Wednesday, May 26, 2010

People: On The Island of Sacrifice

Nicholas (or Nicolas en Francais) Van Horn was one of a trio of buccaneers whose most infamous raid was on the Spanish treasure town of Veracruz in 1683. We've already discussed his partners in crime, the great Laurens de Graff and the warrior Michele de Grammont. Van Horn, whose death is possibly more celebrated than his life thanks to novels and movies, is a shadowy figure when compared to the other two ladrones. His background is almost lost entirely, but his character seems to live on as if it has a will of it's own.

Van Horn was certainly a Dutchman, like de Graff. Both of them came to buccaneering in different ways but it is obvious that Van Horn went to sea early in life and never looked back. Probably laboring in the Dutch merchant service through his youth, Van Horn was at some point confronted with the opportunity to turn rogue and he took it. By as early as 1681, when he was probably in his late twenties or early thirties, Van Horn was at Petit Goave in St. Domingue (now Haiti) offering his piratical services to the French Governor Pouancay.

By January of 1683, Van Horn captained his own ship, St. Nicolas, and she was cruising the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. It is telling that Van Horn's ship is eponymous for he is routinely described as vain and grandiloquent, never suffering even the slightest insult without retribution. This is not at all unusual for buccaneers in general and their leaders in particular but the fact that it is mentioned so frequently and in writing, by Alexander Exquemelin in three different accounts for instance, makes it unique. Van Horn must have been a particular hothead to draw so much attention.

In February, while working with de Graff and another buccaneer named Philippe Gomber de la Fleur, Van Horn attacked a Spanish treasure ship, Nuestra Senora de la Consolacion. The ship should have been full of bullion, gems, indigo and sugar on their way to mother Spain but Van Horn made a tactical error and struck too soon. All the buccaneers came away with was two thousand pounds of indigo. This error caused a rift between Van Horn and de Graff that would flare up later.

Following the debacle of la Consolacion, Van Horn had success in March when he took the Dutch merchant Aletta. He moved her cargo to St. Nicolas and sailed for West Africa where he bartered the goods for slaves. Returning to Jamaica on the trades, he sold the unfortunates to the English for a tidy profit and then returned to Petit Goave with a fist full of cash and a happy crew. Happening upon de Grammont and de Graff, he learned of their plan to raid Veracruz before the Spanish treasure fleet left the port in June. Van Horn wanted in and certainly some of his slaving profits went to fund the project.

It is a point of interest here, at least to me, that Van Horn was a married man with a family. This was not as unheard of among the buccaneers of the late 17th century as it would be in the Golden Age of piracy. De Graff himself managed not one marriage but two and at least one child during his raiding heyday. The woman that Van Horn was married to and the number of children they had are facts lost to the mist of history. One source, a chronicler named Gage, says Van Horn's wife was a lovely mixed race woman of St. Dominigue. I wonder what the two exchanged before Van Horn went off to Veracruz and probably the largest raid of his life. Certainly, though neither he nor she could know it at the time, it was the last.

The buccaneer flotilla led by de Graff and de Grammont came within sight of Veracruz on May 17, 1683. De Grammont took the lead in tactics and, using a strategy similar to the one Morgan would use on Portobello, he anchored his ships north of Veracruz and used canoes to move his men to the city. Veracruz, never the target of a large scale buccaneering attack, was not ready for the swift descent of the freebooters and she fell without much resistance. While de Graff secured the bastions around the city, de Grammont took most of the freebooters into the plaza and began systematically rounding up the inhabitants.

The following days were unfortunately gruesome for the unsuspecting residence of Veracruz. Fearing attack from a nearby Spanish fleet, de Grammont took the lead in rounding up the wealthiest citizens of the town and taking them, along with the plunder acquired, via ship to nearby Isla Sacrificios. The conditions on the island were only slightly better for the prisoners than they had been in the city. Now being held for ransom, several died on a daily basis.

The Spanish fleet appeared as feared and began firing on the buccaneers, apparently while they are trying to move provisions from their ships to the island. Both Van Horn and de Grammont went into a rage and de Grammont rounded up a few prisoners to decapitate in retaliation. De Graff stopped the slaughter and Van Horn, according to one account, called de Graff a coward. The gloves came off and the last few months of rancor between the two men bloomed immediately into open hatred. They agreed to a duel.

The usual French format was stated, or perhaps even implied. First blood was all that was required to satisfy the honor of the victor. Death was not a necessary outcome. The cutlasses were unsheathed and those gathered stood back. There is no written record of the actual duel, but the confrontation ended with Van Horn suffering a slice to his wrist. No one, not even the surgeons available, thought much of the wound. De Graff upheld his honor, Van Horn was bandaged and the boring, dirty business of ransoming captives was returned to.

Unfortunately for Nicholas Van Horn, nothing is ever simple. His wound festered and for some reason, very likely the hot and humid surroundings that were full of the sick and dying, Van Horn's body was quickly riddled with sepsis. He died within a few days. According to Exquemelin:

...Van Horn was buried on Cay Logrette, which is but three leagues from Cape Catouche in the province of Yucatan.

What little we still know of the buccaneer Van Horn is full of contradictions. On the one hand he is described as a mean drunk. On the other, men write of his fearlessness and capable leadership even in close battle. It's hard to accurately say who the man buried in the sand on the Island of Sacrifice might really have been. At the very least, we still remember his name.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Van Horn seems to typify the stereotype that we now think of with pirates in the movies... think Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood.

The story of his death also shows how relatively cheap life was just a few hundred years ago and how easy it was to die from what we would consider a relatively minor wound today. Thank goodness for modern medicine... And keep taking your antibiotics, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Definately, Van Horn is rather a "buccaneer's buccaneer" and the Levasseur character in the Sabotini novel "Captain Blood" was certainly inspired - at least in part - by Van Horn.

You're right, though. Considering how many innocent people were dying around him and, at least in part, at his orders, Van Horn's demise must have seemed like a drop in the bucket.

And thanks for the reminder; time to take my meds.

Anonymous said...

Try using a bibliography and image credits/information next time.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Anony and thank you for suggestions.

Timmy! said...

@Anonymous - hey coward, why don't you try posting under a real name? Or maybe get your own blog if you are such an expert...