While there have been pirates and privateers of all nationalities, some Dutch mariners were particularly troublesome in the early modern period, targeting, in particular, the Spanish Main but also shipping in the eastern Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Known as zee-roovers, these pirates and privateers often acted for and were funded by private consortiums, the Dutch West India Company, or even the Dutch government. Here are 10 Dutchmen who plagued the High Seas in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Roche Brasiliano (active 1650s to 1660s)
Roche Brasiliano (various spellings, real name uncertain) is one of those half-fiction/half-reality figures so common in the world of piracy. He earned his name for his time, probably in exile, in Portuguese Brazil. After 1654, Roche turned to piracy and based himself at Port Royal, Jamaica. The early success of capturing a Mexican vessel loaded with silver was counterbalanced by his own capture, imprisonment in Campeche, and ultimate deportation to Spain. Somehow escaping, Roche was back in the Caribbean and he attacked Campeche, perhaps in revenge for his incarceration there.
Roche Brasiliano cemented his reputation as a mad, bad pirate following his unflattering biography in Alexander Exquemelin’s popular work Buccaneers of America, first published in Dutch in 1678. As one passage notes:
[When drunk] he would roam the town like a madman. The first person he came across, he would chop off his arm or leg, without anyone daring to intervene, for he was like a maniac. He perpetrated the greatest atrocities possible against the Spaniards. Some of them he tied or spitted on wooded stakes and roasted them alive between two fires, like killing a pig.
(quoted in Rogozinski, 42).
Dirk Chivers (active 1694 to 1699)
Dirk Chivers (aka Captain Richard Shivers) made his name in the Indian Ocean. After helping the English pirate Henry Every in 1694, Chivers’ ship was wrecked in the Comoro Islands, north of Madagascar. The next year, he was chosen by the crew of another pirate ship to become its captain, and so Chivers sailed the Soldado across the Indian Ocean and took over several ships of the British East India Company. An unusual attempt to ransom the captured cargoes back to the governor of Aden was not successful, and Chivers ended up burning the ships. One of the captains of the captured ships who had suggested the ransom idea to Chivers now had his lips sewn together.
Another failed scheme was a direct attack on Calcutta (now Kolkata) in November 1696. Once again, a ransom demand for captured ships met with an unfavourable response from the authorities, and the arrival of an Indian fleet obliged Chivers to withdraw. 1698 proved a better year when Chivers captured £130,000 worth of loot in the hold of the Great Mohammed. In 1699, Chivers accepted a royal pardon but not before he sank his ship to block the harbour of St. Mary’s, a pirate haven near Madagascar. The authorities were, no doubt, glad to be free of the troublesome Dutchman who ultimately returned to the port he had set out from back in 1694 to start off his life of crime: Rhode Island.
Simon de Cordes (d. 1599)
Simon de Cordes was the commander of the Dutch five-ship fleet that sailed into Pacific waters to attack the Spanish Main from the west in 1598. Just one ship and 36 men from 500 ever returned to Europe. Trouble started almost immediately when the original commander, Jacob de Mahu, died and de Cordes replaced him. Half the men were already lost to accident, disease, and starvation by the time the fleet made it through the stormy Straits of Magellan in September 1599. The ships were separated, and de Cordes’ brother Baltasar pressed on alone only to meet hostile tribes and battles with Spaniards; he eventually sailed across the Pacific to the Spice Islands where he and most of his crew were killed by the Portuguese who were keen to keep this secretive part of the world to themselves. Simon de Cordes, meanwhile, met a disaster of his own, killed along with 23 of his men by natives of Chile in November 1599. The sole surviving ship of the disastrous expedition made it to Japan in April 1600.
Laurens de Graaf (active 1682 to 1695)
Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf was one of the more active buccaneers in the Caribbean. In some legends of dubious reliability, he is actually Spanish or, at least, served as a soldier in the Spanish army or navy. Dispatched or deserting to the Americas, de Graaf was captured by buccaneers and either obliged or persuaded to join them. Taking to his life of crime, de Graaf sailed the 28-gun Tigre and made short work of a Spanish ship heading for Santo Domingo, relieving it of 120,000 silver pesos (the annual pay for Havana’s garrison) in July 1682.
Unable to find the valuables the locals of Campeche had sensibly hidden, Laurens de Graaf took revenge by torching the town, blowing up the fortress, & hanging Nine prisoners.
In May 1683, de Graaf led a fleet of six other captains and launched a surprise attack on San Juan de Ulúa and Veracruz (modern Mexico), then a major treasure port of the Spanish Main. Veracruz was the collection point both for silver gathered from the mines in Mexico and precious eastern goods brought by the Manila galleons to Acapulco and then transported across land to the Atlantic coast. Most of the ordinary folks were held in the town’s church where they were deprived of food and water for four days until they told the buccaneers where their valuables were hidden. To encourage them, de Graaf put a barrel of gunpowder inside the packed church and warned them he would blow everyone sky-high if they did not cooperate. In the end, 300 of the captives died. The buccaneers looted the port, ransomed 150 local dignitaries, and made off with some 800,000 silver pesos. As it happened, it could have been much more since a Spanish treasure fleet was just arriving, but de Graaf missed them.
De Graaf was involved in another notorious attack on civilians when he raided Campeche, Mexico, in July 1685. Unable to find the valuables the locals had sensibly hidden inland, and with the governor refusing to pay a ransom, de Graaf took revenge by torching the town, blowing up the fortress, and hanging nine prisoners. A Spanish squadron came to the rescue of Campeche and drove off the pirates who had spent 57 days enjoying themselves in the town.
Piet Pieterszoon Hein (1577-1629)
Piet Pieterszoon Hein (aka Heijn or Heyn) was born near Rotterdam, and his early life at sea included a spell as a Spanish galley slave. Escaping and sailing for the Dutch East India Company, Hein became a highly successful privateer captain. Portuguese Brazil was attacked in 1624, ransacking Bahia, and a long line of merchant ship prizes followed over the next four years. Hein was now alongside Francis Drake as the Spaniards’ most hated adversary. Like Drake, Hein combined religious anti-Catholic fervour with a lust for gold and glory to wreak havoc on the Spanish Main. Hein applied the same religious principles to his own men, flogging crew members who missed daily prayers.
In September 1628, Hein managed the impossible: he captured an entire Spanish treasure fleet off Cuba. Hein commanded a fleet of 31 vessels with 679 cannons, over 2,300 mariners, and another 1,000 soldiers. With this formidable force, the Dutchman captured the fleet which was sailing from Mexico to Havana. The four Spanish galleons and 18 other ships were carrying 46 tons of silver and a load of other valuables. The captured Spaniards were put ashore with provisions while Hein’s men spent the next eight days transferring the riches to their own ships. It was a remarkable and unique coup in the privateering wars between Spain and its European rivals. Hein did not receive very much of the booty personally, but he was rewarded with the rank of admiral in the Dutch Navy, the first-ever non-noble to receive such an exalted position.
Boudewijn Hendricksz (d. 1626)
Boudewijn Hendricksz was a former high official at the town of Edam who was selected as the leader of the privateers who attempted and failed to capture San Juan on Spanish Puerto Rico in September 1625. The result was all the more embarrassing since the expedition had consisted of an impressive 42 ships when it set out and was well-funded by the Dutch West India Company. The Dutch ships pounded the shore with cannon fire, but San Juan’s fortifications proved too strong to break. The Dutch landed in the abandoned town, looting what little had been left behind, including the cathedral. The El Morro fortress remained in Spanish hands, but Hendricksz’s attempt to starve the defenders into submission failed. A threat to burn down the town brought no surrender either, but Hendricksz torched it anyway. The Dutch departed but first had to run the gauntlet of the El Morro’s cannons, now directed across the harbour.
A raid on Margarita Island was equally unsuccessful, and the Dutch raiders instead ruthlessly pillaged a number of smaller settlements along the Venezuelan coast. Hendricksz’s expedition had only one hope now to recoup its tremendous costs: take the annual Spanish treasure fleet. As these were well-armed and escorted, this was no easy feat. Treasure fleets stopped at Havana, and here Hendricksz waited, but he died of illness before they arrived. The privateer crews were now on the verge of mutiny, and the new Dutch commander was obliged to return to Europe and face the financial ruin of everyone concerned in the ill-fated expedition.
Jan Janszoon (active 1600 to 1631)
Jan Janszoon (aka Jansz or Janssen) was born in Haarlem, and from 1600, he operated in the Caribbean as a privateer. He always flew the Dutch flag, even when he started attacking ships from all nations, including compatriots. Janszoon’s luck ran out in 1618 when he was kidnapped in the Canary Islands by North African pirates. Janszoon joined his captors, converted to Islam, and changed his name to Murat Reis (aka Murad). Eventually, Janszoon/Murat was back at the helm of his own pirate ship based at the pirate haven of Salé in Morocco. The complex double life of Janszoon/Murat became even more twisted when he added a Moroccan wife to his Dutch one.
Captain Jol was ruthless with his enemies, but he was peculiar in his sympathy for slaves whom he would often release from captured vessels.
Janszoon/Murat’s professional life continued to flourish as he captured big-prize merchant vessels, and by 1624, he had been promoted to lead the Salé pirates. Ever-ambitious, Iceland was raided in 1627 and booty taken from Reykjavik, which included 400 islanders who were sold into slavery. Janszoon/Murat repeated the trick on Baltimore in Ireland in 1631. The pirate got his comeuppance when he was captured by the Knights of Malta shortly after. Eventually free again in 1640, the Dutchman returned to Morocco where he was made governor of Oualida by the sultan and so he retired from piracy for good.
Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol (d. 1641)
The impressively named Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol (aka Yol) was born in Scheveningen and embarked on a life at sea as a teenager. He lost a leg in an unrecorded incident and thereafter wore a wooden replacement, one of the very few real-life pirates to do so (contrary to pirate fiction). Jol was infamous for his short temper and boorish manners, but he was also known for his tremendous courage in battle.
Jol captained ships for the Dutch West India Company which attacked the Spanish Main, and so, despite in theory being a privateer, he earned the nickname el pirata (“the pirate”) from the Spanish. The Dutchman was ruthless with his enemies, but he was peculiar in his sympathy for slaves whom he would often release from captured vessels (an attitude in stark contrast to the common disregard for slaves at the time). Another unusual trait was that Jol sailed the same ship for a long period, the yacht Otter, which he captained from 1626 to 1635. Jol specialised in raiding settlements in Brazil and capturing merchant vessels in the Caribbean, an endeavour he was hugely successful at. Jol was certainly imaginative, once dressing up his crew as monks, flying the Spanish flag, and capturing seven enemy vessels by stealth in the harbour of Santiago de Cuba in 1635. Captain Jol then got a bit of his own medicine when the Otter was captured by Dunkirk privateers. He escaped prison thanks to an exchange bargain and resumed his privateering in American waters. Although he got remarkably close on several occasions, he never achieved the feat of capturing a Spanish treasure fleet. In 1641, he died of disease caught while raiding Portuguese settlements along the West African coast.
Olivier van Noort (active 1598 to 1601)
Olivier van Noort might have had a short career in piracy, but he did manage one remarkable feat: he was the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the globe. Having owned a tavern in Rotterdam, van Noort turned to a life of crime on the High Seas, sponsored by a Dutch trading company. Captaining the Mauritius and with three other ships in his fleet, van Noort and 245 men set off in 1598 for the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America. The passage into the Pacific took four months, and the men were reduced to eating penguins’ eggs, but they finally made it to the other side of the Americas. Attacks on Spanish ships and ports in Chile proved a disappointment, and so van Noort headed west to the Philippines. There he met more disappointment and almost lost his ship to the Spanish. Malayans then attacked the Dutchmen at Brunei. Van Noort finally returned to Rotterdam in August 1601 with remarkably little loot and having lost 203 of his men on his luckless voyage around the world.
Hugo Schampendam (d. 1625)
Hugo Schampendam led the largest raid on the Pacific Coast of the Spanish Americas in 1624. This attack, directly sponsored by the Dutch government, was carried out by a fleet of 11 ships and 1,600 men. A treasure fleet was narrowly missed, and a blockade of Callao (Lima’s port) dragged on for three months without much success. Schampendam felt obliged to hang 20 prisoners to persuade Callao’s governor to pay a ransom, but he refused. The expedition also torched Guayaquil in Ecuador and then came a cropper in trying to storm Acapulco’s fortifications in October 1624. Frustrated at the lack of rich prizes, a number of prisoners of several smaller captured vessels were tied up and tossed overboard, monks included. Getting desperate, Schampendam next searched for the Manila galleon treasure ships coming from the Spanish Philippines, but he could not find them. Eventually, the Dutch admiral gave up on the Americas and headed for the Spice Islands on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately for the Spanish authorities, next to no plunder was captured throughout these atrocities, and so the expedition was a total flop, probably, in fact, the most expensive failed privateering raid ever.
This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.