Anglosphere Navies vs. Cuban Pirates, 1820s

The United States sent out a second pirate-hunting squadron in 1823, this time under the command of Commodore David Porter, a naval hero who had captured the first British warship taken in the War of 1812. There had been a debate during the winter as to the best method of combating the pirates and it was decided that, to be fully effective, the squadron ‘will require a particular kind of force, capable of pursuing them into the shallow waters to which they retire’, as President Monroe informed the Senate. And so, in addition to the ships which had sailed with Biddle in 1822, Commodore Porter was supplied with a fleet of vessels specifically tailored to the task in hand, the first time that such a sensible policy had been adopted in pirate-hunting history. These included ten fast schooners, with a draught of less than seven feet and fitted with twenty or twenty-four sweeps, and five light double-bank cutters or barges, each to row twenty oars and adapted to carry forty men, well armed with muskets, pistols, boarding pikes and cutlasses. The squadron was also graced by the presence of the US steam brig Sea Gull the first naval steamer of any country to serve in action. She was originally built as a New Jersey ferry and ‘the croakers predicted that she would founder at sea in the first blow’, as Porter told his son who later wrote his biography. But in fact the Sea Gull did good service, mainly as a mother ship to the rowing vessels, though she had a chance to use her powerful guns on occasion and in May 1825 was reported to have sunk a pirate ship after a two-hour gun battle off Matanzas.

Porter chose as his base Key West, American since 1819 and only a hundred miles from the coast of Cuba. The United States was now at last getting cooperation from the Spanish authorities in Cuba and his orders permitted him to pursue pirates ashore, having first given notice of his intentions, orders which shared the ambiguity of those given to the British commanders. American relations with these British counterparts were excellent, the British going so far as to replace the normal admiral commanding the Jamaica station by a commodore so that Porter would not be outranked and ‘we might meet on equal terms’, as the American commodore recorded with gratitude. There was a certain amount of division of labour, the British concentrating their searches on the south coast of Cuba and the Americans on the north, but men of the two navies also hunted together, as in March 1825 when the boats from the British frigate Dartmouth and the schooners Union and Lion joined up with boat crews from the Sea Gull in a successful pursuit of the pirate schooner Socorro. ‘I am happy to say,’ reported the British commodore Sir Lawrence Halsted, ‘the greatest harmony prevailed throughout the service, the men of either nation receiving orders from the officers of the other and obeying each with equal alacrity.’ This harmony was echoed by Lt. Com. McKeever of the Sea Gull who praised ‘the handsome manner in which we were seconded by the officers and crews of the boats of HMS Dartmouth. There had been a certain amount of cooperation between the British and French in previous anti-pirate campaigns, in both the Leeward Islands and West Africa, but nothing on the scale of this Anglo-American camaraderie, this being nicely epitomised by the kind and friendly treatment given to sick British sailors at Key West which included taking convalescent men for a trip round the Florida Keys in the steam brig.

Such cooperation, along with Spanish assistance and the choice of the right sort of vessels for the job, was to prove the doom of the Cuban pirates, but the service was quite incredibly arduous for the British and American sailors and marines involved. Nearly all the close-up work was done by men rowing in open boats who pursued the elusive pirates from cay to cay, through shoals and reefs and into hidden passages through the mangrove swamps, such close pursuit often being done under fire from the retreating pirates. Captain Godfrey of HMS Tyne reported a successful cruise by his men who had chased pirates ‘in open boats without any kind of shelter for thirty days and thirty nights’, a record beaten by Lieutenant Platt of the United States Navy who was employed for sixty-eight successive days in an open boat on the north-west coast of Cuba, ‘in the examination of the inlets, bays, keys, and other places of piratical resort’. A report to the House of Representatives in January 1825 stressed the perilous service being imposed on Americans engaged in anti-pirate duty, who faced disease as well as danger in vessels too small to maintain health on long cruises. But such sacrifice was justified by the result. ‘They enabled the commanders to scour the coast, to penetrate into the shoal waters of the creeks and inlets, to the very margin of the land.’ No pirate hunters in the past had ever shown such zeal, determination and courage as these truly professional British and American sailors and marines.

SOURCE: The Pirate Wars, by Peter Earle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), pp. 242-244

1 Comment

Filed under anglosphere, Britain, Cuba, piracy, U.S.

One response to “Anglosphere Navies vs. Cuban Pirates, 1820s

  1. The President of the United States of America are senting the American Navy is went out for hunting the pirates. Because the pirates are pilling the American ships. Such the Pirates of the Caribbean pilling American ships for a booty. It’s make American mad and upset. So the President are always sent an American Navy to put the pirates out of the waters. That very days. When they captured an American pirate, Charles Gibbs, and then an Spanish-Cuban pirate, Diabolito, and the pirate such as the legendary Jose Gasper, and the Robin Hood of the Caribbean, Roberto Cofresí, by the American Navy Mosquito Fleet. To battle over the piracy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.