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The Pirate Captain John Coxen

(late 17th Century)

In 1997 I by chance discovered that there is a small island off the coast of Honduras called Roatan, which has a main town known as "Coxen's Hole." In fact the local inhabitants refer to the whole island as "Coxen's Hole." Roatan is part of a small group collectively called the "Bay Islands." They are situated north of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea, where they had strategic importance to mariners of the 16th and 17th Centuries. In particular pirates were known to have set up settlements on Roatan from which they could easily attack Spanish ships returning home to Spain from the Honduran Gold Coast complete with their cargoes of treasure. Intrigued as to how Coxen's Hole came by it's name I wrote to the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Research Service in Chicago, USA to enlist their help. They wrote back with plenty of information about the islands present state but could tell me little about the name Coxen's Hole, except that it was "supposedly named after a buccaneer." This fuelled my interest further and I next obtained a travel handbook on Honduras, which told me that Coxen Hole (as they write it) was named for pirate captain John Coxen, who lived on Roatan from 1687 to 1697. The book went on to state that the town was not founded until 1835 when several families arrived from the Cayman Islands. My next step was to purchase a book on pirates by David F. Marley which gave a detailed account of the exploits of a notorious pirate by the name of 'Captain John Coxon' (not Coxen), who was known to have visited Roatan, and he lived in the correct time period. A little disheartened by this I began to wonder if Coxon was the pirates real name and that the 1835 Roatan Islanders had incorrectly spelt his name. One glimmer of hope was the possibility that the book on pirates had used the more common spelling of the name. To add to this speculation I noted that even in this book, one quote still spelt the name 'Coxen'. To try and resolve the problem of the two John's I wrote to the 'National Maritime Museum' in Greenwich, London to see if they could help me. The museum informed me that "while there are many references to John Coxen, I could find none to John Coxon." They went on to state, as I had already suggested to them, that they thought it very likely the two were the same person. The museum were unfortunately unable to help any further but they had left me fairly certain that John Coxen and John Coxon were the same person and that in the majority of cases the name appeared as Coxen.

The following accounts all come from books by David F. Marley and as he has used the spelling Coxon I have also continued to do so.

Marley begins by writing that John Coxon was an English privateer who prowled the West Indies for many years, he has found specific references to him between the years 1676 and 1688.

The first reference Marley has used is the only one to spell the pirate's name Coxen, and it is from a letter written by Peter Beckford from Port Royal, in Jamaica on the 2nd August 1676 (Old Style Date):

"Captain Coxen about the island with a French commission. My Lord (Vaughan, the governor of Jamaica) uses all possible means to take him, and proclaimed mercy to all his men if they delivered their captain up, but they refused, so my lord sent to take him, but he ran away immediately."

The quote is relative because at the time England was at piece with Spain, and so it was illegal for Jamaican and indeed English privateers who operated from Jamaica, to take part in the ongoing hostilities between France, Holland and Spain. Several of the privateers ignored this and sailed under French commissions in June of 1677 to attack the Spanish port of Santa Marta under Capitaine La Garde, Coxen was amongst them.

The Capture of Santa Marta - June 1677

The French together with the English privateers made a surprise attack on Santa Marta at dawn, taking many prisoners in the process including the governor and the bishop which they held for ransom until a trio of Spanish warships arrived with 500 soldiers to drive them off. The raiders were forced to retire to Port Royal in Jamaica, and on the 28th July Sir Thomas Lynch noted:

"Five or six French and English privateers lately come to Jamaica from taking Santa Marta, Barnes being one and Coxon expected every hour. On board the Governor and the Bishop, and Captain Legarde has promised to put them on shore. The plunder of the town was not great, money and broken plate about 20 a man."

Three days later Coxon entered port and personally escorted the bishop, Dr. Lucas Fernandez y Piedrahita together with a Spanish friar into the presence of the new island governor, Lord Vaughan. English officers were sent to try and procure the release of the Spanish Governor and the others release from the French ships, but they found the French privateers all drunk and were unable to reason with them. Vaughan therefore ordered that the French should leave Jamaica and he informed Coxon and his English followers that it was against the law to serve under foreign colours. The French left enraged that they had been separated from their English companions and sailed off without releasing their captives.

The Indigo Seizure - September 1679

Despite Governor Vaughan's warnings Coxon soon resumed his activities, leading a mixed party of English, French and other privateers on a foray into the Bay of Honduras in the summer of 1679. On the 26th September Coxon captured a Spanish merchantman laden with valuable cargo and returned with his booty to Jamaica to dispose of it. A report from Port Royal late in the October read as follows:

"There has been lately taken from the Spaniards by Coxon , Bartholomew, Sharpe, Bothing, and Hawkins (meaning Richard Sawkins) with their crew, 500 chests of indigo, a great quantity of cacao, cochineal, tortoise shell, money and plate. Much is brought into this country already, and the rest expected."

The Jamaican Governor tried in vain to stop the privateers from disposing of their goods by introducing naval patrols around the coast, but the privateers smuggled their treasures ashore and sold them anyway. This not only benefited the privateers but also gave a great boost to the islands economy and strengthened the treasury.

The Portobelo Campaign - February 1680

In late December 1679 Coxon held an illegal gathering at Port Morant, off the south-eastern tip of Jamaica. In attendance were the barks of Captains Cornelius Essex and Sharpe, together with the sloops of Robert Allison and Thomas Magott who all agreed to unite under the leadership of Coxon and stage an assault against Spanish Portobelo. The privateers would have argued that they held commissions to take such action legally, but in reality all they did hold was a combination of out of date French and English commissions, along with some 'let passes' issued by Lord Carlisle, the new Jamaican Governor for permission to go into the Bay of Honduras to cut log-wood.

The force left Port Morant on the 17th January 1680 and were joined 20 miles out to sea by the brigantine of Frenchman Jean Rose. Bad weather set in and scattered the ships, which lead Coxon to instruct them to make their way independently to Isla Fuerte, 90 miles south-south-west of Cartagena on the Spanish main. Whichever of them was to arrive first should leave a note on Sandy Point to satisfy the rest. Only Essex and Sharpe failed to arrive. Meanwhile Coxon raided the nearby San Bernardo Islands (Friends Islands) for landing craft, coming away with four 'piraguas' and six large canoes. He returned to the main force three days later to find that Essex had rejoined them. The formation now headed towards the Isla de Pinos (Island of Pines), 130 miles east of Portobelo in the Archipelago de las Mulatas, but due to more bad weather only Coxon's bark was able to push forward to the island where he learned that Sharpe had been there before him. He also found that the privateer Edmond Cooke had come to join him, and Coxon welcomed the extra man power. The rest of the force had been blown off coarse by contrary winds and had ended up at the Isla de Oro (Golden Island), some miles away from the Isla de Pinos.

The foul winds continued but Coxon none the less took 250 buccaneers into small boats and rowed westward along the coast in the hope of attacking before the Spaniards could learn of their arrival. Nearing his target Coxon came across the Frenchman Capitaine Lessone, whose ship was riding the winds at anchor. Lessone joined Coxon and added 80 men to the force. The buccaneers now headed for land and slipped ashore undetected in the Gulf of San Blas. They now proceeded on foot to avoid the Spanish coastal lookouts. Coxon and his men marched for three days with no food, their feet were in bad shape from a lack of footwear but they eventually came to an Indian village three miles short of Portobelo. Here a native spotted them and shouted "Ladrones!" (Thieves!), while running off at quick speed towards the Spanish city. The buccaneers followed at a swift trot but still arrived half an hour after the native had managed to raise the alarm. The warning however, had only terrified the Spaniards into imagining what was in store for them. So they withdrew into their citadel leaving the raiders, which were led into the city by Allison, to ransack the city unopposed.

For two days Coxon's men stripped the city of any treasures they could carry, before they retired 10 miles north-eastward to a cay half a mile offshore from Bastimentos. Here Coxon and his men entrenched themselves with their booty and a few prisoners, while Allison sped in a boat to recall the anchored ships to pick them up. Three days later, a force of several hundred Spanish soldiers arrived and began firing on Coxon, but they were unable to inflict revenge on the pirates before their ships arrived to remove them.

Coxon now inflicted a blockade on Portobelo with Sharpe, who had also now rejoined the pirate force, intercepting a 'barco luengo' from Cartagena. Three days later a 90-ton ship also from Cartagena, and carrying thirty slaves, timber, salt, corn and eight guns was attacked and taken by the combined efforts of Coxon and Allison. The ship also allegedly had aboard 500 pieces of Gold concealed in a jar of wine, and according to one disgruntled follower, Coxon kept them for himself.

Following this a general distribution of booty was made, resulting in 100 pieces of eight per man. The force now retired to the Bocas del Toro (Bull's Mouth), located at the north-western extremity of present day Panama. Here they would careen their ships. Coxon found Richard Sawkins already careening at Boras del Toro and he informed him that Captain Peter Harris was also careening at Diego's Point on nearby Isla Solarte. Coxon now transferred to his new 90-ton Spanish prize and discarded his old bark. Once his new ship was refitted, Coxon suggested to the other pirates that they should return to Golden Island and it's friendly natives, and from there travel to Panama going on overland to it's Pacific coast to attack the Spanish on their unprepared flank. The English pirates all agreed, leaving only the Frenchmen Lessone and Rose who refused, they preferred to revisit the Gulf of San Blas and so the two groups now parted company, albeit on very friendly terms.

The Pacific Incursions - April 1680

Coxen still commanded a healthy sized force with the ships of Allison, Cooke, Harris, Magott, Sawkins and Sharpe all still with him, and they now made their way to Golden Island where they would anchor their ships close inshore, in a small cove out of sight from any passing Spanish ships. Watches were left aboard each vessel while at 6 o'clock on the Monday morning of the 15th April 1680, Coxon made his way ashore with 332 buccaneers. They obtained guides from the local Indians who led them across the isthmus. Ten days later the pirates came upon the Spanish stockade of Santa Maria, at the confluence of the Chucunaque and Tuira Rivers. The stockade had no artillery and so at dawn the next day Sawkins led a head on assault, a heated half hour exchange of small arms followed but the buccaneers soon overran the stockade. Seventy of the two-hundred Spanish were killed out right and the rest were later massacred by the Indians.

They now pushed on towards the Pacific, although Coxon himself now seemed reluctant to continue but was persuaded by the others to stay with them. Coxon believed the force did not contain enough strength to sustain their attacks across Panama, and that they should be willing to settle for smaller gains. As a result other captains assumed the lead.

Once on the Pacific side, the pirates captured a Spanish bark at night when Sharpe went aboard with 135 men. The next night Harris captured a second ship, and soon the buccaneers controlled a small flotilla, with which they raided the Pacific side of Panama. The Spanish responded by sending out a hastily assembled force but after a three hour fight they too were captured by the pirates.

Coxon's respect had now reached an all time low amongst the other pirates and he was deposed as their leader. It was said by one that, "Our former admiral not behaving himself nobly in time of engagement, was hooted at by the party, that he immediately went away to go overland." On the 5th of May Coxon quit the campaign with 70 men still loyal to him in a small bark. They retraced their steps across the isthmus, and found their way back up the River Chucunaque to regain the Caribbean. They were chased by the 'Hunter' frigate a few weeks later but Coxon managed to out sail the English ship.

The other captains, Sharpe, Sawkins and Cooke continued in command of the Pacific expedition which lasted a further two years bringing terror to the South American coast.

The following spring Coxon was reported to be calling for another illegal gathering of pirates, this time in the Bay of Honduras, possibly on Roatan. At some stage he is also known to have raided the Spanish outpost of Saint Augustine, Florida around this time.

By early June 1681 Coxon was lying at Springer's Key in the San Blas Islands once again, with a ship of ten guns and 100 men. He was accompanied by Rose, Jan Willems, George Wright and four other captains. They were later joined here by Capitaine Tristian, who had recently rescued a group of John Cooke's men from nearby La Sound's Key, fresh from their Pacific adventures. Among Cooke's men was William Dampier, who recorded that Coxon and his men were overjoyed to see them, having "never heard what became of us." The whole group now decided to sail on the Central American coast line, making their way to San Andres Island first to procure boats for use as landing craft. But a strong gale scattered the formation and a 'armadilla' of a dozen tiny men o'war sent from Cartagena drove others away. Coxon's new expedition had collapsed and so he put into Bocas del Toro to careen.

Serving the Jamaican Governor - 1682 to 1683

Coxon seemed to be tiring of his pirates existence and wished for more of a peaceful way of life than his past permitted. In May of 1682, he therefore appealed to yet another new Governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Lynch, showing him his commission issued by Captain-General Robert Clarke of the Bahamas, which permitted Coxon to operate against the Spanish. Lynch was appalled, considering this a violation against of the piece with Madrid. He did not though, hold this against Coxon, but instead wrote a letter to Clarke to confirm Coxon's story. Clarke replied:

"Captain John Coxon being denied a commission to take Saint Augustine, Florida, went hence in contempt of any orders and contrary to law and custom, carrying away some persons that are indebted to the inhabitants. All that he did in landing and plundering on Spanish territory was done by his own power. I thought fit to inform you of this, since I hear he is now at Jamaica."

Lynch was unconvinced by Clarke's letter and put his trust in Coxon. Four months later on the 6th November 1682 (OS), he reported to his superiors that he had recently sent:

"Coxon and two other vessels to the Bay of Honduras to bring away log-wood cutters. So far from doing so, he was in danger of losing his ship and his life. His men plotted to take the ship and go privateering, but he valiantly resisted, killed one or two with his own hand, forced eleven overboard and brought three here, who were condemned last Friday. I shall order one or two to be hanged as an example to others and encouragement to him. I am hiring him to convey a Spaniard to Havana."

In February 1683, Lynch once again entrusted Coxon with a commission, dispatching him to find Jan Willems so that they might mount a joint pursuit of Jean Hamlin, a Frenchman who had been making assaults on shipping using a hijacked ship called the 'Trompeuse'. The Governor was willing to offer Willems's men, victuals, naturalisation, a pardon and 200 to be shared with Coxon if they would go after the Trompeuse. Willems was otherwise engaged and Coxon's lone attempts to capture Hamlin were in vain. He returned to Port Royal, but on route came across a ship carrying Nicholas Van Hoorn and de Grammont, who informed Coxon that they were trying to unite all the privateers for an assault on Veracruz. Although he must have been tempted, Coxon refused to be a party to this and continued on to Port Royal, arriving there in mid-March. Coxon soon learned that the buccaneers had joined up with Laurens de Graaf, Michiel Andrieszoon, George Spurre, Jacob Hall, Pierre d'Orange and several others. They had made a spectacular assault on a Mexican port, obtaining an enormous amount of booty with few casualties. Coxon must have viewed this as a missed opportunity which pushed him once more into privateering. By the 12th November Lynch was writing, "Coxon is again in rebellion."

Once more a Privateer - 1683 to 1688

In Marley's findings Coxon was not heard of again until late in January 1686, when Lieutenant Governor Hender Molesworth of Jamaica reported:

"Captain John Coxon, a notorious privateer, who took advantage of a clause in the act for restraining and persuading pirates to return to the honest life, became weary of it and reverted to piracy, has wearied again of that and returned here. His bond for good behaviour, when required , could not be found, but I have evidence against him and have ordered him to be apprehended. The place of trial will be Santiago de la Vega, where there will be fewer sympathisers among the jury."

Coxon though, evidently remained as elusive as ever, as by mid-November 1866 Molesworth was writing:

"I hear that Coxon is cutting log-wood in the Gulf of Campeche, and has written to his friends that he has given up privateering and means to earn an honest living. I shall none the less send the proclamation declaring him a pirate to those parts by first opportunity."

Molesworth followed this up by issuing a warrant on the 24th November 1686 (OS), commissioning the "Captains Rich, Cubitt and Conway to apprehend John Coxon, the pirate, said to be log-wood cutting in the Bay of Compeche."

Even this did not lead to Coxon's capture, although when the Royal Navy Captain Thomas Spragge returned to Port Royal in August of the following year, with 71 English prisoners restored to him by the Spanish governors of Campeche and Veracruz, he also "brought in six French pirates who had robbed some (Jamaican) vessels, and eleven of Coxon's men." The eleven men were tried on the 18th August and eight were convicted when the remaining three turned informers.

John Coxon himself though, stayed at large until he and several of his men finally surrendered in October 1688, to the new Jamaican Governor, The Duke of Albemarle, who in turn handed them on to Stephen Lynch, Sir Robert Holmes's agent in the Americas.

At this stage we don't have any information on what happened to John Coxon after he surrendered in 1688. It is interesting to note though, that the Honduras Handbook mentioned earlier that John Coxen lived on Roatan between 1687 and 1697, which would seem to rule out the two of them being the same person if these dates can be trusted. That is until you consider the difficulty with dates from this time often using the 'old style,' so any such date could easily be one year out. Which could mean Coxon/Coxen lived the next ten years after his surrender on Roatan, but if this is so how did he avoid the charge of piracy in Jamaica?

If anyone has any information to add about Captain John Coxen/Coxon please let me know so we can update this page.

I would also like to take this opportunity to recommend David F. Marley's book which I have found most informative and very enjoyable reading, not just for the entry on John Coxon but for the whole content on pirates and privateers generally.


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