Pirates in Campeche

Pirates and piracy as a conversation topic goes from high to low depending on the releases of the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. Taking out the formidable sea creatures, invincible vessels and outrageous bounties, there was indeed significant pirate activity for more than 200 years in this part of Mexico and the Caribbean.

A not well-known pirate, yet (sadly) effective…..

Christopher Myngs became subcommander of the English naval flotilla based in Jamaica and by 1658 he was promoted to full commander acting as what the English called a “commerce raider.” As a “commerce raider” Myngs led English naval vessels and ships manned by buccaneers to attack Spanish galleons and merchant vessels and he led a series of brutal attacks on Spanish settlements throughout the Caribbean. Most English pirates / privateers had veiled or sometimes outright support from the English crown to attack Spanish vessels, their long-time enemies throughout many stages in history, to undermine Spanish power in the region.

After the Anglo-Spanish War had ended, England still had plans to expand its possessions in the Caribbean and parts of the mainland of the Americas, and the Crown wanted Myngs to continue his strategy of employing pirates to assist him in attacking Spanish ships and towns, to seize wealth and destroy infrastructure. By the end of 1662, Myngs and his small fleet of pirate ships attacked the heavily fortified city of Santiago de Cuba, a settlement on the southern part of the island of Cuba founded by the Spanish in 1515. The English commander made good on his promise and shared the wealth he plundered from Cuba with the pirates who helped him. After his Cuban victory Christopher Myngs announced a daring plan to sack the Spanish city of San Francisco de Campeche, now the capital of the Mexican state of Campeche, a somewhat unprotected but very wealthy town in the western Yucatán on the Gulf of Mexico. As news of Myngs’ attack on Santiago de Cuba spread throughout the Caribbean, he had no problem recruiting pirate volunteers from all parts of the region for his planned assault on Campeche. When the attack fleet gathered at Port Royal, Jamaica – including ships of French and Dutch privateers – it was the largest contingent of pirates ever assembled. Myngs would command over 1,400 pirates on over 20 vessels. In January of 1663, the fleet set sail for Mexico.

Soon after the Spanish conquest of the area, San Francisco de Campeche became an important port on its own unique path of development as it was located far from the centralized Spanish authority in Mexico City. As trade with the Orient increased, Campeche became a point of embarkation for Asian valuables that crossed overland after landing on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Galleons made regular runs to Spain out of Campeche and the city grew to be a regional center for trade. By the middle of the 1600s Campeche had become one of the wealthiest cities in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, but it lacked proper defenses which made it subject to small pirate raids and petty attacks from ships of other European powers. Famous pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Jean Lafitte had their runs at attacking Campeche, but nothing was to prepare the city for the huge armada of pirates which amassed at Jamaica in January of 1663.

The pirate raid on Campeche had some lasting effects. The attack was so severe that the king of England, Charles the Second, forbade all future military adventures involving English naval officers and pirates. The city of Campeche rebuilt itself, and the Spanish, realizing the need for better fortifications invested in massive defensive works for the city. Work began in 1686 and would be finished decades later. French architect Louis Bouchard de Becour was hired to unify the fortifications and to supervise building the 2,650-meter-long wall which enclosed the city in an irregular hexagonal shape. At the corners of the hexagon were 8 defensive bastions named after saints or religious figures. The wall had two gates, a sea gate and a land gate. Two small forts were also built on hills outside the city. The beefed-up defenses did the trick and Campeche enjoyed a peaceful existence for most of the rest of its history. Many of the fortifications built in the 17th and 18th Centuries still survive to this day and are well preserved. The preservation of the parts of the city from the pirate era earned Campeche the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. And what of the 1,400 pirates who took part in the Sack of Campeche? Many of them gained valuable experience and continued their careers as pirates on the open seas or as mercenary fighters for foreign governments. Many took their Mexican loot and settled down in England or made new lives for themselves in the recently-founded English colonies on the eastern shores of North America. Some set up little colonies of their own in the Caribbean region settling in places like the Mosquito Coast, the Bay Islands and the modern nation of Belize. Many descendants of these pirates still live in these areas today. Over 350 years after the raid on Campeche the pirate stories and legends survive in popular culture and continue to evoke feelings of adventure and romance.

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