Pirate History: Causes of piracy in the Carribean

by Pirate Matty on March 29, 2008

The great era of piracy in the Caribbean began in the 1560s and died out in the 1720s as the nation-states of Western Europe with colonies in the Americas began to exert more state control over the waterways of the New World. The period during which pirates were most successful was from the 1640s until the 1680s. Piracy flourished in the Caribbean because of British seaports such as Port Royal in Jamaica and the French settlement at Tortuga.


Piracy in the Caribbean resulted from the lucrative but illegitimate opportunities for common seamen to attack European merchant ships (especially Spanish fleets sailing from the Caribbean to Europe) and seize their valuable cargo. A practice that increased in the 17th century. Piracy was sometimes given “legal” status by colonial powers, especially England and the Netherlands, in the aim to weaken their rivals. This “legal” form of piracy is known as privateering. The following quote by a Welsh pirate shows the motivations for piracy in the 17th century Caribbean:

“ In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not balance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto ”

—Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts

The Caribbean had become a center of European trade and colonization after Columbus’ discovery of the New World for Spain in 1492. In the 1493 Treaty of Tordesillas the non-European world had been divided between the Spanish and the Portuguese along a north-south line 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde. This gave Spain control of the Americas, a position the Spaniards later reinforced with an equally unenforceable papal bull. On the Spanish Main, the key early settlements were Cartagena in present-day Colombia, Porto Bello and Panama City on the Isthmus of Panama, Santiago on the southeastern coast of Cuba, and Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish were mining staggering amounts of silver bullion from the mines of Zacatecas in New Spain (Mexico) and Potosí in Peru (actually now located in Bolivia). The huge Spanish silver shipments from the New World to the Old attracted pirates and privateers, both in the Caribbean and across the Atlantic, all along the route from the Caribbean to Seville.

To combat this constant danger, in the 1560’s the Spanish adopted a convoy system. A treasure fleet or flota would sail annually from Seville (and later from Cádiz) in Spain, carrying passengers, troops, and European manufactured goods to the Spanish colonies of the New World. This cargo, though profitable, was really just a form of ballast for the fleet as its true purpose was to transport the year’s worth of silver to Europe. The first stage in the journey was the transport of all that silver from the mines in Peru and New Spain in a mule convoy called the Silver Train to a major Spanish port, usually on the Isthmus of Panama or from Veracruz in Mexico. The flota would meet up with the Silver Train, offload its cargo of manufactured goods to waiting colonial merchants and then transfer the precious cargo of gold and silver (in bullion or coin form) into its holds. This made the returning Spanish treasure fleet a tempting target, although pirates were more likely to shadow the fleet to attack stragglers than try and seize the well-guarded main vessels. The classic route for the treasure fleet in the Caribbean was through the Lesser Antilles to the ports along the Spanish Main on the coast of Central America and Mexico, then northwards into the Yucatán Channel to catch the westerly winds back to Europe.

The Dutch United Provinces of the Netherlands and England, both defenders of Protestantism, were defiantly opposed to Catholic Spain (the greatest power of Christendom in the sixteenth century) by the 1560’s, while the French government was seeking to expand its colonial holdings in the New World now that Spain had proven they could be extremely profitable. It was the French who had established the first non-Spanish settlement in the Caribbean when they had founded Fort Caroline near what is now Jacksonville, Florida in 1564, although the settlement was soon wiped out by a Spanish attack from the larger colony of Saint Augustine. Aided by their governments, English, French and Dutch traders and colonists utterly ignored the unenforceable line drawn by the Treaty of Tordesillas to invade Spanish colonial territory even in times of peace between their nations in Europe, which gave rise to the famed sixteenth century phrase: “No peace beyond the line.”

The Spanish, despite being the wealthiest state in Christendom at the time, could not afford a sufficient military presence to control such a vast area of ocean or enforce their exclusionary, mercantilist trading laws which allowed only Spanish merchants to trade with the colonists of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. This allowed for constant smuggling to break the Spanish trading laws and new attempts at Caribbean colonization in peacetime by England, France and the Netherlands. Whenever a war was declared in Europe between the Great Powers the result was always widespread piracy and privateering throughout the Caribbean.

The Anglo-Spanish War in 1585 – 1604 was partly due to trade disputes in the New World. A focus on extracting mineral and agricultural wealth from the New World rather than building productive, self-sustaining settlements in its colonies; inflation fueled in part by the massive shipments of silver and gold to Western Europe; endless rounds of expensive wars in Europe; an aristocracy that belittled commercial opportunities as beneath them; and an inefficient system of tolls and tariffs that hampered industry all contributed to Spain’s decline of power during the 17th century. However, very profitable trade continued between its colonies and Spain’s overseas empire continued to expand until the early 19th century.

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean the arrival of European diseases with Columbus had reduced the local Indian populations; the native population of New Spain fell from its original numbers in the 1500’s. This loss of native population led Spain to increasingly rely on African slave labor to run Spanish America’s colonies, plantations and mines and the trans-Atlantic slave trade offered new sources of profit for English, Dutch and French traders who wanted to violate the Spanish mercantilist laws—and did so, with impunity. But the relative emptiness of the Caribbean also made it an inviting place for England, France and the Netherlands to set up colonies of their own, especially as gold and silver became less important as commodities to be seized and were replaced by tobacco and sugar as cash crops that could make men very rich.

As Spain’s military might in Europe weakened, the Spanish trading laws in the New World were violated with greater frequency by the merchants of other nations. The Spanish port on the island of Trinidad off the northern coast of South America, permanently settled only in 1592, became a major point of contact between all the nations with a presence in the Caribbean.

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