Tuesday, March 20, 2012

History: The Second Sack of Cartagena

The city known as Cartagena de Indias located in modern Venezuela was one of the most heavily fortified ports on the Spanish Main by the mid-17th century. It was from here that Spain sent her treasure fleets off to Europe crammed with gold, silver and jewels from mines in the interior of South America. Since the giant treasure ships only sailed two or three times a year, most other European nations drooled at the thought of the stockpiles of wealth that must have accumulated behind the city’s stone walls.

War has always afforded the strong the opportunity to amass wealth, and when the War of the League of Augsberg sailed from Europe into Caribbean waters, the French had wealth on their mind. The conflict, which lasted a comparatively short nine years, pitted France against England, the Netherlands and Spain in particular. The French holdings in the West Indies rallied against their most formidable foes in the area, with Saint Dominique’s governor Jean Du Casse relying heavily on the aid of Petit Goave’s boucaniers.

Of course, French as well as English buccaneers had been terrorizing the Spanish Main for over 30 years by the time the war began. They had a clear strategy of raid, pillage and retreat that succeeded to the point that Spain’s ability to defend herself was breaking down. Refusing the right to legal trade with anyone but the mother country to her colonies meant that Spain’s towns and cities in the New World were poorly armed and often poorly manned as well. As Juan Perez de Guzman, who witnessed Henry Morgan’s raids on Central America, noted “[the Spaniard’s] firearms are few and bad, in comparison of those the enemy brought, for ours are Carbins, Harquebusses and Fowling pieces, but few Muskets.” On the other hand the French were well armed, and exceedingly expert, with the most up-to-date muskets available to them.

Any weakness should be exploited in war, and Louis XIV saw his chance to pounce on what could potentially be a windfall for not only France but for himself, personally. Accordingly, as Monsieur le Governeur Du Casse was handing out letters of marque to any buccaneer who cared to apply, the King sent a flotilla to Saint Domingue to ramp up for an all out siege of Cartagena.

The leader of this expedition was Baron Jean de Pointis, an Admiral who had seen action on the European front. He had ten men-of-war with him and, through the connections available to Du Casse, managed to enlist another seven ships captained and manned by freebooters. The Governor added his own squadron for a total of 30 ships and over 6,000 men.

Despite his initial hesitancy, the Admiral was convinced by Du Casse to enter into a written agreement with the buccaneers. This ensured them that any loot would be divided fairly, so that – as they suspected might occur – they would not do all the heavy lifting and be left with little or no reward. How satisfied the pirates were with the agreement remains unknown, but they sailed with de Pointis on April 13, 1689 bound for Cartagena.

The city stood on a head shore behind which were an exterior and an interior bay. The Boca Chica passage to the interior bay was heavily fortified but beyond that little if any artillery was available to guard the city’s back. Because of a lack of men and arms, the Spanish could not stop Admiral de Pointis’ entire fleet from breeching Boca Chica. Once he was behind the city, de Pointis began landing artillery and set up a bombardment that lasted six days. On May 6, Cartagena succumbed to the superior firepower of the invaders.

The Admiral and Governor du Casse met with city leaders and, unbeknownst to the buccaneers, agreed to a ransom that amounted to only about half of the wealth available in Cartagena at the time. De Pointis turned his marines on the buccaneers, keeping them in line as booty was loaded onto the French men-of-war. By May 29, de Pointis was ready to set sail after handing over what he felt was a “fair share” to the seven pirate captains.

There certainly must have been protests to both de Pointis and Du Casse, but neither seems to have responded with anything satisfactory. The Admiral and the Governor boarded their ships and departed for Saint Dominique. But the buccaneers, who felt cheated beyond reason, had other plans.

The pirates re-entered Cartagena who, in her weakened state, could hardly defend herself. The men went on a rampage, torturing, looting and killing with the kind of blood-lust that only occurs when people are truly angry. By mid-June the rage of the buccaneers had burned itself out. They took what booty they had managed to dig up and set sail for Petit Goave in Saint Dominique. They left Cartagena almost irreparably broken; it would be another ten years before her reputation as a cultural and financial hub would be restored.

Meanwhile, the Frenchmen got a bit of their own back at sea. Their ships were hit by a gale and, limping along the coast of Jamaica, they were overtaken by a small squadron of English vessels. Five of the buccaneer’s ships were taken as prizes and their Cartagenan wealth ended up lining the coffers of the Governor of Jamaica.

The only winners in the entire affair were Admiral de Pointis, who managed to wrest most of Governor Du Casses’ share of the wealth away from him on a technicality, and of course the Sun King, Louis XIV. Though Louis did return a portion of what he had accumulated to Du Casse and the buccaneers, it hardly made up for their losses.

The sack of Cartagena, which on every level was a miserable tragedy, sounded the death knell of the buccaneers. Within ten years the Golden Age of Piracy would dawn and a whole different breed of seafaring freebooters would emerge more interested in prizes on the water than booty on shore.

Header: The Sack of Cartagena by Howard Pyle


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! "A miserable tragedy" is definitely a good way to describe this whole affair. War, torture, murder, rape, lying, cheating, stealing, untrustworthy alliances... that's just all kinds of wrong.

Pauline said...

It certainly is, but it sounds all too familiar, doesn't it? People don't change even though the centuries do.