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Laurens de Graff

Copyright 2005, David Stapleton

[Laurens de Graff was the material of legends, a successful pirate, and well cultured; he is said to have kept musicians aboard ship to entertain himself and crew. He is said to have been genteel and refined. It makes you wonder what it was about him that made the writers of the time pass on telling his story.]

Born Laurens Baldran, he was later to be known by the name of Laurens de Griffe or Laurens de Graff. He was one of the foremost of the buccaneers in the late 17th century. Henry Morgan characterized him as �a great and mischievous pirate�, and described as tall, blonde, mustached and handsome. A description that can�t help but be romanticized, to the point that there is some serious speculation that de Graff was actually a mulatto (de Griffe was apparently a common appellation for those of mixed African and white heritage). A fact that might be borne out by what is known of his early history. He was probably enslaved by the Spanish when captured in what is now the Netherlands and shipped at some point to the Canary Islands to work on a plantation. While there he married Petronila de Guzman, before being shipped on a Spanish galley. (Barry Clifford speculates that the reason for his obscurity and the confusion over his race lie in the fact that the early Caribbean plantation owners had no wish to publicize the success of an escaped slave, due to the affect it might have on their own slaves).

At some point in the early 1670�s he escaped the galley and turned pirate. His first, reported, action as a pirate captain is recorded on March 1672, when a band of pirates attacked Campeche, torching a partially built frigate and capturing the town. The pirates captured a fat merchant ship, with over 120,000 pesos in silver and cargo, the next day when it sailed unknowingly into the harbor. He is next mentioned in the autumn of 1679 when he is reported to have captured a Spanish frigate of 24-28 guns which he named the Tigre.

In 1682, de Graff had become so successful that, in an ironic turn, Henry Morgan, in his official capacity for Jamaica, sent the frigate Norwich under command of Peter Haywood, pirate hunting with de Graff as his primary quarry. Apparently avoiding a confrontation with Haywood, de Graff instead ran into the Princesa, a ship comparable with the Tigre, and true to Spanish form loaded with troops. After a running gun battle that lasted hours, the Princesa struck her colors, having lost fifty men to de Graff's 8-9 (in an act of kindness, de Graff put the seriously wounded captain of the Princesa and his surgeon ashore). The ship happened to be carrying the payroll for Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, about 120,000 pesos in silver.

The prize shared out, the buccaneers retired to Petite Go�ve to celebrate and refit, making the Princesa de Graff's new flagship. His next foray was a trip to Cartagena in company with Michiel Andrieszoon. Finding little in the way of shipping, they departed for the Gulf of Honduras. Finding two empty galleons de Graff decided to wait for them to fill up with cargo before attacking. The buccaneers retired to Bonaco Island to careen. The plans were ruined when Nockolaas Van Hoorn attacked the ships and captured them empty. When Van Hoorn reached Bonaco Island and tried to join forces with deGraff, he was bluntly turned away, having ruined any potential de Graff had had for the Spanish galleons. He was later to relent and join forces for an attack on Vera Cruz.

The pirates arrived off Vera Cruz on May 17, 1683, leading with two captured Spanish ships to mislead the town. De Graff and Yankey Willems slipped ashore with a force of men and routing the Spanish militia from their sleep, proceeded to remove any defenses. Van Hoorn, marching overland, joined with de Graff and attacked the town proper. On the second day of plundering, the Spanish Plate fleet appeared on the horizon, composed of numerous warships. Retreating with hostages to the nearby island of Los Sacrificios, the pirates waited the ransoms. A brief quarrel between Van Hoorn and de Graff over the treatment of the hostages left Van Hoorn with a slash across the wrist, that would later turn gangrenous and result in his death. Finally, giving up on further plunder the pirates departed past the Spanish ships without hindrance.

In late December 1683, de Graff and a fleet of seven ships arrived off Cartagena, only to be confronted by a force of three large ships, the smallest being a 28 gun galliot. After a poorly commanded battle that left the Spanish San Francisco (40 guns) grounded and the other two ships captured. Laurens de Graff took the San Francisco as his new flagship, renamed as the Fortune. The pirates then proceeded to blockade the town. January 1684 brought an English convoy that was carrying a note for de Graff from his wife offering a Spanish pardon and commission. De Graff ignored the note, not trusting the Spanish to keep their promises.

In summer and fall of 1684 de Graff remained in Petite Go�ve, where he met and married Marie-Anne Dieu-le-Veut. He was again aboard vessel and sailing away in November 1684. After little or no success in raiding the shipping lanes, de Graff is next seen on Isla de Pinos presiding over a gathering of buccaneers. Failing to reach any decision as to a target, de Graff departed, only to be sought out off the Mosquito Coast, for a raid on Campeche. After several months the pirates finally attacked on July 6, 1685. After a protracted battle, the Spaniards fled the town, leaving the pirates with a city devoid of plunder, due to the length of the battle and delay in actually attacking. After two months in the town, the pirates, failing to secure a ransom began to burn the town and execute the prisoners. De Graff stepped in and helped to stop the violence. The pirates departed Campeche in September 1685, carrying many prisoners for ransom.

The pirates having split up, de Graff is next mentioned fleeing from a superior fleet on September 11, 1685 off the Yucatan. After a day long battle with two larger Spanish ships de Graff was able to escape by dumping all cargo and cannons overboard to lighten his ship. In February 1686, the Spanish staged a raid on de Graff's plantation on French Saint Domingue. As retaliation de Graff staged a raid on Tihosuco, where the buccaneers looted and burned. Returning to Petite Go�ve de Graff wrecked his ship while pursuing a Spanish bark, then proceeded to take the bark with his ship's boat.

In 1687, de Graff was reported as a French officer by local authorities. He also engaged in a ship battle off southern Cuba with a Biscayan frigate and the Cuban guarda del costa, sinking several piraguas and taking a small ship as prize. He is next seen defending the harbor at Petite Go�ve from Cuban invaders. December of 1689 sees de Graff taking ships off Jamaica, where he proceeded to blockade the Jamaican coast for over six months before leaving. He then proceeded to the Cayman Islands where he captured an English sloop. In January 1691 he attacked near Santo Domingo and was soundly defeated by a Spanish force three times the size of his French force, narrowly escaping with his life. The summer of 1693 sow him leading another force of buccaneers against Jamaica in several raids. The English responded in May 1695 by attacking Port-de-Paix, sacking the town and capturing de Graff's wife and two daughters.

The last heard of the arch pirate was a trip to Louisiana to help set up a French colony near Biloxi, Mississippi. Some sources claim he died there, others claim locations in Alabama.

Funny thing is Laurens de Graff seems to have been every bit as great a pirate as Morgan or Roberts, and much more so than Teach or Kidd, and yet, it wasn't until recently that I had even heard of him. Is it because he was Dutch, worked for the French or a mulatto? Most books seem to focus a greater part of their tales on English pirates, perhaps that's because the ones I read are written in English; I find myself appreciating more and more those books that offer other national viewpoints.

 


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