Tuesday 22 November 2011


The islands in the Dragon’s Mouth can assume a magical character, both in magnificent sunsets, as gold goes to purple with Biblical splendour, and also in sublime morning light, when the horizon is lost in the seascape, and they appear to float upon a prehistoric mist.
The topes of mountains now lost, they are stepping stones to the South American continent to which Trinidad was once joined. Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, almost crashed his tiny fleet into them some 500 years ago. Escaping, he named the passage for the dragon of the alchemists.
Sir Walter Raleigh, dreaming of his virgin queen Elisabeth I, thought he saw gold glistening in their towering cliffs. Disappointed, he coined the phrase: “All that glitters is not gold.”
The Admiral Lord Nelson sailed a battle-ready fleet through the islands of the Dragon’s Mouth in search of a French Admiral and, missing him, reversed himself, crossed the Atlantic to find and defeat him at Trafalgar. In so doing, Nelson changed the course of history. France in losing her fleet, in effect lost the war at sea, and this enabled Great Britain to rule the waves. One cannot help but wonder that if Nelson had found the French in the Gulf of Paria, and had the French destroyed the British in the swirling currents of the remous, would we be like Martinique and Guadeloupe today, la Trinité?
But our tale concerns itself not with such bona fide travellers such as adventurers, discoverers and admirals, but with pirates. Robert Chase, an authority on pirates, remarks in his book “The Age of Piracy”:
“The tapestry of the record of piracy is old and worn. Many of the threads that were the lives of the men who made it are lost, others are brilliant, some parts gleam, showing in sharp relief the great figures of their times.”
Both Trinidad and Tobago were a part of the age of piracy. Edward Teach, a.k.a. “Blackbeard”, raided both the coasts and the shipping of these islands. Sir Henry Morgan sailed these waters, as did Anne Bonny and her friend Mary Read. Both were notorious lady pirates, as villainous and bloodthirsty as Captain Hook.
One island in the Dragon’s Mouth is remembered for its pirates’ history: Gaspar Grande, named for a French settler of the 1780s, Gaspar de Percin. A century before, Gaspar Grande was frequented by the pirates. Winn’s Bay on the south side of that island, named for Richard Winn, was previously called Corsair’s Bay. For the pirates, it was a haven.
“There was no chart yet that gave an accurate description of the area, no beacons or aids to navigation of any sort,” writes Robert Chase. “A man sailed carrying his knowledge of the Caribbean in his head. But the buccaneers took their “fri-botes” across it unerringly and in later days, towards the end of the 17th century, the 1670s, when they had accepted piracy as a way of life, they entered Spanish ports with superb skill.”
Perhaps a million years ago, when Gasparee was a part of the mainland, a great river may have coursed through it. Fr. Anthony de Verteuil records in his book “Scientific Sorties”:
“The remnant of an underground river exists at Point Baleine. The entrance is through a karst window at the head of Pt. Baleine inlet and stretches across almost the whole width of the island.
This channel splits off into three smaller ones, some leading, it is thought, to large sinkholes or caverns deep within the bowels of the island. A perfect place to hide a treasure!
“Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle or rum!” goes an old song. Was a treasure buried in one of those tunnels that led to an as yet undiscovered cave, leading off from Corsair’s (Winn’s) Bay? Dead men tell no tales. All sixteen of them that filled the hole on top of a great iron box of gold. Pirate stories are always fabulous!
Anne Bonney was a long-legged, red-haired beauty from County Cork in Ireland. She travelled out to South Carolina to meet her father, a retired doctor. It is said that she was always a little quick-tempered. While in her teens, s he is alleged to have stabbed her English maid to death. In any event, she left her family and fell in with a captain named Calico Jack Rockham, who was famous for his good looks and gorgeous physique, if not his bravery. He possessed wild stories of piratical adventures, and Anne set sail with him and his murderous band aboard his ship “The Duke”, combing the Caribbean in search of Spanish treasure ships.
They sailed south, skirting Trinidad’s eastern coastline, but did not put in for fear of cannibals. The Duke’s logbook for September 25 states that they crossed the tropic of Cancer. Rockham wrote:
“This day, according to custom, we ducked those that had never passed the tropic before.” They simply tied them with a line and tossed them into the shark-infested waters! They sailed to Cape Horn, the very tip of the southern hemisphere, in freezing weather, and then north up the coast of Peru to raid Spanish towns and shipping. They gathered a fortune in gold, and the following year returned to the “Horn”, the Duke’s decks awash, ploughing through monster waves.
As they beat their way into the South Atlantic, Anne discovered that she was pregnant. It was a long, rough journey up the Brazilian coast to the islands of the Caribbean. Anne had her baby in Cuba, where Rockham had friends. She lived there for a while, then left the young one with them and rejoined the crew of the Duke. She found another woman, Mary Read, aboard, and the two became great friends. Mary was more on the burly side than Anne. She had concealed her sex and served as a soldier in an infantry regiment. both women wore loose cotton jumpers and bell-bottomed sailor trousers, carried a cutlass and a brace of pistols.
They sailed south and careened the Duke in Pirates’ Bay, a cave in Man-o-War Bay in Tobago. There they were surprised by H.M.S. Randolph. Captain Rockham and some of his crew tried to flee in a sloop as the Randolph's landing party came ashore, muskets blazing. Anne Bonney and Mary Read fought side by side without help until they were overpowered. This was remembered when they arrived in Jamaica in chains. Both women escaped hanging because they were pregnant!
Anne was allowed to see Rockham hanged. She said: “Had he fought like a man, he need not be hanged like a dog.” Anne ended her days a wealthy woman in St. Iago de la Vega. Mary sailed the Caribbean as a pirate queen for some years, settling eventually in Scarborough, Tobago.
The “Jolly Roger”, the skull and crossbones, that is well known as the pirate’s flag, was once the battle flag for the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Trinidadians still have to find the treasure that is buried in an undiscovered cave on Gasparee island - if there is any at all!

1 comment:

Martin Biggs said...

Most interesting. Did not know the background to the Jolly Roger.