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Insurgent Corsairs, Not Welcomed Visit in Holguin
bateria fernando septimo gibara f.baibramaIn the 16th and 17th centuries, when the ferocity of pirates and corsairs met an increase in the Caribbean, the territory of today's Cuban province of Holguin was then poorly populated, thus few to loot by those terrible navigators.

Anyway, they profited from all many the bays and inlets from its irregular coastal line, in search of shelter, careen its vessels, and get water, lumber and possibly smuggle with the few neighbors around.

So far, there is no written evidence on their early presence here; we base ourselves on the logical facts that lead us to think of that. However, when piracy was declining those unwelcome navigators showed up in the coasts of today's Holguin province. We mean the called insurgent corsairs, men given permission by the newly created Latin American republics, which appealed to all possible means in their fight against Spain, among them fitting out vessels for piracy.

And to achieve such a goal, they granted permission to their coastal dwellers, but also US adventurers, and even from Europe, who dreamt of making money in the Caribbean basin.

Such a fact came to be true after the turmoil of the revolutions for independence in the Latin American area, which took place in the first three decades of the 19th century

Cuba was then an earned paradise for those patriots – half and corsairs, half pirates. The economic growth in the sugar industry, and tobacco and coffee production led the land become a must for vessels from several nations to dock in its ports.

Then, Cuba has become a safe base to back up Spain's will of re-conquering the lost colonies; thus, those highly enthusiastic corsairs tried to plunder the coasts of this archipelago starting then. Quite fast, the Colonial General Captaincy filed a large archive of the reports on the attacks by corsairs, and unfortunately Holguin was no exception.

In the first decades of the 19 century, the population had grown in number, together with its wealth. For that reason, the new enemies of the Spanish Crown used the bay of Jururu, Naranjo and Nipe to dock.

The latter bay, for its size and depth, turned into a safe place for the pirate vessels, but the two former ones were the ideal ones for the corsairs' goals, since they were small bag bays with small inner islets, thus allowing the pirates to hide away. Nevertheless the bay entrance was deep enough for vessels to go in, the inside part of those bays was not that deep. And that was important because the shallow draft ships of the corsairs could go deep within the bay, till turning unseen from the open see, and the Spanish war ships could not follow the same routes.

Another advantage was that in the three bays there were neither Spanish ports nor military barracks, and there were huge forests around the coast line, which could become firewood and to repair the vessels.

There were also small but clean rivers for drinking water, and a not less important fact was having farmers and landholders living nearby, with good crops and cattle, which could be seized or traded; however the truth is that commerce was done by force or smuggled, and the many cabotage vessels or of the international commerce sailing near the territory's coasts were indeed tempting for the corsairs.

The Spaniards have also taken some measures against travellers that might carry with them pro-independence propaganda or that would be spying on for the corsairs. On the 20th of September 1810 they prohibited the landing docking of persons coming from former colonies, two months later it went in office in Holguin.

On the 27th of February, 1811 they ordered to collect all the literature taking of independence coming from the regions that rose against the Spanish empire. By 1812, they got news on the presence of corsair ships prowling around the coasts of Holguin.

On June 8th, 1816 they reported the Spanish authorities they had spotted vessels entering the bays of Naranjo and Jururu. They thought of enemies to the crown. No doubt the corsairs were every time more aggressive against the coasts of Holguin. Very soon they spread the news of the first attack.

On June the seventh, 1816 the Aguila schooner was attacked and sunken at the entrance of Gibara port, which navigated from Havana to Baracoa. The following day, corsairs made two landings in the bays of Jururu and Naranjo. The over a hundred corsairs came from different nationalities; they were people living along the coasts of today's Mexico and Colombia, but also French people, Italians and from other origins.

They rumoured about 30 women of French origin or from Cartagena de Indias, which lit up the imagination of Holguin dwellers on the night life on board the vessels. They also made reference to some 20 slaves among the corsairs. The Spanish authorities armed vessels with weapons to chase the enemy. However, the efforts turned useless; the vessels went away leaving behind a river of comments among Holguin people. By 1817, corsairs continued to sail around the coasts of the Holguin jurisdiction.

Neighbors also took their measures, but the most important action was the construction in Gibara bay of the battery they baptized Fernando VII. But the defensive facility couldn't prevent the pirates from capturing a vessel, due to the lack of long range weapons.

On November third, 1819 the Spanish authorities were informed on the presence of two corsair vessels nearby Gibara; luckily, that was a threat alone, because the weapons at the battery were not enough to face the enemy.

However, Gibara dwellers later defeated the corsairs on board two rafts, most likely coming from the vessels prowling around there. The threat was so near that they thought of building a tower at Naranjo bay, to be defended by more than 50 men, but the lack of resources spoiled the plans.

In 1824, the corsairs sacked an estate in Chaparra, which then belonged to the jurisdiction of Holguin. They robbed there nine slaves which they took to Naranjo bay and sell them there. All what tells that in addition to war actions, commerce – mostly smuggle – too place along the coast line of Holguin. Those corsairs, plus looting places and smuggling, showed they were patriots, like spreading a proclamation on independence among the dwellers of Holguin.

On May 15, 1824 the Centella schooner, armed in Cartagena de Indias, attacked and took a state near Tanamo bay. Therefore, they sent from the town of Sagua de Tanamo a group of armed men to face the corsairs, who has left earlier, thus a fruitless action.

A neighbor joined the corsairs, and in Nipe bay, in June 1824, they captured the Isabela schooner which was coming from Baracoa. But the plunderers settled down in the entrance of that bag bay waiting for new preys. The authorities in Mayari soon learnt that a man from El Ramon peninsula was aiding the corsairs.

It was a surprise for the Spanish authorities that some people from Holguin helped the corsairs, as the man from El Ramon, a peninsula at the entrance of Nipe bay.

Not pleasant news started to come, another vessel was captured by the corsairs; therefore, an armed group was organized to combat the enemy. This time, they achieved success, the man that aided the corsairs was captured, together with other six persons, may be corsairs or locals that collaborated with the plunderers. In 1825 men from Holguin backed up the crew of two vessels pursued by corsairs. Thanks to that support the vessels didn't fall into the hands of the enemies of the Spanish crown. Captain General congratulated Holguin men for the courage showed.

But soon, it became true that some locals in Holguin aided the corsairs; may be for political conviction, to take part in the commerce of stolen goods or for fear.

In December the fifth, 1825 the local authorities made a list of 35 people linked to the corsairs, which they sent to Cuba's Captain General.

In the fourth of February 1826 brigantine chased by the corsairs ran aground in Manati bay, but fortunately, the actions by those navigators went decreasing. Once the independence of Latin American countries got consolidated and commerce becoming regular, the corsairs were not that necessary. Anyhow, the fear for the corsair's return to the coasts of Holguin remained for many years later. In August 1837 the presence of suspicious vessels off the coasts of Gibara was informed, but the alarm given didn't go further that fear. Thus the insurgent corsair became history.

Without being their intention, those fierce enemies of the Spanish crown gave a significant contribution to Holguin's later development. With the pretext of the corsairs' treat, Holguin was given the permission to build a battery in Gibara, around which soon grew a village and a port, baptized after the bay. That would turn into a way out for the local production. Thus, marking the start of an intense increase of economy, which would attract a large number of immigrants, what would give the zone a distinctive feature in the country's population.


- Hernel Perez Concepcion: Corsarios insurgentes en las costas holguineras. En Heroes Volcanicos del Sur. Valoración multilateral del bicentenario de la independencia de Hispanoamerica, Editorial La Mezquita, Holguin, 2014, pp. 108 119.

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Comments (1)

  • William Read

    This is an interesting report showing how progress and development can come from an unusual source. The brief British conquest of Havana and the west of Cuba in 1763 had a similar effect. Under British control trade was opened up for Cuba to the Caribbean, Central America and the (then) UK North American colonies; Havana and Cuba had an economic boom as a result. The UK left Cuba, when Spain ceded Florida to the UK in return for Spanish control of Cuba. Was the swap a good ideafor FL and/or CU?