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The pirates of Cozumel

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El Graduado

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A while back I made the assertion on Scubaboard that it was not true that Jacques Yves Cousteau “put Cozumel on the map with a supposed documentary film he made there in 1960” (or 1956, ‘57, ‘58, ‘59, ‘61, ‘62, or ‘63, depending on which website you copy and paste from) and I challenged anyone to come up with evidence to the contrary, like photos or contemporary newspaper articles concerning such a pre-1970 visit to the island, or the date and network that the purported documentary was aired. So far, no one has been able to provide any such proof that this myth is anything other than a myth.

This afternoon, I had lunch with two Scubaboard members and they brought up the topic of “the pirates of Cozumel.” They said the dive shop they frequented told them that Cozumel had been the home to several very famous buccaneers, like Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Jean Laffite, and Henry Morgan. I’ve heard this hogwash many times before and I have published several articles on how this myth started, but my articles have been in Spanish and not widely disseminated outside of Quintana Roo. This “pirates of Cozumel” legend stems from the misunderstanding (and later misuse) of the Spanish term pirata. It is true that in some early Spanish documents there were mentions of several minor-league piratas who frequented the shores of Quintana Roo, but what the Spanish term ‘pirata’ meant back then was “someone dealing in un-taxed contraband goods” (like today’s use of the word "pirate" in “pirating music”) and it did not mean a privateer, buccaneer, filibuster, or corsair. It meant contrabandista, smuggler, or tax dodge.

The earliest mention I could find of this buccaneers-in-Cozumel myth is 1878. It appeared in a booklet written by an American who spent six months on Cozumel and was translating and paraphrasing what he understood he had been told by the islanders. He wrote “Cozumel Island was for many years the rendezvous of pirates and outlaws…” Later in the booklet, he wrote that Cozumel “must have been one of those blissful retreats which the sensation novel writers allude to when they indulge in historical romance about buccaneers of a century or two gone by.” He did not mention any of the “pirates and outlaws” by name. That didn’t happen until the late 1950s, when the magazine Visiónes printed an article about Cozumel that stated Henry Morgan used Cozumel as a base of operations; a statement that has no evidence to back it up. This magazine article was copied and paraphrased many times over in English and Spanish, and over time, more pirates were mentioned along with Morgan as using Cozumel as a base: Jean Laffite, Francis Drake, Laurent de Graff, (aka Lorencillo), Cornelio Hol (aka Pata de Palo), Abraham Diego (aka El Mulato), and Juan Cruyés, until it reached the height of absurdity in the 1994 edition of Baedeker’s Guide to Mexico, which included Long John Silver, a fictitious character in the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson.

Yes, Pierre Laffite (Jean’s brother) spent a few months on Isla Mujeres (never Cozumel) before dying in Dzilan, Yucatan, but Jean Laffite never spent any time on either island. Miguel Molas lived on Cozumel for two years, 1828 to 1830, however, he was not a buccaneer, but rather a Spanish military captain turned contrabandista who had been arrested for consorting with smugglers in Yalahau, escaped from jail, and then hid in Cozumel for those two years before moving to Tancah. Pierre Chultot and his crew of French Huguenot buccaneers raided Cozumel in 1571 and held up in the old church for 22 days before being captured by the Spanish and taken away for trial in Mexico City. A couple of other very minor-league corsairs stopped by Cozumel for water, but none of them ever stayed for more than a couple of days.

The old myth of Cozumel being a buccaneer headquarters is just that; a myth. Back in those days, sailing ships avoided the Yucatan channel and sailed around Cozumel by passing by the eastern coast (where most of the island’s wrecks are), so the idea of the buccaneers lying in wait, hidden in caleta harbor waiting for prey makes no sense. There was no prey passing by the western coast. Regardless, there are no documents or manuscripts, in English or Spanish, written prior to the 1950s that mention any of these buccaneers and Cozumel in the same breath. The story that Cozumel was once a pirate home port is as ridiculous as the myth repeated on many websites that the island hosted a US submarine base in WWII.

www.EverythingCozumel.com Books, articles and maps of Cozumel
 

Roatan Joe

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El Graduado,

Have you attempted to research any of the sources of information used by the Texas State Historical Association? Or maybe share some of your information with them? They have information that says Jean Laffite gave up Galveston went to Isla Mujeres in 1820. They say he stayed there for 5 years, became ill and eventually died on the Mexican mainland..

https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fla12

Good luck with your research! Long John Silver.. haha... that was a good one! :)
 
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El Graduado

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Have you attempted to research any of the sources of information used by the Texas State Historical Association?

No, but I assume it is the same old second-hand sources so often quoted. I'll read what they have and post what I think about it later. In the meantime, here is a short synopsis of what I know:

An article in the Louisiana Courier, dated February 22, 1821, says Pierre Laffite left Charleston, South Carolina on the schooner Nancy Eleanor. A woman named Lucy, Lucie, Lucia, or Lucille Allen left with him, as his consort. Apparently, they eventually made it to Isla Mujeres, where they were captured by Captain Miguel Molas in November 1821. They escaped, but Pierre was wounded during the fight. The facts of the fight are described in the testimony of Miguel Molas and held in the Merida archives. We also have the testimony of a member of Pierre’s crew, a man from Quebec, Canada, named George Schumph. ("Notarias Publicas, Protocolos del Afio 1821, "Sumaria instruida contra el inglés don Jorge Schumph, Archivo de la ciudad de Mérida de Yucatán). In his testimony, Schumph says that they tried to reach Dzilam after escaping from Miguel Molas, but Pierre died before arriving, some six leagues outside of Dzilam. He says they took Pierre’s body to Dzilam and buried him there on November 10, 1821. Schumph and Allen then tried to walk to Merida, but Schumph was arrested and Allen, who was very ill, died on the way, in Dzemul.

John Lloyd Stephens, in his book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vol. 2, says that he went to visit Dzilam in 1841, in search of the tomb of Pierre Lafitte a short 20 years after his death, but he did not find it. Here is the part of Stephens’ book that describes his search: "The Father was not in the village (Dzilam) at this time, and nobody knows if he (Pierre) was buried in the graveyard or the church, but they supposed as Lafitte was a distinguished man, was the last. We went there (to the church), and I examined the graves on the floor, and the father pulled from a pile of rubble a cross with a name which the father supposed said Lafitte, but it didn’t. The deacon who was the officer in charge of the burial of Lafitte was already dead; the father went to look for several inhabitants that might know something, but a dark cloud covered the memory of the pirate; everyone knew of his death, but no one knew where it was or was interested in where he was buried. We also heard that his widow was living in this place, but this was not the truth. It was a black woman who was a servant to the widow, and who, they said, speaks English; the priest sent for her, but she was so intoxicated that she could not come."

The story that there were descendants of Pierre Lafitte and Lucia Allen in Dzilam began with a story that Mr. Luis González of Mérida told Pablo Bush Romero in 1960. Gonzalez told Bush that the consort of Pierre Lafitte, Lucy Allen, gave birth to a girl at Dzilam. Where he got this story is unknown and there is no proof of this legend; but Bush went to Dzilam to investigate it. There, José M. Estrada, resident of Dzilam, was interviewed by Bush. Estrada told Bush that his family was descended from Jean Lafitte. Estrada showed Bush a wooden cross, which said "Jean Lafitte, Re-exhumado, 1938." Convinced that he just found the burial of Jean Lafitte, Bush provided funds for a new headstone, in exchange for the old wooden cross. Later, another monument was built by the local government with the name of Jean Lafitte. This purported genetic connection between Estrada and the pirate Jean Laffite has changed over the years, each time that Mr. Estrada told it. Estrada told Lillian Paz Avila another version. In this version, which Estrada told at age 82, he says that when he was only 8 years old, he found a human bone on the beach, close to where the old cemetery had been eroded by the sea. When he showed it to his mother, she took it to the mayor of Dzilam, who said it was the bone of Jean Lafitte. They then buried the bone in the new cemetery with a cross that said "Jean Lafitte." Years later, this new cemetery also began to erode, so a third cemetery was built and some of the previous burials were relocated to this new place, including the "bone of Jean Lafitte.”

In conclusion:

1. Jean Lafitte did not die at Dzilam and, in fact, was never there.

2. Jean’s brother Pierre Lafitte died on the way to Dzilam and he was buried there in an old cemetery, which later eroded into the sea.

3. The consort of Pierre Lafitte, Lucia, Lucy, or Lucille Allan, left Dizlam walking to Mérida with George Schumph a few days after the death of Pierre, but she never got there; she became sick in Dzemul, where she died.

4. The myth that the widow of Pierre, (or, as some erroneously report, of Jean) gave birth to a girl at Dzilam is another legend, nothing more. There are no descendants of either Lafitte brother in Dzilam.

 

cvchief

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I dunno, EG. Unsavory ne'er-do-wells like cvchief and mossman have reportedly been seen lurking around Cozumel...

:D

Well, I have, on occasion, had a little Captain in me, but that is neither here nor there.

captain_morgan2.png

But, EG, come on. Ok, I got no problem with you giving JC the boot. He is too French for my likes, but I haven't even had dinner on the pirate boat yet and you go and kick Jean Lefitte right in the barnacles.

You have to give us some kind of replacement story. Surely among your treasure trove of facts you have something with a twinge of swashbuckling or some such. I mean the WW2 base was a little interesting esp. with the subs, but you went and smashed that. Wasn't there a story about the one ring to rule them all being lost on Cozumel? Is that one true?
 
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El Graduado

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Wasn't there a story about the one ring to rule them all being lost on Cozumel? Is that one true?

I don't know about the ring, but when Jeff Bridges was here filming "Against All Odds," he stayed at the Sol Caribe (now the Park Royal). His father, Beau Bridges, recently had given him the dive watch we all used to see in close ups on Sea Hunt in every episode. Jeff left the watch in his room one day, and when he returned it was gone. So, somewhere on Cozumel I imagine that watch is still tucked away somewhere and who ever has it probably has no idea how significant it was to so many TV fans.

I can give you the story of the pirate raid on Cozumel in 1571, which seems more like a Keystone cops movie than a tale of rape and pillaging if you want. It has more details and twists and turns than the current myth of how Cozumel was a base of operations for Long John Silver.
 

gopbroek

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I can give you the story of the pirate raid on Cozumel in 1571, which seems more like a Keystone cops movie than a tale of rape and pillaging if you want. It has more details and twists and turns than the current myth of how Cozumel was a base of operations for Long John Silver.

By all means please do!!!
 
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