Tour Of The Caribbean – San Juan, Puerto Rico

THREE years after Drake’s departure another Englishman looked in at San Juan of Puerto Rico. The visitor on this occasion was the Right Honourable the Earl of Cumberland, M.A. Cambridge, and pirate. He was the admiral of a large privateering expedition which had sailed out of Plymouth harbour on March 6, 1598. The fleet consisted of twenty ships, all of which had been provided at the admiral’s own charges. The noble earl had given to his flagship the impressive name of the Scourge of Malice.

After some gentle pirating by the way the fleet reached Domenica, where they rested so that the sailors might find u refreshing.” This was in May. On June 6 Lord Cumberland—following deliberately, as it would seem, the course that Drake had taken—reached San Juan Bautista. Being entirely unexpected by the Spaniards he crept up to the coast at night, and landed 600 men half a league to the east of the castle of El Morro. He landed them at a spot where the governor was confident that no body of men could make the shore ; yet his Excellency should by this time have known the British better.

He approached the unconscious town along the level way where now rumble the electric tramcars. Dividing his force into two parties, he simultaneously rushed the town and attacked the fort at the first dawning of the day. He had caught the Spaniards unawares, and after two hours of wild street and drawbridge fighting San Juan was his. There were very few soldiers in the fort, as a strong force had been recently despatched to Cartagena, where an attack of the tiresome English was hourly expected.

My Lord of Cumberland must have felt that the world was going well with him, for San Juan was rich and prosperous.

After he had made a survey of the merchants’ storehouses, of the ships in the haven, and of the back parlours of the money-lenders, he probably walked to that ragged point of the island where El Morro looks down upon the harbour entry. Knowing well the story of Drake’s desperate assault he must have viewed this narrow stretch of water with some emotion, for he and the great captain had been friends. It is probable indeed that he had with him one of Drake’s own seamen, one who had taken part in the actual fight in ’95, and who could explain where the Spanish frigates lay, where his own boat had crept in, and show perhaps with some savageness the very spot where he received the cutlass wound which had left that ugly seam across his face. More than that, with his hairy arm outstretched,, he would point to the westward, across the sea, to the place where the body of Sir John Hawkins had been committed to the deep.

It is probable also that some of the wreckage of the fire-ships sunk in the entry would still be there to be seen. This long dark shape beneath the sun-lit comber was the hull of the Capitana that mast and uprising poop belonged to Pedro Milanes’ ship : that wreck with the ghostly deck-house door still swinging to and fro in the wash of the sea, must be the craft that was scuttled just as Drake bore down in the Defiance on that eventful Friday afternoon.

The pirate peer had hoped to make San Juan a base from which he could conduct an extensive and profitable buccaneering business in the adjacent districts. Unhappily for this purpose the fever fell upon his men, and killed them in such numbers that his force was soon reduced to less than half its strength. Cumberland feared nothing that he could see, but this invisible horror filled him with a numbing dread. He saw the strong man dragged to the ground by unseen hands, his face become yellow as if from fear, his eyes glare from his head as if he beheld the vampire face to face, his fingers wandering to and fro as if in search of a clue, his voice toneless and unhuman, like the voice of a ghoul.

His resolve was soon taken. With those who lived he hurried on board the ships and sought the wholesome sea, pressing for home with the good assurance that the shadow of death could be out-distanced, and that his men were safe when once he was within the charmed circle of Plymouth Sound. He left Puerto Rico on August 14, and made the coast of England on September 16, without further adventure.

Of the acts of this remarkable Cambridge graduate in San Juan, and of all that he did, and of the havoc he wrought, a full writing exists in the chronicles of one Samuel Champlain—a Frenchman with an English-sounding name.’ Champlain was merely an early tourist, inquisitive and fond of making boyish maps. He reached San Juan de Puerto Rico not very long after Lord Cumberland had left. He found the island “pretty agreeable,” he says, but ” the air very hot.” From a tourist’s point of view there was not much to be seen. The English had pillaged the town very thoroughly, had burnt most of the houses, had wrecked the fortress and thrown down the ramparts. Moreover they had taken away all the ships in the harbour to the number of twelve, as well as fifty pieces of artillery of cast iron.

The English, together with the fever, had made the city so vilely unpleasant that the inhabitants had fled to the wilds Indeed, Champlain says that there were only four white people in the place. He probably met one of these as he walked up the ruined street from the quay, and had, as a sympathetic Frenchman, to listen to lamentations more acute and varied than those of Jeremiah. If the citizen was a merchant he would take the tourist into his ruined store and, with spread out arms, show him what the perfidious English had done, and ask him what he thought of it. As the two sat upon rifled chests, cursing the British, it is possible that Champlain and his host cheered themselves with a little brandy from an unravished hiding-place. They would then take a stroll round the ruins, hear tales of woe from the three other white people, and watch the wretched Indians at work repairing the ramparts,

It only remains to speak of the personality of the man who wrought all this ill, George, Earl of Cumberland, was forty years old when he took San Juan. He was a peer of bold and romantic spirit, with a fine passion for adventure worthy of the picturesque days of Elizabeth. His early life is unkindly described as having been “irregular.” He was a courtier, a gambler, a man of immense strength and courage, perfect in all knightly exercises, and a consistently faithless husband. At the age of twenty-eight the conviction came upon him that a corsair’s life was the only one that gave scope to his yearnings and his ideals. He there-upon wandered to and fro over the sea for years as a knight-errant, or, according to the estimate of some, as a nautical Don Quixote. In the calling of a buccaneer he was successful beyond all reasonable deserts. He commanded a ship against the Spanish Armada. He was a Knight of the Garter.

It is little to be wondered if this handsome, strong, and splendidly dressed dare-devil was in favour with Queen Elizabeth. ” He wore her glove, set with diamonds, as a plume in his hat.” So far as I am aware nothing is known of the pretty circumstances which led to the bestowal of the glove, of the bold corsair’s sighs or of his lady’s graciousness. Certain it is that this soft thing which had once touched the warm fingers of his Queen became for life his crest and badge. One may be sure that he wore it when he led his men up to the walls of the city on that morning in June. It may be that for years in Puerto Rico some story was handed down to the children of how the great gate of San Juan was rushed by a giant Englishman wearing a lady’s glove in his hat.

There is a portrait of the earl in the National Portrait Gallery. It was painted in 1588, the year of the Armada, when he was thirty years of age. It shows a man with a fine vigorous face, a small moustache, a pointed beard, and long, curly brown hair. His armour and his dress are magnificent, while jewels of price hang about his neck. On his head is a white hat with plumes. In front of it is his lady’s glove so folded as to show the claret-coloured velvet cuff. It is a dainty glove, bright with diamonds, and made to encircle none but a little wrist. It would not be ill matched, in sooth, when its fragile fingers were lying in the grip of the sailor’s mighty hand.