'As it Was' - 01/01/2008

by the Old Hydrographer

Steve Ritchie

This is the story of how two seventeenth-century English pirates were able to collect a mass of hydrographic material subsequently used by William Hack, a London publisher, to produce charts and sailing directions. The pirates did this during eighteen months of plundering Spanish shipping off the central and southern west coasts of South America. Such publications were described as ‘Waggoners’ in England in those days: a word derived from the Dutch charts published by the famous Dutch cartographer Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer and widely in use by seamen.

Having crossed the Isthmus of Darien in August 1680, one hundred and thirty buccaneers took the Spanish settlement of Santa Maria on the Gulf of Panama, where they captured a bark enabling them, with a number of native canoes, to sail towards the city of Panama. However, the citizens had been alerted, leaving the pirates to occupy some of the off-lying islands. Here they were fortunate to capture among other vessels the 400-ton Santisima Trinidad. This they adopted as their flagship, renaming her Trinity.

In May 1680 Captain Sawkins led sixty men to attack the town of Puebla Nueva on the mainland, north west of Panama. But the inhabitants had been forewarned and repulsed the pirates, killing Sawkins, who had been a well-respected leader. Bartholomew Sharp, while organising the withdrawal from the disaster, captured a 100-ton bark which he named Mayflower when he rejoined the Trinity and was accepted as the new commander. He was not, however, as popular as Sawkins had been, and sixty men decided to leave the company, returning to the Caribbean across the Isthmus of Darien. This was the first of several departures, a common occurrence when such freebooters fell out with their current leaders.

By now it had become apparent that one of the buccaneers, Basil Ringrose, a Londoner of considerable intelligence, had somewhere learnt the rudiments of surveying. He had already prepared onboard a plan of Panama Bay and its many islands, which he claimed was "… in general more correct and true than the Spaniards have themselves." He was to continue throughout the voyage of the Trinity to gather cartographic material and to make an atlas of his own maps and views.

Trinity and Mayflower sailed to the remote island of Gorgana to careen the vessels. Having captured two veteran Spanish sea captains who promised to pilot Sharp into ‘several places of great riches’, he was now ready to pillage cites and plunder shipping. He first planned to take the city of Arica, where a vast quantity of silver was said to be awaiting transport to Panama. But the Mayflower was a poor sailing vessel, and under tow from Trinity she collided with her and was so damaged she had to be abandoned and sunk. Nearing Arica it was again apparent that the buccaneers had been descried, so they took the adjacent town of Puerto de Hilo and refreshed themselves at the citizens’ expense.

During a visit to the island of Juan Fernandez to re-victual and refit Trinity, a mutiny broke out during which the crew replaced their leader Sharp with John Watling. However, returning to the coast Watling was killed during an unsuccessful attack on Arica, and Sharp regained his captaincy.

These buccaneers had been generally unsuccessful when attacking townships but much more fortunate plundering vessels at sea. On Friday 28th July they came up with El Sancto Rosario, which fired upon them, but Trinity was soon alongside and in boarding her, the captain was killed. Sharp, writing many years later, remembered finding onboard a "Lady called Donna Joanna Constanta about 18 years of age and the beautifullest creature that my eyes beheld in the South Seas." But of more lasting importance was the discovery onboard of a great secret book of Spanish charts of the South Seas. Having rummaged their prize of a great quantity of wines and brandy, the pirates set the vessel adrift inshore with but a single mast and sail, with Joanna and the other prisoners still onboard.
Another attempt to storm the town of Pieta having failed, Bartholomew Sharp decided to set sail far offshore for the Strait of Magellan and a voyage homewards.
After sheltering for three weeks in what Sharp named the ‘English Gulf’ north of the Strait of Magellan, Trinity sailed, but in thick weather failed to find the entrance and doubled Cape Horn about 150 miles to the south. Reaching the Atlantic, Sharp sailed northwards until he reached the latitude of Barbados, which he ran down until he reached the island. The pirates were not allowed to land, so sailed north to Antigua where, after 75 days at sea, they were happy to receive water and fresh victuals.

Here it was decided that every man should shift for himself; while seven of the crew who were destitute, having lost all their ill-gotten gains to their shipmates playing dice, were given the ship Trinity. What they did with her is another story. Meanwhile, all the others could afford to find berths on vessels sailing from Antigua or Nevis for England, where Sharp landed in March 1682.

By the Treaty of Madrid signed by England and Spain in 1670, all hostilities between the two Sovereigns in the New World had been renounced and acts of piracy forbidden. So when the Spanish Ambassador in London heard that Sharp and leading members of his crew were in the east end of London he demanded that they be brought to trial for piracy and murder. An Admiralty Court Warrant was served on the erstwhile buccaneers and they were committed to Marshalsea Prison.

By now King Charles II had heard of the Spanish atlas that Sharp had brought home with him. It was not then surprising that when the case was heard in Court the prisoners were acquitted, much to the fury of the Spanish, who expelled the British Ambassador from Madrid. A couple of months later, Bartholomew Sharp presented the great atlas to the King and received a Captain’s Commission in the Royal Navy as a reward.

Meanwhile, Basil Ringrose had landed at Dartmouth, and for seventeen months worked on his atlas with the assistance of William Hack, the London chart publisher. He then persuaded some London merchants to provide a ship named Cygnet for a trading mission on the west coast of South America, with Captain Swan in command and Ringrose sailing as a super cargo. The trading voyage was a disaster, for most of those Ringrose wished to trade with assumed Cygnet was yet another pirate vessel. So Captain Swan decided to act as such, and attacked an inland Mexican town of Sancto Prague; but the pirates were ambushed when carrying their spoils to the coast and Basil Ringrose was among those killed.

His beautiful ‘South Sea Waggoner’, which includes 107 charts and sailing directions, is to be found in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and the Spanish atlas which Bartholomew Sharp presented to King Charles II is in the British Library in London.

Further reading

  • ‘A Buccaneers Atlas – Basil Ringrose’s South Sea Waggoner’, edited by Derek Howse and Norman Thrower. University of California Press Ltd. Berkeley USA and Oxford England (1992).

    Last updated: 26/05/2019