René M. Rodríguez Astacio

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Photo by Jose Irizarry

Photo by Jose Irizarry

BUSTING THE COFRESI MYTH

by René M. Rodríguez Astacio

“There are more to pirates than just adventure,” Jorge Barahona, a descendant of the notorious Pirate Cofresí says, as we share a friendly cup of coffee at the local bookstore. His eyes are bright with nostalgia and his lips portray a proud smile. “I am a pirate at heart. I am in love with the sea. The legacy of the pirate Cofresí dwells within me.”

I know what he means. That pirate spirit has been subject of many legends. Mankind has built fantastic and supernatural stories of these barbarous men who lead courageous and romantic lives. Pirates, a life of thievery and survival. A life of solitude at sea where mermaids sang enchantments and Krakens ravaged their ships.

But the truth is far from this fantasy. They were ruthless and did not fear the consequences of rape, murder and pillage. Still, as a great fan of pirate lore, I cannot help but wonder what it was like to be a pirate. Maybe Jorge can let me in to the secrets of a pirates life.

 

Jorge R. González Barahona is a direct descendant of Roberto Cofresí Ramírez de Arellano, also known as the famous Puerto Rican pirate who stole from the rich and gave to the poor of his community. Jorge tells me his ancestor’s real name was Kupferchein, an Austrian name. Due to its difficult pronunciation, the locals left it as Cofresí.

The Pirate Cofresí dedicated his life to assaulting ships between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. This caused the authorities of Spain and United States to work together in hopes of capturing him. Cofresí used Isla de Mona as his hideout, where he was found and attacked in 1824. He was condemned to six years in prison, but Cofresí escaped the Dominican authorities and ran to Naguabo, a city in eastern Puerto Rico.

“Of course, those are the official facts,” says Jorge Rafael, nodding. His eyes hide something more. Silence grows suddenly around us, as if Cofresí had taken us to Isla de Mona from all the tumult in the bookstore so we could have our talk. “I have a side story for you, for Cofresí’s legacy had hardships on him. It is the equivalent of mermaids and sea monsters legends. You see, the sea is an essential part in my family. It’s something that runs through us. It is the legacy of Cofresí.

“This goes as Cofresí’s Legacy. He is a legend in Puerto Rican history, but his family bears no importance whatsoever in current times,” Jorge starts. He clears his throat. “The sea is the love of men in my family. Even though we all have our dreams and passions, as my grandfather did with cooking, every man in the family, excluding myself, followed the sea. But the love for a special someone also occupied their hearts. Cofresí’s ship was named St. Ana, like his sweetheart. Subsequently, most women in the family bear her name.

“My great grandfather, Jorge, is a direct descendant of Cofresí. He is the brother of Ana G. Mendez, the founder of the Ana G. Méndez University System. They did not get along that well. They share the same mother, Ana Cofresí, but Jorge’s father is not known. His sister, however, comes from the marriage of Ana Cofresí and Francisco Monje. I am named after my grandfather,” Jorge explains, his chest inflating proudly.

“He’s the one I mentioned earlier. Although he loved cooking, he chose to be a sailor. Jorge got married and had a son, named Francisco. After Jorge’s wife died, he moved to New York City. Francisco stayed with a family friend. Once Francisco grew older, they all moved back to Puerto Rico and that is when Francisco met my grandmother, also having two sons, one of them being my father.

“The mystery behind Cofresí still looms in the family,” Jorge Rafael finishes. “It’s not much of a story, but there are a few gaps to be covered. It is the same as Cofresí. Many know his legends but a few know the facts. For example, no one relates Cofresí to Ana G Méndez; you don’t even find it in official biographies of her. But that is the charm of it, isn’t it? Even though this story is not filled with fantasy lore, it’s still magical. You can see how all the men chose to go to sea and also how they found their loved ones among travels. Every time I sit and stare at the sea, I wonder why I didn’t continue the tradition; I guess I wasn’t brave enough to travel the Seven Seas. But I am brave and proud to say I have pirate blood in my veins, my name is Jorge and I love the sea.” Jorge looks solemnly at his surroundings. The way he stares makes me picture him as the captain of the El Mosquito, one of the other names bestowed upon Cofresí’s ship.

Even if Cofresí was seen as a criminal, many in the island saw him as a hero. For Jorge Rafael and me, Cofresí is a hero too. The many times the authorities were after him, the commoners would hide him and help him escape. He used to go between Cabo Rojo and Vieques, patrolling the seas for other ships to sack.

Instead of seen as a pirate, Cofresí was seen as a patriot among his people. He gave life to the literature of Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic, for after his death sentence, people began to share stories about him. Literature was born and songs about him were written. His figure is so important in Puerto Rican history that his deeds are cleansed by his nobility. He never went after financial ambition. He shared all his loot with the commoners. However, Cofresí is not to be compared to Robin Hood. He was said to be a common man even though he came from a high-class family.

“Cofresí was a fisherman,” explains Jorge; our conversation going deeper into the pirate’s life. “There are not many records of his life before going into the sea, but his reasons for doing so was because he was often humiliated by the foreigners on the island, but how did they did so, it is not known.”

From what I had studied, most of the historical data of Cofresí is based on the Memories of Pedro Tomás de Cordoba, the Spanish governor at the time. He is known to be the most oppressive ruler in Puerto Rican history. He claimed that Cofresí was a bad man and that he should be stopped. He worked with the United States in order to capture Cofresí. The book served as the basis of Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s novel, Roberto Cofresí. The novel is the opposite of de Cordoba’s account, for there the life of Cofresí is discussed historically in a positive light.

“History has always been manipulated, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when discussing Cofresí,” Jorge says. I nod to him in agreement, as we have the example of Ana G. Méndez . Legends are usually born from stories that are not clear in their entirety. “That’s what attracts people to Cofresí. His story has not been clearly recorded and his legacy has been scattered. Arming the puzzle of Cofresí’s life, it’s what makes him intriguing. He is our hero after all…”

One common misconception of Cofresí is that people call him a pirate. Jorge Rafael and I do so too, but the right title for him would be “corsair.” It is a theory that’s still debated. Historians claim that he got his title bestowed upon by none other than Simon Bolivar.

“That adds more prestige to him,” Jorge agrees. “A pirate is more of a rebel. A corsair is someone hired by the government and sent to attack ships from other countries.”

Historians agree that Cofresí was hired by La Gran Colombia Venezolana. This is reinforced by Cofresí attacking all ships that came his way: American, Spanish, French, or English. On the island, he was called a pirate because he rebelled against the Spanish government of his own country.

“Basically he is in between,” analyzes Jorge Rafael. “He was hired by a government from the outside to attack his own country. That’s why his title of ‘Pirate’ has remained all these years.”

To many historians, Cofresí is seen as a one of the most important characters in history, worldwide. His life is base of one of the richest most important novel on Puerto Rican culture. That gives step to the forming of a nation. I’ve always agreed that art gives the people of a country voice.

“Remember that story about Cofresí we were told often in elementary school?” asks Jorge.

How could I forget such story! Even though it was usually discussed in Social Studies class, children loved to hear the story. I nod to Jorge Rafael. “I remember that I asked my teacher whether Cofresí still left children money because I wanted a new basketball. I remember it went like this:

Cofresí was in the sea when he saw a ship not so far away. He ordered to his crew to sail their way. When the other ship saw the pirate flag on top of Cofresí’s ship, Ana, it came to a stop. It was a Dutch ship. Upon boarding the Dutch ship, Cofresí’s ship was attacked, for the latter had a hidden cannon. A battle issued, many of the members of Dutch ship died. In the midst of the battle, a woman was killed; she had a boy in her arms. Cofresí rescued the child and took the boy with him. It is said that the night after the raid of the Dutch ship one of Cofresí’s crew members tried to murder the kid. Not every pirate was as noble as Cofresí so in the moment the kid yelled for help, Cofresí shot his crew member down.

A few weeks later Cofresí went to visit a priest. When he was received, he identified himself as Cofresí. The priest was not surprised, for he knew how popular Cofresí was and how people venerated him, but he asked for the motive of his visit. Cofresí explained how he had brought money and jewels so the priest could look after the child he had rescued from death. Cofresí had left it in a foster home and the money would be used by the priest to support the child. The priest, surprised to see that Cofresí was noble as people claimed, agreed to do so.

The next day, Cofresí came across La Anguila, a ship he was interested in buying. The owner of the ship had declined the purchase several times, but this was the opportunity of a lifetime: Cofresí would take the ship by force. He gave persecution to La Anguila. Upon raiding the ship, Cofresí came across the crew of La Anguila. This crew was bigger than Cofresí’s and was comprised by some American soldiers. The plan was to use La Anguila as a lure to finally capture Cofresí. The crew from the Anguila succeeded in defeating Cofresí and took him prisoner to San Juan. There, the pirate received a trial and was condemned to be shot. Before Cofresí’s death, the priest he had visited approached him. ‘You see that ship over yonder? That’s where the child you rescued is. He is headed home back to his remaining family.’

Goosebumps run down my spine and its not a because of a sudden drop in temperature inside the bookstore. I always pictured Cofresí’s death to be heroic. Cofresí was indeed shot by a firing squad on March 27, 1825. Whether he did or did not help a child is not confirmed, but this story adds up a heroic death to Puerto Rican history. Upon listening to the story one can’t help but imagine Cofresí dying with a smile in his lips, satisfied of seeing that child returning home.

Jorge Rafael and I say our goodbyes, each parting their own way. The bookstore remains lively as people come and go, immersing themselves into another worlds inside books. As I look back upon Jorge Rafael, I cannot help but feel I have made a discovery. Even though Cofresí is to be considered a hero, he was also a human being and with his strong will, he fought for his ideals. Though the details are foggy, I can be assured that courage is the magic that can turn even the wildest dreams into reality. The remainder of Cofresí’s treasure that it is said to have been buried in the beach of Rincón are not what people should look for. Courage was the treasure that Cofresí left to world. Today I have met the man of legends and have met the legacy left by him. Today I busted the Cofresí myth and immersed myself in a story richer than any book can offer.

René M. Rodríguez Astácio, BA,  is an Esta Vida Boricua Assistant Editor and an M.A.E.E. Candidate, Graduate Teaching Assistant and Writing Turtor at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.

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