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Image of the pirate Gilbert from his trial: Law Library of Congress

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Captain Henry D. Trotter: Wikpedia

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An 1850 map (River Nazareth circled bottom right)

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Google Earth image of area today. Note change in        names from the 1850 map.

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           Close up of Cape Lopez area and the river Nazareth today.

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Debby in front of the Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, an area off Florida that the pirate Gilbert frequented. Note the rocky shoreline here.

                                              THE LAST VOYAGE & CAPTURE OF THE PIRATE PEDRO GILBERT

                                                                          by Steven Danforth Singer

     The following quotes are taken from the 1837 paper titled The Havana Pirates, published in The Nautical Magazine & Naval Chronicle, London, which detailed the pirate Pedro Gilbert’s last voyage and eventual capture in Africa in 1833. Much in that paper had previously been published in: A Report of the Trial of the Spanish Pirates Before the United States Circuit Court, Boston, 1834 (available through the Law Library of Congress).


     It was on August 20, 1832 that the schooner Panda left Havana under the Spanish flag. Her captain was Pedro Gilbert (also known as Don Pedro Gilbert), who was a well-known pirate along Florida’s coast, and whom a section of rocky coastline on Florida’s eastern shore is named after. Her purpose was stated as such: “Dark was her purpose, and mysterious her proceedings. Her course was unknown, for she had evaded the last visit of the Spanish authorities, although she bore their flag. Her crew numbered thirty-one, and her cargo was goods for the African market. Onward she steered, across the ocean’s wave; the shore of Africa lay before her; in her track lay guilt and crime.” The cargo mentioned consisted of: “30 bales of cloth, 250 muskets, 250 barrels of powder, one barrel of knives, one case of necklaces, one case of cutlasses, one box of flints, and two cases of axes.” A likely cargo for the slave trade, and which was made apparent from a document later found aboard after her capture.


      The Panda was both a pirate and a slaver on this voyage. On September 20th she encountered the American brig Mexican at lat. 33° N, long. 34-1/2° W, from Salem bound for Rio. Being no match for the pirate schooner which had two short carronades and one long brass gun, Capt. Butman decided it best to comply with the pirate’s demands. They soon boarded the Mexican, taking everything of value including ten boxes of coin valued at $20,000, and though some crewmen were beaten, the pirates didn’t outright kill any of them, but locked them in the ship, leaving them to an even worse fate! “The compasses were broken, the rigging cut away with an axe, tiller-ropes, braces, running-rigging, sails; the yards let down, spars thrown overboard; and, to complete their atrocious deeds, short of murdering the crew at once, they left a pot of tar, and a quantity of tarred ropeyarn in the caboose on fire. In this state they left the brig, taking her ensign and pendant, and her only boat with them, which, when they got alongside of their own vessel, they scuttled, and after hoisting in their launch, and the brig’s spars they had carried off, they made sail to the south-east, to reconnoiter a ship that had hove in sight, leaving the Mexican to her fate, and expecting every moment to see her a mass of flames.”


     So having left the crew to burn alive, the pirates had forgotten one thing. “But they had neglected to secure the cabin skylight, and the mate judging they were standing away under sail, crept up through it on deck, in time only to save their lives, and the whole vessel from destruction. The caboose was on fire, the mainsail would soon have been so, and a few short moments more would have been the last of the Mexican and her crew. But they were saved; the hand of Providence was there; and by their exertions and perseverance the vessel was again put into some order, and they reached Salem, where the account of the piracy was speedily published.” This newspaper account would be the downfall of the Panda’s piratical crew. The Mexican’s crew continued to let smoke billow from the ship until they were sure the Panda was far enough away and would believe they were all dead by now.


     The Panda eventually made the coast of Africa, and later made port on Prince’s Island (present day Príncipe Island). There she lay a few days, before she sailed again for the African coast and the River Nazareth. Soon after, the HMS Curlew arrived at the island: “Her Majesty’s sloop Curlew, lately employed on the African station, and under the command of Captain Trotter, happened to visit Port Antonio, of Prince’s Island, in May, 1833, a place seldom resorted by British vessels of war. About the same time, Mr. Gould, an American merchant, residing there, learnt from the ‘Salem Commercial Advertiser,’ a well-known print of the United States, that an American brig, named the Mexican, had been met at sea, and plundered, by a piratical schooner,”  The brief description of the schooner matched that of the Panda, which had sailed back to the African coast just a few days before the Curlew arrived. Mr. Gould relayed this information to Capt. Trotter, and the captain soon found out that the Panda now lay in the river Nazareth. Trotter immediately set sail in order to intercept the schooner.


     “On the 4th of June the Curlew arrived off the mouth of this river, and immediately her three boats, manned and armed with forty men, under the immediate command of Captain Trotter, proceeded in quest of the pirate.” They rowed upstream all night and finally saw their prey laying at anchor. The river being such as they could not conceal themselves very well, when within a mile of her, “the boats displayed their colours”. The pirates soon spotted them and all but one took to their boats making for the shore. The straggler soon joined them in a canoe, and his purpose aboard soon became apparent as smoke was seen coming from the Panda. The Curlew’s crew were soon aboard the schooner and found a fire near the magazine, “in which sixteen casks of powder, below the cabin floor; a quantity of cotton and brimstone was burning, which would shortly have communicated with the magazine, but for the timely arrival of the boats.” They soon extinguished the fire and began to search the ship. The pirates had taken her papers with them, but they did find personal correspondence signed by Pedro Gilbert proving this was indeed the pirate ship Panda. One of the most interesting finds was a document with instructions for Gilbert from officials in Havana regarding this particular voyage. That it was to purchase slaves was quite evident though not written outright. Some hints stated in the document: “Upon your arrival at the place of your destination, you will use all diligence in your power in the purchase and shipment of your cargo, which, from the selected and abundant invoice of your outward cargo, we have no doubt will be a fine one.” Another instruction said: “Immediately upon your arrival, at whatever place it may be, you are to give proper notice of the place your cargo is, stating the number of ‘Bulks’ you have brought, &c.” The work “Bulks” was translated from the Spanish document word “Bultos,” which is Spanish for bulks or any large bundle. The translator also said that it was a code word for “Aficans” commonly used by the slave traders in Havana. It also had instructions for how to return to Cuba, where best to unload the cargo, and who to contact when they did. Spain and Portugal were still actively involved in the slave trade at this time.


     Not much else was found except five ensigns (two Spanish, one new U.S., one new French, and one old Danish) and two pendants (one Spanish and one new U.S.). Likely two were from the Mexican, and maybe another from the ship they chased after leaving her crew to die. The Panda was then taken possession of and moved to the mouth of the river where the Curlew lay anchored. They also captured a few of the pirates, though appears these only joined the crew at Prince’s Island. Trotter heard that King Passal, the native chief of this district, had taken Gilbert and his crew as prisoners, and the captain tried to negotiate having them delivered to him but without success. He then sailed the Panda back upriver anchoring opposite the town and met with the king threatening retribution if the pirates were not turned over. “He returned on board, and at the expiration of an appointed time, the demand not being complied with, a shot from the Panda’s long twelve-pound gun amidships was fired over the town. A misfortune occurred, which threw a temporary gloom over the proceedings. Some loose powder was on deck, a spark from the gun ignited it, communicated with the powder magazine, and the Panda the next moment was blown up.” Four men were killed in the explosion, and the Panda was lost along with much of the Curlew’s firearms. Trotter luckily escaped harm and due to circumstance, decided to sail the Curlew to Fernando Po (present day Bioko Island) to re-supply, and arrived there on August 15th. Gilbert had already split the booty and many of his crew went their separate ways. Word was out along the coast that pirates were in the area, and soon all the local ports and ships were on the lookout. One captain who was at a small island just off Cameroon, was approached by five Spaniards who said they were shipwrecked sailors which he then brought back to Fernando Po. A number of things seemed suspicious about them, and one of the pirate prisoners on the Curlew soon identified them as part of the crew of the Panda and they were arrested. One of them gave a full confession and description of their piratical acts.


     It appeared Gilbert was still at Nazareth, and likely being protected by the King. Trotter tried to find another warship to accompany him but to no avail. Gilbert still had quite a bit of money and Trotter feared he may purchase a vessel and soon slip away. Back in Fernando Po, Trotter soon caught a break. The Princess Elizabeth, a British barque, was in port. Capt. Lewis Tatio agreed to let captain Trotter use his ship to help capture the pirate, and an ingenious plan was made. “After a consultation, it was resolved that the vessel should go to the river Nazareth as on a trading voyage, and that Mr. Matson, mate of the Curlew, with twelve of her men, in addition to the crew of the Princess Elizabeth should go on her. On the arrival of the vessel the first thing to be done was to entice the king and his principal men on board for the purpose of trading, and then seize them, retaining them as prisoners until the arrival of the Curlew with Captain Trotter.” The 1834 pamphlet about the trial mentions that Captain Trotter and some of his men were taken prisoner at Cape Lopez by the King and held for two or three days, though this is not mentioned in The Havana Pirates.


     Trotter and Matson agreed to rendezvous at Cape Lopez, which lay about 30 miles west of the river Nazareth. The Princess Elizabeth arrived there on Sept. 20th.  The mate Matson then set sail under the Portuguese flag and arrived at the river Nazareth on the 22nd. He was met by none other than the pirate Pedro Gilbert. “He saluted Mr. Matson, who, not knowing him, merely returned his salute and passed on towards the king’s residence. But the suspicious, scrutinizing eye of the pirate discovered some deficiency in the general behavior of the newly arrived trader which awoke suspicions in his guilty mind, that all was not right, and he determined on telling the king that the visitor had more the appearance of a man of war’s officer than the mate of a merchant ship. But won by the prospects of plenty of trade the king disregarded the assertion of the pirate. The joyous dreams of plenty of rum, muskets and powder, were uppermost in his thoughts, and excluded him those deep suspicions and all the horrors in their train which were passing in the relentless imagination of the piratical captain, on finding that the supposed trader had succeeded so far as to induce the king to let his son and some of his principal men return with him to the Princess Elizabeth. There they were regaled with liquor to their hearts’ content, and it was not long before yielding to its powerful influence they were all snoring loudly.”


     The Curlew had been disguised as a slaver, and went to meet the Princess Elizabeth, though not before making a stop at the Isle St. Thomas (present day São Tomé), where they found out that some of the pirates were on the island as part of the crew of the Esperanza, now lying in the harbor, which had taken them aboard at Nazareth. Having no time to search for them as they needed to rendezvous at Cape Lopez with the Princess Elizabeth, Trotter met the Governor of the island who promised to apprehend them. Meanwhile, the Princess Elizabeth had returned to Cape Lopez with the king’s son. “It was getting about midnight when the Curlew tacked under the stern, of the Princess Elizabeth.”  Matson then boarded the Curlew and conveyed that all had gone as planned and that the king’s son was aboard and none the wiser. They then planned to return to the river the next day. “Accordingly, the next afternoon both vessels ran into the river under easy sail, with Portuguese colors flying, and came to anchor. The Curlew having been disguised, was taken for a slaving vessel by the natives, and several of King Passal’s relatives, eager for the market, flocked on board. There they discovered their mistake when too late, and they were made prisoners while the plot was still carried on in the Princess Elizabeth by Mr. Matson.”


      The natives on shore soon realized the deception though. “Having secured sufficient hostages in the king's son and principal men, Captain Trotter then proceeded openly to demand the surrender of Don Pedro Gilbert, the commander of the Panda, and those of his crew who were with him, promising to give up his hostages on their being delivered to him. Much evasion and delay was resorted to by the chief, occasioned no doubt by the threats of the pirates. But, happily, after some negotiation, the feelings of nature preponderated, and the king determined on delivering them up, to rescue his son. Terms were agreed on, and the next morning Captain Trotter landed in his gig, and received the piratical captain from the hands of the very people he had gone to enslave, and conveyed him on board the Curlew, where he was closely guarded as a prisoner. Soon after, three other Spaniards, part of the Panda's crew, were sent on board the Curlew, in canoes, on which the hostages were released, and landed, to the great joy of the natives. Thus, by a well-planned design, followed up by prompts measures, was accomplished the object of the Curlew's visit; and Captain Trotter having re-established himself on amicable terms with the king and his people, sailed with his prisoners for St. Thomas's, to look after the rest. He had learnt at the Nazareth the fact, that the Esperanza had really conveyed away the mate, carpenter, and others of the Panda's crew, with the sum of two thousand dollars, to purchase a new vessel at that island, notwithstanding the Governor's assertion to the contrary."


     Having learned at Nazareth that the governor of the Portuguese controlled island had not been entirely truthful, Trotter also learned from a British merchant and friend of his who resided on the island, about the vessel the governor sold to the pirates and which was being outfitted there. The pirates soon abandoned it when the Curlew arrived. He also informed him that the Esperanza had just anchored off another part of the island. Trotter never told the governor where he had gotten his information, but the pirates found out and burned the informant’s house down and he barely escaped with his life. Trotter sent the Curlew’s boats to intercept the Esperanza, and soon took possession of her, though her captain and mate were not on board. Its deck was full of water casks indicating she was ready for a slave voyage.


     Trotter continued to pressure the Governor for assistance in locating the pirates still on his island. “It would almost appear that the Governor's patience was at length worn out by the tenacious Perseverance of Captain Trotter in his endeavor to get possession of these pirates, or that their future concealment, now they had lost their chance of escape, would be at least inconvenient, and perhaps impossible. Be this as it may, the day following the seizure of the Esperanza, Captain Trotter was formally told by the Governor that accounts had reached him of some Spaniards being on a distant part  of the island, and that he had given directions that they should be taken into custody. The opportunity for the Governor was perhaps good to get rid of them.”


     Soon, the rest of the pirates on the island were rounded up and placed in the Curlew along with Pedro Gilbert and the others. Sufficient proof was made available to the governor that the Esperanza was involved with the pirates. The governor then held the captain and mate of the Esperanza, until they could be sent to Lisbon, and had all their property sold including the vessel they had bought from him. The profits were then placed in the royal treasury.  The Curlew arrived in England in June 1834 and the prisoners were confined there until placed on the HMS Savage which then sailed to Salem, arriving at the same time the Mexican was getting ready to depart from that port. “It was just two years since they had plundered this same vessel, and left her with her crew to be destroyed by fire. The providential circumstance of the Mexican and her officers being thus at hand, expedited the course of justice—her voyage was delayed, and the pirates were eventually conveyed to Boston, to be confronted with their intended victims. Here they were brought before the circuit court of the United States, and, after a long trial, which produced considerable interest in the public mind, and terminated in November, 1834, six were condemned to death. The mate was, however, strongly recommended to mercy, having in 1831, when in command of the Leon, gallantly saved the lives of seventy Americans from the Minerva, a ship of New York he fell in with when foundering at sea, and for which service he had received the thanks of the President of the United States. His conduct on this occasion was most noble and praiseworthy, and the recommendation of the jury was not without its good effect.”


     Mr. Matson was soon promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, and Captain Henry Dundas Trotter eventually climbed to the rank of rear-admiral. Pedro Gilbert and the others found guilty, and not shown clemency, were hanged in Boston on June 11, 1835. Having the Mexican’s captain and crew there to testify at the trial likely put the nail in the coffin for the pirate Gilbert. Both sources mentioned at the beginning said that the pirates buried much of the stolen money in the area of Cape Lopez and Nazareth in order to hide it from the English, but most was later retrieved by them. A few thousand in coin was said to have been thrown overboard by some of the escaping pirates (they were later captured though) as they wished that no evidence be found on their person. A few did escape in Africa, and some died there before they could be captured.


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Report of the trial. Credit: Law Library of Congress

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