Chapter Eight of Charles Ellms’ fabulously Victorian book on the history of pirates deviates slightly from most of his others. The events catalogued in “History and Execution of the Spanish Pirates” took place from 1832 to 1835 and were therefore contemporary to Ellms himself. Unlike his musings on Roberts, Teach and Laffite, Ellms documentation of the pirates aboard the former slaver Panda would have been common knowledge in his place and time. Chapter Eight of one of my favorite books is quite literally ripped from the headlines, so to say.
This may be one of the reasons that Ellms begins with a long description of first the Panda, which he calls a “… clipper built vessel of the fairest proportions”, and then goes on to describe in detail many of the pirates featured in his story. There is Captain “Don” Pedro Gibert (who is occasionally referred to as “Gilbert” throughout the text) a Spaniard, “… the son of a grandee; a man of thirty-six years of age and exceedingly handsome, having a round face, pearly teeth, round forehead, and full black eyes, beautiful raven hair, and a great favorite with the ladies.” Captain Gibert is not the only pirate who is given such an in depth evaluation which speaks to one of my main, non-piratical interests in the book. Charles Ellms was an adherent of “physiognomy”, a neighbor if not sister “science” to phrenology that purported to be able to tell a person’s character and even their likely life path by their physical appearance. When he lauds Gibert’s fair appearance, Ellms is telling his audience that this pirate is the worst kind of bad seed: a physically beautiful person rotting with evil on the inside.
Though a number of pages are given up to description the action, when it finally gets going, is fast paced and hard core. Panda comes upon an American merchant at night in the Caribbean. At dawn on an August day in 1832 the ship, Mexican, is overtaken and the crew surrenders without a fight. The pirates ransack the merchant and, unhappy with the prize goods and the twenty thousand dollars in hard cash they find, begin beating the crew to exhort the hiding places of further treasure from them. The Captain of Mexican, a man named Butman, is quoted as saying:
… [the pirates] robbed the mate of his watch and two hundred dollas in specie, still insisting that there was more money in the hold. Being answered in the negative, the beat me severely over the back, said they knew that there was more, that they should search for it and if they found any they would cut all our throats.
From this description alone one would think that Mexican became a bloodbath. In fact, despite the torture of the crew, not a man lost his life during the hours of pillage. It was never Gibert’s intention to leave Mexican’s men alive, however. Once he and his crew were satisfied that they had all they could get in goods and money, they locked Butman and his crew below decks, set fire to a “… tub of tarred rope-yarn and what combustibles they could find about deck” and sailed off across the Atlantic.
Not all the hatches were appropriately secured and a boy in Butman’s crew managed to shimmy out and set his mates free. The fire was extinguished, just in time according to Butman, and Mexican limped back to her home port of Salem, Massachusetts. Gibert and his Pandas were now known pirates and wanted men.
American Navy ships are dispatched to hunt for Panda but she has disappeared. She reached the Guinea coast of Africa some time in November. Gibert and his men are familiar to the African King Gula whose “town” is located at the mouth of the river Nazareth. Gibert exchanges some of his specie for goods and Ellms hints at a deal for slaves being done as well. All this is made mute when the British brig of war Curlew appears on the scene and her Captain, Trotter, chases Panda up the river. The pirates bail out, scattering into the swamps. An unsuccessful attempt to blow up Panda is made by her carpenter, Francisco Ruiz.
Trotter tries negotiating with King Gula for surrender of the pirates but this only leads to long descriptive passages of the King’s looks and Trotter and his men spending some time in the King’s prison. Meanwhile the Pandas are living high on the hog out on nearby Prince’s Island. Here, Gibert doles out prize money to the tune of $300 to $500 per man and upwards of $1,000 for the officers. The good times roll but it is a fool’s paradise. When Trotter is released he mounts an attack on the island and, though the pirates put up an impressive fight, the British take Gibert and his Pandas into custody.
Britain returns the captives to America and they are hurried off to Salem for trial. The trial itself was, in fact, a major news story in the U.S. at the time. All the gory details of beatings and torture aboard Mexican came out in the courtroom and other twists made the Panda trial an O.J.-esque spectacle. The fourteen day trial was considered inordinately long. One Thomas Fuller, a victim from Mexican, attacked and struck Francisco Ruiz in court. It also came out that Panda’s first mate, Bernardo de Soto, had previously saved 70 American lives while captaining a brig called Leon making him a bit of a hero.
Most of the pirates, including de Soto, were convicted and sentenced to death but two, a cabin boy of 16 years old and a young slave who acted as cook aboard Panda were declared not guilty by reason of their youth and station. At the last minute de Soto’s Spanish wife, the lyrically named Donna Petrona Pereyra, managed to achieve a Presidential pardon for her husband from none other than Andrew Jackson himself.
The remaining pirates attempted suicide prior to hanging but only one managed to cut his throat with a shard of tin. He was quickly stitched up and, though “senseless” was hanged along side his brethren who, as Ellms notes righteously, had sailed “… under the black flag of piracy, with the motto of ‘Rob, Kill and Burn’.”
Ellms last paragraph is enlightening as well. He tells us that the Spanish Consul managed to have the bodies of the pirates secreted off to “… the Catholic burial ground in Charlestown”. And so Chapter Eight ends simply:
There being no murder committed with the piracy, the laws of the Unites States do not authorize the court to order the bodies for dissection.