Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Pirates Own Book: Another Bloody Career

It's been a while since we've visited the fun and frolic that is Charles Ellms' The Pirates' Own Book and, on a gloomy, icy, cold, dark day, nothing cheers like a good laugh - or at least a good debate. For that reason I give you Chapter 11: Bloody Career and Execution of Vincent Benavides.

According to Ellms the Benavides in question was born in Chile (which Ellms spells like the spicy stew) some time in the late 18th century. By 1816 he is a traitor to the Chilean revolution, having gone over to the side of the Spanish, and faces death for his crimes. He and others, including his brother, are shot in a public execution. Though "horribly wounded by the discharge", Benavides remains alive. Like Guy Pierce's character in the movie Ravenous, he plays dead and "lays in the heap of carcasses" until nightfall when he manages to crawl off and get help.

Recovered, he meets with a Spanish officer and is sent off to harass the Araucan Indians. Ellms doesn't address why the Spanish are so enamoured with Benavides that they would put him in charge of what appears to be a covert operation so I have to say that the whole thing sounds a little made up to me. Also, so far anyway, Benavides story is distinctly lacking in the piracy department.

Once among the Araucan tribe he persuade them and the Spanish in his command to form "a band of armed robbers who commit every cruelty and were guilty of every perfidy". Essential, Benavides has become a bandit chieftain at this point which is entirely possible given the unstable nature of governments throughout South America at the time. Benavides starts slaughtering people wholesale, leaving a trail of blood miles long behind him. At this point, Ellms tells us that Benavides "when he had rendered himself powerful by land... resolved to be equally powerful upon the sea."

Without going into any detail as to how, Ellms has Benavides obtain a ship and start taking prizes off the island of Santa Maria. He seems to focus on American ships, whalers in particular, and the prize Herculia is of particular note. Benavides forces the sailors aboard first into slavery and then into joining his pirate crew. He seems to make friends the Herculia's captain, who is never named, and Benavides trust gets him into trouble.

The Captain escapes with nine of his crew in unattended whale boats left on the beach. After a harrowing voyage they arrive in Valparaiso. There is at least one American ship in port and, upon hearing of the depredations of Vincent Benavides, Captain Hall sets out to find the pirate and bring him to justice.

Here, the story becomes jumbled and confusing. Benavides has been beset upon by Chilean forces at Biobio (I love that name!) and is on the lamb and on his own. The Arauca are now referred to as unwittingly connected to Benavides and when Hall stops in to talk to them they have been ousted from their village, which Benavides has put to the torch one assumes during the engagement with the rebels. Ellms blue prose comes out at last in this passage. The natives are drunk and their chief, a man named Peneleo who has not been mentioned earlier, is keeping a young native woman - possibly against her will. We knew we could count on you, Charles!

Hall seems unaffected by these goings on and continues in his search for Benavides who is still by land. The pirate sends word in December of 1821 that he is ready to give himself up. Meanwhile he takes a launch down the Lebo river in an attempt to join with Spanish forces. Such treachery is probably to be expected and, when he cannot find the Spanish, he apparently becomes abusive to what mates he still has. Eventually the launch puts ashore for water and Benavides is "... now arrested by some patriotic individuals."

Needless to say, Chile's government won't put up with any more of Vincent Benavides' nonsense. He is tried, and his judges decide to make an example of him. He is "... hanged in the great square; his head and hands were afterwards cut off, in order to their being placed upon high poles to point to the places of his horrid crimes..." So ends the profligate life of another brigand.

Ellms obvious distaste for Benavides stems not so much from his criminal behavior but from his disloyalty to a revolution. American Ellms is, of course, writing well after the fact in the 1830s, but he comes off as a typical man of his era. By that time the Spanish had been summarily ousted from power in most of South and Central America (only Mexico was still held by Spain while Brazil was ruled by a Portuguese prince) and Americans were big on cheering for revolutions against tyranny. The interesting point is that during the struggles led by Jose de San Martin in Argentina, Bernardo O'Higgins in Chile and the Great Liberator Simon Bolivar everywhere else, the U.S. government refused to recognize the independence of South American states for fear of pissing off Spain. Ellms righteous American disgust at one little loyalist brigand is pretty ingenuous.

Plus, Charles, I'm not getting a lot of piracy here. Try to address that next time.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! while it may have been a bloody career, it certainly wasn't very bloody piratical, was it? Perhaps Benavides should be classified under your "pathetic pirates" designation? I'm just saying...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I think, if he really existed, Benavides falls into the "just because you ride in a boat doesn't mean you are a pirate" category. Kinda like the Somali variety of our current age. That said, Ellms has probably composited a number of South American toughs into one so called "pirate". Gotta love ol' Charles.