Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Captain Henry Jennings : A war with Spain, wrecked ships and some sunken treasure – How the Pirates of the Caribbean started.

by Helen Hollick

Conflict flared up in Europe in 1700 because of the death of childless Charles II the King of Spain. The unease over who would succeed him troubled various governments throughout Europe. (The EU problem is nothing new!) As Charles lay dying he gave the entire Spanish Empire to the second-eldest grandson of King Louis XIV of France: Philip, Duke of Anjou. Obviously Charles II had a reason for doing this, although it was probably not the resulting War of the Spanish Succession.

With Philip ruling Spain his grandfather could claim huge financial benefits and great advantage for himself and his heirs. But if the French held such power, the rest of Europe could suffer financially, as France and Spain united for trade, and other perks, would dominate to the detriment of the Dutch and English.

Not liking the possible consequences England, the Dutch Republic and Austria, along with the Holy Roman Empire, formed a Grand Alliance in 1701 to support Emperor Leopold I's claim to the Spanish inheritance for his second son, Archduke Charles. Result: war.

The War of the Spanish Succession lasted from 1701-1714 and was a delight for the Caribbean-based privateers, for wealth-laden Spanish ships sailing from the gold-rich South Americas and Mexico could be attacked with legal impunity. Privateering was not piracy, it was legally condoned by governments and kings alike. The rule, though: you only attacked and stole from the country/countries your own sovereign was at war with, and you shared the loot with said government and king. This particular war was all too short, though. After those few rewarding years in the Caribbean and along the North American coast of the Colonies, sailors sat idle with no more money to spend and nothing to do. Ships were starting to rot in the harbours.

With the war drawn to a close, and privateering now illegal again, Spain resumed bringing treasure from Mexico back home, by the boatload. Literally. But the weather intervened. In July 1715 a fleet of galleons set sail from Mexico to Spain after many months of delay. The Flota de Nueva España (the New Spanish Fleet) set out intending to rendezvous in Havana, Cuba, with a second fleet, the Esquadron de Terra Firme. The combined fleet was a floating treasure chest of silver and gold coin, gold bars, gold dust, jewels, tobacco, spices, indigo and cochineal, as well as emeralds, pearls and Chinese porcelain. The combined value of cargo (not including any contraband  likely to have been aboard) neared a modern equivalent of £1,500,000,000.
The Tierra Firma under the command of Captain-General Don Antonio de Escheverz y Zubiza, with the New Spain Fleet, Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. Confusingly, both flagships were called Capitana. Other ships were the Almiranta, the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, Urca de Lima, San Miguel, the El Ciervo, the Refuerzo and a smaller unknown merchant vessel. Sailing with them, Griffon, a French ship commanded by Captain Antoine Dar.

All were top-heavy, overloaded and had delayed sailing for too long. July was hurricane season. The intended route was to sail along the Florida coast making use of the Gulf Stream and then veer across the Atlantic. One week after departure from Havana a hurricane blew in. With the exception of the Griffon which sailed on unscathed, the entire fleet was wrecked off the coast of Florida. Over one thousand men lost their lives, including Ubilla and his officers.

Some of the ships sank in deep water, most broke up in the shallows. The more fortunate ran aground close to the beach. About 1,500 men reached the shore, the survivors improvising makeshift camps while a party was despatched to fetch aid from nearby St. Augustine. This was the early eighteenth century; the American West had not been explored, the slave-labour plantations were only starting to expand. Florida was not the tourist attraction, heavily populated State that it is today. Apart from Native Americans and natural flora and fauna, there was nothing there. Many of the poor wretches who scrabbled ashore succumbed to exposure, thirst, shock and hunger before help arrived. Salvage ships were dispatched from Havana, but not for the benefit of survivors. The prime concern was to recover the cargo.

Most of the treasure from the holds of the ships which had run aground was recovered. A salvage encampment was built and a storehouse erected among the dunes behind the beach. Word spread, and many of those bored men sitting around doing nothing had the same idea: get a boat, get rich quick. Like moths to a flame they surged to the Florida shallows in the hope of picking up a fortune – literally. And then, in January 1716, Henry Jennings appeared on the scene.

Jennings was an opportunist. Like so many privateers (and pirates,) little is known of his early life. He had been a merchant captain and a respected, educated land-owner – and a privateer during the short war. He headed to Florida with his ten-gun sloop Barsheba accompanied by a second vessel, Eagle, captained by John Willis, with a combined crew of between 150-300 men.

Scrabbling around in the shallows for mere handfuls of the lost treasure was not his intention, though. Jennings was made of brighter stuff. He let the Spaniards do all the work then sailed in as calm as you please and raided the warehouses, getting away with something like 350,000 pieces-of-eight, the equivalent of about £87,000 British sterling. The raid was illegal, an act of piracy - the war had ended. A small, inconsequential fact to these men.

Jennings compounded his piracy by attacking a French ship, the Sainte Marie amassing another 60,000 pieces-of-eight. When he returned to Jamaica, where hitherto the Governor had welcomed Jennings (and a share of any plunder) things were different. The Spanish had complained and Henry Jennings and his crew were no longer welcome. They were more likely to be hanged. Sensibly, Jennings went to Nassau on New Providence Island in the Bahamas, which was rapidly becoming as notorious pirate haven.

At the start of this ‘Golden Age’ of piracy in the Caribbean, Florida Coast, Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and the Bahamas, many of the later infamous names sailed together, drank together, and probably enjoyed a bit of ‘bed-chamber entertainment’. In 1718 piracy had become so prolific – and was causing such damage to trade, that the English government introduced an amnesty for the several thousand pirates gathered in the area – most of whom had been lured there by the wrecked fleet. Jennings took advantage of King George of Hanover’s Amnesty, overseen in the Bahamas by the new Governor, Captain Woodes Rogers. Dozens of pirates surrendered, and Jennings, being educated, soon found himself in a position of leadership as unofficial Mayor. With his pirating days behind him, he retired as a Bermuda plantation owner, and became one of the rare ex-pirates who not only survived the prospect of the noose, but apparently enjoyed a leisurely retirement.

As for the treasure fleet: the Spanish continued salvaging what they could until 1719. It is possible that around £300,000,000 still remains on the seabed, the occasional haul being found by professional marine archaeologists and treasure-hunters. No wonder the Florida beaches are such an attraction for hopeful holiday-makers.

The sinking of the Spanish Fleet and Jennings’ derring-do inspired the initial idea for my novel Sea Witch, the first in a series of nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. Fun sailor’s yarn tales. ‘What if,’ I thought, ‘it wasn’t Henry Jennings’ idea to raid that warehouse, but my pirate, Jesamiah Acorne.‘

Graphics: © Helen Hollick


Life Among the Pirates   David Cordingley 
A History of Pirates  Nigel Cawthorne 
A General History of Pirates  Captain Charles Johnson 
The Buccaneers of America  Alexander O. Exquemelin  
The Pirate Wars  Peter Earle
Under the Black Flag  David Cordingly 


  1. Lovely post. ANd Carlos II did not "give" his kingdom to Philip of Anjou per se - but due to the fact that Carlos' paternal aunt had married Louis XIV, the French prince had blood rights to the Spanish throne. And so the House of Borbón came to Spain - where it still remains.
    As to all the loot waiting to be discovered - how about we go on a diving holiday?

  2. Of course the English side would say it was given - exaggeration and untruths in politics never changes does it?

    Hmm I like the holiday idea... fetch a bucket and spade and a boat Anna!

  3. An endlessly fascinating time period! It's funny how we love stories of pirates back then, but not so much the modern variety:)

  4. Encouraging to see that Europe really hasn't change. This too shall pass (hopefully). Your Jennings was a sharp cookie. I love visiting Nassau and they are quite proud of their pirate history. There is an old crumbled tower situated at the high point of the island where one would have been able to see ships approaching from the north and south side of the island. The local legend is that this was Blackbeard's tower. It's probably true.

  5. Interesting that the Griffon, a French warship hired to protect the Spanish galleons, was the only ship to survive. France and Spain were allied, against the grand alliance, but rumored to distrust one another. I believe the Griffon left the Spanish treasure fleet, as escort along the Florida coast, and veered northeast, missing the hurricane. Perhaps to bombard the English fort at New Providence, planning to reunite with the Galleons across the Atlantic farther north. The Buccaneers, French boeuf coit for "cured beef", knew that the privateers, or "Pirates", would be docked at old fort in Nassau. Easy targets for the French cannons. Perhaps a secret raid, because the war of Succession was ending. Of course, never rejoining the lost Spanish fleet, the Griffon continued, on to Europe.


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