The Beginning of Piracy 1450-1600


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The Beginnings of Atlantic World Piracy


The Stage is Set


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 

the Spanish


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.

The 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.  

  Elizabethan Piracy Emerges  

By the 1560’s skirmishes, between Spanish forces and English interloping fleets, was already a large part of the countries commercial relationship with each other. However the Spanish, who had become quite sick of English infidelity, dealt them such a blow at San Juan de Ulua, that the English stopped their illegal trade. The defeat further inflamed already well established Protestant, English hatred of the Catholic Spain and Portugal and the investors that had taken losses wanted reparations. The monarchy was no longer granting expeditions in slave smuggling or trading because Elizabeth feared that war would be declared and, at the time, England was in no shape to fight an enemy as powerful as Spain or Portugal. However, despite the fact “that England in the age of Elizabeth I was not a powerful nation-state of the modern variety, and at this point had relatively modest international ambitions (Lane, Kris E., 1998, 51),” investors where determined in seeking reprisal and outfitted several expeditions of “unmitigated piracy”.

These privately financed expeditionary fleets where outfitted with no attempt at disguising the fact that “piracy was their unequivocal purpose (Lane, Kris E., 1998, 40),” yet they where only marginally endorsed by the crown. During the years leading up to the start of the Anglo-Spanish war in 1585 they preyed on Spanish possessions all over the Atlantic and into the Pacific (see above map). Expeditions lead by men such as Sir Francis Drake (see below image), John Hawkins, and Thomas Cavendish wreaked havoc all over New Spain. However, the expeditions, were deemed by the investors as unsuccessful from the point of view of captured goods and damage done to the Spanish. Although the immediate losses to the Spanish where relatively small, it created a false perception of England’s potential maritime threat that, combined with the French impact, further scared Spain into intensifying protection over their colonial and maritime interests. “Drake returned to England with a decimated and disappointed crew … Still, as Andrews and other historians of the period have noted, the effect of this ultimately unsuccessful voyage was to encourage and even force Spain to acknowledge the new scale of the English threat in its colonial waters (Lane, Kris E., 1998, 52).” The impact, although not warranted, from the sight of “an enemy fleet of that size [which] could have captured a treasure fleet, sacked Panama or Havana, or even established a permanent base of operations in the Caribbean (Lane, Kris E., 1998, 52),” was enormous. The actual English presence in Spanish waters would increase dramatically with the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War in 1585.



Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1603): 

Piracy turns to Privateering


            Relations between Spain and England had deteriorated rapidly resulting in the declaration of war. Because of the fear of the enormous Spanish armada at the time, Drake and other fleet captains were kept in English waters to defend England itself. Thus, expeditionary fleet piracy fell off somewhat. However, it was at that point that the unmitigated English piracy of the previous two decades evolved almost immediately into the full-fledged sanction of privateering by the Queen. Expeditions against Spain, during the years between 1585 and 1603, rose to unheard of levels. “Some seventy-six English expeditions made their way to the Caribbean during the eighteen-year period of hostilities ending with Elizabeth I’s death in 1603 (Lane, Kris E., 1998, 49).” Although smaller in size, the sheer number of privateering expeditions lead against Spain did incredible damage and made England’s presence felt   worldwide. The Queens death along with the defeat of the once invincible Spanish Armada (see above image) by the lesser English navy and privateers in the English Channel lead to the agreement of peace in 1604. The signing of the treaty effectively ended the level of privateering that was present during the war, and for a time English piracy as well, but they where back at it soon. This left the Dutch to plunder and privateer against Spain, in much the same way, as they pleased until a treaty of peace was signed in 1648 ending lowlands war of independence. 

The Dutch Force Their Views


Virtually in tandem with the English, the Dutch began their long history of pillaging the Spanish empire. Motivated partly by their hatred of Catholic Spain and Portugal, “Militantly Protestant Hollanders… were actively harassing the Spanish and others in the early 1570’s (Lane, Kris E., 1998, 62).” In 1568 an uprising, by the Low Countries against Phillip II and Iberian sovereignty, broke into the Eighty Year War that would drain the Spanish until 1648. These Dutch Pirates (see below image), termed Sea Beggars, attacked and pillaged Luso-Hispanic shipping and settlements for almost a century. Although they where called pirates by the Spanish, they where merely fighting an unbalanced conflict on their terms. Essentially, like all of these pirates and privateers, they were fighting a guerrilla conflict on the high seas. A “method of fighting ‘beyond the line’ by means of privately financed ventures aimed at trade, plunder, or settlement, loosely approved by a financially weak central government (Lane, Kris E., 1998, 63).” By 1648, the Eighty Year War would be over and, although Spain still remained strong, these series of conflicts, both declared and undeclared war, weakened the Spanish monopoly greatly.

  Even though peace had been declared between these nations and Spain, and sanctioned piracy, in the form of privateering, had been stopped, this method of fighting ‘beyond the lines’ would go on for much longer. The approval of governments would get looser and looser, but piracy and privateering would continue into the next centuries with the Buccaneers.


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