Sailors feared him. Commoners loved him. And to this day, Puerto Ricans honor him in countless myths, songs, movies, plays and poems. His name and image can be found on monuments, hotels, resorts and restaurants. Legend says remnants of his plundered treasure may still remain in certain caves, beaches and other hideaways around the island. Roberto Cofresí—also known as El Pirata Cofresí—is one of Puerto Rico’s most enduring folk heroes.
Cofresí was born in 1791 in coastal Cabo Rojo, and he always dreamed of a life at sea. As a young man, he purchased a boat called El Mosquito and planned to make an honest living as a sea merchant. It wasn’t long, though, before he turned to a life of piracy, and in just a few short years he became the era’s most dominant pirate of the Caribbean.
One of the keys to Cofresí’s success was his relationship with the common folk on the island of Puerto Rico. Cofresí was known for his Robin Hood-esque brand of piracy, giving much of his stolen treasure to those in need. The locals loved him and often gave him protection from the authorities. Over the years, Cofresí amassed an elaborate web of friends, informants and conspirators that enabled him to evade capture time and again.
At that time, successful piracy was rare, but Cofresí was able to plunder at least eight vessels and was credited with more than 70 captures. The speedy six-gun schooner El Mosquito, which was the most infamous of Cofresí’s three ships, demonstrated the pirate’s preference for quickness and maneuverability over firepower. Cofresí was quick and elusive, and he became a major headache for the Spanish Armed Forces and the U.S. Navy.
Cofresí’s luck finally ran out in March of 1825, when he was forced to abandon ship during a battle against a U.S. Navy schooner. He was captured, imprisoned, found guilty by a Spanish military court, and sentenced to death. His final resting place is in Old San Juan Cemetery (or in a green hill just beyond it, depending on which local legend you believe).
If you’re traveling on one of EF Explore America’s student trips to Puerto Rico, keep your eyes and ears open for the image, name and story of the legendary pirate Roberto Cofresí. And who knows, you may even stumble upon a piece of his hidden treasure. Though I wouldn’t touch it—El Pirata Cofresí was known to place a curse or two on those who wronged him.