Monday, February 13, 2012

People: Murdered Husbands and Stolen Nuns

According to Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, today’s pirate was from a beautiful Caribbean island, but he pursued his violent career in the waters off Europe. Captain Hiram Breakes seems to have been a bloodthirsty sort who, perhaps completely against that nature, fell into melancholy over love at the end of his life. This strange tale has a lot of the Victorian melodrama about it, which leads me to wonder if Captain Breakes was a true person or a latter-day boogey man. Most information available about Breakes is no more than a retelling of the story put forth by Gosse, so it may be fair to say that either is possible.


Breaks, it seems, was born into a respectable family on the Island of Saba. His father was a “well-to-do councilor” and young Hiram was his second son. Saba, which is southeast of Puerto Rico and north of St. Kitts, is still a Dutch island. In 1764 Hiram, who had doubtless known smugglers and bootleggers on his island home, set out to sea as a merchant captain. He ran between the Caribbean and Amsterdam, probably hauling goods both ways.

At 19 Breaks was a handsome young man, “standing over six feet in height” who seems to have had an eye for the ladies. He finally gave his heart to a woman who was not free to return his love, but went ahead and did so anyway. Gosse gives the lady’s name only as “Mrs. Snyde” and offers no further information on her than her ensuing misdeeds.

Perhaps to spend more time with his lover, Breakes acquired a new ship and began sailing from Holland to Lisbon. Gosse tells us he sailed this route “for some time”, doubtless checking in with Mrs. Snyde whenever possible. At some point during this time, Breakes and his paramour murdered her husband. There was a trial, but the two lovers managed to be acquitted.

After the trial, Breakes seems to have turned mean. He stole his employer’s ship and the cargo aboard it, intent on living from then on as a pirate. He named his new vessel Adventure and set out on a daring raid in the port of Vigo. Here he and his men took the merchant Acapulco which had just arrived from Valparaiso, Chile. The captain and crew were all killed and Breakes was rewarded for his cruelty with a fortune in small gold bars, 200,000 of them “each the size of a man’s finger.” Taking the Acapulco as his new ship, Breakes sailed off into the Mediterranean in search of more prizes.

According to Gosse, Breakes ran a religious ship making his crew clean up and rig church on Sundays. Hiram would preach a sermon “after the Lutheran style”, his conviction no less for having recently killed a whole ship full of men.

Captain Hiram Breakes was bold enough to call at Gibraltar and talk the Governor of that rock into granting him an English privateering commission. This seems to have been no more than a formality, however, as Breakes continued to plunder shipping of all nations, even Britain. One of his more curious exploits has him calling at the port of Minorca, where he and his men visited a peaceful sea-side abbey. Welcomed by the Abbess, Hiram exhorted his men to each choose a “wife” from among the demure nuns. This they happily did, carrying the ladies back to their ship to sport with them as they pleased. Whether or not Hiram chose one of these brides of Christ for his own, Gosse does not say.

If nothing else, Breakes must be credited with cleverness. Aside from the brush with the law over the murder of Mr. Snyde, he seems never to have been caught as a pirate. He instead voluntarily retired, returning to Amsterdam and the comforting arms of the widow Snyde. This dream of domestic happiness was not to materialize, however. Mrs. Snyde, it turns out, had been hanged for poisoning she and Breakes’ young son. Gosse does not give a reason for this horrible crime, but the agony of the revelation was more than Hiram Breakes could bear. He “turned melancholy mad” and drown himself in one of the city’s many dikes.

Even a murderous pirate can succumb to the crushing weight of depression. If Hiram Breakes’ story is true, it seems that is exactly what happened to him.

Header: A Pirate by N.C. Wyeth

6 comments:

Undine said...

Colorful fellow, even for a pirate.

Reading this post, I too was thinking his story sounded a bit apocryphal, but that detail at the end about Mrs. Snyde killing their child, and Breakes' subsequent suicide seems too out-of-left-field bizarre to be completely fictional. It gives a finale of tragic melancholy that doesn't fit this otherwise traditionally swashbuckling story.

Either way, as usual, you've provided us with a fascinating little historical tale. Thanks!

Pauline said...

Thankee, Undine, and for the additional insight which I cannot argue with.

Hopefully I'll stumble across more about Captain Breakes one day and can add to this post with an eye to the truth or fiction question.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Well, even if the story is all true, which I doubt, Breakes most certainly does not qualify to be one of the "Super Pirates"...

Pauline said...

I have to agree with Undine here. The conclussion of the story is so out of place that it has a ring to it.

All that said, though, your right; Super Pirate application declined.

Pauline said...

I believe I meant "you're right".

james flannery said...

His name was Beakes no 'R' I lived on Saba for 2 years this I just common knowledge there.