May 17, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean - Laurens 'Laurencillo' de Graaf

LaurencilloThe Dutch born Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf was better known to the Spanish as Laurencillo or El Griffe. To the Dutch themselves, he was Gesel van de West, the scourge of the West. He was born in 1653, in Dordrecht, Dutch Republic (modern day Netherlands), but was captured by Spanish slavers as a child and taken to the Canary Islands. Around 15 years later, he escaped his captures and turned pirate. Now married, to Francois Petronilla de Gurzman, Laurencillo sailed to the Caribbean as the captain of a French pirate ship.

Laurencillo was reknowned as a very handsome man. He was also extremely well-read and cultured by the standards of the day. He always carried a violin and trumpet, which he would play to entertain his crew. He also knew huge sections of Shakespeare off by heart, which he could recite in Dutch and Spanish. His favourite play was 'King Lear'.

One of Laurencillo's first recorded pirate attacks was a terrifying assault on poor, beleaguered Campeche. This town suffered several such attacks during the 128 of high pirate activity, but Laurencillo's, in March 1672, was one of the worst. After setting fire to a frigate and ransacking the town, the pirates stayed on. They were still there when an unsuspecting merchant ship sailed into the harbour and was soon relieved of over 120,000 pesos worth of silver and other cargo.

They eventually left to sail the Caribbean Sea, causing such fear and outrage that even contemporary pirate, Sir Henry Morgan, sent a fleet to stop them. Their adventures to this point were legendary. Laurencillo's men had taken a 28 gun Spanish galleon, which he renamed 'Tigre' and used as his flagship; they had taken the 'Princesa', a ship carrying the entire payroll for the Spanish colonies in Puerto Rico and Santo Domigo, which in turn became his flagship; they had succeeded in open sea battles with Spanish fleets sent to capture them. Sir Henry Morgan certainly sent his frigate, 'Norwich', in pursuit of Laurencillo, but there is no record that he actually found him!

One pirate who did find Laurencillo was a fellow Dutchman, Nicholas van Hoorn. The two fleets joined forces to attack the Mexican city of Veracruz. Their enormous armada was led by two captured Spanish galleons, to lull the population into a false sense of security. Once in the harbour, on the morning of May 18th, 1683, the pirates descended on all sides. Laurencillo attacked from the sea, while van Hoorn led his men overland to attack from the rear. This was an audacious raid, as Veracruz was protected by force of at least 700 soldiers, plus 300 soldiers its fort, San Juan de Ulúa. Nevertheless, it worked.

Catedral de la AsunciónThe citizens were rounded up and 5,000 of them were locked into the Catedral de la Asunción (the largest cathedral in the city). This wasn't the easy option for the people. They were packed in like sardines, in searing heat, with no food or water. Their ordeal lastest for three and a half days. Some climbed to the top of the belltower and leapt to their deaths, rather than stand it any longer. The wealthiest, most important citizens were abducted for ransom. The governor himself was taken and a payment of 70,000 pieces of eight (eight-reales, the currency of the time) was required to secure his release. Also taken were thirty of the prettiest local girls that the pirates could find. They were taken to the pirate's base, in Laguna de Terminos, for the pleasure of the men.

All was not well between the pirate leaders though. Van Hoorn wanted more money. He was willing to behead a few captives in order to apply the pressure. Laurencillo refused to allow this and, in the fighting that ensued, van Hoorn received a slash to the wrist, which later turned gangrenous and killed him a fortnight later. The people of Veracruz were only saved when Spanish warships were spotted on the horizon. With their wealthy captives already sold for ransom; the pirates just abandoned the local girls, who were left without food nor water for five days before they were rescued. Meanwhile, the pirates sailed out, slipping past the Spanish, to land around the peninsula on Isla Mujeres. Here the spoiled were divided, with each man receiving 800 pieces of eight.

Incidentally, there is a story told in Veracruz that the Mexican folksong, 'La Bamba', which was later made famous as a rock'n'roll song by Ritchie Valens, dates from this period. The arrogance of the pirates is commemorated in the song, with its refrain, 'Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan!' ('I am not a sailor, I'm the captain!') The word 'bamba' comes from the Spanish 'bambarria', which has a meaning similar to the English phrase, 'shut the stable door after the horse has bolted'. It's a wry commentary on the efforts of Veracruz's officials to fortify the town after Laurencillo's attack, including numerous drills, which the citizens had to drop everything to participate in. The second verse, not often sung, talks about the people shut into the cathedral, climbing the ladder to fall to their deaths.

By now, several nations were vying with each other to enlist Laurencillo into their own private service. The king of Spain certainly sent a message requesting that Laurencillo joined the Spanish navy; while the English managed to solicit an acceptance. Laurencillo didn't actually do much for them though, other than sending a captured Spanish ship, laden with sugar, to the English colony in Jamaica.

In September 1684, Laurencillo set sail in his latest flagship, Nepture, from Isla Mujeres. He had his wife on board and he was heading into Cuban waters to see what piracy could be found there. However, they hadn't got far, when a Spanish fleet of warships was spotted. One of his ships was taken, with the crew and captain made prisoner, but Laurencillo wasn't prepared for this to happen to him. He jettisoned guns and other heavy equipment into the Yucatán Strait and managed to outrun the Spanish, despite being 'only a couple of spars shot away, even though he was being attacked from both sides within musket range.' He made it to Isla de Pinos, in Cuba, where they could dock and lick their wounds.

Whether it was this or the whole catalogue of events during their marriage, but, in 1689, Francois Petronilla de Gurzman formally divorced her pirate husband. The documents were registered in Tenerife, with copies found in Seville. By now, Laurencillo was finally back in France, where he received a hero's welcome for all of the wealth diverted from the Caribbean into his patron country. He couldn't settle there though and soon headed back west. He had been awarded the position of governor of Cap François, a French colony in Santo Domingo (modern day Cap Haitien, in Haiti). Not that this slowed him down much. Even with such a respectable title, he still sailed out on pirate raids.

It was here that he met the woman who was to be his second wife, Marie Anne Le Long, who was better known as Marie Dieu-le-Vent (Marie, God Wills it), after her commonly heard catchphrase. She appears to have been a firebrand herself. After Laurencillo publicly insulted her, Marie took a pistol and marched into his quarters to demand an apology. She got one. In fact, he asked her to marry him as his apology and she accepted. Whatever the quarrel had been about, it might be worth noting that she was pregnant with their eldest daughter at the time. She often sailed out with him, earning the reputation as a 'lioness'. In 1698 though, she was at home in Cap François, with their two young daughters, when the port was raided by the English, as revenge for Laurencillo's attack on Jamaica the year before. Marie and the children were taken, but Laurencillo paid the ransom to get them back.

Laurencillo died in 1704, but there are two contenders for where this occurred. Some say that he passed away quietly at home in Cap François; others reported that he was involved in creating a French Colony in what is now Biloxi, Mississippi, and it was there where he died.

* Isla Mujeres: A frequent place to dock, take on supplies and share out the spoils of their plunder. Nicholas Van Hoorn was buried there after Veracruz.

* Baluarte de San Carlos Museum, Campeche: This museum is built in the wall of the fortress built to protect the town from pirates. It contains a lot of exhibits documenting the raid by Laurencillo's men. It is located at Calle 63 and Calle 8, Presidia Circuit, Campeche.

* The Pirate Ship “Lorencillo”, Campeche: This replica ship travels around Campeche Bay during the evening. The cruise lasts for an hour and affords stunning views of the night sky, the oceanscape and the city lights. The entertainment includes a pirate show and on-deck salsa dancing, with audience participation. Naturally, the rum flows throughout. It sails from the exit of the Pier of Lerma, daily, at 5pm.

* Veracruz City, Veracruz: Taken by Laurencillo in 1683, the fortification of the city began in earnest afterwards.

* El Pirata Lorencillo, Ricardo Flores Magón, Veracruz: A statue of the infamous pirate, Laurencillo.

* Roca Partida, nr Arroyo de Lisa, Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz: It is in a cave here, under a modern lighthouse, that Laurencillo reputedly stashed his personal treasure.


  1. Where did you find this portrait? Could you please provide any artwork identification or any other information for the image?

  2. I'd also like to know where the image came from, who painted it, who holds the copyrights, etc. etc. Can anyone tell me/us where to find the provenance?

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