Pirates of the Caribbean

Booknotes examines the mysterious Lost Pirate Library

Mike Selby

It’s a book about pirates, treachery, intrigue; it has taken over 300 years to be published, and it may or may not be true.

‘Piratas y Contrabandistas de Ambas Indias, y Estado Presente de Ellas’ (Pirates and Smugglers of the East and West Indies, and the Present State of those Regions) was written by Francisco de Seyxas y Lovera, a man who had quite a career. Born in 1646, Seyxas spent his adult life as one of Spain’s most formidable sea captains. He commanded both military and commercial ships, fighting and trading his way all over Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. For three decades he was Spain’s go-to person for all things nautical, which, even though he was highly critical of the Crown’s behaviour in the New World, earned him numerous royal decrees.

He was also good with a pen, publishing ‘Theatro Naval Hidrographico’ in 1688, and ‘Descripcion Geographica, y Derrotero de la Region Austral Magallanica’ in 1690.  Seyxas had written both books in New Spain (Southern Mexico), having settled there to retire.  In 1694 he finished writing ‘Piratas y Contrabandistas,’ which, for some reason, was never published. In fact nothing more is known of this title until 1909, when the handwritten manuscript appears in a rare book catalogue in Germany. It was purchased by the Hispanic Society of the Americas in New York the following year, and sat buried on a basement shelf for another 100 years.

So what happened?

It appears that Seyxas’s continued criticism of the Spanish Crown did not go unnoticed. His brief stay in New Spain was marked by half-a-dozen arrests, and constant harassment by royal officials. Just after he finished writing ‘Piratas’, he was arrested again, and sentenced to a military prison in North Africa. Seyxas escaped en route, eventually turning up in France. It is not too far a stretch to guess Seyxas left his latest work behind in New Spain during his escape. Even though he continued to write in France, he makes no mention of ‘Piratas’ is any of his official or personal letters.

And that is the least strangest thing about this book.

The 2010 publication of ‘Piratas’ brought to the world the earliest known Spanish language writing on maritime piracy — predating all other works by 50 years. It also gave scholars an incredibly detailed bibliography of sources; ones which no one has ever heard of it, or have been found to exist.

What is now being called “the lost pirate library” is a list of 30 ‘foreign works’ (not in Spanish) which Seyxas cites but nobody can find. Most of these lost books hint at some fascinating works. One is about the history of a lost settlement, founded in Chile by a group of English peers fleeing from Charles II. He cites this work as being printed in Bristol in 1683, but so far this title — as well as this colony — remains lost to history.

Seyxas also discusses a 1665 attack on Peru by France, this time referring to two separate sources. This failed attempt was led by someone named Estienne de Toledo, whose published journal Seyxas quotes from. This attack, person, and journal remain unknown.

One of the most puzzling references is to Carlos Enrriquez Ckrelck’s ‘Derrotero Y Diario,’ which wasn’t published until 1695 — a full year after Seyxas wrote his book. Did he see an unpublished manuscript at some time? If so, when and where?

This of course brings up the question as to whether or not Seyxas may have simply made up his sources. Scholars do not think so. Seyxas mentions the difficulty of finding many of the works he used, many which he did not have on hand. He quotes passages from memory, but he is always clear to mention when he is doing so. Additionally, he provides exacting details, naming not only the work and its author, but also the year of publication, page number, city of publication and the name of the printer.

A good example is the book about France’s attack on Peru, which he does not own, but names the French bookstore, from where he had previously bought 10 copies from, as requested by a member of the royal family.

What happened to these lost books? There is a good chance many of them were destroyed. The Spanish Crown was more than happy to destroy books — especially foreign works — which they viewed as a security threat. This was also the time of the Inquisition — not really known for their tolerance of reading material in general.

It is hoped that at least some of Seyxas’ lost pirate library did indeed survive, sitting buried on a shelf somewhere.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library