Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

The Wonderful March of the Freebooters

The March of the Ten Thousand, from Babylon to the Black Sea, is one of the famous events of history. The march of the three hundred, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, which we have here to tell, is scarcely known to history at all, yet it was marked by a courage and command of resources as great as those of the ancient Greeks. We think our readers will agree with us when they read this story, taken from the records of the freebooters on the Spanish Main.

After ravaging the settlements of Spain on the Atlantic coasts, various fleets of these piratical adventurers sought the Pacific waters in 1685, and there for several years made life scarce worth living to the inhabitants of the Spanish coast cities. Time and again these were plundered of their wealth, numbers of their ships were taken, and a veritable reign of terror prevailed. As time went on, however, most of these freebooters withdrew, satisfied with their abundant gains, so that, by the end of 1687, only a few of them remained, and these were eager to return with their ill-gotten wealth to their native land.

This remnant of the piratical fraternity, less than three hundred in number, had their head-quarters on an island in the Bay of Mapalla, on the Central American coast. What vessels they had left were in a wretched condition, utterly unfit to attempt the vast sea voyage by way of the Straits of Magellan, and nothing seemed to remain for them but an attempt to cross the continent by way of Nicaragua and Honduras, fighting their way through a multitude of enemies. To the pen of Ravenneau de Lussan, one of the adventurers, we are indebted for the narrative of the singular and interesting adventure which follows.

The daring band of French and English freebooters were very ill provided for the dangerous enterprise they had in view. They proposed to cross an unknown country without guides and with a meagre supply of provisions, fighting as they went and conveying their sick and wounded as best they could. They had also a number of prisoners whom they felt it necessary to take with them, since to set them free would be to divulge their weakness to their enemies. Nature and circumstance seemed to combine against them, yet if they ever wished to see their native lands again they must face every danger, trusting that some of them, at least, might escape to enjoy their spoils.

After questioning their prisoners, they decided to take a route by way of the city of New Segovia, which lies north of the lake of Nicaragua, about one hundred and twenty miles from the Pacific and seventy-five miles from the waters of a river that flows, after a long course, into the Atlantic opposite Cape Gracias-a-Dios. In order to gain further information about the route, sixty men were sent to explore the neighboring country. These advanced till they were near the small city of Chiloteca. Here, worn out by their journey and learning that they were in a thickly settled country, most of the pioneers decided to return. But eighteen of the bolder spirits had the audacity to advance on Chiloteca, a place of perhaps a thousand inhabitants.

Into it they rushed with such ferocious yells and so terrific a fusillade of shots that the frightened inhabitants, taken utterly by surprise, fled in mortal terror, leaving the place to its captors. These quickly seized a number of horses, and made haste to retreat on their backs, hotly pursued by the Spaniards, who soon discovered to what a handful of men they had surrendered their city.

On receiving the report of their scouts, the freebooters determined on the desperate venture. They had little to convey except their spoil, which, the result of numerous raids, was valued at about one million dollars. It chiefly consisted of gold and jewels, all heavier valuables, even silver, being left in great part behind, as too heavy to carry. The spoil was very unequally owned, since the gambling which had gone on actively among them had greatly varied the distribution of their wealth. To overcome the anger and jealousy which this created among the poorer, those with much to carry shared their portions among their companions, with the understanding that, if they reached the Antilles in safety, half of it should be returned. As for the prisoners, it was decided to take them along, and make use of them for carrying the utensils, provisions, and sick.

On the 1st of January, 1688, these freebooters, two hundred and eighty-five in number, with sixty-eight horses, crossed in boats from their island refuge to the main-land and began their march. Their ships had been first destroyed, their cannon cast into the sea, and their bulkier effects burned. Divided into four companies, with forty men in front as an advance guard, they moved forward into a land of adventure and peril.

It was soon found that the people expected and had prepared for their coming. Trees had been felled across the roads and efforts made to obstruct all the foot-paths. Provisions had been carried away, and the dry herbage of the fields was set on fire as they advanced, almost suffocating them with the heat and smoke. This was done to hinder their march until the Spaniards had completed a strong intrenchment which was being built at a suitable place on the route.

Ambuscades were also laid for them. On the eighth day of their march they fell into one of these at Tusignala, where three hundred Spaniards lay concealed on the ground and fired into their ranks. Though these were dispersed by a fierce charge, they followed the freebooters closely, annoying them from the shelter of woods and thickets. The next day a still larger ambuscade was laid, which, fortunately for the freebooters, was discovered and dispersed in time, the fleeing Spaniards leaving their horses behind.

Two days later New Segovia was reached. Here the buccaneers expected a severe engagement, and hoped to gain a supply of provisions. In both they were mistaken; the inhabitants had decamped, carrying all food with them. Their prisoners, who had served them as guides to this point, knew nothing of the country beyond, but they succeeded in taking a new prisoner who was familiar with the further route.

The country they were passing through was mountainous and very difficult. Steep acclivities had constantly to be climbed, narrow paths on the borders of deep chasms to be traversed, and rapid slopes to be descended. The nights were bitterly cold, the mornings were darkened by thick fogs, and their whole route was attended with danger, discomfort, and fatigue.

New Segovia lay in a valley surrounded on all sides by mountains, one of which had to be ascended immediately on leaving the town. The next day's dawn found them on its summit, with a valley far below them, in which, to their joy, they beheld a large number of animals which they took to be oxen. Their joy was dissipated, however, when the scouts they sent out came back with the information that these animals were horses, saddled and bridled, and that a series of formidable intrenchments had been built in the valley, rising like terraces, one above another, and carried to the mountains on each side, so as completely to close the route.

There seemed no way to avoid these defences. On one side of the mountain flowed a river. A small eminence, surrounded by breastworks, commanded the only passage which the freebooters could follow. The whole country round was thick forest, through whose rock-guarded demesnes not the slightest indication of a path could be seen. Yet to attack those works in front promised quick and utter defeat, and if they wished to avoid destruction they must find some way to outwit their foes. It was decided that the forest presented less dangers and difficulties than the fortified road, and that the only hope of safety lay in a flank movement which would lead them to the rear of the enemy.

During that day active preparations were made for the proposed movement. The three hundred Spaniards who had ambushed them some days before still hung upon their rear. Their horses, sick, and prisoners were therefore left in an enclosed camp, barricaded by their baggage-vehicles and guarded by eighty of their number. As a means of impressing the enemy with their numbers and alertness they kept up camp-fires all night, repeated at intervals the rolls upon the drum, relieved the sentinels with a great noise, and varied these signs of activity with cries and occasional discharges of musketry.

Meanwhile, as soon as the shades of evening descended, the remainder of the freebooters, some two hundred in number, began their march, following the route indicated by a scout they had sent to ex-amine the forest. The difficulties of that night journey through the dense wood proved very great, there being numerous steep rocks to climb and descend, and this needed to be done with as little noise as possible. Daybreak found the adventurers on a mountain elevation, from which they could see the Spanish intrenchments below them on the left. The greatest of their impediments had been surmounted, but there were difficulties still to be overcome.

Fortunately for them a thick mist rose with the morning light, which, while it rendered their downward passage critical, served to conceal them from the enemy below. As they came near the works the heavy tread of a patrol guided them in their course, and the morning prayers of the Spaniards were of still more advantage in indicating their distance and position. The freebooting band had reached the rear of the hostile army, composed of five hundred men, who wore so taken by surprise on seeing their ferocious enemy rushing upon then with shouts and volleys, from this unlooked-for quarter, that they fled without an attempt at defence.

The other Spaniards behaved more courageously, but the appearance of the buccaneers within the works they had so toilsomely prepared robbed them of spirit, and after an hour's fight they, too, broke and fled. The trees they had felled to obstruct the road now contributed to their utter defeat, and they were cut down in multitudes, with scarce an attempt at resistance. We can scarcely credit the testimony of the freebooters, however, that their sole losses were one killed and two wounded. The success of the advance party was equalled by that of the guard of armed men left in the camp, who, after some negotiations with the troop of Spaniards in their rear, made a sudden charge upon them and dispersed all who were not cut down.

That the freebooters were as much surprised as gratified by the signal success of their stratagem need scarcely be said. One of the panics which are apt to follow a surprise in war had saved them from threatened annihilation. They learned, how-ever, the disquieting fact that six miles farther on was another strong intrenchment which could not be avoided, the country permitting no choice of roads. In their situation there was nothing to do but to advance and dare the worst, and fortunately for them their remarkable success spread such terror before it that, when they appeared before these new works, the Spaniards made no attack, but remained quietly behind their breastworks while their dreaded foes marched past.

The seventeenth day of their march carried them to the banks of the river towards which their route had been laid. This was the Magdalena, a stream which rises in the mountains near New Segovia and flows through a difficult rock channel, with numerous cascades, three of them amounting to cataracts, finally reaching the Caribbean Sea after a course of several hundred miles.

How they were to descend this mountain torrent was the question which now offered itself to them. It presented a more attractive route of travel than the one so far pursued over the mountains, but was marked by difficulties of a formidable character. These were overcome by the freebooters in an extraordinary manner, one almost or quite without parallel in the annals of travel. The expedient they adopted was certainly of curious interest.

Before them was a large and rapid river, its current impeded by a multitude of rocks and broken by rapids and cascades. They were destitute of ropes or tools suitable for boat-building, and any ordinary kind of boats would have been of no use to them in such a stream. It occurred to them that what they needed to navigate a river of this character was something of the nature of large baskets or tuns, in which they might float enclosed to their waists, while keeping themselves from contact with the rocks by the aid of poles.

They had no models for such floating contrivances, and were obliged to invent them. Near the river was an extensive forest, and this supplied them abundantly with young trees, of light wood. These they cut down, stripped off their bark, collected them by fives, and, lacking ropes, fastened them together with lianas and a tenacious kind of gum which the forest provided. A large number of small, frail, basket-like contrivances were thus made, each large enough to carry two men, with whom they would sink in the water as deep as the waist. Piperies, Lussan called them, but his description does not make it clear just what they were like.

While thus engaged, the freebooters killed part of their horses, and salted their flesh for food, all the work being done with the energy and activity necessary in their critical situation. During it they were not molested by the Spaniards, but no one could tell how soon they might be. When all was ready they restored their prisoners to the liberty of which they had long been deprived, and entered upon one of the most perilous examples of navigation that can well be imagined.

Launched in their piperies, the freebooters found themselves tossed about by the impetuous current, and speedily covered with spray. The lightness of their floating baskets kept them from sinking, but the energetic efforts they were obliged to make to keep from being thrown out or dashed on the rocks soon exhausted them. A short experience taught them the necessity of fastening themselves in the piperies, so that their hands might be free to keep them from being hurled on the rocks. Occasionally their frail crafts were overturned or buried under the waves in the swift rapids, and the inmates were either drowned or escaped by abandoning the treasures which weighed them down.

Whatever else may be said of this method of navigation, it proved a rapid one, the frail barks being hurried on at an impetuous speed. Each of the cataracts was preceded by a basin of still water, and here it became necessary to swim to the shore and descend the rocks to the bottom of the fall. Some who remained behind threw the piperies into the stream to be carried over the liquid precipice, and recovered by swimming out to meet them, or replaced by new ones when lost.

After three days of this singular navigation it was decided, in view of the fact that the piperies were often dashed together to their mutual injury, to separate and keep at a distance from each other, those who went first marking out by small flags where it was necessary to land. During their progress the question of food again became prominent, the salted horsemeat they had brought with them being spoiled by its frequent wetting. Game was plentiful, but their powder was all spoiled, and the only food to be found was the fruit of the banana-tree, which grew abundantly on the banks.

The cupidity of the freebooters was not abated by the danger of their situation. They made the most earnest endeavors to preserve their spoil, and some of the poorer ones even resorted to murder to gain the wealth of their richer comrades. The dispersion of the flotilla favored this, and six conspiring Frenchmen hid behind the rocks and attacked and killed five Englishmen who were known to possess much treasure. Robbing the bodies, they took to the stream again, leaving the bloody corpses on the bank. Those who saw them had no time to think of avenging them.

Gradually the river grew wider and deeper and its course less impetuous. The cascades were all passed, but the stream was obstructed by floating or anchored tree-trunks, by which many of the piperies were overturned and their occupants drowned. To avoid this danger the piperies were now abandoned and the freebooters divided themselves into detachments and began to build large canoes from the forest trees. Four of these, carrying one hundred and thirty men, were soon ready and their builders again took to the stream. Of the fate of the others, who remained behind, no further account is given by the historian of this adventure.

On the 9th of March, sixty days after their departure from the Pacific, the adventurers reached the river's mouth, having completed their remark-able feat of crossing the continent in the face of the most threatening perils from man and nature. But fortune only partly favored them, for many had lost all the wealth which they had gathered in their career of piracy, their very clothes hanging in rags about their limbs. Some, indeed, had been more fortunate or more adroit in their singular navigation, but, as a whole, they were a woe-begone and miserable party when, a few days afterwards, they reached the isle of Perlas. Here were some friendly vessels, on which they embarked, and near the end of April they reached the West Indies, with the little that remained of their plunder

Such was the end of this remarkable achievement, one which for boldness, intrepidity, and skill in expedients has few to rival it in the annals of history, and which, if performed by men of note, instead of by an obscure band of robbers, would have won for them a high meed of fame.