Yucatán was well acquainted with pirates, detested their names, and viewed them all as dangerous criminals. Except for Robert Chevalier.
Almost from the beginnings of Spanish settlement, pirates plundered Yucatán’s coasts and ships. A century and a half of destruction, robbery, and abductions at the hands of these sea-going marauders significantly interfered with the colony’s development.
San Francisco de Campeche, Yucatán’s main coastal town and seaport, found what lay in store when pirates attacked for the first time in 1557. Attacks on shipping and on the town itself became frequent.
In 1561 French pirates boldly invaded, robbed, burned the town, and took five women as captives. Most of the populace took their most precious belongings and fled into the forest. Fortuitously this time, Spanish soldiers happened to arrive from Florida, counterattacked, killed many of the pirates, and recovered loot and captives. The famous English pirates John Hawkins and Francis Drake attacked Campeche in 1568. A band led by William Parker, another Englishman, carried out a violent and daring raid in 1597, finally withdrawing after a siege of seventeen days. These were only a few of the more prominent attacks, and so it went on for another hundred years or so.
Pirates of all nations made the Island of Tris — now called Carmen Island, in Campeche State — a principal refuge. By 1600 more than two hundred pirates had settled there, a region the Spanishhadignored as worthless. From that base, English, French, Dutch, Flemish, and Portuguese “Brethren of the Coast” roamed the Gulf and Caribbean at will, attacking commercial shipping, Spanish treasure fleets, and coastal towns.
Other European powers, attempting to wrest New-World real estate from the Spanish, began recruiting the outlaws as low-budget navies. In a prominent example, the governor of Jamaica in 1657 offered Port Royal as a haven for pirates, making them part of the struggling English colony’s defenses. French settlers in the sugar islands and Dutch merchants also made pacts with pirates when it seemed in their interest.
With the ever-shifting wars and alliances among the European powers, the gangs sanctioned by various nations became essentially indistinguishable from the free-sailing pirates beholden to no one. Renegade woodcutters around the coasts entered the mix, exchanging places with their seagoing counterparts. Woodcutters, pirates, smugglers, traders, and sailors — by the mid-1600s, the distinctions had become vague, and individuals could move freely between the professions.
The tactics of pirate leaders and their crews varied considerably. Some confined themselves to stealing valuables they could easily carry away. Many also wantonly destroyed ships and cargos. The most violent routinely murdered captives, burned towns, raped nuns, and tortured children. They fought among themselves, much like today’s narco gangs. Their terror tactics intimidated even naval vessels into avoiding contact.
Here are two more examples from Campeche’s many encounters with pirates. In 1633 a force of some five hundred men, led by Dutch Captain Cornelis Jol, alias “Pie de Palo” (Peg Leg), and Havana-born Diego “El Mulato” Martín, attacked Campeche and made themselves masters of the town center. The pirates plundered the town, murdered citizens, and left with prisoners and anything else of value. Then in 1663, Englishman Christopher Myngs, encouraged by the governor of Jamaica, assembled the largest pirate fleet ever seen, fourteen ships with 1,400 men aboard. They besieged Campeche, occupied the town during five days of pillaging, and finally left with booty, hostages, and captured ships. International outrage over that attack required the English king, Charles II, to issue a diplomatic apology — although he was glad to keep his share of the spoils, promoted Myngs to admiral, and later rewarded him with a knighthood.
In1656, the Governor of Yucatán, Francisco de Bazán — in what seems like belated attention to the problem — ordered work to begin on improving Campeche’s fortifications. Myngs destroyed the first protective walls in 1663, and invasions during the next few years by the Dutch pirate Edward Mansvelt, by Bartolomé “El Portugués” Díaz, and by Laurens “Lorencillo” de Graaf repeatedly reduced the uncompleted fortifications to ruins.
The examples suggest the fear and hatred that pirates must have inspired in the citizens of Yucatán. In the midst of this chaos, another pirate began appearing in the records, a Frenchman called Robert Chevalier. Involved in various raids on commerce around the Caribbean, he made headlines in 1667 with a major attack to steal palo de tinte — wood valued for making dyes — from English woodcutters at the Laguna de Términos. Later in the same year, however, this very pirate shows up in the parish records of Campeche marrying the daughter of a prominent family. From there, he moved into the highest levels of Yucatecan society.
So here is the mystery of the story: How did this renegade Frenchman, whom history presents as a pirate, one of the bandits despised by the good citizens of Campeche, become embraced as one of them?
Robert Chevalier was born in 1642 in Saint-Malo, Brittany, a free port then famous for producing seafaring adventurers — and sometimes pirates. Chevalier took up the latter career and earned a reputation by escaping from prison in London. He seems to have had an enduring hatred for the English, likely based on nationalism and religion as well as the imprisonment.
At the time Chevalier made his notable attack on the English woodcutters, Spain and England were nominally at peace. However, Spanish authorities were outraged by the continuing activity of illegal foreign woodcutters around the coasts of Yucatán. They hired willing sailors to harass them, even vessels from nations with which they were intermittently at war, essentially to act as a mercenary Spanish coastguard.
The hired captains were known as privateers (Spanish corsarios) and received licenses called letters of marque (patentes de corso) issued in the name of a European monarch. Such letters were easy to obtain, only vaguely symbolic for the mostly illiterate sailors, and impossible to control. They essentially allowed the holders to blend seamlessly with pirates under a cloak of legality.
At least part of the answer about our hero’s rapid acceptance by the highest members of Campeche society must be that they did not regard him as a pirate because he had been operating as a privateer on behalf of Spain.
Robert Chevalier changed his name to Alberto Caballero and married Inés Salgado González, daughter of Onofre Salgado, Campeche’s Sergeant Major, the prestigious local army commander. He brought with him a considerable quantity of merchandise, obtained assistance from prominent local merchants, and soon had his own store on the principal plaza in Campeche.
Some sources say Campeche merchants had already known Chevalier-Caballero for several years as a trader with contacts in Cartagena de las Indias. Cartagena was the port and major trade center through which the vast silver wealth from the Viceroyalty of Peru flowed out to Spain on treasure fleets. As a foreigner, Caballero could not legally engage in trade within the Spanish empire, but Spain’s power to control trade was weakening. Merchants in backwater Yucatán must have welcomed a source of untaxed goods from wealthy Cartagena and willingly overlooked their clandestine origin.
So here is another key to the mystery of Caballero’s acceptance: He was a valued friend of the local merchants — as a smuggler.
Alberto and Inés moved to Mérida in about 1670. Alberto became a prominent and successful merchant. In 1675, Governor Martín de Urzúa y Arizmendi honored Caballero by placing him in charge of artillery at the city’s San Benito fortress. There were objections to his appointment, based on his being a foreigner. The worthy merchants of the city — who had profited from his smuggling — wrote glowing testimonials to his good character. They provided endorsements — of questionable veracity — alleging that Caballero had lived in Spain from early childhood and had served honorably on the Spanish treasure fleet. Seeking to win full acceptance, Caballero hired agents in Spain to petition the King for Spanish citizenship. We have independent records of all thirty-seven naturalization letters signed by King Carlos II during this period. No Chevalier or Caballero appears in the list. The Governor went ahead with the appointment anyway, and our hero held the position until his death.
Alberto and Inés had six children, three boys and three girls. Two of the sons became priests, and the Church promoted one, Juan Tomás, to canon of the cathedral in Mérida. The others married well. Two grandsons, Rodrigo José Chacón y Caballero, from Alberto’s daughter Isabel, and Franciso Javier Carrillo de Priego y Caballero, from daughter María de la O, married direct descendants of Francisco de Montejo himself. The buena gente had clearly accepted the ex-pirate. And, in an unmistakable sign of high status, the family owned several black slaves.
Accounts of Caballero’s history often confuse him with a different pirate also named Robert Chevalier. The other one, called “De Beauchêne,” was born in Pointe-aux-Trembles, New France (now part of Montréal) in 1686. He was killed in a tavern fight at Tours, France in 1731. He became famous because of a highly fictionalized but best-selling eighteenth-century book about his exploits.
Alberto Caballero, the ex-pirate-privateer-smuggler, died on October 11, 1716 in Mérida at age 74 years. The citizens honored him with entombment in the cathedral of San Ildefonso.
By Robert Temple
The surviving defensive walls and hilltop forts make Campeche a World Heritage Site and provide a compelling reason to visit. The walls, connecting eight bastions and with four gates, were some 26 feet high, nine feet thick, and a mile and a half long. Undertaken too late to protect the city from the worst depredations, the walls were finally completed during a period of declining pirate activity, between 1686 and 1704. The defenses proved of value a few years later, however. The end of the long War of the Spanish Succession in 1714 put thousands of sailors and privateers out of work, and a period known as the Golden Age of Piracy ensued.
Mérida’s fortress of San Benito once stood roughly where the current San Benito and Lucas de Gálvez markets are located. It consisted essentially of a hexagon of walls and bastions surrounding the Convento Grande de San Francisco, which had been built in the sixteenth century atop a Maya platform using stone from pyramids. The fortress was completed in 1669 and demolished in the 1860s.
The locations of many burial markers in Mérida’s main San Ildefonso cathedral have been lost or the letters eroded into illegibility. If anyone can find the tomb of Alberto Caballero, please let us know!
The author thanks Jorge Rosado Baeza for his contributions to this article, especially the amazing genealogies of the Caballero and Montejo families.
The author also thanks George McClellan for providing helpful references.
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