May 17, 2022

Pirates Sack Veracruz

Pirates Sack Veracruz

May 17, 1638. Pirates sack the city of Veracruz in New Spain, taking a large group of hostages, and holding them for ransom.


Cold Open - Laurens de Graaf sacks Campeche

It’s late at night in March 1672, off the coast of Campeche, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico in the region known as New Spain.

Under the cover of darkness, a Dutch pirate named Laurens de Graaf stands on the deck of a small boat as it cuts through the waves. Laurens stares out over the water and sees his initial target: a half-built Spanish warship floating in the bay. He looks back at his band of armed raiders and tells them to make ready. When the pirates are close enough, Laurens gives the signal.

His men light up their torches... and set the warship on fire, ensuring its construction will never be completed.

Then, Laurens leads his men to shore, as the bowels of the wooden vessel crackle and burn behind them. Laurens and his men move fast and make easy prey of the port city.

They fire on a small group of Spanish soldiers, who quickly lay down their arms in surrender. Laurens and his men then spread out, looting homes and buildings throughout the night until they take full control of the port.

At sunrise, Laurens hears a ship’s bell in the bay. He and his men make their way back toward the shore. And there, he spots a merchant ship docking in the harbor, its crew blissfully unaware that the town has been taken by pirates.

Laurens and his men lie in wait. And when the merchants step foot on shore… the pirates charge… and quickly overrun the helpless crew. Laurens happily relieves them of a large supply of silver. And satisfied with his take, Laurens guides his men back across the water to his flagship, and onto their next target.

By the early 1670s, Laurens de Graaf has earned a reputation as a dangerous buccaneer. And as his notoriety grows, he will come to be called the “Scourge of the West” and the “Devil Incarnate.”

Throughout the 1670s and early 1680s, Laurens will battle the Spanish Armada, English naval vessels, and colonial governors. His exploits will lead to one of the largest raids of the so-called “Buccaneer Era” when Laurens teams up with several other well-known pirates to sack the city of Veracruz in New Spain on May 17th, 1683.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 17th: Pirates Sack Veracruz.

Act One: Laurens vs. the Spanish Armada

It’s 1682 on the deck of Laurens de Graaf’s flagship in the Caribbean Sea.

As Laurens looks to the horizon, his heart starts to pound. He sees a lone Spanish warship with no other vessels in sight. Laurens tells his men to prepare for battle. But by launching this attack, Laurens is making a huge gamble; one that can pay off big. 

Recently, while enjoying some downtime in Cuba, Laurens received word that multiple Spanish warships were hunting him, determined to bring Laurens to justice for his many exploits at sea. But instead of fleeing, Laurens decided to go on the offensive. He assembled his own fleet and went searching for the Spanish ships in the Caribbean. Now, he’s caught one: a Spanish warship called thePrincess.

Laurens’ flagship picks up speed, and soon, the Princess is within range. Laurens orders his men to fire their first volley. The Princess tries to alter course and escape, but Laurens quickly runs them down and continues the onslaught. Unable to maneuver a way, the captain of the Princess orders his men to fire back.

The battle rages for hours, and both sides take heavy losses. Laurens learns that eight of his crewmen are dead, but he’s still confident he’s inflicting far more damage than he’s taking.

Finally, Laurens calls for his men to halt their attack. Cheers go up on deck of the pirate's ship as Laurens watches the crew of the Princess lower its colors and surrender. When Laurens boards the Spanish ship, he finds close to fifty men have been killed. He also discovers the ship’s captain is badly wounded.

Laurens is a violent man. He’s known for setting fires, sacking villages, and pummeling enemy ships. But, he holds a firm belief that hostages should be treated fairly and that ship captains should be respected.

So Laurens orders his pirates to take the wounded captain and his men back to land, so they can receive proper medical treatment. Then, Laurens takes control of the Spanish ship and its remaining crew.

When Laurens set out from Cuba, his goal was to inflict damage on the Spanish ships that were hunting him down. But Laurens is a pirate, and he’s always happy to find plunder. He’s overjoyed to discover the Princess is carrying a vast supply of Spanish silver.

And the loot isn’t the only reward. Laurens decides the Spanish war vessel will make a powerful addition to his fleet. He renames it the Francesca and makes it his new flagship. So now, with a new ship and a substantial pile of silver, Laurens and his men retreat to a coastal town in Haiti to relax and make good use of their newfound wealth.

But Laurens knows a pirate’s plunder never lasts long. He’s eager to hit the open sea and get more money and supplies. But before he can set sail, Laurens receives some news that gives him pause. He learns that the Spanish Armada wants revenge for the loss of the Princess, and they’ve escalated their search for him by sending more warships into the region.

This puts Laurens in a bind. He needs money and supplies, but he’s got more unfriendly ships searching for him than ever before. His preemptive strike against the Armada was a gamble, and it did pay off. But this time, he doesn’t like the odds. He wants to play it safe. So, Laurens goes looking for a low-risk target, one that might give him a chance to make a score while staying low. In early 1683, he finds what he’s looking for.

Laurens learns that the Spanish have two large galleon ships docked in a bay in the Gulf of Mexico waiting to be loaded with gold, silver, and other goods. Laurens knows the area well. And there’s a small island near the bay that he believes will provide him ample cover from the Spanish Armada and pirate hunters on his trail.

In darkness, Laurens and his crew board their ships and head to the island. When they arrive, Laurens tells his men that they need to be patient and wait for the galleons to be fully stocked before they strike. He says as soon as the galleons are loaded, the pirates can launch from the island and take the cargo without much of a fight.

But Laurens isn’t the only one who thinks the docked Spanish galleons are the perfect prey. Another Dutch buccaneer, Nicholas van Hoorn, has his sights set on the same prize. Soon, Nicholas will attack the galleons. And he and Laurens will come face-to-face. And instead of squabbling over the spoils, the two pirates will decide to join forces and sack the city of Veracruz.

Act Two: Laurens and Nicholas Meet

It’s early 1683 on Nicholas van Hoorn’s flagship, known as St. Nicholas’ Day. The infamous Dutch buccaneer guides his ship toward two Spanish galleons that sit docked in a bay in the Gulf of Mexico. Nicholas wants to strike fast. He too is on the run from the Spanish Armada, and he’s desperately in need of money and supplies.

Unknown to Nicholas, the galleons have yet to be fully loaded. If they were, Laurens de Graaf and his men would already be on the attack. Instead, Nicholas arrives before Laurens is ready to make a move.

And when he does, he meets with little resistance, quickly seizing the galleons for himself. But as Nicholas sails out of the bay with his new ships and bounty, he spots a Spanish warship off a nearby island. Immediately, Nicholas prepares to attack. But before he orders his men to fire, he realizes the Spanish ship is the very one that was recently commandeered by his fellow buccaneer, Laurens de Graaf.

Soon, Nicholas and his crew disembark and find Laurens and his men onshore. At first, Laurens is angry when he learns that the galleons he’s been waiting weeks to raid have already been taken. Nicholas assures Laurens that he had no idea his actions interfered with Laurens’ plans. And then Nicholas proposes a deal. He tells Laurens that they should join forces and start raiding together. Nicholas argues that they’re both being hunted by the same enemies, and there’s strength in numbers.

Laurens isn’t sure he wants to team up with the man who just swiped a lucrative payday out from under him. But he admits to himself that Nicholas’ proposition does make good sense. The more men and ships, the better chance they’ll have against the Spanish Armada. Eventually, Laurens comes around to the idea and agrees to form an alliance.

Both men know that the best way to fend off the warships and pirate hunters that are after them is with money. More money can get them better weapons and bigger crews. And money can also make it easier to find safe haven and lay low for extended periods of time. So, Laurens and Nicholas come up with an idea to carry out a raid that will pay off bigger than any score they’ve made in the past. They decide to attack the city of Veracruz, a hub for Spanish gold and silver distribution, and a major trade center for Spain in the Americas.

Laurens and Nicholas know there will be plenty of loot to be found in the city, but they also conceive of another way to make money on the raid: they’ll take hostages, and barter them for even more silver and gold.

Laurens and Nicholas have both pulled off sizable raids in the past, but their plan for Veracruz is ambitious. So much so that they enlist the aid of other buccaneer crews in the region who are also eager for a major score. When the crews pool their resources, they have a fleet of five large ships, eight smaller vessels, and almost 1,300 pirates at the ready. Laurens and Nicholas believe that’s more than enough to sack the city of Veracruz. But they still need a plan.

The pirates know their first obstacle is just getting into the city. Veracruz is densely populated and guarded by a large local militia. Laurens and Nicholas worry that the militia or the townspeople will quickly raise the alarm if they see pirate ships off their shores.

But the two Buccaneers have a solution to this problem. Among their fleets, they have several Spanish ships, including Laurens’ flagship and the two galleons that Nicholas recently captured. So they devise a plan to sail in at night with their Spanish ships leading the way. Their hope is that in the darkness, they’ll be mistaken by the militia and townsfolk for members of the Spanish Armada.

Laurens and Nicholas then decide that after they make land, they’ll split into two groups. Laurens’ team will use their smaller vessels to land outside Veracruz, attack the militia, and city’s outer defenses. Nicholas’ team will march into the city and neutralize any remaining threats. If all goes well, once the city is under their control, the two teams will meet, plunder, and take their hostages.

After a long period of planning, Laurens and Nicholas are satisfied with their scheme. And on May 17th, 1683, they will launch their attack on Veracruz. But what looks like an unbridled success will soon go bad when hostages are taken, and Laurens de Graaf and Nicholas van Hoorn turn their swords on each other.

Act Three: The Sacking of Veracruz

It’s the night of May 17th, 1683 off the coast of Veracruz. Laurens and Nicholas’ combined fleet arrives, and their ships drop anchor.

The decision to put Spanish ships at the front of the fleet worked perfectly. Pirates were able to get within range of the city without causing alarm. And now, they’re ready to launch their raid.

As Laurens arrives onshore with the first wave of pirates, he starts to believe that fate is on his side; especially when he discovers that most of Veracruz’s militia is fast asleep. Laurens’ initial attack is quick and easy, and he clears a path into the city for Nicholas’ crew. Once inside, those men spread out and take down Veracruz’s remaining defenses. By dawn, the major Spanish trading center belongs to the pirates.

The joint crews plunder the city for money and supplies. Then they round up hostages, taking them back to the ships, and setting sail for a nearby island to wait for their enemy to arrive.

Within a day, Laurens and Nicholas spot the Spanish fleet off the coast of Veracruz. The pirates quickly send word and demand money in return for the hostages. But things turn ugly. When the Spanish refuse to send a ransom payment, Nicholas executes some hostages. Some reports will even suggest he decapitated them and sent their severed heads to the Spanish fleet.

Laurens though, rages at his new partner’s treatment of the hostages. Laurens has always believed that captives should be treated with respect and dignity. Furiously, he confronts Nicholas and says he cannot allow his actions to stand. And soon, Laurens and Nicholas’ argument escalates, and both men decide there’s only one way to settle their differences; the two men draw their swords.

And in the duel that follows, Laurens slashes Nicholas across the wrist and wins the day. Nicholas is taken back to his ship in shackles. His wound is minor, but it will grow infected. By June, Nicholas will be dead.

With tensions brewing and no word from the Spanish regarding the ransom, Laurens decides it’s time to take his money and run. Soon, he and his men board their ships, slip past the Spanish fleet, and sail out to sea.

From there, Laurens continued his career as a cunning and violent pirate. He was last known to be aiding the establishment of a French colony in the early Eighteenth Century near present-day Biloxi, Mississippi, but sources are scarce, and never precise.

The Sacking of Veracruz marks one of the last great land raids of the Buccaneer Era. Growing European military power in the Americas will soon make large-scale ground attacks like the one on Veracruz nearly impossible.

And in the late 17th Century and early 18th Century, the age of the buccaneers will fade and give way to a new generation of swashbuckling, maritime marauders like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. Laurens de Graaf will become part of a bygone era when pirates could terrorize entire European strongholds like he did when he sacked Veracruz on May 17th, 1683.


Next on History Daily. May 18th, 1804. Rising from obscurity to become a national hero, a young commander named Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power in France and declares himself Emperor.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.