My carefully crafted plan for retirement now includes snorkeling on the Great Mayan Reef and looking for loose pirate treasure.
Yo. Ho ho.
That, and a bottle of rum.
Forgive me if I’m expressing my inner Jack Sparrow but I’ve been reading up on shipwrecks along the Belize reef system and pirate activity in the 1600s and 1700s. Last Thursday night I dropped by the San Pedro House of Culture for the debut of its latest presentation, “Pirates in Belize.” You know, looking for some tips on where the treasure might be buried here on Ambergris Caye.
And why not? Everything worked in their favor — treacherous waters, the barrier reef, lots of little islands around which to play hide and seek. They just had to sit back and wait for gold-laden Spanish fleets to sail north from South America and then they’d spring out like rottweilers, pillage the ships and sink ‘em where they sat.
And if pursued, wily buccaneers knew well the narrow entrance channels along the reef. More than a few pursuers ran aground because they were off the pirate ship line by a matter of a few feet. Plenty of ships just ran aground out of ignorance or because of powerful storms.
Michael Crichton’s “Pirate Latitudes” is filled with vivid descriptions of these cat-and-mouse chases by sailing ships and the buccaneers’ harrowing passages across the reef to safe harbors. You can get the feel for reef crossings, too, in Jimmy Buffett’s “A Salty Piece of Land” as a modern day sailing yacht gingerly traverses the reef.
How precarious is the passage? Until recently, all you had to do was sail south toward Caye Caulker were a couple of large sailboats were hung up on the reef and eventually stripped bare by modern day pirates — ok, salvagers. Both were recently removed from the reef.
The House of Culture presents a very text-heavy display on the local history of pirates, buccaneers and baymen — but can there be a more-exciting read than one about pirates? Real ones! Read the rules of conduct for pirates (stricter than what we adhere to today); read about the fierce women pirates who sailed the Caribbean; read about the curious “matelotage” arrangement between buccaneers; brief bios on pirates who passed through Belize will wet your appetite for more.
Director Mito Paz, in opening the display on Thursday, recalled hearing stories from his elders of buried treasure in the Belize cayes and atolls and shipwrecks on the reefs that yielded cannons and anchors.
In fact, if you look closely, San Pedro is dotted with old anchors and cannon from shipwrecks, spread around town like Easter eggs awaiting your discovery. There are tales of snorkelers finding gold — a gold fork here, a few gold and silver coins there — although such finds seem quite rare.
The greatest riches I suspect are found in our own imagination as we conjure up images of the pirates Blackbeard, Peter Wallace, Edward Low, Bartholomew Sharpe — and even John Hawkins who was a privateer, slave trader and ship designer before being knighted for his service to the queen.
I like to imagine that at the time, pirates who tried settling on Ambergris Caye found the area a bit too thick with real estate developers, time-share hustlers and con artists and quickly sailed on to less dangerous places — like Port Royale — after burying their treasure here, of course.
There must be a bit of pirate in all of us who move to a Caribbean nation like Belize — or so we’d like to think. We left safe harbors for foreign shores, we’re wed to the sea. There are some among us who did a bit of looting and pillaging before coming ashore and we all live a bit by the pirates code: be true to your mates and share in both the bounty and struggles.
Did you know pirates even wrote in compensation for on-the-job disability? “#8 If any man loses a joint in time of engagement, shall have 400 pieces of eight. If a limb, 800.”
There was even a moral clause: “#9. If at any time you meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her, without her consent, shall suffer Death.”
As I sit here and type, it is thrilling to think that within my horizon rests the remains of a quite large British merchant ship, the Yealdham. It went down off the Tres Cocos cut in 1800. Cannon, some silver and pewter settings, some brass fittings — a few of these were recovered.
Maybe there is more out there.
I’d like to think so.