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The seas were high, the storm roamed the waters and chased us until we couldn’t see anything besides the spraying foam and the waves that were trying to swallow us whole. We didn’t stand a change, we could only pray to the mighty gods up high and beg the monsters roaming bellow. We tried to convince them that we weren’t tasty at all, that we all tasted like month-old herrings, like old ropes, and that landlubbers were much nicer to eat.

Fragments of journals were found much later. They tell us the tale of captain Pedro. A Spaniard, a pirate, a corsair under the command of the King of France. Roaming the seas, plundering ships, wreaking havoc on the orders of a foreign king. It seems he was a feared and skilled fighter, a respected captain, and most of all an interesting man. While a Spaniard by birth, he worked for the French, and several of his sailors seemed to be of Dutch and French descent. And for some peculiar yet unknown reason his most well-known nickname seemed to be ‘The Flamingo’.

It could have been an honour, a great honour even, to be part of the Spanish Armada. Fight the English, show them the power of the empire and the king. However, it  seemed it wasn’t my calling or my faith to fight alongside my kin in this battle against the so called Virgin Queen. It seemed that my men and I were destined for other things, greater things possibly. We were granted the position of corsair by the French king, to loot and adventure in the name of the crown, to fight the English on the high seas. And I would never turn down the opportunity to stick it to the English, under whatever flag I was sailing. I would never be a cowardly captain.

The disputes between the seafaring countries were often settled by battle on the water. The Dutch and the British met each other on battlefields where the waves turned red, the Spanish had their Armada, and France ruled the Mediterranean by claiming the surrounding lands as their own. To torment each other even more, the kings and queens hired pirates and gave them permission to attack the cargo ships of other countries. This was perimission to loot them, to steal their property, and to burn their vessels. It was a way of enriching the treasury as well as sabotaging each other’s endeavours in trade and voyaging. Through the remaining parts of his journals, it was established that Pedro was feared amongst the English and raided Dutch ships from time to time as well. He convinced his men to lay of the Spanish, as Spain was his own country, even though they had the most treasured cargo.

The seven seas were riddled with the British, the Dutch, even some Portuguese or Italians, and hunting them down was a sport of kings. Or a sport of captains, as that would be a better phrasing. The thrill that travelled along the deck when we spotted an English flag is still indescribable. It could lift the sailor’s spirits after weeks of blistering heat and no wind, or during winters that had us stuck on land because of storms and rain that would drain our pockets and profits. Raiding was wat we lived for, it was what we were born to do. We were grateful to the benevolent French king and queen for their protection, but to be honest: we would have done the same thing if they had not granted us such a pardon. I liked the battles, the smell of the gunpowder from the canons, the thrill of not knowing whether or not you would win again. Setting foot on land meant you had survived yet another day, week, or month at sea. Our last battle was a tad different though. We had left land months ago, left the comfort of the Jamaican Port Royal that had served us well. The life of luxury, filled with nice food and company had made us lazy, the heat had made us sluggish, and the lack of wind had silenced our yearning for the waters. However, I had a contract to uphold. A deal with the French court. A date with destiny. One more raid and I could sell my ship, settle down once and for all. Rest in peace before the English would hunt me down like a dog and have my head for the ships I had seized over the years. The Caribbean had been kind to me, but Spain had never ceased its grip on my heart. While my men yearned for women and rum, my heart yearned for home. For the dry heat of my beloved Spain. So we had left the land once again for one more hunt. It had to be a big one, a last hoorah. I would not be Pedro the Flamingo if I did not go out with a proper feast.

The Spanish trade focused strongly on Latin-America, where the colonies consisted of large patches of land, grand estates, and even bigger plantations and mines. The Spanish ‘conquistadors’ conquered new lands for their king and queen in Madrid, taking bounties consisting of crops, gold, and other precious materials. These treasures were then brought to Spain, on board of large ships. This was known amongst privateers of other countries, and the ships were often pirated. Some of these privateers became famous with just one catch, like the Frenchman Jean Fleury who managed to steal almost all of Montezuma’s Aztec treasure from the Spanish. Another ‘pirate’ who was hated by the Spanish was the Dutch admiral Piet Hein, who had served as a galley slave amongst the Spanish for almost four years. After his release, he had his revenge when he captured a large amount of the Spanish ‘silver fleet’, raiding almost 12 million guilders (today’s equivalent: 317 million euro’s) in precious metals and other tradeable goods. This money went straight into the Dutch army, eventually resulting in the defeat of the Spanish in the Eighty Year War. So the Spanish were well-known with privateers, and their trade vessels were often armed or accompanied by war ships. But they had only started those escorts on paper during Pedro’s last raid.

We had spotted the Spanish ship a couple of days away from our main port, a ship we would not even have looked at twice only weeks before. I had always been able convince my men to turn their back on the Spanish, as I saw Charles as the one king I would serve even though I was bound by contract to another. However, the rumours about the French renegade Jean Fleury had reached us only weeks before. Port Royal had been buzzing with the wildest tales, it stirred the imagination what to do with such a treasure, it riled up my men. As soon as we spotted the Spanish flag, I knew there was no possibility that I could keep the loyalty of my men, as well as my own loyalty towards my king.

Only when we got closer, we realised how big the ship was. Twice the size of our own, cutting sharply into the waves. The sluggish movements told the tale of the treasures it carried on board. Unlike the English and their furs, their deerskins, and their meat, this ship would be a piñata. Filled with cold, hard, precious cash, and if we caught it we would be rewarded like heroes! By Poseidon’s graces, we would be so rich we could turn our back on whatever king controlled us and buy our own country! I had my doubts, as this was a Spanish ship after all. If word got out about us capturing it, the king and queen would have my head as they would have Fleury’s. I would never be able to return to my beloved country. But the men, my trusted sailors, smelled the peppery aroma of Aztec gold. The sweet scent of Inca-silver. The intoxicating perfume of the green coca leaves, mixed with the stimulating fragrance of the bitter tobacco. There was no way I could hold them from this ship, forbid them this bounty. The men turned to me, their eyes full of hope, shimmering with the lust for gold. A pirate’s greed is insatiable, mutiny lurks around every corner no matter how fair a captain you are. I took one more look at the Spanish ship, how odd it looked to be on its own, how its luck had turned. When I turned towards my men a grin covered my face as I raised my sword and my battle cry echoed out of thirty throats.

Pirate attacks were often short and, unlike many tales, not often very violent. Privateers disliked battle even more, as precious cargo could be lost and sailors could get wounded. After a short battle, that was usually won solely by intimidation and terror, cargo and ships were seized and later auctioned to replenish the state treasuries. Corsairs seizing ships and cargo were the biggest plague to the Spanish and English colonies in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries, taking huge ‘bites’ out of the Spanish fleet with South-American gold and silver, and out of the English trade of priced furs.

I would like to say that the Spanish were braver sailors, but I knew better from the moment we started chasing them. It only took us three cannonballs, two thunderous battle cries , and only a handful of my men to enter their ship to have them surrender. Drawn swords and pistols have the same effect on almost any sailor. Their captain tried to put up a fight, as soon as I identified myself he claimed that I was a coward and a traitor to the Spanish crown. Such claims and accusations are things I do not tolerate, not by anyone. I beheaded him on the spot, sending a shiver of fear as well as a warning amongst his men. My message was a simple one: their lives are safe, as long as they handed over the treasures they carried. On orders of the King of France I had seized many ships before, Dutch and English alike, and sold them for a profit on the auctions in France and its colonies. However, this time I would not take the vessel. This sluggish ship, riddled with fleas and diseases that I would not wish upon my worst enemy, took its toll on my heart. Taking the treasure from a king and queen I once called my own was too much, I could not bring myself to take the ship too. So I cut the lines.

While pirate-attacks were often short on sea, on land they were brutal. When privateers attacked colonies, they often ransacked the villages. Because of such heinous acts, most countries tried acts of piracy with hanging from the gallows. The only possible way for a privateer to auction the seized goods, was to return to the soil of the country he served, as only that country would not put him on trial for his crimes. Jean Fleury, sailing under the French flag, met his faith when captured by the Spanish and hanged by order of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The famous pirate Blackbeard, not a privateer at all, was beheaded by the English.

Seeing that ship off was one of the hardest things I have ever done, it still is even at the end of my life. The treasure was worth it, I remember some of my men choking back tears when they saw it. It was so big that after we were rewarded by the Minister of the King we were rich beyond compare. Yet thinking about it, even after so many years, is a bitter pill to swallow for me. As soon as we cut the lines and the Spanish moved away, I knew I could never return to the land I had once called home, nor to its colonies. My men tried to cheer me up by giving me a beautiful chest, made from the finest wood and metals I have ever seen. I still own it, its lid is engraved with an extravagant flamingo, a bird I have never seen in my life but which seems to be connected to me anyways. It the only piece of treasure I did not sell when we set foot ashore and I retired to the countryside of France. Now, I watch over a small vineyard and  my humble home, set at the foot of the mountains, as close to Spain as I could get while keeping my head on my shoulders. This will be my final journal, the flamingo will keep it safe for me along with the others I’ve written, while I lay my head to rest and enjoy this easy farmers life, in the wrong country but with a beating heart.

 

Linda Leestemaker

 

 

 

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