May 13, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean - Giovanni de Verrazano

Giovanni de VerrazanoGiovanni de Verrazano (pron vay-rah-tsah'-he), aka Juan Florin, Juan Florentino or The Frenchman, was born in Florence, Italy, in 1485, but worked under a commission from the French crown. During his early career, he traversed the coastline of North America and Canada, sending letters back to Francis I, king of France, containing detailed descriptions of all he saw. These letters show that he discovered the Hudson River before Henry Hudson, but he only sailed as far as modern-day Manhattan, so didn't realise it was a river. Instead Verrazano believed that he'd found a 'large lake'. He made it as far north as Newfoundland before returning to Europe in 1524.

He was soon back, but this time it was in his other guise, as a pirate. He had first experimented with such activities in 1522, when he had taken a ship belonging to Hernán Cortés, a Spanish conquistador and now governor of the country, just off the coast of Mexico. He took pearls and sugar, as well as Mexican gold worth 80,000 ducats. At the time, Europe was alight with the news of the Spanish getting rich from their conquests in South America. Many countries despatched 'privateers', or crews with an official remit to intercept the Spanish and Portuguese ships, thus diverting the wealth into other countries. France's monarch, Francis I, was the one who provided Verrazano with a ship and crew to do just this. The age of the pirates was well and truly born.

Peter Martyr, an eyewitness, wrote letters concerning Verrazano's exploits at sea. He talked of ships lying in wait for the Spanish vessels, then dramatic chases and cannon fire. In 1521, Verrazano himself was boasting of owning four vessels for such grisly work. In 1523, the pirate was intercepted by the Spanish, whilst in possession of seven captured ships. He was forced to relinquish them. Yet another source said that he had fifteen ships at the time. What is certain is that Verrazano's notoriety as a pirate was growing steadily with each passing year.

Verrazano's crew had a reputation in the Caribbean as the worst kind of pirate. They were cut-throats, who would kill automatically without mercy or reason. They just wanted the loot and would sink any ship, as soon as its cargo had been carried away, with the loss of life of all on board. He was also responsible for abduction. He stole a child from a tribe in North Carolina, USA to take back to France as a curiousity. He attempted to take a young woman from the same tribe too, but she managed to escape. By the time he was hanged for piracy, in Puerto del Pico, Spain, in November, 1527, he had self-confessed to having plundered and sunk 150 ships, galleons and galleys. The estimated value of all the cargo that he had taken was nearly two million dollars.

Other sources state that he was never captured by the Spanish nor taken back to Spain for execution. The alternative story says that, in 1528, he achored off the coast of Guadeloupe, in the Lesser Antilles and saw members of the native population on the shore. While his crew, including his brother, Girolamo, stayed aboard the ships, Verrazano waded ashore. He was immediately set upon, killed and eaten, as the people were cannibals. Those on the ships were out of gunfire range and couldn't reach him in time to save him. Later commentators have noted that, while the population of Guadeloupe were cannibals, they only ate those whom they had defeated in battle. It can be deduced that it wasn't a friendly landing, which had led to Verrazano being eaten. It had been a fight, which the Europeans had lost.

What should historians make of these contradictory stories? It might be worth noting that Giovanni de Verrazano came from a notable family in Italy. His letters, alongside his brother's maps, were important for navigation in the New World for a century; while historians still find them invaluable as primary sources of information about that period. Spanish records are emphatic on the fact that they did hang him, with a charge of piracy against Spanish and Portuguese ships in the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. It is tantalising to consider that his family did not want such a story associated with their name, hence they embraced an alternative death for him. Being eaten by cannibals in South America is a much juicier narrative and it is this one which has endured.

However, the reality is even more murky than that. It seems that a Florentine man was captured and eaten by cannibals, but his name was not given in the account. What was told was that the ship and the rest of the crew were English, it was only the pilot who was Italian. Given the English records of the time, it is likely that this man was Albert de Prato. However, a chronicler of the period, John Baptista Ramusius, noted the nationality and the fact that Verrazano had disappeared from the historical record around this time. He put two and two together and inserted Verrazano's name as the consumed Florentine.

* Subacuatico-CEDAM Museum, Puerto Aventuras: Some of the exhibits recovered from the seabed come from ships which may have been sunk by Giovanni de Verrazano and his men.

Yucatán Strait

* Yucatán Strait: It was this stretch of water, separating Mexico from Cuba, where Giovanni de Verrazano and his fleet of pirates waited ready to attack Spanish galleons. Just visit any beach on the Yucatán Peninsula or its islands, or sail out into the sea, and you will be on the trail of Giovanni de Verrazano.

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