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The Lost Fleet: The Discovery of a Sunken Armada from the Golden Age of Piracy

The Lost Fleet: The Discovery of a Sunken Armada from the Golden Age of Piracy

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by Barry Clifford

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On January 2, 1678, a fleet of French ships sank off the Venezuelan coast. This proved disastrous for French naval power in the region, and sparked the rise of a golden age of piracy.

Tracing the lives of fabled pirates like the Chevalier de Grammont, Nikolaas Van Hoorn, Thomas Paine, and Jean Comte d'Estrées, The Lost Fleet portrays a dark age,


On January 2, 1678, a fleet of French ships sank off the Venezuelan coast. This proved disastrous for French naval power in the region, and sparked the rise of a golden age of piracy.

Tracing the lives of fabled pirates like the Chevalier de Grammont, Nikolaas Van Hoorn, Thomas Paine, and Jean Comte d'Estrées, The Lost Fleet portrays a dark age, when the outcasts of European society formed a democracy of buccaneers, settling on a string of islands off the African coast. From there, the pirates haunted the world's oceans, wreaking havoc on the settlements along the Spanish mainland and -- often enlisted by French and English governments -- sacking ships, ports, and coastal towns.

More than three hundred years later, writer, explorer, and deep-sea diver Barry Clifford follows the pirates' destructive wake back to Venezuela. With the help of a lost map, drawn by the captain of the lost French fleet, Clifford locates the site of the disaster and wreckage of the once-mighty armada.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Diver and shipwreck explorer Clifford (Expedition Whydah) produces an entertaining account of his 1998 exploration of the Caribbean reef of Las Aves, off the coast of Venezuela, where more than 1,000 French seamen and accompanying "filibusters" (pirates) ran aground in 1678. Clifford shows why the Las Aves calamity "one of the most fatal naval catastrophes of its time" was not only "the spark that ignited the golden age of piracy" but also the event that "probably meant the end of any chance for French domination over the West Indies." The bulk of the book is a fascinating investigation of the life of 17th-century pirates. Clifford argues that, in the wake of their destruction of much of the French naval force in the Caribbean, "pirate crews carried on a unique social experiment, creating a sea-faring society that was fundamentally democratic, egalitarian, fraternal and libertarian." Clifford does not overlook the crime and squalor of "hell towns" occupied almost exclusively by pirates, such as the legendary Penzance in England or the island of Tortuga, off the coast of Hispaniola. But his profiles of renegade sailors Captain Thomas Paine, the Chevalier de Grammont and others make vivid the complexity of the pirate world. Unfortunately, Clifford's detailed recollections of his ultimately successful discovery of two pirate vessels at Las Aves simply can't compete with his descriptions of pirate life; this less-interesting secondary narrative is overshadowed by his own ability to bring that lost pirate world alive for the reader. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Clifford, the author of Expedition Whydah: The Story of the World's First Pirate Ship and the Man Who Found Her and subject of a PBS National Geographic Explorer special on his discovery of the Whydah, here attempts to weave together two stories: the almost-forgotten 1678 wreck of the French West Indies fleet, under the command of Jean Comte d'Estrees, on the treacherous reef of Las Aves off the coast of Venezuela and Clifford's 1997-98 expedition to explore the site of the catastrophe and document the remains of the lost fleet. The 18-ship French fleet was accompanied by a flotilla of about 15 ships manned by privateers. Clifford argues that by encouraging the "Brethren of the Coast" to form their own alliances, this attempted combined operation launched "the golden age of piracy" and thus profoundly affected the history of America. Unfortunately, Clifford's historical narrative, lavishly illustrated with 84 black-and-white photos and drawings, coexists uncomfortably with his narrative of the contemporary expedition. Presenting the lives and adventures of these 17th-century pirates often depends more on speculation than documentation, and Clifford's account of the confusions and double-dealings he encountered during the contemporary expedition is perhaps more than a reader needs to know about such problems. Readers familiar with Expedition Whydah may be interested in this recent Clifford expedition, but the truly fascinating thesis about the role of piracy in the history of America still remains to be explored. Recommended for larger public libraries with an interest in maritime history. Robert C. Jones, Warrensburg, MO Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Clifford is an undersea explorer whose work resulted in the discovery of the first pirate shipwreck ever discovered and authenticated: the , off the coast of Cape Cod. His work has been the subject of documentaries by the BBC, the National Geographic Society, PBS, and Discovery Communications. In this volume, the author recounts a maritime disaster in 1678, in which a fleet of French ships and a small pirate army sunk in the Caribbean Sea, the 50-year "golden age of piracy" which followed this event, and Clifford's 1998 expedition to the site. No subject index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Pirate-relic-hunter Clifford (Expedition Whydah, 1999, etc.) narrates a slice of the Golden Age of Piracy along the Spanish Main in this elucidating study of the buccaneer's life. The majority of the French Caribbean fleet fell for a Spanish ruse and was shipwrecked off the coast of Venezuela in 1678. Thus, explains the author, commenced a half-century of pirate ascendancy in the region, a sort of OPEC of buccaneers in which disparate but like-minded forces became a powerful alliance holding control over a critical resource-the high seas-though they unraveled as "filibusters tended to come together when it suited them and to go their separate ways when they chose." Clifford provides snapshot biographies of the principals-Thomas Paine, Chevalier de Grammont, and the runaway slave Laurens de Graffe, perhaps the epitome of dashing, humane pirate-as he describes their activities along the Central and South American coasts for the last quarter of the 17th century (as well as bleeding into the story his own, less beguiling search for pirate remains). What gives Clifford's story its greatest value is the eye-opening information he imparts on the nature of freebooting. A far cry from the Hollywood image, "filibusters," as pirates were often known, were a prototypical democratic society, fully a third of them were of African descent, having first started out as the equivalent of mountain men, roving about the islands of the Caribbean before the Spanish destroyed their livelihoods and they turned to other quarry. Most of their raiding took place on land rather than sea and, importantly, they often operated with both official and unofficial sanction as agents of various governments. Clifford doesn'tsuggest they were angels, but instead were a mix of heroes and villains, with as much compromise as havoc in their arsenal. One of Clifford's best: he keeps chest-thumping to a minimum as he creates a surprising picture of what it was like to be a high-seas rogue before the turn of the 18th century. (Photographs and illustrations throughout)

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The Lost Fleet
The Discovery of a Sunken Armada from the Golden Age of Piracy

Chapter One

The French Fleet

A Squadron of stout Ships...
William Dampier

May 11, 1678
One Hundred Miles North of the Venezuelan Coast

They came from the east, running before the steady trade winds that blew along Venezuela's north coast and the islands of the Netherlands Antilles. Ponderous and beautiful, graceful in their heavy and slow way, the ships drove along under deep topsails and fully bellied courses. The French West Indies fleet -- great engines of war, like Hannibal's elephants, but vastly more powerful.

Indeed, those ships, Le Terrible of seventy guns and five hundred men, Le Bellseodur of seventy guns and four hundred fifty men, Le Tormant of sixty-six guns and four hundred men, and the fifteen other battleships of the fleet were among the most deadly fighting machines on earth. On May 11, 1678, they were on their way to Curaçao, the last Dutch outpost in the West Indies, to drive out the Dutch and conquer that island for France and her king, Louis XIV.

The events of the night of May 11, 1678, are described in official reports and memoirs, but perhaps the best account comes from William Dampier. Dampier was a sometime Royal Navy officer who circumnavigated the globe three times, sailed with the pirates of the Caribbean and the Pacific, and chronicled his adventures in the best-selling book A New Voyage Round the World. What Dampier did not witness himself he heard firsthand from men who were there. In Dampier's words, the fleet of French admiral Jean Comte d'Estrées was "a Squadron of stout Ships, very well mann'd...."

By the time the fleet sailed for the Netherlands Antilles, the Franco-Dutch War had technically been ongoing for six years. In reality, the previous century of European history had been little more than one long, protracted war between the major powers -- France, Spain, England, the Netherlands -- interrupted now and again by shaky peace.

The last of those wars, known as the War of Devolution, had ended in 1668, just four years before the outbreak of the Franco-Dutch War. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle concluded the conflict between France and Spain, which had led to the creation of the anti-French Triple Alliance, composed of the United Provinces, now known as the Netherlands, England, and Sweden. Four years of peace, and now they were at it again.

The French fleet that descended on Curaçao had been preparing for action in the Caribbean for a month. Their preparations were well known in the region and caused no end of anxiety, since no one knew for certain where they were bound or on what unhappy island they might bring their force to bear.

By April 26, Governor William Stapleton on the British island of Nevis could actually watch the fleet gathering in the harbor at Basseterre, the chief town on the neighboring island of St. Kitts. The sight did not please him. He later reported to the Lords of Trade and Plantations that he "was forced by the clamors and cries of the people to secure the helpless sex, old men and children."

That Governor Stapleton should have been so uncertain about whom the French intended to attack is hardly surprising. Ten years before, England and France had been enemies. Four years before, they had been allies against the Dutch. Who knew where they stood now?

At daybreak on the 27th of April, the French were under way. Their actions indicated that perhaps Governor Stapleton's fears were well-founded. All day long the fleet tacked, back and forth, trying to make headway against a southerly wind, appearing to close on Nevis.

Fortunately for that island, those unweatherly seventeenth-century men-of-war could make no progress. Though they worked to windward for better than twelve hours, the French fleet simply could not sail the few miles between St. Kitts and Nevis.

To the great relief of the English colonists, the French fleet finally gave up trying. Governor Stapleton reported that "about sunset they bore away. [I am] Apprehensive they have gone to Martinique to wait for further orders or to take in men to attack some part of this government..." The target of the French fleet was still a mystery.

There is only one man who we can say with certainty knew the destination of the fleet, and that was Admiral Jean Comte d'Estrées. Fifty-four years old in 1678, d'Estrées had been in military service since he was twenty.

D'Estrées was born in Soleure, in present-day Switzerland. He was of impeccable lineage, like any officer destined for high command. He also had the good fortune to be born during an era of almost constant warfare, when military men could count on regular employment, and the opportunity for distinction and promotion was high.

Comte d'Estrées' first interest was not the navy. He entered the French army in 1644 and fought in Flanders for the next three years, being promoted to colonel of the elite Navarre Regiment by the age of twenty-three. By the time he was thirty-one, he had achieved the rank of lieutenant general.

For all of his rapid promotion, Comte d'Estrées was not the ideal soldier. His courage was never questioned; it was demonstrated amply on many occasions. He was a proud and arrogant man (hardly an anomaly among the aristocracy of France), unpleasant to those who served under him, difficult with his superiors. He was described as "a brave man, but a bad leader, and a worse subordinate."

Not until 1668, after quarreling with his senior commander in the army and subsequently quitting the service, did d'Estrées join the French navy. He had never sailed as anything but a passenger before, but thanks to his years of military service, his connections, and his noble birth, he was made vice admiral of the West Indies only three years after entering the navy.


The Lost Fleet
The Discovery of a Sunken Armada from the Golden Age of Piracy
. Copyright &#copy; by Barry Clifford. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Barry Clifford is an undersea explorer who discovered and excavated the Whydah, the first pirate shipwreck ever authenticated, off the coast of Cape Cod. He established the Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he also owns and operates a pirate museum.

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Lost Fleet: The Discovery of a Sunken Armada from the Golden Age of Piracy 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Jut Bergy More than 1 year ago
It waz awsome :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago