Quintana Roo, Mexico
The Fort San Felipe in Bacalar tells the story of the Pirates of the Caribbean. Swashbucklers with gold teeth, black eye patches, and peg legs come to mind. Or Johnny Depp. In reality, they had unlikely backgrounds.
The museum sits on Lake Bacalar, nicknamed the Lake of Seven colours (the lake indeed has several shades of blue). Most people come here to relax, swim, kayak, paddle-board, fish, and snorkel. But the town of Bacalar also has an interesting history. The Maya village called b'ak halal (surrounded by reeds) became the focus of the greed of the Pirates of the Caribbean and later (1859) it was seized by Maya rebels.
Pirate stories in the Caribbean began when Hernán Cortés, who conquered today's Mexico, sent to the Spanish monarchy proof of the great treasures hidden in the New World, which instantly made other kingdoms jealous and envious of those treasures. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, pirates, privateers and buccaneers disrupted Spanish trade in the Caribbean. England, France, Holland and Portugal allied with pirates, so they would steal those precious treasures from the Spanish! They terrorised the towns and villages, as far as the Pacific coast, and the entire American continent.
The Bacalar fort is small but it explains all this history very well. The museum collection includes pieces of pre-Hispanic history, colonial history, drawings, historic plans, beautiful murals, multimedia devices and even the skeleton of a real pirate of the Caribbean.
We came here with my husband Rhod in September 2017 and found this sweet little fortress a very informative museum. Here is my take on it.
The PeopLe: pirates, privateers and buccaneers
Bacalar was conquered by the Spanish in 1543. In 1545 Gaspar Pacheco established the Spanish town here with the name Salamanca de Bacalar. The town was attacked by pirates from the beginning of the 17th century because this was the point for trading merchandise.
First the pirates landed in Bacalar to get food and kidnap women. Later the town was also harassed for palo de tinte (dyewood, or haematoxylum campechianum). I have seen so many English names for this tree, here are some of them: blackwood, bloodwood tree, bluewood, campeachy tree. It was logged and exported to Europe for use in dyeing fabrics.
Dzidzantún, Campeche, Tihosuco, Valladolid, and Bacalar were some of the towns that the pirates brazenly conquered and occupied. Many of the pirates took up residency with families on Yucatán’s desolate northern coast and along the Caribbean. For whatever it is worth, many of the coastal towns of the Yucatán peninsula are said to be peopled with descendants of these pirates to this very day.
The Fort of San Felipe was built between 1726-1733 under the orders of Don Antonio de Figueroa y Silva, field marshal of Yucatán, to protect the Bacalar population from the frequent attacks by pirates and to defend the region from harassment from the wood traders.
The fort became even more important between 1763 and 1790 due to military and diplomatic hostilities between New Spain and England, as the latter had military bases in Belize, which was a British colony at that time.
In the fortress, there were 60 soldiers, a captain and a sergeant. Against them were the pirates, privateers and buccaneers. The pirates ambushed ocean voyagers just for the loot. The privateers, on the other hand, had authorisation from their governments to attack Spanish and Portuguese ships, enemies of France and England, in exchange for a part of the booty. A handful were full-fledged gentlemen; most had seafaring backgrounds. A few even ended up with titles, and some were hailed as heroes. Buccaneers also emerged, first being hunters and then cattle farmers, who later joined the pirates. English admiral and slave trader John Hawkins, English privateer Francis Drake and French buccaneer François l'Olonnais are reviewed in the section dedicated to the buccaneers. For example, l'Olonnais was shipwrecked near Campeche. A party of Spanish soldiers attacked him and his crew, killing almost the entire party. L'Olonnais himself survived by covering himself in the blood of others and hiding amongst the dead.
Diego el Mulato Martín, a pirate of Cuban origin, was active in the Caribbean in the 1600s. He was a former slave from Havana and when he escaped in 1629, he took up the pirate's trade. He was esteemed by his Dutch companions and within eight years he had become captain of a ship and later second in command to the Dutch buccaneer Cornelis Jol, known as 'Pegleg' (because he lost a leg during a battle and used a wooden peg leg). They attacked Campeche in 1633 and when the defenders of the city did not have money to pay ransom, they burnt the city. They also attacked and pillaged the Maya town of Bacalar on several occasions. The pirates arrived by land or by going up the river Hondo and then through shallow lagoon waters all the way to Bacalar.
Some sources identify Diego el Mulato Martín with Diego de los Reyes, who was a native of Campeche and sacked both Bacalar and Campeche in 1642.
In the mid-17th century another pirate, called Abraham, raided Bacalar. Not content with just sacking the town, he also took the town's women. The inhabitants retaliated, quickly rescuing the women. The skirmish was not forgotten by Abraham and in 1652 he attacked the town again, leaving it in such a state of devastation that only a few inhabitants stayed in it. The town did not manage to recover, since the population was decimated through hunger, disease, attacks by rebel Indians and more assaults from pirates and smugglers.
From the middle of the 18th century until the beginning of the Caste War (1847), Bacalar enjoyed a period of relative prosperity.
The fort has five bastions and therefore a pentagonal shape. There is a nice model in the museum and also a display of the original foundation of the fort. At the bottom of the moat sharp pointed stakes were placed to reinforce its defensive power. The Fort of San Felipe was initially armed with 24 cannon from one to six inch calibre and later various others were added of 18 inch calibre.
The FOCUS: the Caste War
The Caste War (1847-1901) was an armed conflict between the indigenous people of Maya descent and the invading Caucasians. During this war, the rebels took the square and the fort on several occasions without ever achieving a real victory.
In 1847 Yucatán was a society on the brink of chaos. The development of the sugar, cattle and henequén plantations by the Spanish took place at the expense of Indian communal lands. The Maya worked on the haciendas and had to pay rent for their lodging, school fees, church fees, you name it. The haciendas had their own coins and the workers had to use them to buy products in the shops owned by the haciendas. At the end of the day, they had nothing left. Although Mexico had no formal slavery, in reality the workers were treated like slaves. Haciendas also caused the displacement of the Maya population (as they had to leave their lands).
Following the execution of the indigenous leader Manuel Antonio Ay, the Maya rose up against the government of Yucatán. On 30 July 1847 the rebel forces, led by Cecilio Chi, took and destroyed the village of Tepich, starting the so-called Caste War of Yucatán. Soon, two thirds of the peninsula, including the whole of the east and Bacalar, were in the hands of the insurgents. By May 1848, the Mayan forces controlled the road between Mérida and the port of Sisal, but with the coming of the rains the dreaded final attack never materialised. The governmental forces counter-attacked, retaking the main cities and forcing the Maya to withdraw to the jungle.
There is a mural by Elio Carmichael on the far wall of the museum. It is very impressive, especially in life. It depicts all the suffering of the locals.
The Mystery: The Skeleton
It is believed that the skeleton displayed here is that of a pirate. I don't have my own photo of the skeleton as it was buried in the floor and I got a terrible reflection of myself in the glass panel. Instead, I am using photos from the analysis of the tests carried out by scientists (source: academia.edu).
The skeleton is male and at the time of death the man was about 35 years old. He was 161-164 cm tall. From the characteristics of the skull and dental patterns, the individual appears to be Caucasian, possibly European. Certain genetic features (30 to 50%) show traces of the Canary Islands. This fact is important since in 1733 Bacalar was repopulated by migrants from these islands.
There were buttons on the clothing, two of shell, one of bone (possibly bovine), and one of crystal. The bearer could have been a person with considerable purchasing power, given the characteristics of the button materials, and the excellent quality of workmanship. Considering these buttons, the person would have owned them between about 1820 and 1870.
The morphologic characteristics of the skeleton indicate that the individual did little physical work. He could have been a person who occupied some high position in Bacalar society of the 19th Century.
The skull shows an oval depression 0.63mm by 0.88mm. This could have been produced by a pointed weapon. Nevertheless, this happened in life, not causing the individual's death. Skull injuries suggest a possible lack of iron at some point in his life. The shinbone and the rest of the skeleton indicate an unspecified infectious illness caused by microorganisms such as Staphlococcus and Streptococcus. The individual shows good dental health; however, as is common for this epoch, due to limited oral hygiene, there is dental tartar and loss of some parts of the teeth.
Don't miss: the outdoors
Walk about outside the museum, in the fort's yards, among the cannon. There are fantastic views of the lake from up here.
I would also like to recommend an activity outside the museum – a boat trip. You can rent boats from the pier just under the museum. They will most likely take you to a few cenotes within the lake, to experience the different depths and truly amazing colours of the lake. And they will also take you to the Pirate's Canal. Here the captain will make a break for you to have a swim and a jump from the man-made little island structure, that looks like a shipwreck (in reality it is a former restaurant). The story for tourists is that the pirates sailed up the Pirate's Canal from Lake Mariscal. So going out from Bacalar along the Pirate's Canal should bring you to Chetumal Bay on the sea. Fine, but Lake Mariscal doesn't seem to link to the sea. There is also talk of pirates coming up the River Hondo, but there does not seem to be a water connection between the river and Xul Ha at the western end of Lake Bacalar. Here is the only possible route I could find.
Google Map is not ideal for waterways, but the orange routes don't appear to lead anywhere. The blue route, although roundabout, does seem to have clear water all the way. I want a genuine pirate (preferably Johnny Depp in person) to row me along their actual course so I can see how it works. Well, next time I go to Bacalar, I will hire a captain like him and ask him to take me all the way down the pirate route, not just a 'fake' one for the tourists. This would probably make a day's ride…
If any of you have made this trip all the way, please give us a shout!
How to get there:
Getting to Bacalar is quite easy and painless with daily ADO buses (first class) from Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulum (3 hours from Playa). You can also take a colectivo (minibus) from Tulum, very close to the bus terminal from the main road. Find the one heading to Felipe Carillo Puerto ($60MXN). Let the driver know that you are heading to Bacalar and he will drop you off at the right place from where you can take another colectivo to Bacalar ($65MXN).
By car: drive along the federal highway 307 and the exit for the city of Bacalar is on the left.
The museum is open 9:00am to 7:00pm. It is closed on Mondays.