Pirates on the High Sea

pirate-ship-02The Union Castle liners plough the sea between Cape and Southampton week after week, year after year, with never a thought of danger other than from storm or fog. On almost every tide the ships of Great Britain may float in security, and it is many a long year since passengers had cause to fear the cruelty or the rapacity of pirates. Yet there are still those living at the Cape today – though they are getting on in years and have passed Psalmist’s allotted span – who can remember the terrible story of the “Morning Star” and her awful fate. The tale is one of the few of many pirate stories, in which the Cape of Good Hope was interested, and we make no apology, therefore – at a season when stories of terror are supposed to have special vogue – for reproducing the authentic account of the pirate De Soto and the fate of a ship homeward bound from the Cape. It is told in the pages of the “Cape Monthly Magazine” for 1870, from which we have taken the liberty of reprinting it verbatim.

On the morning of February 21, 1828, the English bark “Morning Star”, on her voyage from Ceylon to England, crossed the bloody track of the pirate ship “Defensor de Pedro” near Ascension. Only a few days previously, after plundering many vessels, Benito de Soto, her Commander, and his fiendish crew had boarded an American brig. Having taken out of the brig all the valuables they could find, they hatched down all hands in the hold, except a black man, who was allowed to remain on deck, to afford, in his torture, an amusing exhibition to the pirates.

They set fire to the brig, then “lay to” to observe the progress of the flames; and as the miserable African bounded from rope to rope, now climbing to the mast-head, now clinging to the shrouds, now leaping to one part of the vessel and now to another, Their enjoyment seemed to rise to the highest pitch.

At length the hatches opened to the devouring element, the tortured victim of their fiendish cruelty fell exhausted into the flames, and the horrid and revolting scene closed amidst the shouts of the miscreants who had caused it. It was with the cry of the murdered Americans still ringing in his ears that Soto caught sight of the English ship pursuing unconscious of danger, her homeward voyage.

The “Morning Star” besides a valuable cargo, had on board several passengers, consisting of a major and his wife, an assistant surgeon, two civilians, about five-and-twenty invalid soldiers and three or four of their wives. The record is now before me, and I shall quote from it as far as may be necessary to complete the narrative of this piracy – the particulars of which were taken from the lips of one who, sailing unwillingly under the pirate’s flag, witnessed against Benito de Soto when the hour of retribution came.

At first the “Morning Star” was supposed to be a French vessel; but Barbazan who was himself a Frenchman and the mate of the “Defensor de Pedro,” assured his captain that she was British. “So much the better,” he replied; “we shall find the more booty.” He then gave chase of his plunder, from which he was about two leagues distant. The “Morning Star” had hoisted a press of canvas as soon as the chase began, but when the pirate had sheeted home her studding-sails she very quickly brought the bark within the range of her long pivot gun. Soto who had sullenly watched the chase thus far now ordered a blank gun to be fired and the English colours to be hoisted; but finding this had not the effect of bring to the “Morning Star” he cried out, “Shot the long gun and give it to her point blank.” The shot however, fell short.

The gun was then loaded with grape, and the pirate captain took the match into his own hand. Waiting till he was abreast of his victim, and then directing the aim himself, and ordering a man to stand by the flag to haul it down, he fired with an air that showed he was sure of his mark. The Columbian colours were then hoisted, and the “Morning Star” was hailed to lower her boat, and for the captain to come on board with his papers. The grape shot had left its mark on the unfortunate vessel, and one of her seamen lay wounded on her deck. The two vessels were now within fifty yards of each other, but English captain had lost some of his courage, and he determined not to strike his colours nor heave his ship to. Resistance however was felt to be useless, even if any could be made.

The “Morning Star” had not a single gun on board, and no small arms that could render resistance availing. The tears of the women and the prudent advice of the passengers overcoming the captain’s resolution, he permitted himself to be guided by the general opinion. One of the passengers volunteered to go aboard the pirate, and a boat was lowered for the purpose, while the hope was cherished by those on board the bark that by his exertions he might at least avert the worst of the dreaded calamity. No sooner, however, had the passenger reached the deck of the “Defensor de Pedro,” and it was learned that he was not the captain, then he and the boat’s crew were brutally beaten, and sent back to the bark with a message that if the captain did not come on board at once his vessel would be blown out of the water.

This report at once decided the captain how to act. Without hesitation he stepped into the boat, taking with him his second mate, three soldiers and a sailor boy, and proceeded to the pirate. On going on board that vessel , along with the mate, Soto, who stood near the mainmast with his drawn cutlass in his hand, desired him to approach, while the mate was ordered by Barbazan to go to the forecastle. Both obeyed and were instantly cut down. Six picked men were now ordered to descend into the boat, amongst whom was Barbazan. To him the leader addressed his orders, the last of which was to take care to put to death all in the prize and then to sink her. The six pirates who proceeded to carry out this savage command were all armed alike – each carried a brace of pistols, a cutlass, and a long sharp knife. Their dress was composed of a sort of coarse cotton checkered jackets and trousers, shirts that were open at the collar, red woollen caps and broad canvas belts, in which were stuck the pistols and the knives.

To no better hands could the sanguinary errand have been entrusted than to these six men; and as the boat in which they were neared the “Morning Star” the terror of the women on board was excessive. They clung to their husbands in despair, and vainly sought from them that protection which they could not afford. All however, hoped that the pirates’ object might be to plunder only; but they were soon undeceived. The pirates rapidly mounted the side, and as they jumped on deck commenced to cut right and left at all within their reach, uttering at the same time the most dreadful oaths. The females, screaming, hurried below, to hide themselves as well as they were able, and the men fell or fled before the pirates, leaving them entire maters of the decks.

The chronicler to whom I am indebted for the particulars of this piracy remarks: “Unless the circumstances be closely examined, it may be wondered how six men could have so easily overcome a crew of English seamen, supported by about twenty soldiers with a major at their head; but it will not appear surprising when it is considered that the sailors were altogether unharmed, the soldiers worn-out invalids, and more particularly that the pirate carried a heavy long gun, ready to sink her victim at a shot. Major Logie fully impressed with the folly of opposing so powerful and desperate an enemy, therefore advised submission as the only course for the safety of those under his charge; presuming no doubt that something like humanity might be found even in the hearts of the worst of men. But alas! He was woefully deceived in his estimate of the villain’s nature, and felt, when too late, even death would have been preferable to the barbarous treatment he was forced to endure.” But I have digressed.

The pirate having now complete possession of the vessel, the work of plunder began. Every drawer and locker was ransacked, and every portable article of value heaped up for the plunder. Money, plate, nautical instruments, clothing, and seven packages of valuable jewels which formed part of the cargo were carried on deck by a few of the crew, who had for this work been pressed into the service of the spoilers. For two hours was this cruel work carried on, under the directions of Soto, who from the deck of his vessel gave the order. The clothes of the passengers were stripped from their backs, and the male passengers driven forward. As Major Logie ascended the companion ladder, he entreated in vain to be allowed to remain with his wife.

pirate-ship-01He was hurried away with the rest and battened down in the hold, racked with feelings that I cannot describe. The females were locked up in the round-house on deck. Satiated with plunder, the pirates sat down to regale themselves with eating and drinking, served by the steward of the “Morning Star” who, at the risk of his life was forced to this duty. More than once had he a pistol placed at his head, and a more terrible group of demi-devils, the steward afterwards declared, could not be imagined than commanded his attentions at the cabin table. It was with feelings of satisfaction that he heard his dismissal, and found himself bolted below with his fellow sufferers.

With passions excited by drink, the ruffians ordered down the females, and the screams of these helpless ones were heard in the hold by those who, under other circumstances, would have died to save them, but who now were powerless to help them. Their lives were spared – and these outraged women were yet to be the saviours of the ship and of the survivors of the crew. So much time had been taken up by the pirates in their hellish orgies that Soto had become impatient for their return, and his voice was heard recalling them. Hastening to obey the call of their chief, the pirates stayed not to carry out his instructions to put to death all on board the English bark, but contented themselves with fastening the women in the cabin, and heaping heavy lumber on the hatches of the hold, and boring holes in the planks of the vessel below her water-line, so that by thus destroying the whole at one swoop, they might make up for lost time. They then left the “Morning Star” fast settling down to her fate.

After long and strenuous efforts, the females contrived to open the cabin door, and when they came on deck it was almost dark, but they could see the pirate ship far in the distance with all sail set. The liberation of their husbands and crew were their next concern; and, creeping towards the hatch, they called upon those below to unite their efforts in forcing it up, while they removed the lumber that was above it. They succeeded and their joy was great, only, however, to be dashed again from them, when they discovered that the ship had six feet of water in the hold! By dint of labour the vessel was kept afloat; but she could not be managed, as the pirates had disabled her by cutting the rigging and sawing through the masts. The next day, however, the hopeless passengers and crew were taken off the “Morning Star” by a ship that had fallen in with her, and were brought safely to England.

But to return to the pirate ship. The sun had long set on that day of dark deeds when Benito de Soto heard that, contrary to his orders, the passengers’ and crew’s lives had been spared by his minions who had boarded the prize. On learning this, his frenzy was at its height. He immediately turned his hands up, and the course of the “Defensor de Pedro” was once more laid on the track of the “Morning Star.” But it was too late, not a trace of her could be seen. The search was abandoned, Soto consoling himself with the belief that the “Morning Star” was many fathoms deep down in the Atlantic, away from the cognizance of all Admiralty Courts.

I must now briefly advert to the end of the monster’s career. Satisfied with his success after the plunder of the “Morning Star” Soto steered his course for Europe. On his voyage he fell in with a small brig, and plundered her. Acting upon the principle that “dead men tell no tales,” he sank the vessel with her crew, with the exception of one man, whom he took along with him on account of his knowledge of Corunna, whither he intended to proceed. On approaching that port, faithful to his principals of self-protection, he addressed that unfortunate man as he was standing at the helm with “My friend is that the harbour of Corunna!” “Yes” was the reply “Then,” rejoined Soto, “you have done your duty well, and I am obliged to you for your services.” He then shot the man, and flung his body over board, took the helm himself, and steered his vessel into his native harbour as if he had returned from an honest voyage.

Here he disposed of a part of his ill-gotten booty, and, having provided fresh papers, got under way for Cadiz. He had a fair wind until he came in sight of the coast, near the city. It was coming on dark, and he lay-to, expecting to make the anchorage in the morning, but the wind shifted to the westward, and suddenly arose to a heavy gale – it was dead on the land. He luffed his ship as close to the wind as possible to clear a reef of rocks, and beat out to windward, but his leeway carried him toward the land. The gale increasing, and the night becoming pitchy dark, the vessel struck on the breakers, and quickly went to pieces. Loud were the cries for mercy now shrieked out by these villains, who had steeled their hearts and deafened their ears to that cry so often in vain addressed to them.

They were spared, only, however, to meet death in a more dreaded form but shortly afterwards. They took to the boats, and landing at Cadiz, gave themselves out to be castaway seamen of an honest trading vessel. But suspicions as to their true character soon were roused, and some six were thrown into prison; some fled to Caraccas; but Soto and one other made their way to Gibraltar. For a time Soto managed to frequent the slums of Gibraltar, but was at last thrown into prison also, and eventually was hanged. All his comrades in crime, with the exception of one, whose fate was never heard of, perished on the gibbet.

Cape Times 1903 (Christmas)
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