Thursday, May 17, 2012

People: Shadow of a Privateer

It was a perfect example of how the violence and barbarity that lay beneath the surface of privateering could suddenly and frighteningly erupt once the restraints of legal pretense were removed… The collapse of Cartagena negated any remaining legitimacy of its privateering commissions. ~ from The Pirates Laffite by William C. Davis

In the above instance, the “it” in question are the savage actions of a certain shadowy privateer who was a fringe member of the Laffite brothers’ freebooting band. The man was William Mitchell, and though his origins are lost to history, some of his actions remain as bloody testament to the worst atrocities committed under the guise of “privateering.”

Mitchell’s name – if it is not an alias as was occasionally the case with the privateers of the era – would lead one to believe that he was American or possibly Canadian by birth. The Anglo-Saxon ring of his moniker gives it a certain legitimacy. Privateers connected with Barataria who chose to use aliases, such as Vincent Gambi and Renato Beluche, generally stuck with Gallic names: Jean Roux for the former and Rene Brougman for the latter.

Mitchell is not mentioned in any records associated with the Laffites’ New Orleans operations and indeed his name finds no place on the rosters of those Baratarians who fought at the Battle of New Orleans. What he did prior to the fall of 1815 cannot be said with certainty. Since we know he was captaining his own vessel, Cometa, at that time, it is safe to assume that he came from a seafaring background.

Cartagena, one of the first cities in Bolivar’s revolution against Spain to declare independence, had been under siege by the Spanish for over three months as of December, 1815. Louis Aury, an old Laffite associate, was in charge of a rebel fleet whose captains included familiar Baratarians such as Dominique Youx, Jean Jannet and Renato Beluche. These men harassed Spanish ships and attempted blockade runs to feed the starving citizens trapped inside the city, but to no avail. The city finally surrendered but the Spanish – who could not take care of the withering citizenry – gave lip service to allowing Aury’s ships to rescue the Cartagenans and remove them to other shores. In the end they would chase some of those ships down and send all aboard to a watery grave.

Mitchell and his Cometa joined this mission of mercy, taking on some of the cities wealthiest citizens including her Governor.

The ships, packed with refugees, were to set out for Haiti where Bolivar was in negotiations with her President for assistance with his floundering uprising. Storms and Spanish ships beset the little flotilla. Ships were separated and some foundered all together, going down with all hands. Mitchell, seeing an opportunity, veered off from the set course and put in at San Andres Island not far from Nicaragua. Here he dumped his starving passengers after divesting them of all their worldly goods. He and his men went on to sack the only city on the island, killing the Spanish governor and taking more loot including about twenty slaves. Cometa sailed off toward the Gulf of Mexico with Mitchell and his crew richer by an estimated $40,000.

Not finished by half, Mitchell took a Spanish vessel somewhere in the Gulf and relieved her of some $25,000 in silver. With that, he pointed Cometa toward the Mississippi, intent on heading for New Orleans to sell what he could not spend, including the slaves.

Mitchell’s plan went awry at the Balize, the small customs station located where the river meets the Gulf. Here inspector John Rollins, confronting Mitchell after a sweep of Cometa, was told in no uncertain terms that the captain had every intention of selling the humans in his hold when he reached New Orleans. Since importation of slaves was illegal, Rollins seized Cometa and Mitchell was indicted on three counts of piracy in May of 1816.

The atrocities committed by Mitchell at San Andres Island could very well have gone unknown to history had it not been for that indictment, which still exists in New Orleans as case number 0909. As Davis notes in his book, Commodore Daniel Tod Patterson remarked at the time of the indictment that Mitchell would never be tried. The Commodore’s comment held more than sarcasm; Mitchell would not see a day in court.

William Mitchell continued his piracy in the Gulf of Mexico, taking ships around Barataria, Galveston and Matagorda. He used Galveston as a base while first Louis Aury and then the Laffites ran thinly veiled smuggling operations from the bay. In fact, he was one of the first to receive an essentially bogus Mexican “commission” issued at Galveston by the Laffite brothers’ associate Humbert in February of 1817. He was also tapped as something of an errand boy for the brothers, sailing back and forth from Galveston to New Orleans aboard the converted gunboat Pegasus to retrieve supplies, arms and men. His last such mission ended with Pegasus being libeled by the U.S. for carrying illegal arms in February of 1820.

After that court action, which again never saw a climax, Mitchell disappeared from the record. Davis does give us a glimpse of the pirate’s possible end, stating that he “supposedly died May 1, 1821, on Great Corn Island off Nicaragua” which is somewhat unsatisfying to say the least.

The shadowy privateer known by the name William Mitchell remains a mystery, and we have only his evident treachery and brutality to remember him by. Something he has in common with so many of history’s pirates.

Header: San Andres Island via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, that is an unsatisfying ending. I guess Commodore Patterson knew what he was talking about, anyway.

But I guess that also leaves Mitchell's fate up to writers of historical fiction to resolve...

Pauline said...

Yeah, well, I think Patterson may have known Mitchell personally, something we'll delve into hear when I post about the then notorious "Firebrand affair."

And I like to imagine Mitchell going the way of Gambi; hacked to death by his own crew. You're right; historical fiction writers occasionally get to insert poetic justice...