Tuesday, June 7, 2011

People: In the Great South Sea

One of those journeyman buccaneers that seems to have always been in the right place at the right time, Bartholomew Sharp is little known today. So little known, in fact, that even a fanciful latter-day representation of his likeness is nowhere to be found. The Wikipedia entry on him – all three paragraphs – doesn’t even trouble with putting up an accompanying portrait. Now that’s disappointing.

Despite this, Sharp is a fascinating character who not only learned his trade at the elbows of men like Henry Morgan but surpassed his mentors in seamanship. Unlike Morgan, who was more General than Admiral, Sharp was a capable navigator as well as leader whose final legacy would come not from sacking Spanish towns but from capturing one of that country’s dearest cartographical secrets.

Sharp was probably born in Britain some time in 1650. To imagine he came from the seafaring country of Devon is not unreasonable, nor is it absurd to think that he went to sea at an early age. Learning the tools of the trade, doubtless in the merchant service, Sharp eventually ended up in Jamaica during the heady days of Morgan and his raids on Porto Bello and Panama. Sharp was probably among the future Lieutenant Governor’s company on the march across the Darien Gap. It is also probably that he met fellow buccaneer and adventurer John Coxon on the expedition to Panama.

Sharp teamed up with Coxon in 1679 to raid the famous Spanish storehouses on the Gulf of Honduras. It was here that treasures from South and Central America such as leather, dyes, cocoa beans, tortoise shells and silver ingots known as pigs were amassed in preparation for transport to Spain. Sharp and Coxon managed to capture one of the treasure ships, half loaded in anticipation of her voyage, and relieve her of her cargo as well. Though they did not clean out the Spanish bodegas, as the storehouses were known, they put enough of a dent in the stores to enrage Spain and make selling their ill-gotten gains back in Jamaica a bit difficult.

Eventually, and for the right price, British Governor Charles Howard agreed to turn a blind eye and Sharp and his men profited handsomely. While his men spent their shares on wine, women and song, Sharp negotiated their next adventure. According to Alexander Exquemelin, Sharp was a smooth talker who was not likely to take no for an answer. He was also extremely lucky at games of chance and dice in particular. It seems reasonable to imagine that Bat Sharp, as he was known in Port Royal, managed to parlay his share of plunder into even more money in that city of sin before buying a commission to cut logwood, again in Honduras. The commission was a cover for further free booting pursuits and Sharp and Coxon rounded up men and ships late in 1679. They set out before the New Year with the plan to provision at San Blas Island and then march across Darien to the Pacific once again.

Probably the most amazing thing about Sharp’s Great South Sea raiding is that several of his companions wrote journals they later published. Much of what we know comes from first hand information that, though doubtless embroidered to some degree, is a rare glimpse into the day to day travails and triumphs of a buccaneer.

Coxon was the original leader of the expedition but along with Sharp three other buccaneers, Harris, Sawkins and Cook, commanded their own men as well. The march across to the Pacific seems to have gone relatively well. Certainly there was not the desperate starvation that plagued Morgan’s men on their way to Panama. Trouble began, though, when the buccaneers reached Santa Marta. Expecting to find wealth at this bastion on the Pacific, the buccaneers found nothing more exciting than wine and pork. Sawkins led them in a raid that afforded them provisions and two Spanish ships but the goal of booty was nowhere in sight. The men began to complain about their leadership.

Within a month Coxon, apparently fed up with accusations of cowardice, took a small boat and left the expedition with some of his men. Sawkins was put in charge, and Harris, who had been shot through both legs during the raid, died shortly thereafter. Sawkins, probably in an attempt to quell some of the grumbling among his men, mounted a raid on Puebla Nueva in May of 1680. The new leader was dispatched by local farmers with lances and shovels, doubtless a bloody business that did little for morale.

The buccaneers never did breach the little port and, back aboard ship, they put Sharp in charge. Batt decided to head south with an eye on Chile and her reputedly endless stream of silver. The problem with the plan was that the winds along the Pacific coast blew almost continually northward. Sharp set a course far out to sea. He would sail south there and double back when his ships reached Arica.

Though the plan was sound the main ship, christened Trinity by the buccaneers, was woefully under provisioned. Soon the men were down to a ball of cornmeal and half a pint of water each per day. Irritability and listlessness prevailed; insomnia drove more than one man to the brink of madness. The ship was becoming a mutinous stew set to boil over.

In mid-October, Sharp spotted Arica and made an attempt to land. Someone had tipped off the Spaniards however, and one chronicler blamed John Coxon who may have been taken prisoner after he left the buccaneers. Unable to beach at Arica, Sharp put his boats in at the smaller colony of Ilo. Here the men gorged themselves on water, wine and a veritable farmers market of fruits, nuts and vegetables. The people of Ilo had fled to the hills and the buccaneers set up shop in a local sugar factory. They managed a bit of plunder, but not enough to satisfy, and Sharp decided to ransom the sugar works. Though the Spanish promised over fifty head of cattle as payment they did not come through, stalling the ladrones while they waited for reinforcements from the Viceroy of Potosi. Sharp, probably aware within a day or two of what was going on, ordered the sugar factory and the cane fields burned and retreated to Trinity.

Sharp put out to deep water again and announced his plan to return to Jamaica. A near riot broke out as men complained that they had “… not voyage enough”. They were of the opinion that Sharp was keeping booty from them, and some grumbled that he had taken theirs at dice. Sharp relented and set a course for the Chilean town of La Serena. Meanwhile, the men ate up all their stores and were back on quarter rations within a month.

When landfall was made the Spanish were again waiting for Sharp on the beach. This time Batt and his men landed and fought, besting the Spanish with their superior musketry. They secured La Serena and locked her populace in the eleven churches for which she was famous before plundering at will. The churches alone yielded enough silver and silk to make even the most discontented among them happy but when Sharp again attempted a ransom, the Spanish again put him off. Fed up, Sharp released his prisoners, set fire to the town and sailed away with as much as his men could carry.

Sharp put his foot down and set a course for home. The men, still incouragable, voted him out of office. His replacement, John Watling, grossly bungled an attempt to take the city of Santa Clara. The buccaneers retreated and, with Watling badly injured, put Sharp in charge once again. Sharp turned around and took two Spanish ships which were carrying a fair amount of silver. Even more impressive, one had aboard her a chart book which revealed the entire Pacific coast of South America. This Wagonner of the Great South Seas would be Sharp’s most impressive plunder, and would probably save his life.

Trinity got back to Jamaica in the late spring of 1682 and Sharp was promptly arrested for piracy. As Spain and England were not a war, his actions were not sanctioned by his government. Sent to Britain for trial, it is most probably that Sharp traded the prized Spanish charts for his life. He was pardoned by Charles II the following year.

Sharp was technically not supposed to return to the Caribbean but by 1685 he was back in Jamaican waters in command of a small French merchant. Speculation had it that he stole the vessel in England. He moved on to the Leewards and managed to get a commission to hunt pirates from the islands’ governor. He did pick up a pirate or two, but for the most part he plundered French and Spanish merchantmen. By 1686, he was once again on trial for piracy but, slippery as always, was acquitted in February of 1687.

What actually became of Sharp is debatable. There is some evidence that he took a commission as a British privateer in 1689 to raid the French. Some chroniclers say he took up privateering for the Dutch thereafter and eventually settled (or was hanged) on their island of St. Thomas.

Whatever his eventual fate, there is no question that Bartholomew Sharp helped, at least in small part, to shape the modern world. Even if purely by accident, he revealed one of the most closely held secrets of his time: the configuration of the vast Pacific coast of the New World.

Header: Stand and Deliver by N.C. Wyeth


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That's a pretty facinating tale. I'm surprised that I haven't heard about Sharp before. Based on his pretty consistent good luck, I prefer to believe that his story had a relatively happy ending...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Me too. I like to think of him as sort of a latter day Laurens de Graff with a wife and kids and a lot of tall tales to tell. Probably wishful thinking but all the same...