Thursday, November 5, 2009

People: As Luck Would Have It

We don't know a whole lot about today's pirate/privateer, or at least not about his early years. Jean Fleury of Honfleur was born in France some time in the early 16th century and, probably at an early age, chose a life at sea. Though it appears that he was not born in the notorious corsair port of Dieppe on the northern coast of France, that is the harbor he used as his base. In 1521 Fleury was in the Atlantic commanding a flotilla of five corsairs from his flagship Salamander when he got lucky beyond his wildest dreams.

Spain had not only begun to wrap an iron fist around the New World but also had the Pope's blessing for same by the time Jean Fleury hit it big. In 1519 Hernan Cortes completed his brutal conquest of the Aztec empire in Mexico. Through torture and enslavement (encouraged and helped along by the Catholic Church; you know, for the good of the heathens' souls) the Spanish set up a system by which natives all over Central and South America would reveal the sources of their riches and then be put to work mining and processing them for His Holy Catholic Majesty in Spain. A system of transporting this wealth was organized within three years after Cortes' success in Mexico. The Spanish treasure fleet was established in 1521.

Needless to say the other major players in Europe weren't real happy about Spain getting all the goods. In particular Francois I of France was put out. Francois, you see, was a Valois and therefor a blood enemy of the prognathous Hapsburg clan. Carlos I of Spain was a Hapsburg and on his way to becoming Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Now France was out of the New World riches racket and surrounded by the lands of a Hapsburg. Canny if nothing else, Francois turned to the corsairs of Northern France and started handing out letters of marque.

The big dog of the French pirates at that time. was Jean Ango, Viscount of Dieppe. He agreed to finance privateers to run raids against the Spanish at sea as long as he and his men were allowed a good chunk of any booty. Francois agreed, the deal was done and Jean Fleury set out with his ships to hunt for Spanish gold.

Salamander and her consorts sighted three Spanish treasure ships off the Azores, probably in the spring or fall of 1521. The ships, under the command of one Captain Avila, were packed to the gunnels and virtually incapable of any swift maneuver. To boot, they did not ship many cannons in favor of room for goods and none of the men had much in the way of battle experience. There wasn't a lot Avila could do in the face of Fleury's swift, two masted caravels but he made every attempt to escape.

Fleury's ships managed to cut out two of the Spanish galleons while a third got away. Doubtless this was gut wrenching for Fleury at the time but upon his return to Dieppe no one else seemed to care. The Spanish ships were loaded with enormous wealth including gold, silver, precious and semi-precious jewels, nearly 700 pounds of pearls and gold dust amounting to 500 pounds. There were also Aztec robes and headdresses made of feathers and jaguar pelts as well as wild animals, including three live jaguars.

Jean Ango was certainly beside himself. He ordered a week of carnival-like celebrations and noblemen came from Paris to see the spectacle of dancers wearing the beautiful costumes brought from the New World. Fleury himself became a national hero and a stained glass window in the church at Villequier, Normandy, commemorates his taking of the Spanish galleons.

Though Jean Fleury never did match his astonishing luck in stumbling upon and taking the Spanish galleons bound for Seville, he did continue to harass Spain in the Atlantic for six more years. In 1527 he was captured by a flotilla of Armada ships off Cadiz. He was taken to the port town's dungeon, quickly tried and hanged for piracy. Despite this gesture of disregard for France and her letters of marque, King/Emperor Carlos/Charles never did get those pesky French - very soon to be joined by the pesky English - under control and more and more booty floated away from Spain and toward other European powers.

As an interesting side note, Jean Laffite sometimes claimed Jean Fleury as an ancestor. Its a nice story but most probably bull. Jean Laffite - for all his charm - lied a lot. Regardless Jean Fleury of Honfleur was a capable sailor and commander. Add luck to that, though, and only a sturdy noose can stop you.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! As I always say, Id rather be lucky than good. Right now, I'd be happy to just be one of those...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Also in the picture, which it turns out is only alleged to be JF, doesn't he look like somebody just pinched his butt? Look again and let me know.

Timmy! said...

that or he sat on a belaying pin by mistake... Ouch!