May 12, 2010

The Pirates of the Caribbean

Captain Jack SparrowFor many people today, the pirates of the Caribbean conjures images of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom swashbuckling across the silver screen. For those who lived in the coastal towns and islands of the Yucatán Peninsula, just a couple of centuries ago, they were a dreadful and terrifying reality. Traces of these pirates are still there for those who dare to follow the trail.

The pirates first started operating in the Caribbean during the 15th century, but their 'golden' age was 1660 to 1730. Many of them were acting under licence from various governments, notably the Dutch, English, French and American administrations. Hiring pirates was a lot cheaper than declaring open war; which is what the governments really wanted to do. This was a time of expansion and conquest in the New World. The 1493 Treaty of Tordesillas, backed by the Pope, had effectively stopped any nations, except Spain and Portugal, from colonising the New World. If a non-Iberian ship was in the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico, then it had to be either a slave ship or pirates. There was officially no other reason for them to be there. All of the Iberian ships contained conquistadors. The Mayan ships were effectively put out of business, their ancient trade routes dismantled. 90% of the people had been wiped out in wars and through contracting European diseases. The rest could only watch in horror as their lands and mines were stripped of natural resources, usually by Africans brought in as slaves, impoverishing the Mayan homeland for centuries to come.

It was a time when Spanish galleons were taking great wealth home from Mexico to Spain. The emphasis was always on extracting goods and carrying them back to Europe, rather than building self-sustaining colonies in the New World. The only way that other nations could get a share of the plunder was to attack the Spanish and Portuguese ships returning home. Pirates could get knighthoods for attacking galleons and redirecting the wealth back to their own sovereign states. Back home, they were often lauded in public as heroes and patriots. Out in the Caribbean, they were generally viewed more as vicious, merciless thugs.

By 1660, repeated wars in the European homelands meant that the Spanish and Portuguese control of the New World was slipping. Other nations swarmed in to create unstable colonies, but no European power had the resources to send vast armies into the Caribbean. The Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English and French governors increasingly had to rely on private mercenaries to harry neighbouring colonies, while protecting their own. There was great wealth to be had as a mercenary and these people were, of course, pirates. The whole area, around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, became a lawless and dangerous place to be; where every ship and settlement was prey.

By 1720, it was all over. The European wars were largely over, leaving behind trained and huge armed forces with nothing better to do than sail out and protect the colonies. The British established a naval base in Jamaica, while the Spanish created their Costa Guarda (Coast Guard) from Mexico. Between them, they drove the pirates out of business and, for the first time in two and a half centuries, the local nations could attempt to recover. There still were pirates, of course, just not in the same numbers. Nevertheless, that still amounted to hundreds of attacks throughout the region. They tended to operate out of Nassau in the Bahamas and Isla Mujeres in Mexico, though pirates like Jean LeFitte were based further north, in the Gulf of Mexico. By now, any pirates caught were generally hanged, not given knighthoods.

Map of Caribbean

The Caribbean Sea was central, so any ship coming from the conquested and plundered South American lands had to sail through the Caribbean in order to take their treasures home to Europe. Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula coast was right on this thoroughfare and so any beach and inlet could be harbouring pirate ships ready to intercept a Spanish galleon. It was the pirates, as much as the Spanish conquistadors, which destroyed the traditional Mayan trade routes and led to the abandonment of cities, like El Rey and Tulúm port.

Take a time machine and set it onto the white sands of the Mexican beach of your choice. Look out over the sea and, depending upon the year you have travelled back to, that ship out there could belong to Blackbeard, Jean LaFitte, Fermin Mundaca de Marechaja, Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Giovanni de Verrazano or any of the notorious pirates that sailed these seas. I'd come back to the 21st century if I were you. It could get dangerous.

However, for the next few days, you can peep into this dastardly world from the comfort and safety of your home, as we go on a voyage of discovery through the real life pirates of the Caribbean.

For details of pirate related attractions, please visit our main site or peruse the list below:

Captain HookCaptain Hook Lobster Cruise

Other areas:

* Campeche: Completely destroyed by pirates several times, so had its fort and cannons built to protect it. L'Olonnais was once left for dead on its beach.

* Chinchorro Reef, Riveria Maya: Pirates used lanterns to lure ships onto the treacherous reef. Captains would see the lights far inland, but they would believe that the lights were on the edge of cliffs. Thinking that they were safe, they would sail too close to the coastline and crash on the reef. The wreckers would then swarm over the wreckage and take off with the cargo.

* Punta Herrero, Sian Ka'an: Many night time sightings of a headless pirate. The ghost is described as a giant, colored man, who patrols from one end of the village to the other.

* Subacuatico-CEDAM Museum, Puerto Aventuras: CEDAM (Club de Exploraciones y Deportes Acuaticos de Mexico; The Museum of Mexico’s Explorations and Water Sports Club, Civil Association) is a museum based in Puerto Aventuras. The exhibits are mostly from shipwrecks, many of which were caused by pirates, recovered from the Caribbean Sea. There are a few exhibits from Xel-Ha Mayan Ruins too.

The museum was formed by divers who had been frogmen in the Second World War. In 1958, they set about exploring the wreck of El Mantanceros, a Spanish galleon, which had sunk off the coast of Akumal in 1741. CEDAM have recovered its cannons, anchor and many small items, such as glass beads, belt buckles, coins and gems. These diving archaeologists went on to explore many other wrecks, as well as cenotes, and returned with more artefacts. They will also place commemorative plaques in places where there was a notable nautical link, for example, there is one to Captain Jean LaFitte in Port Dzilam, where the pirate's grave was discovered.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday all year long from 9:00 to 13:00 hrs. (9 AM to 1 PM) and from 14:30 to 17:30 hrs. (2:30 PM to 5:30 PM)

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