorderly conduct. Bennett’s influence on Presidents only grew.

Alexander Tardy

In the 1830s, scientists and researchers had a fascination with phrenology. Learned people firmly believed that an individual’s poor character and criminality could be determined by the bumps and dents of their skull. This image is a sketch of the skull of Alexander Tardy and comes from a Phrenology Journal article about him.

Tardy was more a serial-killer-on-the-sea than a murderous sea-raider. He was a small, delicate man who never laughed. Yet he was in possession of supreme confidence that allowed him to get away with murdering dozens of people.

For the first decades of his life, he was a respectable, if unsuccessful, merchant. Falling on hard times, Tardy hired himself out as a steward on ships around Boston. When Tardy was onboard, various crew tended to fall ill and often die. Since this was not an uncommon occurrence at the best of times, it took several years before people realised the deaths were deliberate.

Poison was Tardy’s weapon of choice. After suspicions about him began, Tardy pretended to have medical expertise and then ‘treat’ the ill passengers, often encouraging them to leave their possessions to him.

Tardy’s undoing came when he decided to organise a mutiny onboard a ship out of Havana called Crawford. He and three Spanish companions signed on as crew. Within a day, Tardy was insisting the cook use his ‘special seasoning’ on the food. The cook adamantly refused. Tardy then sprinkled the ‘seasoning’ onto everyone’s food himself, saying it was a special pepper from the West Indies. Only the cook scraped it off. Everyone else became horribly ill.

Tardy and his men made their move. They commandeered the Crawford and sailed to Martinique. But Tardy was no pirate captain and his companions had little seafaring experience. He needed the expertise of the Crawford crew to sail the ship back to Boston.

So he nursed the first mate, Dobson back to health. Dobson realised Tardy needed him and slowly gaining his trust. When they finally arrived at Chesapeake Bay, Dobson offered to land in the jolly boat and seek out a pilot to help navigate the ship into port. After some consideration, Tardy agreed.

Dobson immediately raised the alarm. Realising his betrayal, Tardy went to the captain’s cabin and stabbed himself in the throat. The three companions all tried to escape but were swiftly apprehended. They were all prosecuted for piracy and executed.

At some point, Tardy’s head was removed and sent to the Phrenology Society of Washington for examination. It explained everything.

Cornelius Willhelms

Cornelius Willhelms was born on 25 June 1790 at Aalborg in Denmark. His father made a meagre living fishing and selling his catch to vessels sailing from Copenhagen to St Petersburg. Already hardened by his bleak upbringing and his mother’s abandonment, Willhelms grew into a man of morose disposition. At 18, he fell in love with a local girl called Doretta. But she was already attached to another and rejected him. So Willhelms plotted to lure the lovers onto a boat, throw his rival overboard and force himself on Doretta.

After three days at Willhelms mercy, Doretta managed to escape and raise the alarm. Willhelms fled Aalborg on a ship and made his way to St Thomas in the Caribbean. He joined the pirates active there in the 1820s and eventually became a first mate.

He was a vicious and murderous pirate. He would attack and plunder two or three merchant vessels a week. He was also known to capture young women and imprison them onboard for his amusement. He continued as a pirate for at least 15 years until abruptly quitting the business and settling in Havana. There, he seduced the daughter of an English merchant and had to make a swift escape when her father discovered the affair.

He returned to Aalborg briefly but his treatment of Doretta had not been forgotten. Her younger brother vowed his revenge and Willhelms made another hasty escape. Eventually he settled in New Orleans where he ran a very seedy sailor’s tavern for many years. By this time he was in his late 40s and quite wealthy. So he decided to fit out his own ship and return to sea.

But Willhelms had lost his touch. Piracy was now hard work and a younger man’s game. After barely surviving a few brutal raids, Willhelms own vessel was wrecked in the Gulf of Mexico and he lost everything.

To make his way back to New Orleans, Willhelms signed on as a sailor onboard Braganza. He then proceeded to orchestrate a brutal mutiny that ultimately failed. He was captured and convicted of piracy.

On 25 June 1839, Cornelius Willhelms became the second last man to be executed for piracy at Ellis Island. Over 6,000 people witnessed it.

His last words were believed to be ‘I’m ready, let her fly boys!’

Albert Hicks

Last but not least is Albert W Hicks. The last man executed for piracy in the United States, nobody took advantage of their notoriety in the tabloid press more than Albert Hicks.

Hicks was prosecuted and convicted in New York for piracy and the murder of the three other crewmen onboard the oyster sloop E A Johnson. The murders caused a media sensation, aided by Hicks’ protestations of innocence. The New York Times and the New York Herald provided detailed daily coverage of his five day trial. Since several witnesses placed Hicks at the scene, the jury took a mere seven minutes to convict him.

A month before he was due to die, Hicks dramatically confessed. First, he confessed only to the E A Johnson murders in the press. Over the next month, he devised an expanded confession that involved an elaborate adventure story based on raiding and plundering in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for twenty years without detection. His intentions were actually noble: he sought to provide an income stream for his wife and child after his death.

Hicks engaged a US Marshal to record his story while in prison. He proved a master storyteller. He filled the narrative with mutinies, raids, murders, piracy, buried treasure, highway robberies, Californian gold heists, great wealth lost to gambling and carousing, chivalrous acts towards women, hurricanes, and not one but two sole-survivor shipwreck stories. According to the New York Times it was a ‘series of adventures almost too numerous to mention’.

Hicks’ stories were so outlandish the Times dismissed them outright as completely falsified. The US Marshal swore an oath he had recorded everything Hicks had said. When we drill down into his stories, there are elements of truth. His purported sequence of events holds up chronologically. The ships Hicks mentioned were real ships, including those involved in shipwrecks. The people he mentioned were real and verifiably in the locations he said they were.

Exactly how much of his story was true can never really be ascertained. But it was published posthumously as a dime novel and is still available online today.

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