In an age when Somali pirates wreak havoc on the seven seas and some oceans, the professor of terrorism studies and scholar of the filibusters Peter Lehr he is clear about what the image we have of them should be: «They are marine criminals. There’s nothing romantic about being gang-raped, tortured to death, and murdered in cold blood, right? His new work, ‘Pirates A history of the Vikings to this day‘(Criticism), plunges fully into this idea and confirms that it is necessary to put aside that false romanticism that takes over the big screen. Although it also keeps some pages for corsairs of the stature of But boy, a knight born Valladolid who entered the service of Henry III the Suffering as a buccaneer hunter and terrified the English.
Today, he tells us his story.
What is true and what lie of the myth of Pero Niño?
I think that, with a distance of almost six centuries, it is difficult to determine precisely. It is obvious that the author of ‘The Victorial‘, Gutierrez Diaz de Gámez, wrote this book, a rather important chronicle of the 15th century, to celebrate the chivalric exploits of his master, Pero Niño, in the context of an idealized chivalry.
Gámez speaks in some detail of chivalry in his prologue to the book, and also in a first chapter in which he recounts how Pero Niño was instructed to follow these ideals by a ‘wise teacher’. Therefore, we can be sure that you presented your teacher in the best possible way. That said, the narration of the events, while carefully polished and with some artistic license, rings true. There are even signs of criticism regarding Pero Niño’s frequent recklessness that could endanger his own life and that of his crew.
So, with a pinch of salt, this chronicle offers a fascinating insight into the life and career of one of the first privateers, including why he became one, while also presenting a broader story – the wars between the English and the French, for example, plus the political constellation in the Mediterranean during that historical period.
What was piracy like on the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century?
Piracy, along with the practices of corsairs (pirates licensed by a king or lord who made their activities legal), abounded in those days. That it multiplied was due to the bustling maritime trade that connected the Iberian coasts of the Mediterranean with the Balearic Islands, southern France, several Italian city-states such as Genoa and Pisa and other destinations along the coasts of the Levant and the Greek islands. The political fragmentation of those times, plus the endemic war between the different powers, offered a wide window of lucrative opportunities to mercenaries and bandits. At sea: corsairs and pirates.
What was your relationship with Enrique III?
Henry III made an effort to end piracy, as it affected the trade of its own cities and port towns. Not having an organized royal navy at his disposal, he did the best he could do: commission a trusted nobleman like Pero to fight on his behalf. He equipped this newly appointed corsair with a very powerful craft and provided him with an experienced crew that he paid for.
Corsairs generally worked on a regime of ‘no looting, no pay‘. Since Pero Niño had been under the command of the king’s bailiff, the monarch must be well aware of his abilities. He saw that it was a rising star. In reality, and according to the narration of Díaz de Gámez, Pero Niño was an excellent choice. He never disappointed his lord or abused his trust. He was always a loyal follower and a very successful agent of the king. At least, in the eyes of the chronicler.
How did you go from pirate to privateer?
In fact, Pero Niño seemed never to have been to sea before the King ordered him to do so in 1404; As I said earlier, he began his “career” by participating in various military land campaigns for the King. It is not clear why the king chose Pero Niño as “his” pirate (to echo Queen Elizabeth I and her famous joke about Sir Francis Drake); Díaz de Gámez does not tell us. But Niño seemed to have accepted his new role without any qualms; Again, Díaz de Gámez tells us nothing about his teacher’s thought processes: as far as he is concerned, the King has an order, and that was it. So, Pero Niño duly put to sea at the King’s behest, and with a proper commission, which also means that at no time was he a pirate. Rather, he went from being a knight on land to being a knight at sea.
Could you tell us about the episode in which Pero Niño was about to die in Tunisia?
I think that here we can see a trace of criticism in Díaz de Gámez’s narration. After staying in an ambush position for several days without any ships approaching, Pero lost his patience and decided to launch a surprise attack on the port of Tunis – a well-fortified and well-defended port. In those cases the best attack was a quick entry and exit, before the defenders had time to mount a coordinated counterattack. But in the heat of the action, he made a mistake that could have cost him death, as well as a life of slavery for his crew members: he decided to pursue a galleon trying to escape through a narrow channel.
He rammed the rear of the galley. Then he jumped on his deck. He did so on the assumption that his sailors would follow him. However, due to the heavy impact of the collision, his ship rebounded. In the end, he ended up alone on the enemy ship. Also, as the vessel was sitting in a narrow channel, there were many soldiers on board. He fought for his life and narrowly escaped.
However, a word of caution must be made: in the narrative, all Tunisian soldiers look like Star Wars clone troopers … Warriors who fight heroically, but ineffectively. That allowed Pero Niño to escape in much the same way that Han Solo or Luke Skywalker do when faced with hundreds of enemies with no chance of survival. Furthermore, it is true that, in the English narrative literature on piracy, particularly with regard to the exploits of Francis Drake, Spanish ‘enemies’ are treated exactly as Tunisians are in Diaz de Gámez’s narrative. At this point, I suspect some artistic license from the chronicler during the construction of the story.
What other famous corsairs have there been in Spain?
In the book, I talk extensively about Alonso de Contreras, also a corsair, but never a pirate. By the 17th century, it could also mention Juan Garcia and Pedro de la Plesa. Both fought from Dunkerque (as the so-called ‘Dunkerqueros’) for Spain against the Dutch and their allies during the Eighty Years’ War (Dutch War of Independence, May 1568-January 1648).
As for the pirates, probably the most notorious was Benito de soto, captain of the ship ‘Burla Nega’, active between 1827-1830, who gained notoriety for the capture of the merchant ship Morning Star, whose crew was murdered in cold blood after all the women were gang-raped over and over again. He was captured in Gibraltar and hanged in Cádiz, his last words were ‘goodbye everyone …’. It was meant to appear in my book as well, but it didn’t make the final cut.
What myths still persist about piracy?
I think that even after all the exploits of the Somali pirates, people still tend to view pirates as lovable, bully rogues. Something like the mental image of ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’. Some revisionist writers also see the ‘real’ pirates of the Caribbean (from the 17th century to the first half of the 18th century) as a kind of ‘proto-socialist’, ‘early democratic’ rebels against the system. I see them as marine criminals. There’s nothing romantic about being gang-raped, tortured to death, or murdered in cold blood, right?