Quintana Roo’s Pirates of the Caribbean

pirates title
By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Pirates. Images of swashbucklers with gold teeth, black eye patches, and peg legs come to mind. Or Johnny Depp. But in reality, many of the pirates who navigated the waters just off Quintana Roo’s shores from as early as the 1600s were men with unlikely backgrounds for the sport they took on. A handful were full-fledged gentlemen, most had seafaring backgrounds. Many were sanctioned by queens or governments. A few even ended up with titles, and some were hailed as heroes.

The word “privateer” better describes these romantic buccaneers. In an era when spices, slave trading, and territorial expansion sparked the economics of the globe, the nations of Europe – England, France, Holland and Spain – waged their wars on the high seas. With Spain’s recent discovery of the New World and its riches, the only unity on the Atlantic was the common goal of sacking all Spanish galleons.

Adventurers by nature, highwaymen by design, “pirate” conjures familiar names from history such as Jean Lafitte, Sir Henry Morgan, and Sir Francis Drake. However, lesser known names such as Giovanni de Verrazno (The Frenchman) and Fermin Mundaca have equally compelling stories.

While Morgan and Lafitte are said to have walked the shores of Isla Mujeres and buried treasure there, Isla’s most notorious resident was Fermin Mundaca, a slave trader who transported African slaves to Antilles, prefering the more “respectable” title of pirate. In 1860 when the British campaigned against slavery, Mundaca took a powder on the white sand beaches of Isla Mujeres. There he rented out his boats to the Yucatan Government to capture rebel Mayas along this coast who were then sold into slavery to large Cuban sugar plantations, which hardly endeared him to the locals.

On Isla, Mundaca used his wealth to build a large hacienda named Vista Alegre which he filled with livestock, birds, and exotic gardens, still viewable today. The entrance arch, El Paso de La Triguena (The Brunette), was named for a beautiful girl from the village, Martiniana Gomez Pantoja, with whom the elderly pirate fell in love, after seeing her just once. He nicknamed her the brunette. But the dark-haired beauty, 37 years his junior, married her childhood sweetheart and Mundaca grew isolated, lonely, and mad. He died at age 55 in Merida still in love with the girl. To be near his lost love, he built a tomb which remains empty and can supposedly be found in Isla’s colorful, crowded cemetery, one street before North Beach (although this writer could not find it). Etched on the headstone are the symbols of the pirate--skull and crossbones—with the words he carved as his epitaph, “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be.”

Jean Lafitte, born in either Haiti or St. Malo, France, liberated New Orleans first of high tariffs by supplying stolen goods to customers without a middleman, and then liberated the city of the British in the U.S. Battle of 1812. Targeted at first by Andrew Jackson as a bandit and a rogue, he was later renamed a genleman and a patriot, for without him, one of the war’s most decisive battles against Britain would have been lost. Soon after, he was named Terrirotial Governor of Galveston, (still Mexican soil at that time) but with changing times, he was harassed by stricter U.S. policies which restricted his maritime activities. As his farewell and parting shot, he torched Galveston, then according to legend, sailed into the Caribbean. Rumor has it he stopped on Isla Mujeres, then moved onto the Gulf of Mexico. In the Yucatan, in the small pueblo Dzilam de Bravo not far from Progreso, a CEDAM (Club de Exploraciones y Deportes Acuaticos de Mexico) memorial plaque commemorates him. In the town’s cemetery, CEDAM workers found a weathered tombstone with the epitaph, “Jean Lafitte ReExhumed.” Could it really be the grave of Lafitte?

The Quintana Roo coast is rife with pirate stories. Xcalak was a known haven for pirates, Bacalar narrowly escaped their ruin, and Ascension Bay was one of the great pirate harbors of the 17th century. Wild and isolated, its treacherous mud flats must have sent countless vessels to their doom, while pirate ships waited in hiding for the passage of these Spanish galleons laden with gold, fighting against trade winds on their way to Santiago de Cuba. In the Museo de la Cultura Maya, Chetumal, one display tells how pirates used Banco Chinchorro to their gain. Chinchorro is a deadly circular string of rocks on a low lying limestone shelf extending out from the sea, 30 miles long and 20 miles wide, just off the shores of Majahual. Pirates put lanterns along the reef, signalling ships this was clear passage. But actually, it lured them to their doom onto the treacherous rocks. It is rumored that thousands of ships had their downfall on Chinchorro Reef.

If you yearn for more pirate tales, stop by the excellent Subacuatico-CEDAM Museum in Puerto Aventuras, Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal, or Posada del Capitan Lafitte, four kilometers north of Playa del Carmen (where General Manager Miguel de Alba assisted with this story), to see the white sand beaches that may have attracted one pirate extraordinaire. Locate a copy of CEDAM founder Pablo Bush Romero’s Under the Waters of Mexico. Venture over to Isla Mujeres’ newly renovated Hacienda Munadaca and see the pirate’s gardens now made into a small zoo. Walk through the cemetery there, or drive to Dzilam de Bravo, Yucatan, to view Lafitte’s commemorative plaque and find the gravestone with his name on it. Ahoy, matie! There’s treasure to be found.