Modern society has grown fascinated with the adventure filled swashbuckling world of Pirates. Even in the 1900s people were writing about peg-legged men clad in eye-patches with golden teeth. The modern media has romanticized the adventures of pirates, but the truth is that many of them were unlikely villains who were simply down on their luck. Many of these men, as early back as the 1600s, sailed the waters off of the shores of places like Quintana Roo. These men, far from the modern image of violent ruffians who pillaged, plundered and ransacked for the sake of becoming rich and famous, simply needed to make a living. Nevertheless, these highwaymen of the seas led interesting lives, especially those pirates of the Yucatan coast.
In 1909, writer Winter Nevin wrote about his eyewitness experiences with pirates in Belize, then known as the British Honduras, and its “numerous coral reefs” and “beautiful harbor”. He wrote of how the area was a massive gathering spot for groups of pirates, most if not all of whom were European, from Holland, France, Spain, and England. He spoke about one particular Scottish pirate by the name of Peter Wallace, who sailed along with a mere eight shipmates. He was the founder of the pirate settlement in Belize. They built small houses and crude fortifications amongst the tropical cays, and used them as a launching point for raids on merchant ships bringing supplies to the new world. However, money eventually took the best of him when he realized that there was a larger and safer profit to be had in trading the valuable local resources, mostly rare kinds of wood, and began selling selling it for the manufacture of ships and dyes in Europe. His colony began to prosper on the riches of his new found lumber trade, until in 1733 the Yucatan sent troops to evict the Scotsman by force to keep him from gaining too much influence over the region. Additionally, before the wealthy colony was more than a gang of roving pirates, the British attempted to colonize the Mosquito Coast, now a part of the Republics of Honduras and Nicaragua, which was at that time populated only by the primitive tribe of natives known to them as the Zambos. But Belize was not the only area where Europe and the European pirates spread their influence.
The region of Isla Mujeres, or Death Island, is rumored to be home to treasure buried by the likes of Morgan and Lafitte, but the most infamous inhabitant was the pirate Fermin Mundaca, a slave trader who had made his fortunate transporting African slaves to Antilles. He was a native of the former Basque country, a region now divided amongst Spain and France, and in an earlier life had made a living as a pear farmer. Later in life he joined the Imperialists coming from Europe to Africa in the trade of native captives brought to the new world to perform slave labor in plantations. In 1860 the British began to see the err of their ways and campaigned in opposition of the slave trade, and Manduca fled to the white beaches of the region to seek refuge and begin work as a pirate. From his camp there he rented his boats and his crew out to the Yucatan government to aid in their bloody struggle with rebel forces in the region, who he then sold illegally as slaves to sugar platations in the island nation of Cuba, making him hated and feared among the local populace. He used the wealth gained from his illicit slave trade to build a grand hacienda by the name of Vista Alegre, which can still be visited today. He fell in love with a local girl by the name of Martiniana Gomez Pantoja, 37 years younger than he, and lived out the rest of his days in the region as a slave trader until, still unnoticed by his love, he died at the age of 55. Nonetheless, Manduca was hardly the only prestigious pirate who worked in this diverse and beautiful region.
John Lafitte was a pirate born in Haiti, famous for liberating New Orleans through his smuggling to avoid the British Tax Men and then through a violent battle with the US government in 1812. He was known to the American Government as a “thief and a rogue”, but the locals of New Orleans thought of him as a patriotic gentleman who fought for their independence. Soon after the battle which he won against the United States, he was named governer of the territory of Galveston, then under Mexican control, but his problems with Andrew Jackson’s government were still far from over. Policies and regulations laid out by the government quickly made it difficult for Lafitte to continue his trade as a smuggler and pirate, and shortly before disappearing into the Caribbean aboard his ship, he famously set Galveston alight. It is rumored that he too stopped on Isla Mujeres before moving into the Gulf of Mexico to work as a privateer and pirate along the Yucatan coast. These are far from the only pirates working in the region, and surely there are untold thousands of rapscallions and privateers who fought and died on the historical Yucatan coast.
Central America’s beautiful Yucatan coast is rich with a violent and fascinating pirate history. Along this tropical paradise, many bloody battles were fought and many lives lost in the pursuit of treasure, the fulfillment of greed, and the expansion of European colonies. These pirates, many of them poor or exiled from their home countries for countless reasons, sought a new home along this scenic coast of modern Belize to continue their lives, be it as a privateer, a freedom fighter, or a slave trader. The area was home to many famous pirates, such as Governor Lafitte, and played host to a rich and diverse history of seafaring thieves and rapscallions. Even today, the many colonial houses and haciendas built by these men can be visited by any tourist with a love of history and desire to learn the local lore.For those in the area with a desire to learn firsthand the pirate heritage of the area, one need only stop by the Subacuatico-CEDAM musem of Peurto Aventuras, the Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal, or the Posada del Capitan Lafitte. Those interested in central American pirates but unable to visit can learn more about the pirates and their illicit colonies from the Pablo Bush Romero’s “Under the Waters of Mexico”.