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Chaos in the Cayos


Peter Hunt

Night in Los Cayos de la Muerte

1670: The Three Tunns Tavern, Port Royal Jamaica.

“QUIET! You Blaggards!”

The hard vowels of Sir Henry Morgan’s Cardiff accent did not so much cut through the drunken babble of the assembled pirates, as hack through it with a rasping, but none too sharp, blade. But it did catch the attention.

“Now listen up… this be the plan.”

“As ye all know it’s not been good pickin’s for the Brethren o’ late. Victims o’ our own success I say we is.  We been so successful with our depredations that now the Dons are reinforcing the Armada de la Guardia de la Carrera de las Indias, bringing in ships from as far away as Acapulco an’ Flanders I reckons. There be no way we can take the main silver fleet on, not with our small, light vessels up agin them mighty galleons. No way. But, me hearties, there be a way…”

He had them now. The room was silent as Morgan continued. “Aside from ye main treasure fleet I ‘as received certain intelligences, of like a secret nature, that the Armada de Barlovento, aye the “Windward Fleet” to them of ye that not be cunning linguists, will be sailing fo’ Havana to rendezvous with the Flota de Indias and off-load a substantial shipment o’ silver for onward transmission.  Right, it may not be all the riches that the Flota carries, but it will still be a pretty penny me boys.”

A loud belch, a fart, and the scraping of a chair pushed back as Gentleman Jeff rose to his feet to interject, almost broke Morgan’s flow, but the Welshman would not be stopped: “Aye, Jeff, aye, I knows what ye an’ the others be thinking…. Don Alonso be no fool, an’ even the Armada de Barlovento be too strong for us assembled here, our motley collection of schooners, pinaces, pataches , sloops an’ boats. But I ‘as three answers to that.”

“First we attacks ‘ere…” Morgan’s finger stubbed the map of the Spanish Main, “right ‘ere, in Los Cayos  de la Muerte, the narrow passage of the “Keys of Death” where the Spanish will not be able to manoeuvre an’ our swift, shallow draft an’ yare craft will ‘ave a decisive advantage in amongst the many desert islands and sand keys.”

“Second, we attacks at night, when their better firepower will come to naught: if ‘n the Dons can’t see us they can’t shoot us right?”

“Third,” Morgan paused, and the pirates leaned forward to catch his words, knowing that he would keep the best for last, “I put the word out to all the Brethren of the Coast and they be a coming. Gentlemen, I know that ye will sail with me on a good chance of handsome plunder, but think ‘ow much better that chance be when we sail with the likes of Peter Blood and Hector Barbossa. Aye, they’ll be there, and with them backing up your own courage and indomitable spirit we can’t fail!”

The room was silent for a moment as the pirates drank in the legendary names. Then Gentleman Jeff pulled himself up, raised his feathered, wide brimmed hat about his head, eyed the assembly knowingly for a moment, and then cried:

 “Three cheers for Sir Henry Morgan! Three cheers for Captain Blood! Three cheers for Hector Barbossa! An’ Death and Damnation to the Dons!”

Morgan raised his tankard and grinned at the cheering privateers, and he grinned to himself too. Always keep something back he thought to himself. These drunken blaggards can no more keep a secret than they can keep pieces of eight in their pockets when there was wine and wenches to be had. Best not tell them about the deal that he had done with Davy Jones and that wee beastie of a pet he has, no… best to keep that surprise up his sleeve.


A Week Later: Governor’s Palace, Veracruz

Don Alonso del Compo y Espinosa, signed his last order with a flourish and handed it to his secretary to sand the ink, seal the orders, and dispatch them. The word from his spies in Port Royal had been clear. Morgan, Blood and Barbossa eh? There they all were, the so-called Brethren of the Coast putting all their eggs in one basket. Yes, together they would be formidable, but nothing that the Armada de Barlovento could not handle. And, as they sought to trap him in Los Cayos de la Muerte he would trap them. As he entered the narrow passage from one end, three stout galleons from the Armada del Mar del Sur and four light, shallow, and nimble frigates and snauws from the Armada de Flandes would block the other end. The English would be caught between hammer and anvil and crushed… all the pirates destroyed in one place, at one time, in one battle, to bring peace and prosperity again to the Indies. “What’s next?” he asked of his secretary.

“Your interview with Don Antonio Mathias, the cow doctor and barber’s surgeon Sire. He is supposed to have a rare skill of winning the confidence of animals but that is of no use to us. I’ve told him there are no vacancies in the fleet Sire, but as a gentleman he insists on seeing you, Sire.”

The secretary admitted a small, thin man with a strange glint to his eye. With the respect due of one hidalgo for another, Don Alonso shook his hand but wasted no time in disabusing him of any idea of paid employment. To his surprise the doctor took this rebuttal with equanimity. He smiled a wan, but somehow meaningful smile, doffed his hat, said, “Thank you Don Alonso, it is always a pleasure to shake the hand of a great man such as you, and may I wish you good fortune on your next voyage,” and took his leave. Don Alonso had been expecting a long drawn out bewailing of the difficulties and expense in maintaining a noble mien in these modern days and none too subtle demands for one noble to bail out another financially. The doctor’s attitude had come as a rather pleasant surprise. What a strange little man he was, thought Don Alonso.


March 12th: Los Cayos de la Muerte

Los Cayos de la Muerte: The treacherous nature of the channel can be seen here with rocks, sand keys and islands that would prove as dangerous to the ships on both sides as any enemy. The Armada de Balovento comes on in good order in the centre. To their port the Black Pearl moves up in the night. In the darkness to starboard Morgan’s Satisfaction leads eight small sloops, schooners and pinaces. Outboard of them the Margaret leads Peter Blood’s Arabella. Morgan had also secreted cutters with crews of swashbuckling cutthroats on the small islands in centre of the channel to sally fourth from ambush when the time came.

Don Alonso checked the glass: one hour before dawn. If the English were to attack then now was the time to expect it. He had made his Peace with the Lord and received absolution from the priest. He was prepared to die for his, faith, his country and his honour. But if he survived this day and came safe home, think of the honours and riches they would pile on the man who had removed the scourge of piracy from the Spanish Main. Yes, honours and riches, and he would have the chance to get this annoying black mole that had been growing on the palm of his right hand treated. He stared out through the gloom. Fine off the starboard bow the Santa Anna, a frigate probed ahead, her shallow draught and manoeuvrability a boon in these treacherous waters.  The main body of the Armada followed his flagship Nuestra Senora (N.S.) de la Conception coming on in good order with a heaving nao in the centre of the line, and the vice flagship N.S.  La Soleda securing the rear. These three large ships carried the bulk of the fleet’s treasure with the rest distributed amongst the smaller vessels. The little Rosario and a patach stood by to starboard to carry his messages along the line, with a sixth rate out to port to give early warning on that flank. Don Alonso smiled, the Armada was ready, it couldn’t be long now….  

Before Dawn: The Armada de Barlovento keeps good order running before the wind. The broad reaching English to their starboard are moving faster and will soon come into sight. But the first threat to the Armada lurks unseen in the darkness to the Armada’s port: the Black Pearl.

When it came the word was almost too late: “Enemy in sight off the port quarter! Por Dios, La Perla Negro!” Don Alonso swung his spyglass astern just in time to see the dreaded Black Pearl emerge from the gloom and fire a broadside into N.S. Del Carmen the flank guard. My God! Thought Don Alonso, those are big guns for a frigate! Hector Barbossa’s flair and audacity was renowned throughout the Main, but this time to the well-practiced eye of Don Alonso it was clear that the pirate had taken flair and audacity too far. Coming on broad reaching under full sail The Pearl was sailing too fast to safely negotiate the shallows and she shuddered as she scraped through the sand and coral beneath the surface damaging the hull, and then leaving herself alone under the guns of the Armada, but that did not stop her putting another broadside into la Conception.

The Black Pearl was alone because her compatriots on the other side of the strait were bearing away from the Armada, Morgan having decided that the diminutive Santa Anna was a better target for his small sloops than the big galleons. These could be left to Peter Blood’s larger ships which opened their account by devastating the tiny despatch vessel Rosario.

The First Blows: Barbossa’s Black Pearl has suffered hull damage from running too close to the rocks while closing but she has still damaged Conception and Carmen with her powerful broadsides.  At the top of the engraving Morgan’s squadron is engaging the frigate Santa Anna whilst Peter Blood’s ships are devastating the Rosario and her tiny consort.

“Fire!” Don Alonso’s order was still ringing in the air as three murderous broadsides and a rake from Carmen’s chasers crashed into the Black Pearl leaving her crippled and ablaze with the flames quickly spreading to her sails and rigging. As Barbossa rallied his crew to fight the fire she was effectively out of the battle and in danger of exploding at any moment.

Don Alonso scanned the western horizon as the first rays of the sun burst upon the Caribbean, illuminating, so he hoped, his great victory. His squadron was already halfway through the channel for no great loss, and in his spyglass he scanned over la Conception’s bow, searching for the frigates of the Armada de Flandes and the galleons from Acapulco. Yes, there they were! His trap had sprung shut and the pirates would soon be surrounded.  Then his eye was caught by a disturbance in the water, at long shot, fine off la Conception’s starboard bow, directly in front of the hapless Santa Anna. The disturbance grew and grew, a maelstrom of water and gouts of air rising from below the otherwise placid waters. And then, from out of this swirling mass came a sight no mariner wished to see: with some well scored Wagnerian tones The Flying Dutchman broke surface, a mass of foetid marine life and malevolence.

“Nombre de Dios!” Don Alonso thought to himself, but his lips beyond his control enunciated the words to all present. Until now he had dismissed tales of the Dutchman that sailed on and below the oceans of the world stealing the souls of mariners, as the stories of simple, superstitious, and probably besotted sailors. But now he had the evidence of his own eyes. As he scanned the water streaming decks of the Dutchman his spyglass alighted on a small figure on the poop, grinning manically and shouting orders. Don Alonso’s mind searched for recognition but only found confusion. What was Don Antonio Mathias doing giving orders on Davy Jones’ ship? It was perhaps just as well that Don Alonso could not lip read, because the order that Davy Jones was giving was “Man the Kraken Hammer!” The spot on Don Alonso’s palm began to throb ominously….

The Situation at Dawn: The Armada is already halfway through the channel having dealt a seemingly mortal blow to the Black Pearl as she lies on fire and dismasted. At the top left the fast frigates of the Armada de Flandes are closing in, just behind them will come three strong Manila galleons from Acapulco. But in front of the poor Santa Anna the dreaded Flying Dutchman has surfaced… what does this presage for the Spaniards?

“Man the Kraken Hammer you scurvy blaggards!”Shrieked Jones again. On one of Sir Henry’s or Peter Blood’s ships the call to man the capstan would have been met with alacrity and probably with a rousing sea shanty from the stout hearted English seamen to make the hard work go easy. But men who are doomed to an eternity of toil before the mast need more than cadenced songs to rouse them, and the response from the Dutchman’s crew was slack and indifferent.  Jones had the answer to this though, his own motivational techniques eschewed the empathy with the men and warm hearted encouragement that a Morgan or Blood would use, Jones’ methods lacked any subtlety, but they were effective: “Bo’sun… don’t spare the lashes!” And for every crewman who fell under the whips of the overseers the others put even more of their sore and aching backs into the work. Turn by turn the hammer was raised until it reached its release catchment and descended with a crash that echoed across the keys. Men of both fleets stopped to listen to the rhythmic booming and wonder what it presaged. But another being was listening too, and in the pellucid waters below la Conception the enormous eyes of a beastie searched for a black spot that it could not see yet, but knew was there….

“Caramba!” As a well-read and learned man Don Alonso did not like to sound like a cliché but there was a time for everything and in this case a cliché was the most appropriate response. As the Kraken rose above la Conception the Admiral did not panic and coolly worked out his odds.  Yes, the Kraken was big, but la Conception wasn’t much smaller. Her high castles would make the bestie’s work more difficult and he could rely on his drilled soldiers and his solid NCOs to stand firm.  It was probably the latter that saved la Conception this time.

When men are faced with a monstrous prospect the responses range from collapsing helpless as their bowels turn to water, to laughing at the horrible absurdity of it all.  It was Sargento Primero Francisco who got the laugh: “Ah a Kraken is that all? If I had a Real for every Kraken I’ve ‘ad to see off in me time I’d be up there on the poop deck with Don Alonso and all the other rich toffs by now.” Whether his men took the NCO’s words as fact or fantasy, humour or hubris, it didn’t matter, they laughed, their bowels stayed firm, and so did their arms on the boarding pikes. The Kraken would not pass and was repulsed.


A Bad Start to the Morning: La Conception fights off the Kraken’s initial assault. Behind them the Black Pearl burns.

As they looked over the bow at the hurt Kraken recoiling from the stout Spanish defence Don Alonso and his men could be forgiven for believing that they had just fought off a natural disaster. Alas before they could celebrate this a colossal explosion alerted them to a man-made disaster taking place over their stern.

When all eyes had been on the titanic struggle between ship and beastie, Peter Blood’s ships the Margaret and Arabella had borne down on the starboard side of the Armada’s line. Fearing that if they shot at la Conception they might hit the Kraken, and in no way wishing to provoke the beastie against themselves, they concentrated their fire on the second ship in line, the Santa Louisa. Although previously unscathed, poor handling of cartridges in Santa Louisa’s roundhouse led to a gunpowder explosion that destroyed the ship, and flaming debris set fire to the two outriders of the squadron, the Rosario to starboard and del Carmen to port. Worse yet the fire spread to Carmen’s magazine and when she went up she set fire to the nao Santa Teresa de Jesus.

“Caramba!” As a well-read and learned man Don Alonso had run out of clichés. In the space of a few minutes he had won a temporary respite against the Kraken but lost nearly half his fleet to fire and explosion. A cry of: “Eh up! Another Real please!” from Sargento Primero Francisco brought his attention back from the inferno astern to more immediate problems on his port quarter. The Kraken was attacking again.

 The Kraken Attacks Again:  The Kraken has another go against la Conception in the centre whilst to their left the Magdalen tries to grapple the Elizabeth and both the Santa Teresa and the Black Pearl burn.  To their right Morgan on the Satisfaction is set to run aboard the Santa Clara and start a bloodbath.

Much now happened at once. Both Jones in the Dutchman and Blood in the Arabella decided to give the mass of burning ships and monstrous attacks a wide berth and bore away, whilst the carefully secreted pirate cutters on hearing their signal, the Kraken hammer, broke ambush and rowed for both sides of the Armada. However the boats to starboard were too far away to catch the galleons and those to port were faced by a line of burning ships that it would be most unwise to grapple. Thus the prime target, the Santa Teresa was able to plough on, fighting her fire manfully. The few boats that did reach the galleons were easily, almost contemptuously, repulsed with great loss.

With the Armada’s formation in tatters the Spanish commanders lashed out aggressively. The Magdalen ran towards the Elizabeth but failed to grapple her, but in her attempts to avoid this, and the embroiled la Conception and Kraken, the Elizabeth failed to keep a weather eye out and ran aground under full sail, effectively wrecking herself.

Meanwhile Don Simeon had brought up the Armada de Flandes to cut off Morgan, a challenge that Morgan accepted with relish leading his boarders onto the Spaniard even though his Satisfaction and Don Simeon’s Santa Clara were almost equally matched. In a bloody melee they fought each other to a standstill, knowing that whoever lost the next melee would strike, but with the chances of winning or losing exactly equal neither side wanted to initiate that melee.

And still Don Alonso, Sargento Primero Francisco and the crew of la Conception fought the Kraken. This time the beastie was more successful, killing many brave Spaniards. But the Conception was able to break free again and held firm her course to join up with the Armada de Flandes and punish Morgan. The sloops behind Morgan were little match for the galleon and she drove the Cagway, Pearl and Dolphin ashore before the Kraken caught her again.


Nearing the End: La Conception has driven three of Morgan’s small fry ashore and badly damaged three more, but the Kraken has caught her again. The Satisfaction and the Santa Clara have their scuppers running red with blood and the victory will go to who can reinforce first.

On board both the Satisfaction and the Santa Clara it was clear that the first side to reinforce the bloodbath would triumph. Support from both sides was closing fast but the English won the race and the Spaniard struck. The Kraken’s third attack on la Conception was decisive, cut down and overwhelmed by the monster the few remaining crew abandoned ship. But the fight for la Conception was not yet over. An English prize crew quickly took control only to have the Manila galleon N.S de la Encarnación crash alongside and evict them. But as the Spaniards tried to cut free their flagship the Kraken attacked for the final time and destroyed the scratch crew. It was clear that the Spanish could not save la Conception and the 20% of the fleet’s treasure that she carried from the Kraken so they broke off, securing what was left of the Armada de Barlovento.  

The Spanish had saved 70% of their treasure but at the cost of eight of their 17 ships. Although Don Alonso’s trap had snapped shut it had been prized open again by the pirate counter-trap of the Kraken. It was this Force of Nature and the unlucky combustibility of the Spanish ships that had decided the day.


The Game.

The game was fought out with 32 ships and flotillas of boats over four hours using Nic Wright’s excellent Galleys and Galleons rules as amended here by me for big battles.  The sides were equal in points with 480 each, (probably about 550 each in the rules as written as I make smaller vessels cheaper,) of which 180 were accounted for by the Flying Dutchman and the Kraken.  Sides were chosen at random, Gentleman Jeff was smitten by seasickness, (or was he absent because he was the mole who leaked the pirate plans?) and was replaced by Simon, Don Simeon, at short notice. Neil played a true captain’s innings as Don Alonso, Frankie a suitably swashbuckling Morgan, and it was especially appropriate that the Society’s only veterinarian Tony should be in charge of marine life animal welfare as that nasty little piece of work Davy Jones, so no typecasting there then. The paranoia of the double trap worked well. At one stage the English were convinced that there was not actually any treasure aboard the Armada, that just being a tall tale to lure them into a disadvantageous battle. 

As I have said before the thing that I like about these rules is that events take on a life of their own. The dice seemed to have no understanding of their role as an averaging-out random number generating system. Thus Simon played conservatively looking for no more than two activations a ship and consistently failing both of them to lose the initiative, whilst Neil threw caution to the winds seeking a series of triple activations with no multiple failures. On the other hand there is only a one in six chance of a ship near an exploding vessel catching fire but out of six possible chances over two explosions Neil managed to burn three of his ships. Jones’ brutal nature was reflected in a new rule that Nic is playtesting for a fantasy expansion of his rules and I can report back that it works well. And we really did have a conversation as to whether “veteran NCOs” would have any effect against a Kraken and it was Frankie who channeled the stalwart First Sergeant on the forecastle of la Conception with the quip, so it was only fair that the wag was named after him.


Postscript: 2016

The Battle of Los Cayos de la Muerte has gone down as one of the Armada de Barlovento’s most glorious defeats, often used to contrast their showing at Maricabo where they were embarrassingly outwitted and outfought by Morgan. At Los Cayos de la Muerte history tells us that the Spanish fought with skill and courage against great odds. Yes, they succumbed, but most of the treasure was saved, and had Fortune offered a fairer share of her graces to both sides the Spanish may have prevailed.

Of course history says nothing of the Flying Dutchman and the Kraken. On the English side what value was there in admitting that their victory had been brought about by such nefarious means? As for the Spanish the Dutchman and the Kraken were written out of their accounts too. With an oceanic empire to maintain it would not do for the simple, superstitious, and probably besotted sailors of Spain to believe that there were worse things out there than buccaneers and hurricanes.

But although the tale of the Kraken was suppressed, history is sometimes still revealed in the unconscious actions of men. Even to this day the descendants of Don Alonso del Compo y Espinosa observe a family tradition and, for reasons that they do not ken and believe lost in the mists of time, cross themselves whenever calamari is served.

Aftermath: Davy Jones, a.k.a. Don Antonio Mathias with the Flying Dutchman and a well fed pet.

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