Wednesday, July 27, 2011

People: "...Whom Nothing on Earth Could Terrify"

Richard Sawkins (sometimes spelled Sawkens) was probably born somewhere in Britain in the early 1650s. It is fair to say that he came from what would then have been called a “common” family as, like so many others of the Brethren, he went to sea while still a boy. He seems to have had the kind of winning personality that made men not only trust him, but want to follow him as well. When his biographer, fellow buccaneer Basil Ringrose, picks up his story, Sawkins is sitting in a Port Royal, Jamaica gaol awaiting trial for piracy.

According to Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, Sawkins was captured while captaining the sloop Success some time in 1677. Gosse, in fact, confuses his dates and has the prison term ending in December of 1679. Sawkins was in the Great South Sea by January of that year so this is impossible. As both Ringrose and Gosse note, however, Sawkins was somehow cleared of all charges, set free and returned to his buccaneering ways.

In command of a very small vessel bearing 30 crewmen and one gun, Sawkins joined with Captains John Coxon and Sharp in an expedition across the Darien Gap to the cities of Santa Maria, Santa Marta and finally the storied Panama City herself. The small army of over 300 men set out during the rainy season and was able to cross the Gap in canoes rather than marching as Morgan’s expedition had done. They were successful in a sack of Santa Maria, and a letter from Sawkins to the Archbishop of Santa Marta encouraged him to pay a healthy ransom for his city.

Pressing on, the flotilla of canoes finally reached the Pacific Ocean just south of Panama City. They took two small Spanish ships and pressed on toward the Gulf of Panama. There they found eight ships from the Spanish treasure fleet which, it seems, were unfortunately empty of wealth. The buccaneers went on the attack with what weapons they had and, after what Ringrose describes as a “… furious, bloody battle” they took the much larger ships. Coxon then ordered the harbor blockaded and long weeks of negotiation with the Governor of Panama began.

It appears that Sawkins may have been the most articulate (and possibly the most literate) of the leaders in the buccaneer company as he was chosen to correspond with the Governor.

When the Governor enquired why the buccaneers had blockaded the harbor, Sawkins wrote back rather righteously that he and his fellows had come to restore the “… rightful King of Darien”. He was referring to the native population, something that buccaneers rarely did in negotiations with Spain. Though they often used indigenous people’s knowledge of an area to their advantage, the vast majority of buccaneers were just as likely to abuse local natives as any other European.

Getting nowhere with the Governor after a week, Sawkins learned that the Archbishop of Santa Marta was in Panama City. He sent the man two loaves of sugar along with a letter reminding him of his avoidance of a sack of his city earlier. The Archbishop was quick to respond, sending gifts of gold rings to the buccaneer commanders and promising to address the Governor on their behalf.

The Governor was unmoved and, instead of agreeing to a ransom, sent a message back asking from what country the buccaneers had their commission so that he could complain to that government. In Ringrose’s account, Sawkins’ reply is swift and sarcastic:

… we will come and visit you in Panama and bring our commissions on the muzzles of our guns, at which time you should read them as plain as the flame of gunpowder could make it.

Unfortunately, Sawkin’s verbal bravado was a feint. Men were growing ill from lack of fresh food and water; these buccaneers would be no match for a fortified town. Sawkins’ men finally convinced him to move down the coast and find better hunting. Some time before May of 1679 he relented, leaving Sharp and Coxon to go elsewhere.

Sawkins’ ship arrived at the town of Pueblo Nueva and prepared to invade her. Doubtless the word had spread up and down the coast that ladrones were in Panama as the town was well armed and ready when they arrived. On May 22nd, Sawkins led his men in a charge up the beach; he was felled by a musket ball and died not long after.

Richard Sawkins was remembered in Ringrose’s account of the expedition as:

… a man who was as valiant and courageous as any man could be, and the best beloved of all our company.

As Ringrose put it, Sawkins was “… a man whom nothing on earth could terrify.” That, in and of itself, is pretty impressive.

Finally, if you do nothing else tomorrow, be sure to stop by for a very special guest post in honor of Triple P’s second anniversary. Don’t you dare miss it, Brethren!

Header: Buried Treasure by N.C. Wyeth


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is pretty impressive... Here's to Captain Sawkins!

Looking forward to the second anniversary post tomorrow, Pauline!

Pauline said...

Not a lot of information about this guy outside of Ringrose's writings but still pretty interesting.

And now, on to today's offering...