The Pirates of Monterey
The buccaneer spirit once lived in our waters—briefly.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Pirates are hot. They are the ultimate bad boys, every girl’s fantasy: ruggedly handsome and dangerous with a swashbuckling swagger, dashing fashion sense and a big cutlass.
When I was little, I wanted to be a pirate when I grew up. Either be a pirate, or be kidnapped by a pirate. The older I got, the more I leaned toward the latter.
Of course, I want the romantic, celluloid pirate, who looks like Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp. Not the stinky, lice-ridden, barbarous buccaneers of the 18th century seas, and definitely not the modern day pirates armed with AK-47s who attack UN vessels and cruise ships in Indonesian waters—and who probably don’t smell a whole lot better than their Golden-Age-of-Piracy counterparts.
Tim Thomas, museum historian for the Monterey History and Art Association, isn’t obsessed like me. But he tells me he has been working on a pirate exhibit for the Maritime Museum for the past few years. We’re sitting in his office, talking about pirates. (In hindsight, I realize that I should have conducted all of my interviews for this story in pirate speak. I should have at least said arrrr and worn an eye patch.) Still, when I tell Thomas about my early dreams of becoming a pirate, he nods seriously and tells me that I still could jump ship at the Weekly, so to speak. “There are still pirates,” he says.
In fact, the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy monitoring center reported six attacks the first week of July. Two ships were robbed carrying relief to tsunami-affected areas. These aren’t glamorous pirates. They use speedboats and automatic weapons to plunder and pillage.
While Thomas is right—I could still pursue piracy—the truth is I don’t like maggots, rats or guns. I get seasick fairly easily. And I’ve got an acute sense of smell that won’t tolerate poor personal hygiene.
I’ll settle for a fantasy version. I’m still holding out
for a pirate that looks like Johnny Depp.
~ ~ ~
Local lore says Robert Louis Stevenson’s stay in Carmel inspired him to write Treasure Island, the classic tale of pirate ships and buried treasure. And in Tales, Treasures and Pirates of Old Monterey, Randall A. Reinstedt writes about the legend of the Pearls of Lorreto deep underwater in the Monterey Bay, and rumors of a Spanish ship, carrying $9 million in Mexican gold, which was supposedly sunk by a pirate in 1845 as it was about to enter Monterey Bay.
Such great stories of local buccaneers and their exploits—but none of them true.
According to the experts, we can only lay claim to one true buccaneer. The California coast was never a hotbed of piracy. Pirates preferred to prowl the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts, following the merchant ships’ routes. Monterey holds the dubious distinction of being the only city in California to have been sacked by a pirate. It happened in 1818, during the Spanish-American wars of independence. Privateers from South America attacked Alta California, which was under Spanish control. French sea captain Hipólyte Bouchard led the attack and plundered Monterey. It was the only time California was conquered by an enemy—and a pirate.
Bouchard started out a privateer in the service of Argentina. In The Burning of Monterey, Peter Uhrowczik’s book about the 1818 attack, Uhrowczik describes Bouchard as tall and dark with piercing black eyes, and calls him “the most colorful privateer at the service of the rebels from Buenos Aires.” Uhrowczik quotes a Chilean historian, Barros Arana, who says Bouchard was “fearless to the point of recklessness, arrogant and excitable, rough in manners, without culture and hard in his feelings.”
I’m starting to swoon.
Uhrowczik, a writer who lives in Los Gatos, began researching Bouchard after overhearing an Argentine tourist asking about Bouchard in a Monterey bookstore. “You mean the pirate raid?” said the clerk.
“No, not a pirate—he was a patriot.”
“Well, he was a pirate to us.”
Uhrowczik says this conversation piqued his interest. He wanted to learn more about Bouchard, pirate or patriot.
“How come someone coming from that far away would attack Monterey?” he says.
Uhrowczik has since learned that Bouchard didn’t find
the goods worth looting he had expected to find in Asian
waters. So, after enduring a pirate attack on his own ship,
with 40 of his men dying from scurvy, and following a horrible
storm off Manila, Bouchard stopped off in Hawaii to recoup.
There, he met an Englishman who told him about Monterey, and
its suspected Spanish riches.
~ ~ ~
Piracy and its legal cousin, privateering, were not that uncommon from the Middle Ages through the end of the 19th century.
Uhrowczik writes that beginning in the 16th century, the governments of England, France, Holland and later the US used privateering to increase their naval power.
Privateers commanded privately owned vessels, armed at the owner’s expense with a government license—in the form of a letter of marque—to attack enemy ships. During the early 19th century, it was a legal and much admired profession. It was so successful in England, Uhrowczik writes, that England had trouble attracting crews to its regular navy.
Francis Drake was the most famous privateer, commissioned in 1577 by Queen Elizabeth I. And before he and his crew became the terror of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea from 1716 through 1718, Blackbeard the dreaded pirate was Edward Teach the British privateer.
Privateering was a dangerous job, but with the potential to make lots of money, depending on how many enemy ships a privateer seized.
Bouchard, says Uhrowczik, was “an ideal privateer.”
“He was very effective in the Spanish-American wars of independence,” Uhrowczik says. “His job was to seize and attack Spanish property and assets, and he did that fairly well. I’m not sure he was very lucky, however.”
Bouchard didn’t find the Spanish riches in Monterey that he was counting on.
And his letter of marque expired shortly before he raided
Monterey. So technically, Bouchard was no longer a privateer.
He was a pirate.
~ ~ ~
Bouchard planned to attack Monterey at night. Even though it was the capital of Alta California, Monterey was a sleepy town, with about 400 citizens who lived within the walls of the Royal Presidio, near Lake El Estero. It also had a fort, El Castillo de Monterey, and a warehouse by the beach.
Rancho del Rey (present day city of Salinas) provided meat and horses for the soldiers and their families. In Carmel, the Mission San Carlos de Borromeo headquartered Alta California’s mission system. It also housed the community’s wealth.
Bouchard seemed to have a solid plan: sail into the Bay, covered in dense fog, unload the crew—a motley group of men whom Bouchard had picked up between the Philippines and Hawaii—and raid the town.
But even pirates have bad days, and the plan didn’t pan out. Bouchard didn’t vanquish the city at night. No one knows why he didn’t, says museum historian Tim Thomas. “They were probably too damn tired,” Thomas speculates.
Instead, the pirate arrived on a warm, sunny November afternoon in 1818.
“A beautiful day, probably like today,” Thomas says. “It was flat as hell out there so they couldn’t sail,” Thomas says. “A longboat towed the ships in, and anchored about where the end of the Monterey [Fisherman’s] Wharf is, pretty close in to the shore.”
We’re sitting in Thomas’ office in the Maritime Museum. Outside, it’s warm and bright. Sea lions bark and gulls scream. There’s no fog—not even a cloud—and the Bay is glass. Nice day for a tourist, bad day for a pirate. Bouchard could gain no element of surprise.
On Nov. 20, 1818, guards at the lookout at Point Pinos spotted Bouchard’s two vessels, The Santa Rosa and La Argentina. The next day, The Santa Rosa opened fire at El Castillo—the only battle on the Pacific Coast between a shore battery and enemy ships. The Spaniards on shore won the battle, and rejected Bouchard’s demand for surrender.
Both sides disagree about what happened next.
According to the governor, Don Pablo Vicente de Solá, the last Spanish governor of Alta California, “troops remained vigilant all night under a heavy rain,” writes Uhrowczik. “In contrast, Bouchard wrote, the enemy was celebrating at the fort with a dancing party.”
The next morning, Nov. 22, Bouchard’s 200 men landed at Lovers Point. Half-naked Hawaiians with spears led the charge, and by 10am, occupied the fort.
The Spaniards fled to Rancho del Rey. The town drunk, a settler named Molina, was the only resident who remained behind.
“Bouchard found there wasn’t much here to take,” Thomas says.
The crew began looting houses, but didn’t find much money or valuables. They shot some farm animals, and stole ham, water, butter, blankets and whatever Spanish fashion and furniture they could find.
Pirate or privateer, Bouchard was a good Catholic and he refused to pillage the Mission in Carmel—or any other missions he came upon in California.
Before leaving, the pirates set fire to the presidio houses. They were built of adobe, so all that burned was the beams.
“They took on water, some pigs, they found out adobe doesn’t burn,” Thomas says. “Then they left. And they took the town drunk with them.”
Bouchard later released Molina in Santa Barbara. Molina was, Uhrowczik writes, a local celebrity at this point. But that didn’t stop Solá from sentencing him to 100 lashes and six years in the chain gang.
Bouchard, on the other hand, remains a hero in Argentina to this day.
Perhaps Molina would have had better luck as a
~ ~ ~
Thomas says the museum will open a pirate exhibit in April 2007.
“It will include myths and legends, and Bouchard and [Sir Francis] Drake,” who was a privateer before being knighted by Queen Elizabeth I (See story, pg. 24). Although, says Thomas, despite legends of Drake stopping off in Monterey—and an elaborate hoax, the so-called “Drake plate,” claiming the area for the Queen, which was found on Moss Beach in 1934—it’s unlikely Drake landed any nearer than San Francisco.
“He didn’t actually come here,” Thomas says. “Bouchard really is the only pirate connection we have.”
But Thomas doesn’t think that will deter visitors from flocking to the pirate exhibit. “Pirates seem to be popular, and museums all over are looking for pirate exhibits.”
As I leave Thomas’ office, walking down the stairs to the museum’s main floor, two little girls in pigtails ogle a model ship, behind glass.
“Is that a pirate ship, dad?” one asks her father, who is wearing a black cap and a camera bag over his shoulder.
It’s actually the USS Hartford, commissioned May 27, 1859 at the Boston Navy Yard.
But the truth doesn’t deter these girls.
They spot a sword.
“Is that a pirate sword, dad?”
I’m right there with them.
I exit the museum and walk outside, towards the harbor. It’s a beautiful summer day. Seals sun themselves, lazily, watching tourists walk to the wharf, looking for a place to get clam chowder for lunch.
I imagine the clouds blocking the sun and the fog rolling in. I hear the cannon fire before I see anything. Then, a tall ship sails out of the mist. Its sails are tattered; it flies a black flag. Boom—another cannon ball hits. Tourists scream, abandoning their fish-and-chips lunches, running inland, towards Salinas.
Suddenly, I’m the only one on the wharf. I also notice I’m now wearing some white, gauzy, corseted number and although my hair is tied back, long tendrils escape and blow about my face.
I walk toward the ship, looking for my pirate, hoping he’s not the fleshless, soulless kind.
Then my cell phone rings.