Captain John Coxon, sometimes referred to as John Coxen, was a late seventeenth-century buccaneer who terrorized the Spanish Main.
Coxon was one of the most famous of the Brethren of the Coast, a loose consortium of pirates and privateers. The Brethren of the Coast were a syndicate of pirate captains with letters of marque who regulated their privateering enterprises within a community of privateers. They were primarily private individual merchant mariners of Protestant background usually of English and French origin. A fictionalized, romanticized version of the Brethren was featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films.
The buccaneers were pirates who attacked Spanish shipping in the Caribbean Sea during the 17th century. The term buccaneer is now used generally as a synonym for pirate. Originally, buccaneer crews were larger, more apt to attack coastal cities, and more localized to the Caribbean Sea.
The status of buccaneers as pirates or privateers was ambiguous. As a rule, the buccaneers called themselves privateers, and many sailed under the protection of a letter of marque granted by British, French or Dutch authorities.
Nevertheless, these rough men had little concern for legal niceties, and exploited every opportunity to pillage Spanish targets, whether or not a letter of marque was available. Many of the letters of marque used by buccaneers were legally invalid, and any form of legal paper in that illiterate age might be passed off as a letter of marque. Even those buccaneers who had valid letters of marque often failed to observe their terms.
In a buccaneer camp, the captain was elected and could be deposed by the votes of the crew. The crew, and not the captain, decided whether to attack a particular ship, or a fleet of ships. Spoils were evenly divided into shares; the captain received an agreed amount for the ship, plus a portion of the share of the prize money, usually five or six shares.
Crews generally had no regular wages, being paid only from their shares of the plunder, a system called “no prey, no pay”. There was a strong esprit among buccaneers. This, combined with overwhelming numbers, allowed them to win battles and raids. There was also, for some time, a social insurance system guaranteeing compensation for battle wounds at a worked-out scale.
The legal status of buccaneers was still further obscured by the practice of the Spanish authorities, who regarded them as heretics and interlopers, and thus hanged or garrotted captured buccaneers entirely without regard to whether their attacks were licensed by French or English monarchs.
French and English governors tended to turn a blind eye to the buccaneers’ activities against the Spanish, even when unlicensed. But as Spanish power waned towards the end of the 17th century, the buccaneers’ attacks began to disrupt France and England’s merchant traffic with Spanish America. Merchants who had previously regarded the buccaneers as a defence against Spain now saw them as a threat to commerce, and colonial authorities grew hostile.
This change in political atmosphere, more than anything else, put an end to buccaneering.
Pirate Captain John Coxon
Very little is known about Coxon’s early life. The first mention of Coxon’s name was August 2, 1676 in a note from Port Royal, Jamaica stating that Coxon was on the island with a French Commission. The British Governor of Jamaica was “using all means to take him and offered his men mercy if they delivered their Captain up” and he was declared a pirate. England was at peace at that time and it was illegal to participate in the war between France, Holland and Spain.
Coxon was one of the few who ignored that stricture and in June 1677 he sailed with his French Commission to attack Santa Marta, Columbia. This attack on Santa Marta brought Coxon to public notice. He attacked at dawn and took many captives including the Governor, Vincente Sebastian Mestre and the Bishop, Dr. Lucas Fernandez y Piedranhita. Three Spanish warships with 500 men drove them off Santa Marta and Coxon took the captives back to Jamaica and held them for ransom. On July 28th 1677, Sir Thomas Lynch noted that Coxon and his crew had arrived in Jamaica with the captives. Three days later Coxon personally escorted the Bishop into the presence of the islands Governor, Lord Vaughan.
In the summer of 1679, Coxon resumed his activities in the Bay of Honduras. On September 26th 1677 he captured a Spanish merchantman laden with valuable cargo including 500 chests of indigo, cochineal, tortoise shell, money and plate. He again went to Jamaica to dispose of it arriving at Port Royal in late October 1677.
Coxon was quiet for the next two years presumably enjoying his spoils. However at the end of December 1679 Coxon convened a gathering of other pirate captains. They met at Port Morant off the southwestern tip of Jamaica. Present were Pirate Captains Cornelius Essex, Bartholomew Sharpe, Robert Allison, Thomas Magott and John Coxon. They agreed to unite under Coxon’s leadership for an assault against the Spanish town of Portobelo. They sailed from Port Morant on January 17th 1680.
As they sailed they were joined by the French pirate Jean Rose and the privateer Edmond Cooke then another French pirate Capitaine Lessone. When they arrived at Portobelo the Spanish withdrew to their citadel leaving the raiders to ransack Portobelo. The pirates then withdrew with their booty and prisoners to an anchorage 10 miles northeastward.
Days later several hundred Spanish troops appeared but firing from the beach they could not reach the pirate ships. Coxon then instituted a blockade of Portobello. Three days laters they took a 90-ton ship which had come from Cartagena bearing slaves, timber, salt, corn and allegedly 500 pieces pieces of gold which Coxon wronged the group by keeping for himself.
A general distribution of booty was made resulting in shares of 100 pieces of eight per man. Coxon transferred his crew into his new Spanish ship and abandoned his old bark.
It was in April 1680 that Coxon, Allisson, Cooke, Harris, Maggott, Sawlkins and Sharpe anchored their ships near Golden Island. At 6am on Monday April 15th 1680, Coxon led 332 buccaneers ashore and obtained guides from the local Indians to cross the Isthmus.
The original record from 1680 has survived to this day. It reads as follows:
The Journal of our Intended Voyage by the assistance of God over land into y South Seas leaving our ships att of Goulden Islands and landing on Munday Apr the fift. Annogue 1680.
- Captain Jn Coxon commander in chief Eight gunns
- capt Peter Harrifs 26 gunns
- capt Richard Sawlkins in a Barkque
- capt Edmond Cooke. a Barkque
- capt Batholw Sharp. a Barkque
- capt Robert Allisson. a Slooper
- capt Thomas Maggott a Slooper
All these above mentioned captains landed at y Golden Islands, wch lietts about 15 leagues to ye west end of ye west most Point of Darian Bay ………
Ten days later they came on the Spanish stockade of Santa Maria at the confluence of the Chucunaque and Tuira rivers. The fort had no artillery and after the attack seventy of the 200 Spanish defenders were killed and the rest massacred by the Indians.
Flushed with victory the buccaneers pressed on towards the Pacific. It was noted that Captain Coxon was reluctant to move forward believing they did not have sufficient strength and saying that his men were eager for more voyages. The group attacked Panama City and after that Coxon and his 70 men quit the campaign and withdrew back along the route to the Isthmus.
On July 6, 1682 the Governor of New Providence wrote to Sir Thomas Lynch, the Governor of Jamaica . He said that Captain John Coxon had been denied a commission to take St. Augustine, Florida but that he had done so anyway and carried away persons. He said that all he did in plundering the Spanish territory was done by his own power. He thought fit to inform Sir Thomas that Coxon was now in Jamaica.
Sir Thomas Lynch however, put his trust in Coxon and reported that he had sent Coxon and two other vessels to the Bay of Honduras to bring back a group of logwood cutters. He said that during the voyage Coxon’s men had plotted to take the ship and go privateering. He reported that Coxon had killed one or two with his own hand, forced eleven overboard and brought three back to be hanged.
In February 1683, Lynch again engaged Coxon to pursue a French renegade who had hijacked a vessel. On the return Lynch reported that Coxon had been tempted to join a group of privateers for an attack on Veracruz. He had decided not to join the privateers and Lynch reported that Coxon was in bad spirits because the attack had been successful and had obtained enormous amounts of booty.
Lynch reported on November 12th that Coxon was again in rebellion having resumed his old piratical ways.
The next report of Coxon was in January 1686 when the new Governor of Jamaica reported that Coxon was to stand trial for piracy at Santiago de la Vega. This trial did not happen and the Governor reported in November 1686 that Coxon was cutting logwood in the Gulf of Campeche and that he had written to friends to say that he had given up privateering to earn an honest living.
The Governor was not convinced and issued a warrant on November 24th to apprehend Coxon. In October 1688, Coxon and several of his men surrendered to the new Jamaica Governor, the Duke of Albemarle. His ship Dorado was taken and was later seized by the French authorities on November 16th 1688.
It is believed that Coxon then retired to live ashore on the island of Roatan off Honduras and local legend has it that he stayed there until 1697. It is reported that he died in 1698.
APPENDIX – PEOPLE MENTIONED IN THIS LIFE STORY
Sir Thomas Lynch (died 1684) was the English governor of Jamaica on three separate occasions in the 17th century. He was also chief justice of Jamaica for a time.
He was the son of Theophilus Lynch (born 1603), fourth son of William Lynch of Cranbrook in Kent, and of his wife Judith, eldest daughter of John Aylmer. He served under Robert Venables in the army which went out to Jamaica in 1655. In January 1661, after a period back in England he was appointed provost-marshal of the island for life.
In December 1662 Lynch was lieutenant-colonel of the 5th regiment of militia; in April 1663 was sworn in as a member of council, and in April 1664 elected president of the council in the absence of Sir Charles Lyttelton. In June 1664 Sir Thomas Modyford became governor, and Lynch was again sworn of the council. Shortly Modyford wrote to his brother, Sir James Modyford, then in England, asking him to get the Duke of Albemarle to appoint a sheriff, instead of a provost-marshal; but on 12 February 1665 Lynch wrote to Lord Arlington complaining that the governor had discharged him from the council and the office of chief justice without giving any public reason.
Lynch was then obliged to return to England. At the end of 1670 he was ordered to go out again to Jamaica, as lieutenant-governor, with authority to command in the absence of Modyford. The commission was repeated in January 1671, when Modyford was recalled, and at the same time he received a commission from James, Duke of York to be commander-in-chief of his majesty’s ships in and about Jamaica. He was knighted at Whitehall Palace on 3 December 1670.
Jamaica’s buccaneers had been encouraged by Modyford. Under Lynch they acted under the governor’s commission, including Henry Morgan; and the king claimed his share of the Spanish plunder. Diplomatic complaints from the Spanish government, however, compelled the English government to give way. Lynch was recalled, apparently in 1676, and Lord Vaughan was sent out with orders to suppress the pirates and put an end to piracy. In 1682 Lynch was again sent out to Jamaica as governor and captain-general, with similar instructions regarding piracy, and these he carried out severely.
Lynch died, apparently in 1684 and was buried in the cathedral of Jamaica, beneath a black marble slab.
Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, KG, PC (14 August 1653 – 6 October 1688) was an English soldier and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1667 to 1670 when he inherited the Dukedom and sat in the House of Lords.
At the age of 13, Monck entered politics, having been elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Devon in January 1667. In 1670 he was elevated to the peerage and thus entered the House of Lords, following the death of his father, and thereby also inherited his father’s peerage titles. He became a Gentleman of the Bedchamber and inherited his father’s great feudal title, Lord of Bowland. He was created a Knight of the Garter, a Privy Councillor and in 1675 Lord Lieutenant of Devon, in which latter role he served for ten years. He became a titular colonel of several horse regiments of the English Army.
In 1673 he raised a regiment as part of the Blackheath Army under Marshal Schomberg. It was intended for service in the Dutch Republic, but was disbanded following the Treaty of Westminster before seeing any action.
From 1682 until his death, Monck was Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. In 1685 he resigned the Lord Lieutenancy of Devon to fight against the Monmouth Rebellion, but was largely unsuccessful as a military leader. In 1686, Monck was a major investor in a treasure-seeking expedition headed by William Phips, who had located the wreck of the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Señora de la Concepción in February 1687. Phips returned to London with more than £200,000 worth of treasure, of which Monck received a 25 percent share. After serving in a few more minor positions, in 1687, Monck was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
John Vaughan, 3rd Earl of Carbery KB, PRS (baptised 8 July 1639 – 12 January 1713), styled Lord Vaughan from 1643 to 1686, was Governor of Jamaica between 1675–1678.
He was the second son of Richard Vaughan, 2nd Earl of Carbery and his second wife Frances Altham (c.1621 – 9 October 1650), daughter of Sir John Altham of Oxhey, Watford, Hertfordshire. He inherited his title and the Carmarthenshire estate (Golden Grove) in 1686 on the death of his father. His elder brother Francis had already died.
He was invested as a Knight, Order of the Bath (KB) in April 1661. He was Member of Parliament (MP) for Carmarthen between 1661 and 1679 and again for Carmarthenshire between 1679 and 1689. He was Governor of Jamaica from 1674 to 1678. His deputy was the celebrated privateer Sir Henry Morgan.
He had a reputation for debauchery: Samuel Pepys called him “the lewdest fellow of the age”. Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, whose impeachment Vaughan strongly supported, called him a man who was “as ugly in face as in fame”. As Governor of Jamaica he became notorious for corruption, and was even accused of selling his servants as slaves.
He was President of the Royal Society between 1686–1689, having been elected a Fellow in 1685. He was Colonel of the Regiment of Foot from 1673 to 1674 and Lord of the Admiralty from 1689 to 1690. On his death his titles became extinct.
[Acknowledgements: David F Marley; Colonial Papers Vol XLIX, Public Records Office; British Library manuscripts; Wikipedia]