Who was Santa Barbara’s only pirate?

Written by
Hippolyte Bouchard
Bouchard’s portrait at the Colton Hall Museum, City of Monterey; courtesy of Santa Barbara Historical Society (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Santa Barbara’s history is tied to the sea, so it wasn’t surprising that we got this Curious Coast question from KCRW listener Bill Hall:

“Was there ever pirate activity in Santa Barbara?”

The answer is yes! But only one… and he looked more like a refined 19th century naval officer than a swashbuckling Blackbeard.

His name was Admiral Hippolyte Bouchard. He lived from 1780 -1837.

Bouchard was a disillusioned French revolutionary, who joined the Argentinian navy after Argentina declared independence from Spain in 1810.

He spent his career sailing the world and making life miserable for the Spanish, including carrying out several raids along the California coast, from Monterey down to San Diego. 

On December 4, 1818, Bouchard landed at Refugio Bay (now Refugio State Beach) at the ranch of Spanish soldier and early Santa Barbara settler, Jose Francisco de Ortega. Bouchard intended to plunder the ranch, but his reputation preceded him. When he arrived, the buildings were empty and three of his men were captured and taken to the Presidio. Furious, Bouchard burned the buildings and slaughtered all the animals at the ranch.

Bouchard asked for his captured men back and left Santa Barbara, never to return.

Here are 5 more things to know about your only pirate:

1: Bouchard was more ‘corsair’ than pirate.

Argentina granted Bouchard the title of “corsair.” This meant he was allowed to attack any ship bearing an enemy flag, acting as a fully sanctioned private mercenary. Corsairs got to keep a part of whatever they pillaged, and the country had one less enemy ship to worry about. Now, if you decided to attack any and all ships and keep everything for you and your crew…then you were a straight up pirate.

2. Santa Barbara briefly belonged to Argentina

When Bouchard and his crew sacked Monterey, the Spanish flag was lowered and the Argentinian flag raised…at least until they left. The same thing happened in Santa Barbara. That is why, at Stearns Wharf, Argentina’s flag flies alongside the other 11 flags that have flown over Santa Barbara. It is number six, in between the Russian-American Company and the Mexican Empire.

Admiral Bouchard is the reason Argentina’s flag flies on the wharf. Photo by Richard Smalldon. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

3. He’s a national hero, just not here

Bouchard is considered a national hero in Argentina, where streets are named after him. Even Santa Barbara doffs its hat to the corsair: a camping area at Refugio Beach is named after Bouchard. And there is a painting on the second floor of the County Courthouse depicting his pillaging of the Refugio property.

4. He saw a lot of the world

Unfortunately, he was a plunderer, not an adventurer. But his travels included China, Hawaii, Madagascar, Java, Manila, and the coasts of South America. He was put in charge of the Peruvian navy by Argentina, after Peru gained independence from Spain in 1824.

5. He met an unexpected end

Bouchard started his career as a revolutionary, but ended as a sugar plantation owner in Peru, called “La Buena Suerte” (“The Good Luck”). Depressed, missing his wife and family, he would lash out at his workers in anger. One day it was too much. After striking a servant, violent protests broke out and his employees stabbed him to death. 

For an exhaustive bio of Bouchard, you can check out this page.

Do you have a question about the region or its people? Ask it here

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