The Beginning of Piracy 1450-1600
Homepage Buccaneers Barbary Coast Piracy in Decline
Beginnings of Atlantic World Piracy
The start of Piracy in the Atlantic World is a result of the Iberian suppression of free trade. The Spanish and Portuguese, being the first on the Atlantic scene, dominated colonization and developed a huge monopoly on trade with those colonies. This domination was, in part, due to the Papal Treaty of Tordesillias giving the Spanish the western half of the hemisphere and the Portuguese, the eastern half of the hemisphere. This Catholic agreement settled any rivalry that the Iberian powers had with each other creating an alliance. This further inflamed tensions between the Catholic Iberians and the other, Protestant, nations in Europe created in the Reformation. The Spanish Caribbean and Portuguese Brazil had developed and insatiable need for slaves, for cultivation of cash crops such as sugar and tobacco that where seeing an enormous demand in Europe and all over the Atlantic. The Portuguese, having a large presence in West Africa, where soon transporting large numbers of slaves to the Americas in an intensely profitable trade. However, the Spanish and Portuguese quickly realized their monopoly over this trade and enforced strict, and unfair, mercantile laws over any other foreign power that wanted to take part in the trade (see below map).Merchants in these foreign nations, not willing to abide by the Iberian laws, soon took up a practice of smuggling slaves and other goods to the Americas. These privately funded slaving expeditions came under almost immediate attack by the Spanish and Portuguese. Tensions between nations intensified and the Spanish created such a problem, that the loss incurred during such voyages made them unprofitable. Eventually, for various different reasons, the tension broke, and the nations turned to piracy. They did this both to exact revenge as well as undermine the Iberian monopoly.
The French Corsairs threaten
As early as the later half of the fifteenth century, the French and Portuguese had been competeing for the developing sea trade. However, by the early sixteenth century, the French where fully entrenched in maritime predation of Spanish interests. Like the rest of the nations affected by the Spanish monopoly, “It was not all uncommon for corsairs to attempt commerce as a preliminary means of profit (Galvin, Peter R., 1999, 38).” The French Corsairs, in the early half of the sixteenth century, raided the settlements and shipping of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and rest of the Greater Antilles in response to Spanish suppression of trade with colonies. Cuba and its towns was the main target of corsair aggression in the early half of the sixteenth century. Havana was hit hardest, being ransomed in 1536 by a “lone Frenchman”, and totally pillaged by Jacques de Sores in 1555 (Galvin, Peter R., 1999, 33) Others, like Jean d’Ango, did venture to the main land, but generally stayed in and around Cuban waters to prey on the shipping to these ports. Corsairs also infested many of the “choke points”, such as the Mona Passage and Florida straights, which made these entryways to the Caribbean very dangerous to the Spanish.
Spanish could not totally protect both its ships at sea as well as its
settlements at the same time. Pirates picked up on the patterns that where used
in protection and raided what was not being protected as much. For example,
“due in part to increased land defenses, merchantmen afloat suffered greater
losses than the coastal settlements.”
Also, Weather and “the unpredictable whims of the sea,”
tended to scatter the convoys, leaving stragglers to the pirates, making the
return on their defensive investment not as good. “The convoy system may have
been the logical response to maritime robbery, but ultimately it encouraged the
very piracy it was designed to protect.”
Also, certain forts had to be manned by inadequate garrisons or just local
people and colonists making the defenses much weaker and subject to defeat.
There was not enough money to finance it all so holes in their defenses appeared
and by the beginning of the second half of the sixteenth century, not only the
French Corsairs were back in the Caribbean, but the English and eventually the
Dutch were following the Spanish patterns of protection.