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Benito de Soto: The Atlantic’s Most Bloodthirsty Pirate was Captured & Executed in Gibraltar

Soraya Fernández

Benito de Soto Aboal, who commanded his ship “La Burla Negra” (“The Black Joke”), was one of the cruellest pirates in the Atlantic. He became infamous for mercilessly murdering entire crews and plundering their ships.

Benito de Soto Aboal

This Galician pirate was charged with 75 murders and destroying 10 ships and was hanged in Gibraltar in 1830: Benito de Soto was so short that he had to climb onto his own coffin so that his neck could reach the noose.

Benito de Soto Aboal was born to a humble family on the 22nd of March 1805 in Pontevedra, Galicia North West Spain, in a fishing district called A Moreira. He was the 7th of 14 siblings and illiterate. By age 17 he had already made a name for himself as a smuggler on the Pontevedra coast.

At a young age, Benito de Soto Aboal embarked for the Spanish colony of Cuba and by the age of 23 he had become second boatswain (a rank below captain) of the Defensor de Pedro, a Brazilian registered brig which was involved in the slave trade with Africa. The ship owned a privateer’s license, also known as Letters of Marque, from Brazil which gave it permission to attack enemy ships.

Suspecting that a mutiny was being hatched, Captain Pedro Mariz de Sousa and the loyal members of his crew abandoned ship in Cabo San Pablo in January 1828. Leading the mutiny, Benito de Soto took the helm and then had no qualms in murdering a crewmate who helped him execute the mutiny.

Benito de Soto Aboal Pirate Burla Negra Black Joke Gibraltar execution Morning Star
Credit: The People of Gibraltar Blog

And that is how the Defensor de Pedro went down in history and legend as pirate ship. It is said that the mutineers repainted the ship black using paint that they had found in the holds of the ship and renamed it “La Burla Negra”. There are many who have pointed out the seeming parallel between Jack Sparrow’s “Black Pearl” from Pirates of the Caribbean and “La Burla Negra”.

And thus begun the bloody history of La Burla Negra and its ruthless captain, Benito de Soto. They attacked many ships during their sinister marauding through the Atlantic.

One of the most vicious assaults was carried out on the Morning Star, an British frigate loaded with hardwood, spices and coffee. Almost the entire crew were put to death by order of Benito de Soto because he did not want witnesses.

Credit: The People of Gibraltar Blog

In order to deceive the Morning Star’s crew, De Soto had used the traditional pirate trick of lowering his flag and hoisting the Union Jack, but this did not fool the British who then tried to escape and a chase at sea ensued. After they reached the frigate, almost the entire crew were killed and some women were raped.

The pirates left the survivors in the hold and then holed the hull to sink the ship, but they had made a costly mistake and departed the scene too soon. The Morning Star was rescued by another British vessel. It was some of those survivors who would later recognise De Soto and his crewmen and it was their testimonies that led them to be executed.

Benito de Soto Aboal Pirate Burla Negra Black Joke Gibraltar execution Morning Star
Credit: The People of Gibraltar Blog

Heading to the Azores Islands, La Burla Negra continued its terrible rampage and looted and burned the American-flagged frigate “Topaz” whose crew were put to death on De Soto’s orders.

The pirates stole a significant amount of treasure from this ship such as jewels, precious stones and silks. In his typical cruel fashion, De Soto ordered the burning of the ship and the killing of its entire crew – this was seen from the ship “Unicorne” which was the only one which managed to escape the wrath of La Burla Negra.

But there were many more attacks and according to Pedro Rey-Alvite, they ran into the British ship “Sumbury” near the Canary Islands and exterminated their crew.

The British ships Cessnok and the New Prospect, and two Portuguese ships, also fell prey to the pirates. “It is believed that Benito de Soto had a special hatred for the British, having being brought up hearing the story of the Spanish defeat at the hands of the English at Trafalgar”. He also murdered the entire crew of the British ship “Brickbarca” between the Azores and Cape Verde.

But Bento de Soto’s streak was soon cut short. He had been unable to sell the stolen merchandise and headed towards the Iberian Peninsula in order to do so.

His lookout mistook the lighthouse at the Island of León with Tarifa, thus placing La Burla Negra in the Bay of Cádiz – within reach of the authorities who were looking for him. The ship was run aground on the beaches of Ventorillo del Chato.

Gibraltar history
Depiction of the Gibraltar Port in 1820, Gibraltar National Museum

The ship needed repair, but according to various publications, the pirates wanted to enjoy themselves in Cádiz where they flaunted their wealth. That immediately raised suspicion and the Burla Negra crew were arrested.

The crew were hanged drawn and quartered in Cádiz by order of Kind Fernando VII. According to jotdown.es, the Spanish monarch ordered their execution and that their decapitated heads should be on display throughout the city.

Benito de Soto made his escape by bribing his captors and then headed for Gibraltar – a big mistake. A passenger from the Morning Star had recognised him and he was arrested as he was leaving an inn in Crutchett’s Ramp. The chronicles of the time tell that he was wearing a hat and a dagger which he stole from the Morning Star, as well as a passenger ticket to Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka).

Benito de Soto Aboal Pirate Burla Negra Black Joke Gibraltar execution Morning Star
Cruchett’s Ramp Gibraltar 2021 | Fran Montes, ReachExtra

The British, whose navy had been relentlessly looking for him, charged him with 75 counts of murder and for sinking and burning 10 ships. On January 25th 1830, at the age of only 24 years, De Soto was hanged in Gibraltar.

His execution was a unique event redolent of the name of his ship “the Black Joke”.

On his arrest, he was imprisoned in the Moorish Castle. Gibraltarian historian Richard Garcia told ReachExtra that, according to the Gibraltar Chronicle, he was executed outside the walls of Gibraltar, on the Isthmus, because he was not British:

Benito de Soto Aboal Pirate Burla Negra Black Joke Gibraltar execution Morning Star
Cruchett’s Ramp Gibraltar 2021 | Fran Montes, ReachExtra

“The British soldiers tended to be taller, and the gallows were too high. Benito de Soto’s neck could not reach the noose, so he had to stand on his own coffin to be executed”.

It is said that de Soto prayed and listened to the sentence of death with indifference, and then addressed the crowd by saying “Goodbye everyone, the show is over” in his native Galician, which was confused by some in attendance to be Portuguese.

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