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Piracy in the Florida Straits: the case of the Guerrero

Exhibit of artifacts on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West include a cannonball from the Nimble and part of a bottle from the Guerrero. The shackles are representational of those used on a slave ship.
Exhibit of artifacts on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West include a cannonball from the Nimble and part of a bottle from the Guerrero. The shackles are representational of those used on a slave ship.

By 1827 the international slave trade had been illegal in Spain for seven years, the United States for 19 years and Great Britain for 20. Spanish-held Cuba, however, paid little heed to the prohibition. 

A letter written from a British officer in Havana to one in London dated July 31, 1827 read in part, “The illicit slave trader from this port… appears to be about to resume its former activity, no less than four Spanish vessels having during the present month sailed are the brigs Guerrero… She is well armed, and has a crew of ninety men; and there can be little doubt that her purpose is to plunder of their cargoes of slaves any weaker vessels that she may fall in with in the coast of Africa.”

The pirate slaver <i>Guerrero<i> was just over 110 feet long with a beam of 27 feet, 5 inches. When the ship left the west coast of Africa to make the over 4,000 mile voyage to Havana, 561 slaves were on board. December 19, 1827, Lt. Edward Holland and the 56-man crew aboard the H.B.M. (His Britannic Majesty) Schooner <i>Nimble<i> were patrolling the Florida Straits 250 miles north of Havana when a suspicious looking brig off the coast of Orange Cay, Bahamas was spotted. The noon entry into the <i>Nimble’s<i> log read, “Observed stranger to be a suspicious looking brig. I set topsail, cleared [the deck] for action and fired two guns to bring stranger to whom we observed hauling up to avoid us; made more sail.”

The suspicious ship set her sails and made a run for it; the faster Nimble gave chase. The Nimble’s 5 p.m. log read, “strong breezes and squally with a heavy swell.” By 6:15 p.m. the brig was firing her cannons at the gaining Nimble and for the next 30 minutes the two ships exchanged cannon and musket fire until the brig feigned surrender by firing a blank and flashing a conciliatory light. The Nimble ceased fire. 

The brig made another run for it and at full sail slammed into Carysfort Reef. According to an 1831 edition of the <i>United States Service Magazine<i>, “The masts of the chase were heard to fall with a tremendous crash, followed with a horrid yell from those on board, which left no doubt of her being a Guineaman.”

The ship’s hull split open and when the Guerrero filled with water 41 Africans shackled in the ship’s hold drowned where they were chained. The Niles Weekly Register reported, “The cries of 561 slaves and crew were appalling beyond description.” Minutes after the Guerrero struck the reef, the Nimble did as well and while the hull remained intact, the rudder was destroyed. Lt. Holland ordered the anchor set until damages could be surveyed at first light. 

Wreckers began to arrive on the scene the following morning. The ThornFlorida, and Surprize had been anchored at Caesars Creek to the north the night before and had likely been alerted to the conflict by the pounding repercussions of cannon fire. 

Aboard Captain Austin Packer’s 39-foot schooner <i>Florida,<i> 142 Africans and approximately 20 Spaniards were boarded. Aboard Captain Charles Grover’s schooner <i>Thorn<i> 246 Africans and 54 Spaniards were boarded and the two ships set sail for Key West, but were commandeered by the Spanish and redirected to Santa Cruz, Cuba where their cargo could be sold to sugar field plantation owners for $300 each.

In the meantime, the rudder from the Guerrero was salvaged and fitted to the <i>Nimble<i>; the remaining 121 Africans were boarded and delivered to Key West, one of whom died in transit. The Africans were clothed, fed and housed for 75 days, but rumors had begun to spread that Spanish warships would be sailing for the island. An unknown source reported, “Key West was reinforced with cannons and the local militia ordered to keep watch… But nearly a week elapsed there was probably no truth in report.”

It was decided that for everyone’s safety it was best to transfer the surviving 117 Africans to the St. Augustine area. A letter written by the U.S. Marshal in St. Augustine to Richard Rush, secretary of the U.S. Treasury stated, “While they were in Key West, attempts were made to take them from the possession of my deputy, by force, and by bribery; and, the night before I removed them from the island, an attempt was made to carry off a part of them.”

Unable to support the slaves, the U.S. Marshal rented the Africans out to St. Augustine area plantation owners and during their time in St. Augustine, 17 Africans either died or escaped. In the end, of the original 561 Africans pirated away from their homeland, 100 were attempted to be repatriated. Nine Africans died during the five-month trip home.

The repatriating of the Africans was undertaken by the American Colonizing Society. The society, formed in 1817, worked to transport freed slaves back to a colony on the west coast of Africa established in 1822 and recognized as the Republic of Liberia in 1847. By 1867, 13,000 freed slaves had been returned to Africa.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.

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