My Pirate Treasure

PirateWhen I was on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands a couple of years ago to visit my daughter, Jen, I picked up something I’ve always wanted to have: a real, Spanish ‘pieces of eight’ silver coin. (The eight reales coin was often cut into eight pieces to pay for smaller items, hence its name.)

Mine was minted in Peru from plundered Inca silver in 1679. That’s cool enough, but the rest of the story is just plain pulse-pounding real-world adventure-story magic:

Bartholomew Sharp (born c.1650 – 1690?) was an English buccaneer whose pirate career lasted only three years (1679-82). His flagship was the Trinidad.

Sharp had been with renowned pirate captain Henry Morgan when he attacked Porto Bello in 1679. He commanded a barque that was one of the lead ships in the expedition. His men were in the forefront of the land battles which took the Spanish city.

In 1680-1682 Sharp led a buccaneering expedition which plundered several Spanish settlements along the Western coast of South America.

Sharp’s career as a pirate captain began when the buccaneers with whom he was sailing round South America needed a new commander, but only “on Condition, that they [the pirates] may be Captain over him; they separate to his Use the great Cabin, and sometimes vote him small Parcels of Plate and China… but then every Man, as the Humour takes him, will use the Plate and China, intrude into his Apartment, swear at him, seize a Part of his Victuals and Drink, if they like it, without his offering to find Fault or contest it.”

He quickly proved himself a natural leader and a capable seaman. These qualities did not prevent being deposed as captain in January 1681, however, after storms and setbacks provoked a mutiny. His successor was killed three weeks later and Sharp resumed command.

Under him the buccaneers continued around South America and up to the Caribbean, taking 25 Spanish ships and plundering numerous Spanish towns.

Because England and Spain were not at war the Spaniards demanded Sharp’s prosecution for piracy. Sharp, however, presented the authorities with a book of maps taken from the Spanish ship El Santo Rosario in July 1681; their value to English seafarers was such that Sharp received a full pardon from Charles II.

Sharp wrote about his exploits as a buccaneer and the attack on Panama. These chronicles were incorporated into Esquemeling’s “Buccaneers of America”.

Very nice, you say, but what does this have to do with my Spanish silver? Patience is a virtue; read on:

In 1681, the Spanish treasure ship Santa Maria de la Consolacion sailed from Peru for Panama, bloated with Inca silver, gold, and gems. The captain had not wanted to go, having heard of pirates operating off the coast of Ecuador. But the governor insisted – the ship had to reach Panama in time for its passengers and cargo to catch the Spanish fleet before it left on its annual journey across the Atlantic and home to Spain.

Sure enough, six pirate ships were soon in hot pursuit. Capt. Sharpe led the group at the helm of the Trinidad.

What happened when the Santa Maria crossed paths with Sharpe was so bloody that to this day Ecuadorians call the tiny island of Santa Clara “El Muerto” — “The Dead Man”. The official record says this:

“In the year 1681 Captain Sharpe gave chase to a ship in this sea and thee was lost on fowle ground near S. Clara, in her 100,000 pieces of eight besides Plate and other goods of value.”

Captain Lerma of the Colsolation had tried to reach safe harbor but the “Devil Pirates,” as the beleaguered skipper referred to them, gained on his ship.

The Santa Maria struck a reef. It couldn’t move and took on water. The crew and passengers scrambled into small boats and headed to Santa Clara island. Lerma, not wanting the treasure to fall into the hands of the British, ordered his ship set on fire.

It burned and sank with its treasure, infuriating the pirates. They retaliated by beheading the crew and passengers — an estimated 350 people.

The pirates forced some of the local natives to dive for the treasure, but they refused after one of them was eaten by a shark.

The ship was found and salvage operations were begun in 2001. So after 320 years at the bottom of the sea, a bit of pirate treasure found its way into my pocket.


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