The ordinary story of the pirate, or the wicked man in general, no matter how successful he may have been in his criminal career, nearly always ends disastrously, and in that way points a moral which doubtless has a good effect on a large class of people, who would be very glad to do wrong, provided no harm was likely to come to them in consequence.
But the story of Peter the Great, which we have just told, contains no such moral. In fact, its influence upon the adventurers of that period was most unwholesome.
When the wonderful success of Peter the Great became known, the buccaneering community at Tortuga was wildly excited. Every bushy-bearded fellow who could get possession of a small boat, and induce a score of other bushy-bearded fellows to follow him, wanted to start out and capture a rich Spanish galleon, as the great ships, used alike for war and commerce, were then called.
But not only were the French and English sailors and traders who had become buccaneers excited and stimulated by the remarkable good fortune of their companion, but many people of adventurous mind, who had never thought of leaving England for purposes of piracy, now became firmly convinced that there was no business which promised better than that of a buccaneer, and some of them crossed the ocean for the express purpose of getting rich by capturing Spanish vessels homeward bound.
As there were not enough suitable vessels in Tortuga for the demands of the recently stimulated industry, the buccaneer settlers went to other parts of the West Indies to obtain suitable craft, and it is related that in about a month after the great victory of Peter the Great, two large Spanish vessels, loaded with silver bullion, and two other heavily laden merchantmen were brought into Tortuga by the buccaneers.
One of the adventurers who set out about this time on a cruise after gold-laden vessels, was a Frenchman who was known to his countrymen as Pierre François, and to the English as Peter Francis. He was a good sailor, and ready for any sort of a sea-fight, but for a long time he cruised about without seeing anything which it was worth while to attempt to capture. At last, when his provisions began to give out, and his men became somewhat discontented, Pierre made up his mind that rather than return to Tortuga empty-handed, he would make a bold and novel stroke for fortune.
At the mouth of one of the large rivers of the mainland the Spaniards had established a pearl fishery,—for there was no kind of wealth or treasure, on the land, under ground, or at the bottom of the sea, that the Spaniards did not get if it were possible for them to do so.
Every year, at the proper season, a dozen or more vessels came to this pearl-bank, attended by a man-of-war to protect them from molestation. Pierre knew all about this, and as he could not find any Spanish merchantmen to rob, he thought he would go down and see what he could do with the pearl-fishers. This was something the buccaneers had not yet attempted, but no one knows what he can do until he tries, and it was very necessary that this buccaneer captain should try something immediately.
When he reached the coast near the mouth of the river, he took the masts out of his little vessel, and rowed quietly toward the pearl-fishing fleet, as if he had intended to join them on some entirely peaceable errand; and, in fact, there was no reason whatever why the Spaniards should suppose that a boat full of buccaneers should be rowing along that part of the coast.
The pearl-fishing vessels were all at anchor, and the people on board were quietly attending to their business. Out at sea, some distance from the mouth of the river, the man-of-war was lying becalmed. The native divers who went down to the bottom of the sea to bring up the shellfish which contained the pearls, plunged into the water, and came up wet and shining in the sun, with no fear whatever of any sharks which might be swimming about in search of a dinner, and the people on the vessels opened the oysters and carefully searched for pearls, feeling as safe from harm as if they were picking olives in their native groves.
But something worse than a shark was quietly making its way over those tranquil waters, and no banditti who ever descended from Spanish mountains upon the quiet peasants of a village, equalled in ferocity the savage fellows who were crouching in the little boat belonging to Pierre of Tortuga.
This innocent-looking craft, which the pearl-fishers probably thought was loaded with fruit or vegetables which somebody from the mainland desired to sell, was permitted, without being challenged or interfered with, to row up alongside the largest vessel of the fleet, on which there were some armed men and a few cannon.
As soon as Pierre’s boat touched the Spanish vessel, the buccaneers sprang on board with their pistols and cutlasses, and a savage fight began. The Spaniards were surprised, but there were a great many more of them than there were pirates, and they fought hard. However, the man who makes the attack, and who is at the same time desperate and hungry, has a great advantage, and it was not long before the buccaneers were masters of the vessel. Those of the Spaniards who were not killed, were forced into the service of their captors, and Pierre found himself in command of a very good vessel.
Now it so happened that the man-of-war was so far away that she knew nothing of this fight on board one of the fleet which she was there to watch, and if she had known of it, she would not have been able to give any assistance, for there was no wind by which she could sail to the mouth of the river. Therefore, so far as she was concerned, Pierre considered himself safe.
But although he had captured a Spanish ship, he was not so foolish as to haul down her flag, and run up his own in her place. He had had very good success so far, but he was not satisfied. It was quite probable that there was a rich store of pearls on board the vessel he had taken, but on the other vessels of the fleet there were many more pearls, and these he wanted if he could get them. In fact, he conceived the grand idea of capturing the whole fleet.
But it would be impossible for Pierre to attempt anything on such a magnificent scale until he had first disposed of the man-of-war, and as he had now a good strong ship, with a much larger crew than that with which he had set out,—for the Spanish prisoners would be obliged to man the guns and help in every way to fight their countrymen,—Pierre determined to attack the man-of-war.
A land wind began to blow, which enabled him to make very fair headway out to sea. The Spanish colors were flying from his topmast, and he hoped to be able, without being suspected of any evil designs, to get so near to the man-of-war that he might run alongside and boldly board her.
But something now happened which Pierre could not have expected. When the commander of the war-vessel perceived that one of the fleet under his charge was leaving her companions and putting out to sea, he could imagine no reason for such extraordinary conduct, except that she was taking advantage of the fact that the wind had not yet reached his vessel, and was trying to run away with the pearls she had on board. From these ready suspicions we may imagine that, at that time, the robbers who robbed robbers were not all buccaneers.
Soon after the Spanish captain perceived that one of his fleet was making his way out of the river, the wind reached his vessel, and he immediately set all sail and started in pursuit of the rascals, whom he supposed to be his dishonest countrymen.
The breeze freshened rapidly, and when Pierre and his men saw that the man-of-war was coming toward them at a good rate of speed, showing plainly that she had suspicions of them, they gave up all hope of running alongside of her and boarding her, and concluded that the best thing they could do would be to give up their plan of capturing the pearl-fishing fleet, and get away with the ship they had taken, and whatever it had on board. So they set all sail, and there was a fine sea-chase.
The now frightened buccaneers were too anxious to get away. They not only put on all the sail which the vessel could carry, but they put on more. The wind blew harder, and suddenly down came the mainmast with a crash. This stopped the chase, and the next act in the performance would have to be a sea-fight. Pierre and his buccaneers were good at that sort of thing, and when the man-of-war came up, there was a terrible time on board those two vessels. But the Spaniards were the stronger, and the buccaneers were defeated.
There must have been something in the daring courage of this Frenchman and his little band of followers, which gave him favor in the eyes of the Spanish captain, for there was no other reason for the good treatment which the buccaneers received.
They were not put to the sword nor thrown overboard, not sent on shore and made to work as slaves,—three very common methods of treating prisoners in those days. But they were all set free, and put on land, where they might go where they pleased.
[According to another account, they were set free because they agreed to surrender.]
This unfortunate result of the bold enterprise undertaken by Pierre François was deeply deplored, not only at Tortuga, but in England and in France. If this bold buccaneer had captured the pearl fleet, it would have been a victory that would have made a hero of him on each side of the Atlantic, but had he even been able to get away with the one vessel he had seized, he would have been a rich man, and might have retired to a life of ease and affluence; the vessel he had captured proved to be one of the richest laden of the whole fleet, and not only in the heart of Pierre and his men, but among his sympathizers in Europe and America, there was great disappointment at the loss of that mainmast, which, until it cracked, was carrying him forward to fame and fortune.