The Little Devil of Matanzas
Everything we know about the Cuban pirate called Diablocito (Little Devil) comes from one source: the report of his alleged death at the hands of two American naval captains. Pirates were rarely named in the newspapers or naval correspondence from this period. To have a pirate-sounding name like ‘Diablocito’ meant he must have carried considerable notoriety and renown. Yet there is no evidence of his true identity. There is also no way he operated alone, so it is quite possible the moniker ‘Diablocito’ encompassed the pirate operation, not just the captain.
The American report indicated Diablocito operated around Matanzas, on Cuba’s central northern coast between 1822 and 1823. A long-established Spanish trading port, Matanzas was not a town for the faint-hearted. Even before the pirates emerged it had a reputation for criminality, violence and drunkenness. By 1821, locals took advantage of the Spanish privateering commissions available in Matanzas by raiding ships in and around its harbour. Before long, these raiders turned their attentions to the ships of the small cohort of American, British and European merchants who lived and traded in the town. Accusations of piracy quickly arose that persisted for four years. Diablocito was only one player in it.
There is no information available on the origins of the pirates who began raiding around Matanzas. According to one sea captain, Cuban pirates harboured grievances towards Americans for their interference in the slave trade and for allowing insurgent privateers to fit-out in their ports. The reports of piracy in 1822 and 1823 indicated the pirates did favour American ships. However this could also have been merely because of the increasing levels of trade between Cuba and the United States and the proximity of the American mainland to Cuba. According to Lieutenant Commander Francis Gregory, ‘the pirates used small vessels, barges, and canoes, hovered along the shores, entered the harbours, murdered and destroyed almost all that fell in their power. These pirates were vicious. Survivors reported horrific and sadistic encounters. Whole ships’ crews were indiscriminately burnt with their vessels.
While certainly Spanish Cubans were involved in piracy, it is likely that Cuban pirate gangs were made up of a diverse population of miscreants, including foreign seafarers in need of quick cash, disgruntled and oppressed slaves, and local indigenous people the Spanish had been trying to enslave for twenty years.
By April 1822, the ‘coast of Cuba swarmed with these desperadoes, who managed to elude the utmost vigilance of our cruisers.’ Diablocito and his gang operated from Sidigua Bay, a few miles west of Matanzas. Today, the small city of Cardenas occupies the area but in the 1820s, the bay was an isolated and swampy inlet accessible only by sea. With its freshwater river and forested cliffs, it had long held a reputation as a pirate haunt.
Diablocito used his ships to blockade the Matanzas harbour and stalk the large merchant ships that sat becalmed every morning, waiting for the wind to pick up and whisk them on the way. The absence of any Spanish naval force and the harbour’s failure to attract any vessels of war from the nations that traded there meant ‘vessels of the most contemptible force and even open boats had made captures, almost in the mouth of the [Matanzas] harbor, in as fearless a manner as if their pursuits were lawful and proper.’ By February 1823, Diablocito and his pirates boldly walked the streets of Matanzas.
It took over six months and a sustained letter writing campaign from American merchants for the newly expanded American navy to begin calling into Matanzas. In the meantime, the Cuban Captain General changed to Francisco Dionisio Vives who proved more amenable to American piracy suppression efforts than his predecessor. By June 1823, Commodore David Porter, the head of the West Indies Squadron had finally authorised a selection of small schooners to run a convoy system for Matanzas merchant ships twice a month. To avoid capture, Diablocito learned to avoid the town around the 12th and 28th of every month. So it was that he and his large gang were convalescing in Sidagua Bay when US naval officers Lt Watson of the Gullinipper and Lt Inman of the Mosquito discovered his operation.
The best ship the pirates had in their command was a Spanish schooner called Catalini (or Catalina), captured a few days earlier off Matanzas. The pirates were in the process of fitting their new acquisition out with a long gun on a swivel – popular with privateers and pirates at the time – and ten long six pound guns. As soon as the pirates sighted the two US schooners, they began hauling in the Catalini’s anchors, manning its guns and firing at the ships. But it was too late. As the Americans approached and fired their guns, most of the pirates jumped overboard to escape. Watson and Inman estimated up to 27 pirates were killed. Other estimates were up to 70 or 80. One of the dead was alleged to be Diablocito himself. But then since nobody knew exactly who he really was, nobody knew for sure. Lt Watson captured five pirates and took them to Matanzas, then Havana for prosecution.
The American Navy considered the eradication of Diablocito and his men as the crowning achievement of the West Indies piracy suppression campaign. None of their men were lost in the fight or even wounded. Yet the aftermath of the eradication of Diablocito did not prove the permanent death knell to Cuban piracy the Americans hoped. General Vives in Havana quickly announced the transfer of the five suspected pirates back to Matanzas. In his opinion, they had been forced into piracy and had ‘not actually participated in the invasions and robberies’ so were released. While the American presence around Cuba caused piracy to decline for several months, one correspondent warned that ‘should the US fleet withdraw for twenty days, it would be as bad as ever. I daily see and convene with the former commanders of piratical cruisers, who with their crews, now walk at large in the streets of this place.’ Within a year, pirates and privateers were back to raiding around Matanzas.