Times Past

Dan Krieger: Pirates in opera, but never at Pirate’s Cove

‘For I am a pirate king! And it is, it is a glorious thing to be a pirate king!” The Pacific Repertory Opera is bringing Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” to the Clark Center in Arroyo Grande on Oct. 16, 17 and 18.

I became a lifelong “Savoyard,” a lover of Gilbert and Sullivan, when I heard the late Martyn Green as General Stanley recite the staccato verses of “I am the very model of a modern major general,” 60 years ago.

At the age of 9, I was puzzled by the staging of “Pirates.” Virtually all the action occurred on land. Shouldn’t pirates nearly always be out on the high seas?

As I learned more about British history, I learned about “piracy” in Cornwall and the adjacent Scilly Isles. The Cornish Peninsula is the most westward part of England. It’s both extremely rugged and remote.

By 1860, more than 692 shipwrecks were recorded off southwest England’s dangerous coastline. While there were sometimes French pirates off the coast, most often it was the indigenous population of Cornwall that was engaged in piracy.

The “Cousin Jacks,” the name used by the Cornish hardrock miners who came to California during the Gold Rush, saw their incomes depleted by the closure of the famous tin mines.

They found that by burning fires on the coast, they could lure ships bound for Ireland, Bristol and Liverpool in close to the rocky shoals. Nature would do the work for them as ship after ship collided with the coastline.

The locals would then plunder the wrecked ship’s hold for what they referred to as “legal salvage.”

There were numerous squadrons of soldiers and police sent by officials in London to suppress these acts of piracy.

But the Cornish had their own Celtic language dating to pre-Roman days, and they could be most secretive. As W. S. Gilbert wrote, “A policeman’s lot is not an easy one.”

Whenever I refer to pirates, my audience wants to learn about those who had to have been associated with “Pirate’s Cove,” known for its clothing-optional visitors near Avila Beach.

I have to disappoint them, saying that the only “pirates” known to visit the quarter-mile long cove were the bootleggers who used Cave Landing, the site of San Luis Obispo County’s first dedicated wharfage, during the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933.

Hipólito (Hypolite) Bouchard, the French and Argentine privateer, who circumnavigated the world raiding the Spanish Main, flying the flag of the revolutionaries of the La Plata River region of Argentina, sailed by our region in 1818.

In mid-October, 1818, Bouchard brought two well-armed ships into Monterey Bay.

Bouchard fired on El Castillo (The Fortress), and his landing party captured it.

Gov. Pablo Vicente de Solá had to abandon the presidio and permit Bouchard’s men to sack the Spanish capital of Alta California at will.

Bouchard then sailed south along the coast.

Solá sent couriers by horseback to alert the missions and presidios to the south. The mustangs of the Californio vaqueros could travel more quickly than Bouchard could sail.

On Nov. 29, 1818, Bouchard anchored off Refugio Canyon, raiding the rancho of the Ortega family.

The pirate soon encountered a small party from the presidio garrison at Santa Barbara. Captain De la Guerra’s men captured three members of the pirates’ crew. An angry Bouchard prepared to lay siege to Santa Barbara itself.

Bouchard observed a heavily defended pueblo through his telescope. A modest troop of cavalry paraded behind a clump of trees, changing costumes every time it passed.

A frustrated Bouchard sailed off to raid San Juan Capistrano, where he burnt several houses. He then sailed to Mexico and disappeared from our region.

That’s as close to a pirate as Pirate’s Cove has ever been. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.