Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pathetic Pirates: "Dead Cats Don't Mew"

It seems like I've been fortunate enough to have lots of foot traffic to these Pathetic Pirate posts and it occurs to me that not everyone is going to agree with the moniker "pathetic" in every instance. Everyone is entitled to their own spin on history - that's part of the fun. These are just my opinions and I hope the facts speak for themselves, whether you're standing on the neutral ground side or the sidewalk side of the parade (Mardi Gras reference!). Today, though, we have one of those few guys that fits the pathetic pirate mold to a tee. It seems that only one off-the-cuff action on Pedro Gibert's part earned him the title "pirate" and in the end it cost him more than it was worth.

Pedro Gibert, a small time smuggler operating mostly in the waters around Florida and Cuba, liked to tell people he was born to an aristocratic family in Spain. He even insisted that his men call him "Don Gibert" to enforce his tale of regal ancestors. In fact the ersatz Don was probably born around 1800 somewhere on the Atlantic coast of South America. Like so many of the men we discuss here at Triple P, he took to the sea as a boy and may have participated in the legitimate privateering that operated out of Cartagena and Maracaibo under Simon Bolivar.

When Bolivar and the other heads of state down south stopped printing letters of marque, Gibert made his way to the St. Lucie Inlet area of Florida. Here, he and his mates set up a one ship smuggling operation. They ferried goods back and forth between their base and Cuba in Gibert's sloop Panda. By now it was the 1830s and Gibert was a poor shadow of men like Jean Laffite, who had died in Bolivar's service in 1823.

Out cruising the Florida Straights in September of 1832, Panda sighted a US merchant brig. Mexican was her name, and she was headed from Massachusetts to Argentina carrying little in the way of cargo but a considerable amount of hard coin. It seems that Gibert made the executive decision at this point to turn pirate, and Panda gave chase to the merchant. Though technically better armed, Mexican was not prepared to fight. In fact, it turned out that the roundshot aboard her was too large for the two cannons she carried. She was also slow and Panda caught and boarded her within the space of an hour.

Gibert showed his brutal side once he and his crew had taken the merchant. The crew was questioned, probably under torture, and something about a chest of specie hidden by their Captain - a man named Butman - slipped out. The men were locked in Mexican's hold and Gibert turned personally to the serious work of torturing Butman while his men ransacked the ship. Butman finally acquiesced to Gibert's inhuman treatment and a chest of $20,000 in silver coins was turned over to the pirate.

Gibert, chest in hand, prepared to row back to Panda. His men - unaccustomed to piracy - asked what to do with the merchantmen and their ship. "Dead cats don't mew," he replied. "You know what to do."

But clearly the Pandas weren't really sure about what to do. They secured the entire crew in Mexican's hold, set her on fire and followed their Captain back to Panda. The pirates sailed away with their plunder, completely unaware that one wiry victim had managed to shimmy out of a skinny hatch and set his mates free. While Panda dipped behind the horizon, Mexican's people put the fire out. Captain Butman got the ship to New York harbor where the story of Don Gibert and his pirate sloop became news-worthy.

Once the loot from Mexican was spent, it appears that Gibert's Florida/Cuba operation went bust. He turned his sights to the now dwindling - and very illegal - slave trade off the West African coast. His men loaded Panda up, and set off for Sierra Leone. Here they arrived in March of 1833 and began cruising the coast for slave ships.

What they ran into, instead, was a Royal Navy frigate of war on routine patrol for smugglers. Suspicious of Panda, the British ship ordered her to heave to and then proceeded to board and inspect. Convinced she was a slaver at the least if not an outright pirate, the British arrested Panda's men and took her as prize. The frigate returned to Sierra Leone, where some of Gibert's crew escaped. They were recaptured, however, and the British learned that Panda, her crew and her Captain were wanted for piracy in the U.S.

12 of the prisoners, including Gibert, were sent in chains to Boston where they would be tried. Butman - who showed his scars from being tortured in court - and his crew from Mexican testified at the trial. Two of the twelve defendants were acquitted but the rest were found guilty. Six of the men were remanded to the newest form of punishment - prison. All received long sentences and five died while confined. The three remaining crewmen and Panda's Captain would hang.

"Don" Pedro Gibert, the smuggler and unfortunately pathetic pirate, died in Boston in 1835. He and his mates carried the distinction of being the last men executed for piracy in the United States to their unmarked graves.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! No arguments from me... "Don" Pedro Gibert was definitely one pathetic pirate. Oh well, I guess somebody had to be the last in line Pedro, and you're it... Thankee, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I thinks that's pretty much what it comes down to - somebody had to bring up the rear. Who knows, in a different time Don Pedro might have been a true scourge of the seas. Maybe.

Timmy! said...

Or... maybe not. I'm going to go with the second option.