Very prominent among the early regular buccaneers was a Frenchman who came to be called Peter the Great.
This man seems to have been one of those adventurers who were not buccaneers in the earlier sense of the word (by which I mean they were not traders who touched at Spanish settlements to procure cattle and hides, and who were prepared to fight any Spaniards who might interfere with them), but they were men who came from Europe on purpose to prey upon Spanish possessions, whether on land or sea. Some of them made a rough sort of settlement on the island of Tortuga, and then it was that Peter the Great seems to have come into prominence. He gathered about him a body of adherents, but although he had a great reputation as an individual pirate, it seems to have been a good while before he achieved any success as a leader.
The fortunes of Peter and his men must have been at a pretty low ebb when they found themselves cruising in a large, canoe-shaped boat not far from the island of Hispaniola. There were twenty-nine of them in all, and they were not able to procure a vessel suitable for their purpose. They had been a long time floating about in an aimless way, hoping to see some Spanish merchant-vessel which they might attack and possibly capture, but no such vessel appeared. Their provisions began to give out, the men were hungry, discontented, and grumbling. In fact, they were in almost as bad a condition as were the sailors of Columbus just before they discovered signs of land, after their long and weary voyage across the Atlantic.
When Peter and his men were almost on the point of despair, they perceived, far away upon the still waters, a large ship. With a great jump, hope sprang up in the breast of every man. They seized the oars and pulled in the direction of the distant craft. But when they were near enough, they saw that the vessel was not a merchantman, probably piled with gold and treasure, but a man-of-war belonging to the Spanish fleet. In fact, it was the vessel of the vice-admiral. This was an astonishing and disheartening state of things. It was very much as if a lion, hearing the approach of probable prey, had sprung from the thicket where he had been concealed, and had beheld before him, not a fine, fat deer, but an immense and scrawny elephant.
But the twenty-nine buccaneers in the crew were very hungry. They had not come out upon those waters to attack men-of-war, but, more than that, they had not come out to perish by hunger and thirst. There could be no doubt that there was plenty to eat and to drink on that tall Spanish vessel, and if they could not get food and water they could not live more than a day or two longer.
Under the circumstances it was not long before Peter the Great made up his mind that if his men would stand by him, he would endeavor to capture that Spanish war-vessel; when he put the question to his crew they all swore that they would follow him and obey his orders as long as life was left in their bodies. To attack a vessel armed with cannon, and manned by a crew very much larger than their little party, seemed almost like throwing themselves upon certain death. But still, there was a chance that in some way they might get the better of the Spaniards; whereas, if they rowed away again into the solitudes of the ocean, they would give up all chance of saving themselves from death by starvation. Steadily, therefore, they pulled toward the Spanish vessel, and slowly—for there was but little wind—she approached them.
The people in the man-of-war did not fail to perceive the little boat far out on the ocean, and some of them sent to the captain and reported the fact. The news, however, did not interest him, for he was engaged in playing cards in his cabin, and it was not until an hour afterward that he consented to come on deck and look out toward the boat which had been sighted, and which was now much nearer.
Taking a good look at the boat, and perceiving that it was nothing more than a canoe, the captain laughed at the advice of some of his officers, who thought it would be well to fire a few cannon-shot and sink the little craft. The captain thought it would be a useless proceeding. He did not know anything about the people in the boat, and he did not very much care, but he remarked that if they should come near enough, it might be a good thing to put out some tackle and haul them and their boat on deck, after which they might be examined and questioned whenever it should suit his convenience. Then he went down to his cards.
If Peter the Great and his men could have been sure that if they were to row alongside the Spanish vessel they would have been quietly hauled on deck and examined, they would have been delighted at the opportunity. With cutlasses, pistols, and knives, they were more than ready to demonstrate to the Spaniards what sort of fellows they were, and the captain would have found hungry pirates uncomfortable persons to question.
But it seemed to Peter and his crew a very difficult thing indeed to get themselves on board the man-of-war, so they curbed their ardor and enthusiasm, and waited until nightfall before approaching nearer. As soon as it became dark enough they slowly and quietly paddled toward the great ship, which was now almost becalmed. There were no lights in the boat, and the people on the deck of the vessel saw and heard nothing on the dark waters around them.
When they were very near the man-of-war, the captain of the buccaneers—according to the ancient accounts of this adventure—ordered his chirurgeon, or surgeon, to bore a large hole in the bottom of their canoe. It is probable that this officer, with his saws and other surgical instruments, was expected to do carpenter work when there were no duties for him to perform in the regular line of his profession. At any rate, he went to work, and noiselessly bored the hole.
This remarkable proceeding showed the desperate character of these pirates. A great, almost impossible task was before them, and nothing but absolute recklessness could enable them to succeed. If his men should meet with strong opposition from the Spaniards in the proposed attack, and if any of them should become frightened and try to retreat to the boat, Peter knew that all would be lost, and consequently he determined to make it impossible for any man to get away in that boat. If they could not conquer the Spanish vessel they must die on her decks.
When the half-sunken canoe touched the sides of the vessel, the pirates, seizing every rope or projection on which they could lay their hands, climbed up the sides of the man-of-war, as if they had been twenty-nine cats, and springing over the rail, dashed upon the sailors who were on deck. These men were utterly stupefied and astounded. They had seen nothing, they had heard nothing, and all of a sudden they were confronted with savage fellows with cutlasses and pistols.
Some of the crew looked over the sides to see where these strange visitors had come from, but they saw nothing, for the canoe had gone to the bottom. Then they were filled with a superstitious horror, believing that the wild visitors were devils who had dropped from the sky, for there seemed no other place from which they could come. Making no attempt to defend themselves, the sailors, wild with terror, tumbled below and hid themselves, without even giving an alarm.
The Spanish captain was still playing cards, and whether he was winning or losing, the old historians do not tell us, but very suddenly a newcomer took a hand in the game. This was Peter the Great, and he played the ace of trumps. With a great pistol in his hand, he called upon the Spanish captain to surrender. That noble commander glanced around. There was a savage pirate holding a pistol at the head of each of the officers at the table. He threw up his cards. The trick was won by Peter and his men.
The rest of the game was easy enough. When the pirates spread themselves over the vessel, the frightened crew got out of sight as well as they could. Some, who attempted to seize their arms in order to defend themselves, were ruthlessly cut down or shot, and when the hatches had been securely fastened upon the sailors who had fled below, Peter the Great was captain and owner of that tall Spanish man-of-war.
It is quite certain that the first thing these pirates did to celebrate their victory was to eat a rousing good supper, and then they took charge of the vessel, and sailed her triumphantly over the waters on which, not many hours before, they had feared that a little boat would soon be floating, filled with their emaciated bodies.
This most remarkable success of Peter the Great worked a great change, of course, in the circumstances of himself and his men. But it worked a greater change in the career, and possibly in the character of the captain. He was now a very rich man, and all his followers had plenty of money. The Spanish vessel was amply supplied with provisions, and there was also on board a great quantity of gold bullion, which was to be shipped to Spain. In fact, Peter and his men had booty enough to satisfy any sensible pirate. Now we all know that sensible pirates, and people in any sphere of life who are satisfied when they have enough, are very rare indeed, and therefore it is not a little surprising that the bold buccaneer, whose story we are now telling, should have proved that he merited, in a certain way, the title his companions had given him.
Sailing his prize to the shores of Hispaniola, Peter put on shore all the Spaniards whose services he did not desire. The rest of his prisoners he compelled to help his men work the ship, and then, without delay, he sailed away to France, and there he retired entirely from the business of piracy, and set himself up as a gentleman of wealth and leisure.