Roberto Cofresí


Roberto Cofresí (June 17, 1791 – March 29, 1825), better known as “El Pirata Cofresí”, was the most renowned pirate in Puerto Rico. He became interested in sailing at a young age. By the time he reached adulthood there were some political and economic difficulties in Puerto Rico, which at the time was a colony of Spain. Influenced by this situation he decided to become a pirate in 1818. Cofresí commanded several assaults against cargo vessels focusing on those that were responsible for exporting gold. During this time he focused his attention on ships from the United States and the local Spanish government ignored several of these actions. On March 5, 1825, Cofresí engaged in battle a float of ships led by John Slout. He eventually abandoned his ship and tried to escape by land before being captured. After being imprisoned he was sent to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where a brief military trial found him guilty and on March 29, 1825, he and other members of his crew were executed by a firing squad. After his death his life was used as inspiration for several stories and myths, which served as the basis for books and other media.

Early years

Cofresí was born Roberto Cofresí y Ramírez de Arellano in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.His father was Franz Von Kupferschein (1751–1814), and of Austrian descent born in Trieste a free city of the Holy Roman Empire. According to Professor Ursula Acosta, a historian and member of the Puerto Rican Genealogy Society, the Kupferschein family immigrated from Austria to Trieste where Franz Von Kupferschein was known as Francisco Confersin. Immigrants were required by the Italian authorities to adopt Italian sounding names. When Francisco Confersin (Franz Von Kupferschein) immigrated to Puerto Rico, he went to live in the coastal town of Cabo Rojo and changed his name to Francisco Cofresí, which made it much easier for the Spanish authorities to pronounce.

Francisco Cofresí met and married María Germana Ramírez de Arellano, whose father was the cousin of Nicolás Ramírez de Arellano, the founder of Cabo Rojo. The couple had four children, a daughter by the name of Juana and three sons, Juan Francisco, Ignacio and their youngest Roberto. Roberto Cofresí was four years old when his mother died.

Cofresí and his siblings went to school in his hometown. Living in a coastal town the Cofresí brothers often came in to contact with visiting sailors. They were inspired to become seamen by the tales that they heard from the sailors who visited their town. Cofresí eventually purchased a small boat, which he christened El Mosquito (“The Mosquito”).

He met and married Juana Creitoff, a native of Curaçao, in the San Miguel Arcángel Parish of Cabo Rojo. They had two sons, both of whom died soon after birth. In 1822, Cofresí and Juana had a daughter, whom they named Maria Bernada.

Cofresí the pirate

In 1818, Cofresí decided to become a pirate and organized a crew composed of eight to ten men from his hometown. The men established a hideout in Mona Island, a small island located between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It was a common practice then for the Spanish Crown to look the other way when pirates such as Cofresí attacked ships that did not carry the Spanish flag.

Cofresí ignored the ships that came from other nations including those from France, Holland and England and his attacks were mainly focused on ships from the United States. His dislike of American sailors originated when he was once caught eating sugar from an American cargo ship without paying and was injured by the ship’s captain. After this event Cofresí declared war on all of those that operated under the flag of the United States. He often displayed cruel behavior against hostages that were on these vessels, including reports that he ordered that his captives were to be nailed alive to El Mosquito’s deck.

Spain and the United States were having diplomatic and political differences, therefore the Spanish colonial government did not pursue Cofresí or his crew as long as he assaulted American ships. The government felt that Cofresí’s actions were patriotic. This situation changed because of various factors. Spain had lost most of her possessions in the New World and her last two possessions, Puerto Rico and Cuba were faced with economical problems and political unrest. Cofresí was influenced by the separatist faction which was supporting Puerto Rico’s independence from Spain.

Cofresí felt that the Spaniards were oppressing the Puerto Ricans in their “own home” and he began assaulting Spanish ships along with the American and English vessels that were being used to export the island’s resources, gold in particular. He did this in order to debilitate the Spanish economy, justifying it by saying that he “wouldn’t allow foreign hands to take a piece of the country that saw his birth”. On January 23, 1824, Lieutenant General Miguel Luciano De La Torre y Pando (1822–1837), the Spanish appointed governor of Puerto Rico, issued several anti-piracy measures based on the economic losses that the Spanish government was sustaining and the political pressure from the United States.

Imprisonment in the Dominican Republic

On one occasion Cofresí and his crew were captured after his ship arrived at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. They were sentenced to six years in prison and sent to Torre del Homenaje. Cofresí and his men escaped from prison, however they were captured once again and imprisoned. The group decided to escape once more, they broke the locks of their cell doors and climbed down the walls of the prison’s courtyard during a stormy night using a rope that was made of their clothes. The group reached the providence of San Pedro de Macorís and boarded a ship. They sailed to the island of Vieques where they established a new hideout and reorganized a new crew of fourteen men. Cofresí then selected six of them and traveled to the main island (Puerto Rico) where they hijacked a schooner named Ana forcing the crew to jump into the ocean, an incident which they survived. Cofresí renamed the captured ship El Mosquito. They then proceeded to steal a cannon from another ship that was under construction. The crew members of El Mosquito armed themselves, with the weapons found in the vessels that they boarded.

Final years

Cofresí set out once more to sea in his schooner, with his crew and continued to attack merchant ships in the Caribbean. Among the ships which they attacked was a cargo ship named Neptune. The Neptune’s cargo consisted of fabrics and provisions and was attacked while it was docked in Jobos Port, located in the vicinity of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Cofresí then used the vessel as his pirate flagship. On February 1825, Cofresí and his crew attacked a second cargo ship owned by a company based on Saint Thomas and gained control of a load of imported merchandise. After the assault, the pirates left the ship abandoned in the ocean. Some time later they boarded another vessel owned by the same company and repeated the same action as before.

The people on the coasts of Puerto Rico are said to have protected him from the authorities and, according to the Puerto Rican historian Aurelio Tio, Cofresí shared his spoils with the needy, especially members of his family and his friends being regarded by many as the Puerto Rican version of Robin Hood.

Cofresí’s crew continued to assault several ships and on one occasion they attacked eight consecutive ships, including one from the United States. Cofresí’s last successful assault took place on March 5, 1825, when he commanded the hijacking of a boat property of Vicente Antoneti in Salinas, Puerto Rico.

Capture and execution

The Spanish government received many complaints from the nations whose ships were being attacked by “El Pirata Cofresí”, as he became to be known. The government felt compelled to have Cofresí pursued and captured. The Spanish government requested the service of three military vessels. These were San José, Las Animas which belonged to Spain and the Grampus which belonged to the United States. In 1825, Captain John D. Sloat, commander of the Schooner U.S. “Grampus”, engaged Cofresí in battle. There are two official accounts of this event, submitted by those involved in it.

Spanish government’s version

The Spanish government’s version states that on March 2, 1825, the commander of the island’s south military division requested the service of three military vessels. These were San José, Las Animas and the Grampus, which belonged to the United States. The mayor of the municipality of Ponce asked Capt. John D. Sloat to command a recon mission with the intention of capturing Cofresí. Three American officers and a doctor accompanied Sloat in this mission, they were: Garred S. Pedergrast, George A. Magrades and Francis Store plus a crew of twenty-three sailors were assigned to the mission. The sailors were heavily armed and a new cannon was mounted on the ship. On the afternoon of the third day one of the ships located Cofresí, near the port of Boca del Infierno.When the pirates spotted the American vessel they confused it with a merchant ship, and proceeded to attack it. Both vessels exchanged cannon fire. Cofresí commanded El Mosquito to go near land, but was forced to disembark in the coast and to retreat into a nearby forestal area.

The Grampus’ crew sent their sailors to look for the pirates by land, while the ships closed the access to the beach. Sloat estimated that Cofresí had lost a third of his crew in the previous exchange, based on the number of bodies on the water surrounding the boat. Later that day the mayor of the town of Los Jobos issued a statement which detailed the pirate’s entrance into the beach, and he subsequently notified the local authorities about the event. A search operation was launched and during the dusk hours six pirates were captured. The Spanish government then sent military personnel to block all the roads and plains surrounding the area. Two of the search groups believed that the pirates would have to pass through a certain road in order to escape and planned to ambush them there. The pirates reached the location at 10:30 p.m. and tried to escape, but were intercepted. Cofresí was injured in the confrontation, which facilitated their capture. His injuries were severe, but a doctor dictated that they were not lethal. The rest of the crew was captured by the police departments of Patillas and Guayama on March 7 and 8.

United States government version

The American version states that Commander Sloat solicited permission for the use of two small ships after becoming aware of Cofresí’s latest actions. The report claims that Sloat was aware of an evasion strategy that was used by the pirates to escape when using large ships, which consisted of traveling as close to the coast as possible and thereby avoid being followed. Therefore, he used the small ships in order to pursue them while attempting this strategy. Both vessels were armed and began working in a exploratory manner, traveling through several ports and coastal towns. On the third day while sailing near Ponce, the group located a ship in Boca del Infierno and identified it as El Mosquito (Ana). When Cofresí saw the American ship he confused it with a merchant vessel and began to attack it. When his vessel approached the ship, the ship opened fire. The subsequent exchange lasted forty-five minutes and ended when the pirates abandoned their ship and swam to the nearby beach. Vicente Antoneti who was traveling with Sloat, disembarked and notified the local Spanish military unit about the event. Two of the pirates died in the battle and six others, including Cofresí, were injured.

Aftermath

Cofresí was captured along with eleven members of his crew, and they were turned over to the Spanish government. They were jailed in El Castillo del Morro (Fort San Felipe del Morro) in San Juan. The crew was tried by a Spanish military court and found guilty. On March 29, 1825, Cofresí and his men were executed by a firing squad. According to legend, Cofresí “maldijo” (placed a curse on) Capt. Sloat and the USS Grampus before he died. In 1848, the USS Grampus was lost at sea with all hands aboard. Cofresí and his men were buried behind the cemetery on what is now a lush green hill that overlooks the cemetery wall. They were not buried in the Old San Juan Cemetery (Cementerio Antiguo de San Juan), as believed in the local lore, since they were executed as a criminals and therefore could not be laid to rest in this Catholic cemetery. His widow Juana died a year later.

Cofresí’s Cave is located in a sector of Cabo Rojo called “Barrio Pedernales” which is just south of Boqueron Bay. According to local legend, after Cofresí shared some of his treasure with his family and friends, he would hide what was left over in the cave. Throughout the years no one has found any treasure in the cave.

Legacy

Cofresí’s life and death have inspired several myths and stories. These included those depicting him as a generous figure, who used to share what he stole with the region’s poor population. In these myths he is generally described as a benevolent person, with authors writing about his supposed personality. These portray him as a noble gentleman who became a pirate out of necessity; as a generous man, claiming that on one occasion he went as far as saving the life of a baby in a confrontation and providing money for his upbringing and as a brave man, showing disregard for his life on several occasions. Other myths and stories describe Cofresí as an evil or demonic figure. Among them there are myths that claim that during his life he had sold his soul to the devil in order to “defeat men and be loved by women”.

Accounts of apparitions of his spirit include accounts claiming that when summoned in medium sections, the strength of Cofresí’s spirit was excessive, to the point of killing some of the hosts he possessed. A Fiat Lux, a magazine published in Cabo Rojo, notes that several persons in that municipality have said that they have witnessed the pirate’s spirit. In the Dominican Republic, folktales attribute magic abilities to Cofresí; these say that he was able to make his boat disappear when surrounded. This was based on a hideout that he had established in a cave located in a nearby beach.

Cofresí has been the subject of numerous biographical books which include the following:

  • El Marinero, Bandolero, Pirata y Contrabandista Roberto Cofresí“; (Spanish) by Walter R. Cardona Bonet
  • The Pirate of Puerto Rico” by Lee Cooper
  • El Mito de Cofresí en la Narrativa Antillana” (Spanish) by Robert Fernandez Valledor
  • Das Kurge Heldenhafte Leben Des Don Roberto Cofresí” (German) by Angelika Mectel and
  • Roberto Cofresí: “El Bravo Pirata de Puerto Rico” (Spanish) by Edwin Vazquez.

Other kinds of tributes have been made to commemorate Cofresí throughout the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico, a monument to Cofresí was built by Jose Buscaglia Guillermety in Boquerón Bay.

 

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