OUR NAVY AND THE WEST INDIAN PIRATES: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY
By Rear Admiral Caspar F. Goodrich, U. S. Navy
Porter made his headquarters at Key West (Thompson Island) or Allenton, as the settlement was then called, a central and commanding position from which to direct his operations. Early in March, he appeared off Porto Rico, his object being to secure the co-operation of the local authorities, and with that end in view, on March 4th, he dispatched the Greyhound, Master-Commandant John Porter, with a letter to the Governor of Porto Rico. Not getting a prompt reply, he sent the Fox, Lieutenant W. H. Cocke, into the harbor to inquire about the governor's answer. As the Fox was standing into the port a shot was fired over her from the fort, and as she did not immediately heave to another shot was fired, which killed Lieutenant Cocke. The fort followed this up with four other shot, when the Fox came to anchor under its guns. On making an inquiry, Captain Porter was informed that the governor, was absent and had left orders to the commander of the fort to allow no suspicious vessels to enter, and it was in pursuance of this order that the Fox had been fired upon. It was the general belief of the American officers that the act was a retaliation for the capture of the Palmira. The matter was reported to the Government, but nothing further was done.
On March 1 of this year, the brig Bellisarius was boarded and robbed by pirates,* and the experience of those on board corroborates Commodore Porter's reference to the atrocities committed by these marauders upon any unfortunates who happened to fall into their hands. Porter writes to the Secretary of the Navy, as follows:
U.S. Ship Peacock
Matanzas, 28th March 1823.
I have the honor to inform you that I arrived here on the 26th after giving to the North Coasts of St. Domingo and Cuba as thorough an examination as was practicable with the two Schooners and the Boats of this ship with the greater part of her crew while all the Keys off shore pointed out to me as the rendezvous of Pirates were examined by the Ship.
The service has been very fatiguing to those employed for more than a week past in open boats and in the most dangerous and intricate navigation in the World, but it has been performed cheerfully, and I wish I could say successfully, but we have not in this long route been able to detect a Single Pirate, although our suspicions rested on many, nor can I conceive how we shall ever be able to detect them, for they are one day fishermen, another droguers, wood cutters, salt gatherers, or Pirates, as best suits them. Every Spaniard is armed with a Knife, and this weapon according to their mode of warfare is enough for them. Were we to apprehend every suspicious Spaniard and Vessel, their coasting trade would soon be entirely broken up.
Since my arrival here I have heard of the most horrid atrocities committed by them. They now spare no one, whole Ships Crews are indiscriminately burnt with their Vessels, and there has been an instance recently of the murder of a crew under the walls of the Morro.
Five piratical Vessels have for some Weeks been watching the fleet, in the Bay which I shall cause to be examined, and since our arrival as you will find by the enclosed copy of a note from a highly respectable source, they have dispersed and disarmed.
I was surprised to learn on my arrival here that circulars had been written by the Captain General to the Governors and Commanders of the different districts of the Island, forbidding the entrance of my squadron into any of its ports, or the landing of any part of my forces in pursuit of Pirates. The Island appears at Present in a very agitated state and the Government appear to think that the United States would consider it a very desirable acquisition. I shall use every means in my power to satisfy them that my objects are totally unconnected with any thing of a Political nature.
All Vessels ordered under my command, 1 beg may be directed to report to me at Thompson's Island.
I have the Honor to be
Very Respectfully Your
Hon. Smith Thompson
Secretary of the Navy
P. S. Since writing the above I have heard of a pirate to norward and have dispatched the two schooners and boats after her. I shall know the result of the expedition in the course of a few hours and have good reason to believe it will prove successful.
It is evident that Porter's business was not to be facilitated by the Spanish authorities upon whom must rest the responsibility for the long continuance of piratical depredations. After making all due allowance for the admitted claim to proper recognition of their dignity, there still remains the conviction that either through complicity or punctilio, they refrained from doing for themselves, or permitting others to do in their stead, what was imperatively necessary to put a stop to the nefarious traffic with its accompaniment of cruelty and murder. That such affairs as the following should occur so close to the palace of the captain general should not have been possible:
April 7—The brig Gossypium, Toscan, of Gloucester, was boarded near Havana by a piratical schooner. The crew were beaten in an unmerciful manner, and the captain and one man hung till they were apparently dead. They then robbed the vessel and left her to pursue her course.
Still more outrageous in itself, and a great reflection on Spanish authority, is this:
Two American vessels, the Lady's Delight, of Baltimore, and the Lively, of Philadelphia, both lying in the port of Nuevitas, Cuba, within the fort, were plundered and carried off by a piratical schooner called the Saragosana, on the 10th of February. The masters and crews of those vessels, after much bad treatment, were suffered to go on shore, destitute of everything.
The pirates were not suffered to ply their trade in peace. A portion of Porter's force, under Captain Cassin, stationed off the northern coasts of Cuba and San Domingo, was not slow in effecting a notable capture.
Late Piratical Schooner "Pilot,"
Off Havana, April 8th, 1823.
In obedience to your orders I proceeded at ½ past 7 o'clock last evening with the Barges Gallinipper and Musquito to examine the coast to windward as high up as Escondido for pirates. In consequence of the lightness of the wind we were compelled to make use of our oars most of the time. This morning at daylight several small sail were in sight. We boarded a number and found them coasters. At 7 A. M. discovered a schooner about three miles to the Eastward, of a suspicious appearance, and immediately gave chase, the stranger apparently full of men and sweeping in shore. At 8: 15 fired two muskets to bring the chase too, on tiring the second gun; she commenced firing with round and grape and musketry. We returned it with our muskets, at the same time making every exertion to get alongside of her. At 8: 30 the schooner succeeded in gaining shore. In an instant we were on board of her and succeeded in getting on shore. We however secured one man, and found two of her crew killed, one on board, the other on shore. We have every reason however to believe that several were wounded. I landed the marines with some of the seamen, but the thickness of the underwood rendered it imprudent to pursue them. We succeeded in getting off the schooner (late the Pilot of Norfolk) without her sustaining any material injury. I am happy to state that not one of our men have been injured; this I consider the more remarkable and providential as the Pirates had every advantage in being in a large vessel, where he could load and fire with quickness and certainty. It may be proper to mention that the schooner on commencing her fire hoisted Spanish colours. The armament consisted of one double fortified six pounder, 23 muskets, 21 blunderbusses, 10 pistols, 6 fowling pieces, 1 swivel blunderbuss, with a number of cane knives, swords and dirks. From the prisoner I have ascertained that her complement consisted of thirty-six men…
I have the honor to be, Sir,
Respectfully yours, &c,
C. K. Stribling
To Captain S. Cassin,
Commanding the Division of Schooners and Barges.
Additional details are contained in a letter from an officer to a friend in Washington, dated at Havana, April 9, 1823:
We captured a piratical schooner called the Pilot yesterday morning about 8 o'clock about 20 M. castw. of Havana—2 cutters—15 minutes. We killed 2, wounded several; one prisoner. Pursued them to the woods with marines and sailors. One killed on beach, etc. Boats commanded by Lieut. Stribbling. 36 men on board the P.
Stribling, by the way, was attached to the Peacock, from which vessel Captain Cassin had dispatched the two barges.
April 11—The brig Tropic, Stevens, of Boston, was taken by pirates in Campeachy Bay: afterwards retaken by H. B. M. sloop of war Tamar.
This is chiefly interesting in showing that British cruisers were also active in West Indian waters at this time.
While exact details are lacking, the following notice indicates that Porter started his work in a systematic manner and that the pirates were, generally speaking, in hiding, however ready on favorable occasions to dash out after their prey:
Commodore Porter, in the Peacock, reached Matanzas about the 26th of March. He had divided his light squadron into four parts, to scour the coasts. The Peacock and two of the schooners had "left no hole or corner unsearched" for the distance of 300 miles—under severe duty, but without success. Several vessels of a suspicious character had been fallen in with, but nothing sufficient appeared to justify their detention. The pirates change their shapes daily. Their depredations are spoken of as horrible—whole ships' crews are often murdered by them. A letter says—" We were surprised to hear, on our arrival, that the governor of the island, (Cuba) had given orders to all the governors and commandants of districts, forbidding our entrance into any of the ports. It is to be hoped we may have no difficulty with them; but, if we do, the fault will not be on our side."
There was a fleet of American vessels at Matanzas, waiting for convoy; some had been ready for sea for twenty days—there was not a vessel on the coast to protect them. Com. Porter's presence secured it to them.
Some one in Philadelphia, who has kept a list of piratical acts since the cessation of hostilities in 1815, makes them amount to three thousand and two.
In view of subsequent events, Porter's optimism seems a trifle premature; still, great success had attended the first month's
U.S. Steam Galliot "Sea Gull"
Matanzas, April 24, 1823.
In my last I informed you that I had dispatched the Barges to examine a Bay to windward of Point Yeacos, and having intelligence of three piratical Schooners in the River Palmas, I left this place on the 19th joined the Barges next day near Key Blanco, and after a laborious search of two days, discovered the River, where we found the remains of the vessels which the Pirates had burnt, evidently, a short time before our arrival there, I consequently returned to this place, sending three of the Barges along the coast to Havanna, to which place I shall proceed, after giving convoy to the vessels in this place, having found it necessary to send the two vessels employed here on this service to Thompson's Island to refit.
I believe sir I can now say with safety, that there is not a pirate afloat on this part of the Coast of Cuba larger than an open boat, and even that is doubtful; the Saragosiana in her flight from here, having been taken by two British Sloops of war at the East end of the Island.
I have the honor to be
Your very Obt. Servt.
Honorable Smith Thompson
Captain Cassin's letter, next quoted, describes in brief official terms the nature of the work assigned him and creditably executed:
U.S. Ship Peacock
Thompson’s Island, April 28, 1823.
Sir: I had the pleasure to inform you, by a sloop from the Havana, bound to this place, on the 10th instant, of the successful beginning of my cruise, by the capture of the piratical schooner Pilot. After having shewn the Pilot in Havana, and obtained a small quantity of water, I proceeded with the division to Cayo Blanco." We entered within the reef, and proceeded westward, making an average of about twenty miles per day, leaving no bay, inlet, or suspicious place, unexplored. On the 16th, a sloop boat was observed standing to the eastward. The Musquito was ordered in chase; the sloop directly altered her course for the land, was run on shore, and abandoned by her crew, who escaped into the bushes. She was found to have arms of different descriptions, shot, and other articles of a suspicious nature, which satisfied me of her piratical character; and I took possession, with an intention to destroy her, as she was rotten, and an encumbrance to us.
At 10 A. M. on the same day, we anchored in a noted harbor for pirates, intending to examine it thoroughly. Our anchor was scarcely gone, before a felucca was discovered standing out for the Gallinipper, who was ahead, sounding. On opening our vessels, she immediately hauled down her sails, and pulled around the point of an island. The barges were ordered in chase, accompanied by all the boats we could muster. On their getting to where the felucca had disappeared, several houses were discovered, and a number of men busily employed carrying things from them, and, at the moment, were supposed to be fishermen. It was some time before the felucca was discovered, and, when found, was dismantled and covered with bushes, hastily thrown over.
When the pirates (which they proved to be) found she was discovered, they fired a volley of musketry at our boats, which fortunately proved harmless. The officers and crews immediately landed, and pursued them through the bushes, when a running fight of more than half a mile took place, the pirates frequently turning, for a moment, and firing, which was returned occasionally, but without effect, from the eagerness with which they were pursued. So closely were they pressed, that they threw off shoes, clothes, and other encumbrances; but, from the thickness of the bushes, and knowledge of their path, all made their escape. Their establishment, which consisted of five houses, was set on fire, and the felucca brought off. She is a fine boat, coppered, pulls sixteen sweeps, and is, in every respect, equal to any of our barges. She appears to have been recently fitted, and, I presume, was on the eve of making her first cruise. The old boat, which was taken in the morning, I gave to a fisherman, who was serviceable to us as a pilot, she being an encumbrance.
On the 17th, we proceeded, examining all places very minutely; and, from the intricacy of the navigation, did not arrive at Cape St. Anthony until the 21st. From the moment we passed within the reef, until getting to the cape, we were obliged to keep the barges ahead, sounding. The vessels were all trimmed by the head, and every precaution taken, yet we frequently grounded. Many places, for several miles, we found only seven feet water, and frequently less than six, when we were obliged to run out anchors, and heave through the mud. I learnt, on the same passage, from the fishermen, that the English attempted the same, but succeeded only part of the way. I also found the British sloop Scout cruising off the cape, from the commander of which we learnt they had numbers cruising in that quarter, and on the south side.
The passage within the Colerados, from the beginning to end, I found extremely intricate, but I am much gratified by knowing we are the first who accomplished it. We suffered much for water, and the small quantity we were enabled to obtain, was such as I apprehended would create disease amongst us. And, for the successful termination of the cruise, I tender to lieutenants-commandant Stephens and Valette, lieutenant Stribling, and their officers, my sincere thanks.
I have the honor to be,
Very respectfully, &c.
Commodore David Porter
Commanding U. S. Naval Forces in the West Indies.
While our cruisers were busy along the north shore of Cuba, an American vessel was taken on the other side of the island:
May 5—The brig Reuben and Eliza, Harris, of Norfolk, was taken off the Isle of Pines, by a piratical schooner. The mate and four of the crew escaped in boats.
Notwithstanding this mishap, occurring very nearly at the time of his writing, Commodore Porter was justified in his comments on the satisfactory character of the situation.
U.S. Galliot "Sea Gull"
Allenton Thompson’s Island May 10th, 1823.
Since I last had the honour to address you, I have returned to this place, with the Sea Gull and barges, and found here captain Cassin, with the schooners and barges that accompanied him.
Our last cruise has been altogether a most anxious and fatiguing one; and although we have not many trophies to show, it has not been without effect. The result has been the capture of a Piratical Schooner and a very fine Felucca, the destruction of one on shore, the Burning of three Schooners in the Rio Palmas and about a dozen of their Houses in the different establishments to leeward of Bahia Honda and inside the Colerados Reef, the complete dispersion of all their gangs from Rio Palmas to Cape Antonio, and what will be of no little importance in all our future operations, a most thorough and intimate acquaintance with the whole line of coast from Cayo Blanco to the East, down to Cape Antonio to the West. We have taken only one Prisoner, and I shall endeavor to use such information as I can squeeze out of him to advantage.
I shall dispatch the Peacock to day for La Vera Cruz to relieve the Shark and shall now be left with only my small vessels, two of which, with two Barges (which I have found great difficulty in mailing from the Sea Gull and Store Ship) I shall send off this evening under the command of Lieut. Comdt. Watson on an expedition among the Keys in the old Straights, and thence around the Island, to return by the way of Cape Antonio.
Two Schooners under Lieut. Comdt. Rose are making the circuit by the other route, commencing at Point Yeacos, going round Cape Antonio and returning by the Old Straights, two under command of Lieut. Comdt. Skinner are convoying from Havanna, and the remaining two are careening and will in a few days sail for the protection of our commerce and the three remaining Barges are hauled up for the want of men.
When I left Matanzas, the country was alarmed by large bands of robbers, well mounted and armed, who had plundered several estates, and committed some murders in the neighborhood of the city. Bodies of horse had been sent in pursuit of them, and the militia were all under arms; some prisoners had been taken, and it was said that those bands were composed of the freebooters which lately infested the coast, and who, being compelled to abandon the ocean, had taken up this new line of business.
I have the Honor to be
Your Very Obdt. Servt.
Honbl. Secretary of the Navy
On the 15th of April, as already mentioned, Patterson had given orders to Gregory, in the Grampus, to go to the Bay of Campeche and round up those pirates who had attacked the American ship Bellisarius, robbing her and murdering the captain and the cook. Gregory carried out his orders from Patterson with his accustomed energy, engaging two vessels near Campeche. One he drove on shore; the other he seized and turned over to the local authorities. He made his official report to Commodore Porter:
U.S. Sch. "Grampus," Thompson Isd.
July 3d, 1823.
I have the honor to inform you, that this vessel sailed from the Balise, on the 24th. April, with a convoy for Tabasco, where she arrived on the 1st. May—sailed thence again on the 6th. with a convoy towards Vera Cruz parted with the convoy on the 9th, and arrived at Campeachy on the 13th., where I received information, of several piracies committed upon the merchant vessels of the U. S.; and that the coast of Yucatan, from Cape Catouche, to Lagoona was then infested by several gangs of pirates, who had been guilty of every atrocity imaginable; finding there were a very considerable number of Merchant ships at the several ports upon that coast unprotected, and others arriving almost daily, I continued thereabouts until the 25th June scouring the coast, up and down, and occasionally, when any information was had, which offered the least chance of detecting those villains, the boats were employed, and sometimes were sent along the coast 20, and 30 leagues from the vessel: On the 22d. May I chased a schooner on shore, to windward of Siral [Sisal?] which I have no doubt was a pirate, from his appearance and conduct: as it was in the night, and upon a part of the coast where I was not sufficiently acquainted, and blowing fresh upon the shore, I had not an opportunity of completing his destruction: on the 11th. June, I seized a suspicious vessel in the harbour of Campeachy, and resigned her to the authorities there upon that account. This last vessel had just come from New Malaga, or Virgia de Chiguila, a little to the westward of Cape Catouche, where the pirates have a very considerable establishment and came down Campeachy for purpose of procuring stores for a vessel then preparing for a cruise. Two seamen who had been held as prisoners at N. Malaga, informed me that this gang were sometimes a hundred and upwards in number, that they held possession of a small fort having two twenty four pounders; and that an officer named Molla, who had been placed there by the Government had joined them, this was corroborated by the authorities at Campeachy—who requested me to land and destroy the place. The pirates issue from their post in barges, small vessels, and in canoes; hover along the shores, enter the harbour murder and destroy almost all that fall in their power: on the 2nd. June the American Schr. Shibbolet, Capt. Perry, of N. Y. being then ready for sea, was boarded by a canoe having fourteen of these villains on board; the watch was instantly murdered eight others of the crew, were put in the forecastle, the hatch spiked down, a ton or more of Logwood put over it: the head sails set— with the wind off shore—and fire put to the vessel in the cabin—by the most extraordinary exertion, these now broke out, in time to save their lives. I arrived while the vessel was burning down. The same canoe then proceeded to windward and two days afterwards, took the Schr. Augustus and John off Sisal—and burnt her, having turned the crew adrift in a small boat—with every probability of their perishing. The people of the country were much exasperated, and turned out to hunt them from their shores—a party of Dragoons having met them, a skirmish insured, wherein the Captain of Dragoons, and several of his men were killed, and the pirates taking to their boats escaped—one of the seamen, I mentioned, as having been amongst them stated that he belonged to an English Sch. from N Providence called the Flyer, that the crew with the exception of himself were instantly butchered—he was detained by them about two Mo[nths] during which time they had captured nine vessels, some of which were brought in, but the principal part destroyed, and in some instances he was certain that the whole crew were murdered—when he left the place (about twenty days since) they had a Guinaman with two hundred slaves and a large quantity of Ivory two small schooners, Americans, and an English cutter [hiatus in MS.] informed me that pirates had a direct and uninterrupted intercourse with Havanna, by means of small coasting vessels that ran regularly to the ports on the coast, and always touched at N. Malaga— frequently some of them would go up to the Havanna, and others of the gang came down—That this infernal horde of villains have established themselves at N. Malaga I have no doubt, and from the information given me by men of the first respectability at Campeachy. Siral, and other places on that coast, I believe the pirates have been guilty of all the acts herein stated.
I have the Honor to be
Your Mo. Ob. Ser.
Lt. Comd. U. S. N. Comd. David Porter
Comg. U. S. N. forces
W I. Station.
It was perhaps somewhat early to sound a paean of victory over Porter's remark quoted below; still the fact of great success on his part is patent, no less than the menace to the population of Cuba through the driving of these marauders off the sea:
A letter from Allentown details the operations of the light squadron in scouring the coasts of Cuba, and affording convoys. The duty is a most severe one, but it has been effectually performed. "It is not believed that a single pirate is to be found between Point Yacos and cape Antonio." Excluded from the ocean, they are carrying on their trade on the land. Large bodies of them, well mounted and armed, are plundering the plantations and murdering the people of Cuba. They abound in the neighborhood of Matanzas. A party of cavalry had captured five of them, and the militia had been turned out to scour the country. If hemmed in much longer by com. Porter, the authorities of Cuba, in self-defence, must exterminate them, if they do not abandon their horrible business. Not one piracy has been lately committed.
Porter's general view of the situation is thus revealed:
A private letter from the commodore, dated on board the Sea Gull, June 11th, says—"I keep every one very busy; and, although the service has been severe and some are very sick of it, I have good reason for believing, that all who leave my command will do it with a desire to return to it whenever their services may be wanted. The fact is, that the disappearance of all the pirates, and our want of success in catching the rascals is somewhat discouraging to us; but all are satisfied that our failure was owing to other causes than a want of exertion on our part. The fact is, our enemy is an invisible one: he has only to throw on the fairy mantle of a Spanish passport, which they all go furnished with, and the pirate is completely concealed from our view.
Piracy is now down on this side of the island, and I hope soon to give as good an account of the other side. A pirate has, however, appeared there, and made two captures lately—but the most of the pack, the Greyhound, the Terrier, Ferret Weazle, Fox and two barges are in full pursuit; if he escapes he must have good luck.
There has not been a single act of piracy committed here since I came on the coast, and the above is the only one I can hear of on the south side, which we have left pretty much to the British…
The newspapers at home were convinced of the good effect of Porter's operations and, in sympathy with him, spoke of some of the obstacles placed in his path by local Cuban officials: One of them says that, as a result of his work, "it appears that many of the pirates, finding their trade at an end, have entered into the kindred business of the slave trade." Porter complained to the captain general that the commanders of certain districts refused to permit his vessels to enter the small ports, which he understood from them was in consequence of orders from the captain general. The commanders had lied, for the captain general, on May 10, had issued a circular that "whenever this [P's] squadron may arrive and present itself to the constituted authorities, they must afford it every aid which may be compatible with the territorial privileges and respect. Signed Francisco Dionisio Vives."
It was just prior to the writing of Porter's letter of June 11 (previously quoted) that the following outrages occurred, although not near the scene of the commodore's operations:
American schooner Harriot plundered in May by Spanish privateer Prudente, Captain Renshaw.
June 2—the schooner Shibboleth, Perry, of Newport, was cut out of Campeachy in the night and burned by the pirates. One man was murdered, the remainder escaped.
June 4—the schooner Augustus and John, of Catskill, was cut out in the night by pirates.
The vessels mentioned in the following newspaper rumor have not been identified. The concluding paragraph is of special significance, and it was purely gratuitous to attribute to pirates a row which is of frequent occurrence in all ports of the world:
Two or three vessels are reported as having been lately captured by the pirates on the south side of Cuba—and it was feared that the crew of one of them had been murdered. The late master of one of the captured vessels had reached Havana. Several vessels of com. Porter's squadron immediately sailed in quest of the offenders. It was rumored that a large piratical schooner was cruising off Campeachy, at the latter end of last month.
An affray took place at Matanzas on the 26th of last month, between certain Spaniards who were supposed to have been engaged in piracy, and the Americans who happened to be on shore. The latter were much outnumbered and severely beaten, but it is not stated that any were killed. One account says that this affair took place in consequence of the bad behavior of an American sailor, in a state of intoxication.
On June 19, near Matanzas, the schooner Ferret, Lieutenant T. M. Newell, raised and carried off two launches, and on July 12, the same schooner captured five cannon hidden in a mangrove swamp in the Artigos River.
Newell's report to his commander-in-chief gives the details of the first-mentioned episode:
United States Schooner "Ferret,"
Thompson Island, June 25, 1823.
Pursuant to your instructions, I left this place on the 14th inst. on a cruise to Trinnadad on the south side of Cuba in company with the Beagle, Capt. Newton. On the second day we parted company and on the third day I made the Havanna (on my way to Matanzas) from thence I commenced a diligent search in all the by ports and bays, on Tuesday sending a boat into Canise and obtained information that some Pirates were still lerking about the coast. During the night I kept close in with the land & on Wednesday at 10 A. M. discovered an armed barge with 16 oars and well manned, in a small bay called Bacuna Yeanga. I immediately sent Lieut. Doming with five men the most any boat could carry, to examine all the boats, there being seven in number; he approached within fifty yards of the barge when the crew shew their character, by opening a fire on him with musketry & blunderbusses, which fortunately did no other damage than nearly to sink the boat, she having received a ball at the water edge, five others were found in the boat, which being nearly spent had struck the water & innocently. jumped into her, my boat at no time was suitable for the transportation of men & now rendered useless, induced me to take possession of a small coaster that was near & man her with fifteen men & at that time intended to stand in if possible with the Ferret in order to cover the men while they took possession of the barge which then had the American colours union down, but on approaching found that the channel would not admit of my entering, it then blowing very hard and a heavy sea on, I deemed it proper to recall the coaster which had liked to have gotten ashore, for had that catastrophe occurred, I question much whether the pirates would have had the gratification of butchering them, as they certainly would have been drown'd—the sea was then breaking with great violence over the reef that covered the bay. I was then compelled to resort to making tacks close in with the reef, and giving them long torn with round & grape, in hopes to destroy the boats. As to killing any of them it was impossible, for on the approach of the Ferret they would completely secure themselves behind the rocks & trees which hung all around the harbour, but this I was frustrated in by the enormous roughness of the sea, and the wind being on shore, prevented me from taking any position from which I could annoy them much, finding it impossible to do anything with the means then in my power, I stood out to sea in hopes to fall in with some vessel from which I could get available boat (but I am sorry to say that it was not until the next morning that my wishes were obtained) & if that could not be done to push to Matanzas, to concoct a plan with the governor by which the pirates as well as their boats may be taken. I however obtained a boat from an English vessel, & immediately bore up for the same place which was then but a short distance off. I had not run but a short time when I discovered a Spanish brig of war lying too off the bay, which proved to be the Matas, on the report being sent to the Governor of Matanzas that one of the U. S. Schooners were engaged with the Pirates, he dispatched this brig and at the same time took with him a land force and had arrived there a few minutes before me, and had taken possession of a small schooner boat the Pirates had abandoned and which lay on the beach. I sent in my boat after he had left, and ordered a search, when two of the boats I had seen the day I attacked them, where found sunk well up a lagoon, which upon further examination extended several miles into the island, and have no doubt but that the large barge is now at the head of it, but not being prepared with boats I did not think it proper to send my boats out of [reach?] of the Ferret. The two boats I have brought over and shall await your orders relative thereto.
On my arrival at Matansas I found my main mast very dangerously sprung, which made it necessary for me to return home, but not until I had given convoy to eight of our merchantmen, from Matansas & Havana.
I have the honor to be
Your Obt. Svt.
Thos. M. Newell
Comer. David Porter
Commander of the U. S. Naval forces West India Station.
For the affair near Sagua la Grande, about 150 miles east of Havana, we are fortunate enough to have full official reports:
"Sea Gull," Allenton
Thompson’s Island, July 17, 1823.
Sir: It is with infinite satisfaction I do myself the honor to lay before you, lieut. commandant Watson's official report" of the almost total annihilation of the crews of two piratical vessels, by the two barges, Gallinipper and Musquito, under his command.
When we take into consideration the immense superiority of force opposed to him, the advantage and preparation on the part of the pirates, and the result of the action, we cannot but be impressed with the conviction, that nothing less than providential influence and protection could have occasioned consequences so fatal to the pirates, and so exempt from injury on our side, as to appear almost miraculous.
The five surviving pirates, being desperately wounded, I have, in compliment to the favorable disposition and zealous co-operation of the authorities of Havana, sent to the captain-general of Cuba, to be tried by the laws of Spain. Enclosed is a copy of my letter to him on the subject.
I cannot close this communication without expressing a hope, that the brilliant success of lieut. com. Watson, and his excellent character as an officer and a man, may induce the department to promote him to a higher grade, as the most suitable reward for his services.
I have the honor to be, with great respect,
Your obedient servant,
Hon. Secretary of the Navy
Commodore Porter's letter to Governor General Vives, referred to above, needs citing:
U.S. Galliot "Sea Gull," Allenton
Thompson’s Island, July 13, 1823.
To his excellency don Francisco Dionisio Vives, capt. general of the Island of Cuba and its dependencies.
Your Excellency: With a full confidence that they will be brought to condign punishment, I send you, to be tried by the laws of Spain, five pirates, taken on board two piratical vessels by two of the barges of my squadron. I also send, by the same conveyance, two men, making part of the original crew of one of the vessels when she fell into the hands of the pirates.
The witnesses being on the spot, will enable you to make the punishment prompt, and the example, I have no doubt, will be highly salutary. With sentiments of the highest respect, I have the honor to be,
Your excellency's very obedient humble servant,
D. Porter, Commanding U. S. naval forces in the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico.
Watson's report on the capture of these pirates (mentioned by Porter in his letter of July 17 to the Secretary of the Navy) is
U.S. Galliot "Sea Gull," Allenton
Thompson’s Island July 11, 1823.
Sir: Having had the honor to report the circumstances attending the cruise of the division under my orders, prior to our separation off St. John de los Remedios, I have now to communicate, for your information, my subsequent proceedings in the barges Gallinipper and Musquito.
After a strict examination of the coast and islands, from Cayo Francis to Cayo Blanco, in the vicinity of Point Hycacos" whilst cruising in Siguapa Bay, we discovered a large top-sail schooner, with a launch in company, working up to an anchorage, at which several merchant vessels were lying. Being to windward, I bore up with the Gallinipper, for the purpose of ascertaining their characters, and when within gun-shot, perceiving the large vessel to be well armed, and her deck filled with men, I hoisted our colors; on seeing which, they displayed the Spanish flag, and the schooner, having brailed up her fore sail, commenced firing at the Gallinipper. I immediately kept away, and ran down upon her weather quarter, making signal, at the same time, for the Musquito to close; having much the advantage in sailing, they did not permit us to do so, but made all sail before the wind, for the village of Siguapa, to which place we pursued them, and, after short action, succeeded in taking both vessels, and effecting the almost total destruction of their crews, amounting, as nearly as could be ascertained at the time, to 50 or 60 men, but, as we are since informed, to 70 or 80. They engaged us without colors of any description, having hauled down the Spanish flag after firing the first gun; and, on approaching to board, (our men giving three cheers, and discharging their muskets), the pirates fled precipitately, some to their launch, (lying in shore, from whence a fire was still kept up), whilst others endeavored to escape by swimming to the land. A volley of musketry, directed at the launch, completed their disorder, and drove them into the sea; but the boats going rapidly through the water, cut off their retreat, with the exception of fifteen—eleven of whom were either killed or desperately wounded, and taken prisoners by our men, who landed in pursuit: and the remaining four apprehended by the local authorities, and sent to Matanzas. The larger vessel was called the Catalina, commanded by the celebrated pirate Diaboleta, taken some weeks since from the Spaniards, between Havana and Matanzas, carried to Siguapa Bay, where she received her armament; had captured nothing, this being the commencement of her piratical cruise.
I cannot close this communication without performing a most pleasing task in reporting the active gallantry and good CQnduct of my officers and men, none of whom sustained the slightest injury in the action, the result of which, I trust, is sufficient to satisfy you that all under my orders did their duty, particularly when it is considered that we had but twenty six men, opposed to a force of piratical vessels, well supplied with arms of all kinds, amongst which was one long nine and two six pounders. I have much pleasure in naming, as my associates, lieut. Inman, acting sailing master Bainbridge, Dr. Babbit, midshipmen Harwood and Taylor; and Messrs. Webb and Grice, who obeyed and executed all orders and signals with a promptitude and zeal which could not be exceeded.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
Com. D. Porter, commanding U. S. naval forces in the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico.
A more graphic, not to say lurid account of this affair is the following:
We have, almost every day, heard of something that evidenced the activity of com. Porter and the officers and men under his command; but as yet, their industry and zeal was rather shewn in the suppression of piracy than the punishment of it: at last, however, an opportunity has offered for inflicting the latter, as detailed in the following letter, published in the National Intelligencer, dated Matanzas, July 10—"I have the pleasure of informing you of a brilliant achievement obtained against the pirates on the 5th inst. by two barges attached to commodore Porter’s squadron, the Gallinipper lieut. Watson, 18 men, and the Musquito lieut. Inman, 10 men. The barges were returning from a cruise to windward; when they were near Jiguapa bay, 13 leagues to windward of this port, they entered it—it being a rendezvous for pirates; they immediately discovered a large schooner under way, which they supposed to be a patriot privateer; and as their stores were nearly exhausted, they hoped to obtain some supplies from her; they therefore made sail in pursuit. When they were within cannon shot distance, she rounded to and fired her long gun, at the same time run up the bloody flag, directing her course towards the shore, continuing to fire without effect; when she had got within a short distance of the shore she came to with springs on her cable, continuing to fire; and when the barges were within 30 yards, they fired their muskets without touching boat or man; our men gave three cheers, and prepared to board; the pirates, discovering their intention, jumped into the water, when the barge men, calling on the name of 'Allen,' commenced a destructive slaughter, killing them in the water and as they landed; so exasperated were our men, that it was impossible for their officers to restrain them, and many were killed after orders were given to grant quarters; Twenty seven dead were counted, some sunk, five taken prisoners by the barge-men, and eight taken by a party of Spaniards on shore; the officers calculated that from 30 to 35 were killed. The schooner mounted a long nine pounder on a pivot, and 4 fours, with every other necessary armament, and a crew of from 50 to 60 men, and ought to have blown the barges to atoms, commanded by the notorious Diableto or Little Devil; this statement I have from lieut. Watson himself, and it is certainly the most decisive operation that has been effected against those murderers, either by the English or American force. This affair occurred on the same spot where the brave Allen fell about one year since."