Campeche, Mexico – site of the largest pirate attack in history 2


It’s home to more than a thousand historic buildings (all painted in appealing pastel shades) and has recently been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. It was once one of the most important sea ports of the Spanish Empire, and, unsurprisingly, has a long history of pirate attacks, involving some of the most famous pirates of all time. It even has a nightly light and sound show. It’s doing all the right things, and yet Campeche, on the west coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, receives just a trickle of tourists, while towns on the eastern coast of the Yucatán are going through a tourist bonanza.

Colonial buildings, Campeche, Mexico

The untouristed alleyways of Campeche, Mexico. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

But the dearth of tourists can’t last. The Yucatán Peninsula is becoming increasingly popular with western tourists, and sooner or later the tourism boom will extend all the way to the western coastline, and then Campeche will be overrun like all the rest.

Independence Square, Campeche, Mexico

Independence Square. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Campeche, officially San Fransisco de Campeche, was founded in 1540 by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo, who chose the site of a Mayan settlement (called Ah Kim Pech – that’s the derivation of the name Campeche) for his city.

Presumably Francisco de Montejo smashed the Mayan city into little pieces as no trace of it remains.

Colonial buildings, Campeche, Mexico

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Campeche became the largest and most important sea port on the west coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, which meant it attracted many a pirate, including a few big names such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins.

Colonial Church, Campeche, Mexico

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

In 1663 more than 1,400 pirates banded together to undertake the largest co-ordinated pirate attack in history: the infamous Sack of Campeche.

Colonial buildings, Campeche, Mexico

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

The attack was led by Englishman Christopher Myngs. He was accompanied by plenty of pirate celebrities including Henry Morgan (famous for attacking Panama City, Portobelo, and Granada) and Dutchman Abraham Blauvelt (who went on to found the coastal hamlet now known as Bluefields in Nicaragua).

Ex-Templo de San José, Campeche, Mexico

Ex-Templo de San José. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Of course many of those in the coalition of pirates weren’t true pirates; they were English privateers, French corsairs, and Dutch buccaneers. These rogue military-men had the backing of their nations; they were bestowed with ships and extrajudicial powers and – as long as they inflicted a few wounds on the Spanish Empire along the way – got away with almost anything, including murder.

Christopher Myngs was promoted to vice-admiral as a reward for his involvement in the Sack of Campeche.

Colonial buildings, Campeche, Mexico

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

In 1685 Campeche was attacked by Dutchman Laurens de Graaf – whom the Spanish called the Devil in person. A third of the population of the city were slaughtered in the carnage that followed.

The Laurens de Graaf attack prompted the long overdue fortification of the city.

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Campeche, Mexico

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Two and a half kilometres of heavily fortified walls were built around the city centre between 1686 and 1704. Eight bastions and four gates were added. Pirate attacks ceased.

Seven of the bastions are still standing.

Nightly dancing, Campeche, Mexico

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

It’s because of these walls and bastions that Campeche remains so well preserved today.

And the walls and bastions were put in place because of pirates.

QED we should be thankful for pirates. 


Practical information:

Buses run every hour between Campeche from Mérida (a two-hour trip), and run at least once a day to Cancún (a 6.5-hour trip).

If you have a car you can reach the Mayan city of Uxmal from Campeche in about two hours.


More on Mexico:

Cenote X’keken and Cenote Samulá, Dzitnup

Chichen Itza – posterchild of the Mayan Empire

Uxmal – home of the Pyramid of the Magician

Valladolid – plenty of colonial charm, but you can’t ignore its violent past

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