Following a remarkable action along Cuba’s northern coast on September 29, 1822, U.S. Navy Commander Stephen Cassis wrote a letter to British Petty Officer William Geary:
Permit me to tender to you my acknowledgment for the cooperation of His Britannic Majesty’s schooner Speedwell under your command with the expedition dispatched from this ship the 30th ultimo against several piratical vessels near the Bay of Honde and assure you of the pleasure with which it will be communicated to the United States Government by,
Very Respectfully, Sir,
Your Obedient Servant,
S. Cassis, Commanding USS Peacock.
Ten years earlier, the U.S. and Royal navies had been fighting it out amid the often bitter but ultimately inconclusive War of 1812. Now the first signs of change in those rancorous Anglo-American relations were becoming manifest. British and American seamen had conducted a joint operation against a common enemy, and they had done so with mutual respect, cordiality, professionalism and a high measure of success.
For several years, the Caribbean Sea had been plagued by piracy. The Spanish colonial government showed little concern. In fact, there is much evidence to show how Spanish officialdom at all levels actually profited from it. In his 1923 book Piracy in the West Indies, Francis Bradley refers to this and comments on the cordial relationship between Britain and the United States in their attempts to deal with the menace. He names a number of Royal Navy ships that took part, including Speedwell. Nevertheless, several British and American naval officers expressed reservations against entering the territorial waters of Cuba lest a diplomatic incident might be created. They had good reason to fear that a naval officer might find himself under arrest and in a Cuban jail for violation of territorial waters. He would doubtless be released thanks to diplomatic pressure, but the experience would hardly further an otherwise promising career. To put it bluntly, Cuban authorities made it clear that foreign navies, British or American, should mind their own business.
An added difficulty facing the forces of law and order was the northern Cuban coastline. It has many bays and inlets, usually protected by reefs. The pirates operated with schooners that drew very little water and could easily cross reefs; naval vessels, built for deep-sea operations, could never hope to get across.
By the fall of 1822, both the United States and Britain were fed up with the situation in Cuba. By 1822, too, the Royal Navy had reports that a British sailor named Aaron Smith had turned to piracy. He was a wanted man, and though the Spanish would not like it, they could not very well protest any action specifically aimed at Smith. Moreover, after the many attacks on British and American merchant ships, Cuba’s captain general, Don Sebastian Kindelan, found himself and his whole bureaucracy under pressure. He was receiving frequent calls for action from the British naval commander in Jamaica, Rear Adm. Sir Charles Rowley, and from leaders in the United States, all demanding action against the pirates. He could hardly turn down “assistance” from friendly powers. He must also have realized that an ultimatum from London and Washington could threaten the job of every senior colonial civil servant on the island.
Available letters and dispatches from the times describe ships putting into Havana for water. It was a perfectly legitimate purpose, but it also gave officers the opportunity to examine cargoes, particularly coffee, on sale in the market. They could have had little doubt that these goods had been taken unlawfully from honest vessels.
So it was that HMS Speedwell played a leading role in ending the career of Cuba’s seagoing criminal element. Described as a naval tender, Speedwell was so small that it did not have a commissioned officer in command—William Geary was rated as a master, a petty officer capable of supervising the sailing and navigation of the ship.
Speedwell was cruising near the Bay of Honde at noon on September 29 when Geary saw two schooners heading west. He followed, keeping between them and the land as best he could until he was discovered. Geary, however, later reported that the unidentified ships drew only 5 feet, whereas Speedwell needed 9 feet to clear the reef. The schooners were able to enter the bay, while Speedwell had to remain outside. Once across the reef, the schooners hoisted red flags of piracy and began to open fire. Geary had no option but to heave to. It was useless to send his crewmen into the bay in boats, since they might be outnumbered and outgunned. Once they decided they were safe, however, the pirates showed no inclination to engage.
While Geary pondered his dilemma, he spotted a new sail on the horizon. Thinking it might be another pirate, he gave chase, but on contact the newcomer proved to be USS Peacock, whose captain, Commander Cassis, reported that he had chased three pirate schooners that morning but two had escaped. It seemed they must have been the ones Geary had pursued across the reef.
Cassis and Geary formulated a plan. With another American warship expected in support, they would wait outside the reef overnight and attack with lowered boats the next morning. Their gambit was carried out successfully, resulting in two ships being captured and two smaller vessels partly loaded with coffee being scuttled by the pirates. The joint team also found a large schooner that the pirates had run aground, which it burned, along with all the settlements, houses, huts and anything else in the bay that seemed to belong to the criminals. Every one of the pirates, however, had escaped.
Still, it had been a remarkable action. The pirate schooners were heavily armed and fitted, yet Geary had been able to hold them at bay until the larger Peacock showed up. Peacock’s actions were also of interest in demonstrating the tactics the U.S. government was using against piracy in the West Indies. Aaron Smith, the British sailor sought by the Royal Navy, later wrote that at least one pirate had been actively searching for Peacock, on the belief that a ship of that name out of New York was in the area and was “richly laden.” Evidently the warship was working an undercover operation. Had the pirate found it, Peacock would have proved to be richly laden only with cannons.
Smith, my great-great-grandfather, was eventually arrested by the Royal Navy and taken to London. Tried on two charges of piracy, he managed to be acquitted on the grounds that he had been taken prisoner by the pirates and forced to work with them.
Even though a small vessel such as Speedwell would be unable to overcome a resolute pirate, Geary’s strategy gave time for Peacock to arrive and balance the odds. Cassis, in his letter to Geary, acknowledges his commendable initiative. So did Admiral Rowley, who was notorious for being stinting with praise. In a letter to the Admiralty in London dated November 11, he enclosed a copy of a report sent to him by Geary. In it he noted, “The general conduct of this petty officer has merited my approbation and he is the individual in whose favour I have transmitted to their Lordships in my letter No. 23 flattering testimonials from General Grant, the House of Assembly and Chambers of Commerce of New Providence.”
In his report to Rowley, Geary was able to make a proud assertion that that part of the Cuban coast was now clear of pirates. In view of the known corruption of the Spanish authorities, he was perhaps a trifle optimistic when he said that squadrons of Spanish gunboats would still scour the coasts of Cuba. Nevertheless, the whole story demonstrated how resolution on the part of the forces of law and order could keep the sea lanes clear of criminals. The sterling job done by Master Geary and Commander Cassis also laid the foundation for many greater alliances between Britain and the United States in the two centuries to come.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.