The Curse of Sea And Land


Several years ago, I attended a colleague's wedding in San Juan, Puerto Rico. During the course of the festivities, I made acquaintance with several of the island's residents whom my colleague had befriended during his previous stay on the island. One of them was a history professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Dr. Juan Saucedo. Upon learning that we shared professions, he asked after my primary area of study.

"European colonization in the Caribbean during the seventeenth century, with a focus on the power struggle between the English, Spanish and Dutch, pre-Spanish Succession period," I replied promptly.

"Ah! then certainly you are familiar with Captain Miguel Henríquez," he said, and I acquiesced to my familiarity with the famed Puerto Rican privateer. We spoke of him for a good half an hour, until Dr. Saucedo's thoughts and conversation began to drift, much like a piece of wreckage is borne gently away by the waves on the beach not more than a mile from where we were conversing. His eyes were very far away before they returned to me and he said, "Lately my research has found itself preoccupied with, and continually frustrated by, another figure in the same time period. Perhaps you know something of El Maldito López?"

The name was familiar; I recognized the name in several documents that from the archives at the University of South Florida. "Are you speaking of Santiago López y Viguera?"

"I am indeed speaking of Santiago López," Dr. Saucedo said. Although López was almost always mentioned briefly in the handful of ships' logs and diaries where his name appeared, I had read that a detailed description of the man appeared in a manuscript penned by the 18th-century historian José Martín de Noyola. Only two copies of the manuscript existed; Dr. Saucedo, I was soon to learn, owned the original text.

"Why do the manuscripts refer to him as El Maldito?" I inquired. "What did he do to warrant being called 'accursed'?"

"Local legend bestowed it upon him. In fact, a good portion of what Noyola wrote about him are merely his transcriptions of the stories about López, but at first glance, they seem to be of little use to the historian because they are so steeped in myth," Dr. Saucedo told me, but because our time was running short, he could not say much more than that. He generously offered to send me some of his materials on Santiago López, which I could peruse at my leisure upon my return to New York. I agreed, because the information might be relevant to my research interests.

Several weeks later, I received the materials in a package along with a letter from Dr. Saucedo, detailing the contents of the package with a interesting disclaimer: "Prepare to be surprised, my dear friend."

And I was, indeed.

Noyola depicts himself as a Pausanias, traveling the Caribbean as he visits the various fortresses and ports of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, following the near-mythical trail of El Maldito López, so called because all of the ships he had served on as a sailor had all been sunk or otherwise lost, with López being the sole survivor. Privateering as his livelihood proved surprisingly successful - the one ship under his command was never lost to the sea, which only served to increase his myth. He was rewarded handsomely by the Spanish Crown, both with titles and even an estate in Spain, and his fame grew to the extent that his story was told about him in England and the Netherlands. Apparently they, too, feared the supernatural providence that seemed to surround him; Noyola's account includes some of the stories told about him by the English and Dutch, one of which reads:

Even his countrymen call him the Cursèd One, this Don Lopez who commits piracies for the Spanish Crown, so called because he is said to have been wrecked ten times & saved by Mer-Maids for all ten when he should have died; & it is the Same favour that prevents the ship under his command to be sunk. Some say his only living Crew are: 2 Jews, an old man & a young man; also a giant of a Cossack, & 2 Slaves, 1 being the slave of the older Jew and the other a Woman Lopez had liberated from a slave ship bound for Saint-Domingue; the very Fishes themselves make up for the rest. It is said that during the taking of a Dutch ship, the captain asked Don Lopez, What manner of a man are you? & Lopez replied, No man is like me, before putting an end to the unfortunate sailor.

Noyola writes that the last line in this account was interpreted to mean that López was a female, especially in the later stories circulated throughout the Caribbean in the middle of the 18th century. These stories were especially popular in the Spanish ports, the most representative of which Noyola recorded in his account.

In any case, Noyola's trail came to a dead end in Havana, where López was said to have sailed off alone in his sloop, ostensibly headed for Seville. López never made it to Seville; his estate, titles, and vast wealth disappeared along with him. and just as his life was shrouded in mystery, even during his lifetime, so too was his disappearance. Less than five years after the conclusion of Noyola's manuscript, López was all but forgotten.

As an historical account, Noyola's manuscript was useful in a cartographic and cultural sense; outside of that, it seemed to be little use historically, what with all of the fanciful embellishments given to Santiago López over the centuries.

Nevertheless, the preciseness of Noyola's storytelling sparked an irrepressible urge within me to share this story with the world, and that was when I understood why Dr. Saucedo had been so invested in the study of this shadowy figure. To this end, Dr. Saucedo generously gave me permission to compile all of his research findings and publish them as a complete text on the mysterious life of this semi-legendary Spanish privateer. I have tried to do justice to Noyola's own account and have done my best to include the scattered records that do not appear in his manuscript into a fully-orbed portrait of the legend who was Don Santiago López y Viguera, and I hope, dear reader, that I have succeeded.

Rachel B. Berry
July 19, 2017
Julius Silver Professor of History, New York University

To my friend

L. Quinn Fabray

In gratitude for her tireless friendship,

I dedicate this book.