A ruthless juggernaut of religious conversion, the monks of the Franciscan Order occupied an area of land claimed by the Spanish government and Mexican people, forcing natives to spurn pagan ceremony in acceptance of a Christian God. As any Southern California grade-school student who ever did a “mission report” can tell you, the Spanish Franciscans wasted little time in establishing themselves kings of their humongous parcel. There was one crew of ruffians, however, that the order held no control over: pirates, who were alive and active in the Pacific waters. Fast-foward to a sunny October day in 2004. Light breezes blow at San Juan Capistrano Mission’s last Pirate Days Celebration. Normally a peaceful sanctuary accommodating senior-enrichment specialists and school field trips, today the settlement re-creates the biggest rager to hit its pious property. Robust swashbucklers, beggarly mates and busty wenches wiggle through the crowd, playing their parts with all the subtlety of Automatons of the Caribbean. Hearty slaps on parrot-heavy backs come with “ahoy, mateys” and “avast, friend” while children clash fake swords and ruin fake mustaches with Sno-Cones.
Noon is zero hour for a pirate fashion show. Pegged legs and hooked hands show off the latest in Captain Cook couture. More than a few ladies take on roles as captains — leather leggings and plumed hats included. Cartoonish hooligans keep the kiddies busy, painting faces and tying balloon animals; Maw and Paw scarf burgers, taking deep swigs of grog. After raucous rounds of tug of war, an appearance by a copyright-ducking “Captain Jack,” and a costume contest rewarded by great loot, 4:15 strikes and the much ballyhooed pirate attack re-enactment begins.
Dozens of ill-tempered, fearsome and mangy marauders scale the grounds toward the mission. Sitting on the mission lawns, it is easy to imagine the scene as played on December 14, 1888, when St. Tropez–born pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard rained destruction on Spanish interests, his attacks perfected at the missions in Monterrey and Santa Barbara. Bouchard’s California raids went off easily, as did those down the coast of South America. Most friars and fathers quickly waved white flags of surrender, giving Bouchard’s crew their stores of food, gunpowder and (most importantly) wine.
Bouchard needed to ransack San Juan’s stores to transport his crew home safely, and compared to the mission at San Diego, San Juan was well known for its vast booty and lax security. After missing the rowdy villains with musket shots, town officials looked on helplessly as pirates sprinted straight into the wine cellars, fueling themselves for the plundering of houses, farms and offices — a massive raid that lasted for four days. Before departing to his adopted homeland of Argentina, which he had aided during an 1813 revolution against the Spanish Crown, many of Bouchard and his crew were reportedly shackled to cannons so that their drunken weight could be dragged onboard the two ships.
Watching the legions of re-enactors, it is possible to sense what a real pirate raid was like, minus the Sno-Cones, face paint and merry games of tug of war. The attacks on the Franciscans were no doubt violent and tragic, possibly a reason why the order discontinued its celebration of these pirate days. Or, maybe, defeat is harder to admit for a group with such a record of local victory.