The Clements Library website includes events, exhibits, subject guides, newsletter issues, library staff, and more.

Home » About » Blog » Pirates and Indigenous of the Pacific: Reading Between the Coastlines of the Hacke Atlas

Guest post by Danny Zborover; 2020-2021 Mary G. Stange Fellow at the Clements Library;


As the pirates disembarked their ship and prepared to attack, another group of black-attired characters formed a solid line behind the defensive wall. After a short but fierce melee, the makeshift fortification collapsed and the pirates rushed, swords in hand, to seize the town’s church. With the band playing and the crowd cheering, the pirates then broke into a solemn dance in front of the gilded altar.

What may read as a surreal scene from a lavish Hollywood production, is in fact one of many intricate theatrical performances in the festivity of San Pedro Huamelula, celebrated annually by the Indigenous Chontal people of the Mexican Pacific coast (Figure 1.) With the town’s streets as their stage, troupes of masked and costumed performers assume the distinct roles of “Pirates,” “Blacks,” “Turks,” “Sea-people,” “Christians,” and “Horsemen,” and the seemingly parochial celebration transforms into a ritualized reenactment of the most dramatic events and processes in global history. Much of the story is encapsulated in the very appellation one group of performers is currently known as – Lan pichilinquis – a Chontal term derived from a series of Dutch, French, and Spanish loan words for “pirates” (Figure 2.)

Figure 1. The Chontal town of San Pedro Huamelula, Oaxaca, Mexico. The colonial church is visible in the foreground. Photo by Danny Zborover; inset map modified after GoogleEarth.

Figure 2. The Lan pichilinquis performers on board and around their “pirate ship” — a simulated ox cart complete with masts and sails. Photo by Danny Zborover.

Since 2014, I have been returning periodically to Huamelula with students and colleagues at the Pacific Rim Project and Field School to collaborate with the Chontal people in the study of the ethnography, historicity, and materiality of this multifaceted week-long event. It was only recently, though, that I came to realize that the William L. Clements Library (WLCL) holds one of the most instructive historical sources for our understanding of these Indigenous-Pirate entanglements, namely the Hacke (or Hack) Atlas [1]. This detailed pictorial and annotated volume of the Americas’ Pacific coast is one of at least 14 atlas editions masterfully produced by English mapmaker William Hacke in the 1680s and 1690s, based on a previously captured Spanish atlas known as the Derrotero General del Mar del Sur [2]. Possessing these classified nautical charts of the so-called “Spanish Lake” surely proved highly advantageous to the global economic interests of competing European nations and various wealthy patrons.

With the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately turning my anticipated Mary G. Stange Residential Fellowship into a virtual one, I was still able to consult high-resolution scans of the atlas provided by the library’s diligent staff [3]. This allowed me to compare and contrast this digital facsimile with other Hacke and Derrotero editions I previously examined in other research institutions such as the Huntington Library and the John Carter Brown Library. Similar yet unique, the added historical value of the WLCL edition within the Hacke Atlas corpus lies precisely in its relatively late production year of 1698 or thereafter. Upon close inspection, it became immediately apparent that the information derived “From the Original Spanish Manuscript and our late English Discoveries,” as stated in the beautifully illustrated title page, introduces another level of detail not present in earlier editions. As further noted by Lawrence B. Kiddle, it is even more remarkable that the atlas was updated or even actively used up until 1791 as a nautical reference for English navigators in the South Seas [4].

The systematic iconographic and textual comparison between the editions further revealed fascinating variations between Spanish and English depictions and perceptions of coastal Indigenous communities in terms of locations, landmarks, and toponyms [5]. The lack of English sovereignty over the Americas’ Pacific coastline (prior to British Columbia) implied that the Hacke Atlas is more concerned than its Spanish counterpart with the precise location of freshwater sources and isolated bays where ships could replenish and careen. But it gets more intriguing than that. Throughout the WLCL Hacke Atlas there are over a dozen brief references to various Indigenous groups inhabiting the Pacific littoral, primarily concerned with whether these were friendly or hostile to the Spanish or English. One gloss even describes Indigenous maritime warfare techniques. Most of these “ethnographic” details do not appear in the Derrotero, as Spanish seafarers could typically rely on safe ports and bays controlled by the Crown.

But this English accessibility gauge of the coast was often subtler than that. One crucial clue for our historical understanding of the San Pedro Huamelula festivity can be found on folio 27r/v of the WLCL Hacke Atlas, where this Chontal community is clearly glossed “Port of Guamalula” (Figure 3.) This is despite its relative inland location then and now, and the equivalent gloss on the Derrotero Spanish atlases where this community is designated as a “Pueblo” (town) rather than “Puerto.” In fact, having the entire scanned WLCL atlas at my fingertips allowed me to confirm that this is the only such example of “Pueblo/Port” toponymic divergence throughout these atlases, which cover most major towns and ports between Baja California and Tierra del Fuego. This, then, was demonstrably not an innocent scribal error or mistranslation. Furthermore, whereas the Spanish Derrotero cartographer preferred the term “Playa” (beach) for the coastal stretch immediately south of Huamelula, on the Hacke Atlas it appears as “Bay,” suggesting that the English navigators essentially considered these shores as navigable and suitable for landing whereas the Spanish likely did not.

Figure 3. Folio 27r/v of the WLCL Hacke Atlas, depicting Huamelula and its surroundings. Image courtesy of Terese Austin, WLCL.

What could account for the Englishmen’s keen interest in this relatively small Indigenous community? First is the Chontales’ geopolitical position, which by strategic design or historical accident placed them between Huatulco and Tehuantepec — two major Prehispanic-turned-Habsburgian ports of trade on the Pacific (Figure 1.) This transformed their immediate region into an early globalizing hub for the transportation of goods and people between New Spain and South America and even Asia through the Acapulco-Manila Galleon, and consequently a prime target for pirates lurking for treasure. Little wonder then that Huatulco was frequently visited and raided between 1579 and 1687 by expeditions led by the Englishmen Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish, Thomas Peche, Charles Swan, Francis Townley, and William Dampier, the Dutch Joris Van Speilbergen, and the French Pierre le Picard. Indeed, references to these first two notorious privateers are scattered throughout the pages of the WLCL Hacke Atlas. The Copalita River, which is marked just to the west of Huamelula on the atlas (“R. of Capalita,”) is also the location where Cavendish landed before his famous raid on Huatulco. Today, our Chontal collaborators perceive this as the same historical event that is remembered and celebrated in the Huamelula festivity.

Even though by the late 16th century the Spanish had shifted most of their Transpacific maritime activity further west to Acapulco, folio 26v of the WLCL Hacke Atlas still states that “This Port of Guatulco is the embarcadero to the South part of Mexico in the South Seas of America & it is very wealthy & a place of great trade” (Figure 4.) This last part of the gloss seems to appear exclusively on the WLCL Hacke edition, and reflects the fact that Huatulco remained a vital hub for the local native population and a contraband port for smuggled Chinese and Peruvian merchandise. In comparison, folio 19v/r depicts Acapulco more explicitly as the port from which “The Spaniards hath a great trade to China.”

Figure 4. Folio 26 v/r of the WLCL Hacke Atlas, depicting the Huatulco Port and its surroundings. Image courtesy of Terese Austin, WLCL.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries the Chontal fiercely resisted the new colonial rule, which in and of itself would have made them potential allies to other enemies of the Spanish Crown. The English may have been actively pursuing such partnerships, as they sought to establish encampments that would connect and trade with their compatriots on the Atlantic side of the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Perhaps an analogous (though ultimately failed) attempt to establish a Pacific foothold by the same crew who captured the Derrotero atlas in 1681, can be gleaned in folio 56v/r of the WLCL Hacke Atlas: “By the Spaniards this is called Gulfo Dulce or the Sweet Gulf; but Cap(t) Bartholomew Sharpe came hither in the year 1680 to corene his ship ~ found the Indians so extraordinary kind & just in tradeing with him & coming on board his ship with provisions & permitting him to erect a tent on shore to lay his goods in & offer’d the harbour to him to settle in which induced him to call it King Charles’s harbour” (Figure 5.) The flapping Union Jack, a pictorial element naturally absent in the Spanish Derrotero, drives the point home. Here again, the statement on settling the harbor does not seem to appear on earlier Hacke editions, suggesting a particular agenda or audience for the WLCL edition.

Figure 5. Folio 56v/r of the WLCL Hacke Atlas, depicting “King Charles’s Harbour” (today Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica.) Image courtesy of Terese Austin, WLCL.

In tandem with their aggressive piratical intentions, the Lan pichilinquis alter-ego in the Huamelula festivity is that of traveling sea-merchants, whereas their formulaic discourses reference a vast network extending from Panama to Jamaica. Historically, English and other pirates were known to have chased not just after Spanish gold, but predominantly after goods and industries still under Indigenous control; a short description in the WLCL Hacke Atlas of “Port Chasapi,” today’s Michoacán, similarly alludes to this pursuit: “From hence is transported Indigo cotton & abundance of the best cocoa” (folio 50r.) A century earlier Cavendish looted those very same items from Huatulco’s storehouses, and before him Drake plundered Indigenous women’s blouses from this port, which he likely traded with other Indigenous groups where he sought safe harbor [6]. Cochineal, a highly coveted dye in Europe and Asia and which the Chontal were particularly renowned for producing in the 16th century, quickly became the most sought-after loot item after gold and silver.

Ultimately, pirates being pirates, it is almost certain that the Hacke and similar atlases served them to identify easy pillaging targets along the coast. If this were the case, the mere designation of Huamelula as a “Port” would have functioned as a beacon to any crew of marauders who were stranded long enough at sea. It is likely not a coincidence that the only known documented pirate attack on Huamelula, the 1687 raid of French captain Pierre le Picard who at the time was based in Huatulco, took place only a few years after the first Hacke Atlas was produced in London [7]. Folio 27r of the WLCL Hacke Atlas also marks the location of the neighboring town of Astata, simply glossed “Indians town,” as one adjacent to the coast (Figure 3.) Archaeological surveys confirm that this was its original location, before pirate attacks forced its Chontal inhabitants to resettle further inland in the late 17th or early 18th century. Such a perspective further elucidates the above-cited choreographed conflicts in Huamelula’s festivity, where the Black characters may represent runaway enslaved Africans who sided with the Chontal to fight and repel foreign invaders. These ambiguous roles echo historical identities, where the Chontal, pirates, and slaves — all disenfranchised groups operating on the periphery of the Spanish Empire — were entangled in a shifting network of alliances and competition in the early colonial contraband economy.

Even though my virtual fellowship may certainly have had its advantages – like sipping on a soda can as I consult a 300 years old tome – I am eagerly looking forward to visit the Clements Library in person and study the physical Hacke Atlas and other rare volumes in more detail [8]. Meanwhile, the historical data gleaned from this preliminary research already provides me and my colleagues with a rich context for several scholarly publications. Like we did in past field seasons, we further intend to use printouts of this and other atlas editions as teaching and research aids in our ongoing field school in Mexico, and especially in day-long boat excursions where we can further perceive first-hand the Pacific coast from the same vantage point of these early foreign navigators (Figure 6.)

Most importantly, reproductions of the WLCL Hacke Atlas will be shared with the Chontal community members and local school kids and will serve in the creation of physical and virtual collaborative spaces. Huamelula, like many other Indigenous communities throughout Mexico, was impacted hard by the pandemic. Regardless, the Chontal millennial traditions and cultural resiliency are unrelenting and our community collaborators inform me that precisely on the day of publishing this blog post, also Saint Pedro Day to whom the festivity is dedicated, the Lan pichilinquis pirates will emerge once more to dance solemnly in front of the old colonial church (this year, though, without the cheering crowds.) Thus, by integrating archival research with interdisciplinary fieldwork and community outreach, the Clements Library’s Hacke Atlas and similar sources open a window into a fascinating yet untold story, one in which the Chontal and other Indigenous people contributed directly to the formation of the early Transpacific Modern World.

—Danny Zborover
2020-2021 Mary G. Stange Fellow at the Clements Library

Figure 6. Field school student Steve Cheatham-Marvelli comparing a printout of the Huntington Library’s Hacke Atlas to the Huatulco-Huamelula piedmont, trying to visibly identify the elusive “spots of even ground” (see Figure 4.) Photo by Danny Zborover.


[1] “From the Original Spanish Manuscripts & our late English Discoveries…” (WLCL Atl 1698 Ha). The English mapmaker himself used both “Hacke” and “Hack” interchangeably in his atlases and maps.
[2] “International Talk Like a Pirate Day: The Pirate Atlas”
[3] I wish to thank the support of WLCL staff Paul Erickson, Jayne Ptolemy, Mary Pedley, Terese Austin, Tracy Payovich, Shneen Coldiron, and the generous donors of the Mary G. Stange Fellowship.
[4] L. B. Kiddle’s “Tentative chronology of William Hack’s South Sea Atlases; fifth version, May 1983” and related notes; unedited files in the WLCL collection.
[5] As a historical archaeologist who occasionally works in South America, I was particularly fascinated by the depictions of several Prehispanic archaeological sites along the Peruvian coast. Although William Hacke clearly copied these landmarks and toponyms from the Spanish Derrotero, it is curious that he or his pirate informants confused them with contemporary wooden forts. More research, and perhaps another blog post, will be required on this curious aspect of the atlas.
[6] “New light on Drake; a collection of documents relating to his voyage of circumnavigation, 1577-1580, translated and edited by Zelia Nuttall” (WLCL G 161 .H2 ser.2 no.34).
[7] “Journal du voyage fait a la mer de Sud, avec les flibustiers de l’Amerique en 1684. & années suivantes. / Par le sieur Raveneau de Lussan” (WLCL C2 1690 Ra).
[8] For other Pirate-related sources at the WLCL, see