Pirate History: The early 17th century 1600-1660

by Pirate Matty on March 29, 2008

In the early seventeenth century, expensive fortifications and the size of the colonial garrisons at the major Spanish ports increased to deal with the enlarged presence of Spain’s enemies in the Caribbean, but the treasure fleet’s silver shipments and the number of Spanish-owned merchant ships operating in the region declined. But perhaps the most important feature of the Caribbean by 1600 was that the vast Spanish Empire in the Americas, as noted above, was also one with few subjects—the diseases like smallpox and measles brought by the first Europeans to the New World had inflicted a century’s worth of devastating plagues on the native Indian peoples. The entire Caribbean basin had been depopulated. In New Spain (Mexico), the Indian population had plunged from an estimated range of 10 million to 25 million people in 1500 before Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs to only 2 million by 1600. Food supplies had become short because of the sheer lack of people to work farms and the output in the Spanish silver mines had declined from the death of so many Indian slaves. The number of European-born Spaniards in the New World or Spaniards of pure blood who had been born in New Spain, known as peninsulares and creoles, respectively, in the Spanish race-based caste system, totaled no more than 250,000 people in 1600. Even worse, almost no Spanish colonists in the New World served as the productive members of society who grew crops or manufactured goods—they all wanted to pursue lives of aristocratic luxury in their haciendas as the masters of great plantations growing food, tobacco or sugar, with African or Indian slaves to serve them and do all of the real labor. This social structure held true throughout the Caribbean and along the coasts of the Spanish Main and would in time create the enormous inequality in the distribution of wealth that plagues Latin America even to this day. Later settlements in the Caribbean islands by other European powers also relied on the labour of non-European workers, namely African slaves.

At the same time, England and France were powers on the rise in seventeenth century Europe as they mastered their own internal religious schisms between Catholic and Protestant and the resulting societal peace allowed their economies to rapidly expand. England especially began to turn its people’s maritime skills into the basis of commercial prosperity. English and French kings of the early seventeenth century—James I (r. 1603-1625) and Henry IV (r. 1598-1610), respectively, each sought more peaceful relations with Habsburg Spain in an attempt to decrease the financial costs of the ongoing wars. Although the onset of peace in 1604 reduced the opportunities for both piracy and privateering against Spain’s colonies, neither monarch discouraged his nation from trying to plant new colonies in the New World and break the Spanish monopoly on the Western Hemisphere. The reputed riches, pleasant climate and the general emptiness of the Americas all beckoned to those eager to make their fortunes and a large assortment of Frenchmen and Englishmen began new colonial ventures during the early seventeenth century, both in North America, which lay basically empty of European settlement north of Mexico, and in the Caribbean, where Spain remained the dominant power until late in the century.

As for the Dutch Netherlands, after decades of rebellion against Spain fueled by both Dutch nationalism and their staunch Protestantism, independence had been gained in all but name (and that too would eventually come with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648). The Netherlands had become Europe’s economic powerhouse. With new, innovative ship designs like the fluyt (a cargo vessel able to be operated with a small crew and enter relatively inaccessible ports) rolling out of the ship yards in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, new capitalist economic arrangements like the joint-stock company taking root and the military reprieve provided by the Twelve Year Truce with the Spanish (1609-1621), Dutch commercial interests were expanding explosively across the globe, but particularly in the New World and East Asia. However, in the early seventeenth century, the most powerful Dutch companies, like the Dutch East India Company, were most interested in developing operations in the East Indies (Indonesia) and Japan, and left the West Indies to smaller, more independent Dutch operators.

In the early seventeenth century, the Spanish colonies of Cartagena, Havana, Santiago, Panama City, and Santo Domingo were the most important settlements of the Spanish West Indies. Each possessed a large population, a self-sustaining economy and was well-protected by Spanish defenders. These Spanish settlements were generally unwilling to deal with traders from the other European states because of the strict enforcement of Spain’s mercantilist laws pursued by the large Spanish garrisons. In these cities European manufactured goods could command premium prices for sale to the colonists, while the trade goods of the New World—tobacco, chocolate and other raw materials, were shipped back to Europe.

By 1600, Porto Bello had replaced Nombre de Dios (where Sir Francis Drake had first struck at the Spanish) as the Isthmus of Panama’s Caribbean port for the Spanish Silver Train and the annual treasure fleet. Veracruz, the major port city in Mexico, continued to serve the vast interior of New Spain as its window on the Caribbean. By the seventeenth century, the majority of the towns along the Spanish Main and in Central America had become self-sustaining. The smaller towns of the Main grew tobacco and also welcomed foreign smugglers who avoided the Spanish mercantilist laws. The underpopulated inland regions of Hispaniola were another area where tobacco smugglers in particular were welcome to ply their trade.

The Spanish-ruled island of Trinidad was already a wide-open port open to the ships and seamen of every nation in the region at the start of the seventeenth century, and was a particular favorite for smugglers who dealt in tobacco and European manufactured goods. Local Caribbean smugglers sold their tobacco or sugar for decent prices and then bought manufactured goods from the trans-Atlantic traders in large quantities to be dispersed among the colonists of the West Indies and the Spanish Main who were eager for a little touch of home. The Spanish governor of Trinidad, who lacked both strong harbor fortifications and possessed only a laughably small garrison of Spanish troops, could do little but take lucrative bribes from English, French and Dutch smugglers and look the other way—or risk being overthrown and replaced by his own people with a more pliable administrator.

The English had established an early colony on the island of Barbados in the West Indies in 1627, although this small settlement’s people faced considerable dangers from the local Carib Indians (known to be cannibals) for some time after its founding. Barbados needed regular imports of food from England or the rest of the Caribbean to survive in its first few years, much like the English colonies on the North American mainland. No large tobacco plantations or even truly organized defenses were established by the English on its Caribbean settlements at first and it would take time for London to realize just how valuable its possessions in the Caribbean could prove to be. Barbados, the first truly successful English colony in the West Indies, grew fast as the seventeenth century wore on. Increasingly, English ships chose to use it as their home port in the Caribbean. Like Trinidad, merchants in the trans-Atlantic trade who based themselves on Barbados always paid good money for tobacco and sugar. Both of these commodities remained the key cash crops of this period and fueled the growth of the American Southern colonies as well as their counterparts in the Caribbean.

After the destruction of Fort Caroline by the Spanish, the French made no further colonization attempts in the Caribbean for several decades as France was convulsed by its own Catholic-Protestant religious divide during the late sixteenth century Wars of Religion. However, old French privateering anchorages with small “tent camp” towns could be found during the early seventeenth century in the Bahamas. These settlements provided little more than a place for ships and their crews to take on some fresh water and food and perhaps have a dalliance with the local camp followers, all of which would have been quite expensive.

In the early seventeenth century, Dutch merchant ships were commonly seen plying Caribbean waters, but no true Dutch-owned ports (the Dutch called their colonies “factories”) yet existed. The Dutch spent most of their time trading in smuggled goods with the smaller Spanish colonies. Trinidad was the unofficial home port for Dutch traders and privateers in the New World early in the seventeenth century before they established their own colonies in the 1620’s and 1630’s. As usual, Trinidad’s ineffective Spanish governor was helpless to stop the Dutch from using his port and instead he usually accepted their lucrative bribes.

The first third of the seventeenth century in the Caribbean was defined by the outbreak of the savage and destructive Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648) that represented both the culmination of the Protestant-Catholic conflict of the Reformation and the final showdown between Habsburg Spain and Bourbon France. The war was mostly fought in Germany, where one-third to one-half of the population would eventually be lost to the strains of the conflict, but it had some effect in the New World as well. The Spanish presence in the Caribbean began to decline at a faster rate, becoming more dependent on African slave labor. The Spanish military presence in the New World also declined as Madrid shifted more of its resources to the Old World in the Habsburgs’ apocalyptic fight with almost every Protestant state in Europe. This need for Spanish resources in Europe accelerated the decay of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. The settlements of the Spanish Main and the Spanish West Indies became financially weaker and were garrisoned with a much smaller number of troops as their home countries were more consumed with happenings back in Europe. The Spanish Empire’s economy remained stagnant and the Spanish colonies’ plantations, ranches and mines became totally dependent upon slave labor imported from West Africa. With Spain no longer able to maintain its military control effectively over the Caribbean, the other Western European states finally began to move in and set up permanent settlements of their own, ending the Spanish monopoly over the control of the New World.

Even as the Dutch Netherlands were forced to renew their struggle against Spain for independence as part of the Thirty Years’ War (the entire rebellion against the Spanish Habsburgs was called the Eighty Years’ War in Holland), Holland had become the world’s leader in mercantile shipping and commercial capitalism and Dutch companies finally turned their attention to the West Indies in the seventeenth century. The renewed war with Spain with the end of the truce offered many opportunities for the successful Dutch joint-stock companies to finance military expeditions against the Spanish Empire. The old English and French privateering anchorages from the sixteenth century in the Caribbean now swarmed anew with Dutch warships.

In England, a new round of colonial ventures in the New World was fueled by declining economic opportunities at home and growing religious intolerance for more radical Protestants (like the Puritans) who rejected the compromise Protestant theology of the established Church of England. After the demise of the Saint Lucia and Grenada colonies soon after their establishment, and the near-extinction of the English settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, new and stronger colonies were established by the English in the first half of the seventeenth century, at Plymouth, Boston, Barbados, the West Indian islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis and Providence Island. These colonies would all persevere to become centers of English civilization in the New World.

For France, now ruled by the Bourbon King Louis XIII (r. 1610-1642) and his able minister Cardinal Richelieu, religious civil war had been reignited between French Catholics and Protestants (called Huguenots). Throughout the 1620’s, French Huguenots fled France and founded colonies in the New World much like their English counterparts. Then, in 1636, to decrease the power of the Habsburg dynasty who ruled Spain and the Holy Roman Empire on France’s eastern border, France entered the cataclysm in Germany—on the Protestants’ side.

Many of the cities on the Spanish Main in the first third of the seventeenth century were self-sustaining but few had yet achieved any prosperity. The more backward settlements in Jamaica and Hispaniola were primarily places for ships to take on food and fresh water. Spanish Trinidad remained a popular smuggling port where European goods were plentiful and fairly cheap, and good prices were paid by its European merchants for tobacco or sugar.

The English colonies on Saint Kitts and Nevis, founded in 1623, would prove to become wealthy sugar-growing settlements in time. Another new English venture on Providence Island off the malaria ridden Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, deep in the heart of the Spanish Empire, had become the premier base for English privateers and other pirates raiding the Spanish Main.

On the shared Anglo-French island of Saint Christophe (called “Saint Kitts” by the English) the French had the upper hand. The French settlers on Saint Christophe were mostly Catholics, while the unsanctioned but growing French colonial presence in northwest Hispaniola (the future nation of Haiti) was largely made up of French Protestants who had settled there without Spain’s permission to escape Catholic persecution back home. France cared little what happened to the troublesome Huguenots, but the colonization of western Hispaniola allowed the French to both rid themselves of their religious minority and strike a blow against Spain—an excellent bargain, from the French Crown’s point of view! The ambitious Huguenots had also claimed the island of Tortuga off the northwest coast of Hispaniola and had established the settlement of Petit Goave on the island itself. Tortuga in particular was to become a pirate and privateer haven and was beloved of smugglers of all nationalities—after all, even the creation of the settlement had been illegal!

Dutch colonies in the Caribbean remained rare until the second third of the seventeenth century. Along with the traditional privateering anchorages in the Bahamas and Florida, the Dutch West India Company settled a “factory” (commercial town) at New Amsterdam on the North American mainland in 1626 and at Curacao in 1634, an island positioned right in the center of the Caribbean off the northern coast of Venezuela that was perfectly positioned to become a major maritime crossroads.

The mid-seventeenth century in the Caribbean was again shaped by events in far-off Europe. For the Dutch Netherlands, France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War being fought in Germany, the last great religious war in Europe, had degenerated into an outbreak of famine, plague and starvation that managed to kill off one-third to one-half of the population of Germany. England, having wisely avoided any entanglement in the European mainland’s wars, had fallen victim to its own ruinous civil war that resulted in the short but brutal Puritan military dictatorship (1649-1660) of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and his Roundhead armies. Of all the European Great Powers, Spain was in the worst shape economically and militarily as the Thirty Years’ War concluded in 1648. Economic conditions had become so poor for the Spanish by the middle of the seventeenth century that a major rebellion began against the bankrupt and ineffective Habsburg government of King Philip IV (r. 1625-1665) that was eventually put down only with bloody reprisals by the Spanish Crown. This did not make poor Philip IV more popular.

But disasters in the Old World bred new opportunities in the New World. The Spanish Empire’s colonies were badly neglected from the middle of the seventeenth century because of Spain’s many woes. Freebooters and privateers, experienced after decades of European warfare, pillaged and plundered the almost defenseless Spanish settlements with ease and with little interference from the European governments back home who were too worried about their own European problems to turn much attention to their New World colonies. The non-Spanish colonies were growing and expanding across the Caribbean, fueled by a great increase in immigration as people fled from the chaos and lack of economic opportunity in Europe. While most of these new immigrants settled into the West Indies’ expanding plantation economy, others took to the life of the buccaneer. Meanwhile, the canny Dutch, at last truly independent of Spain when the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia ended their own Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) with the Habsburgs, made a fortune carrying the European trade goods needed by these new colonies. Peaceful trading was not as profitable as privateering, but it was a far safer business.

By the later half of the seventeenth century, Barbados had become the unofficial capital of the English West Indies before this position was claimed by Jamaica later in the century. Barbados was a merchant’s dream port in this period. European goods were freely available, the island’s sugar crop sold for premium prices, and the island’s English governor rarely sought to enforce any type of mercantilist regulations. The English colonies at Saint Kitts and Nevis were economically strong and now well-populated as the demand for sugar in Europe increasingly drove their plantation-based economies. The English had also expanded their dominion in the Caribbean and settled several new islands, including Bermuda in 1612, Antigua and Montserrat in 1632, and Eleuthera in the Bahamas in 1648, though these settlements began like all the others as relatively tiny communities that were not economically self-sufficient.

The French also founded major new colonies on the sugar-growing islands of Guadeloupe in 1634 and Martinique in 1635 in the Lesser Antilles. However, the heart of French activity in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century always remained Tortuga, the well-fortified island haven off the coast of Hispaniola for privateers, buccaneers and outright pirates. The main French colony on the rest Hispaniola remained the settlement of Petit Goave, which was the French toehold that would develop into Haiti. French privateers still used the tent city anchorages in the Florida Keys to plunder the Spaniards’ shipping in the Florida Channel, as well as to raid the shipping that plied the sealanes off the northern coast of Cuba.

For the Dutch in the seventeenth-century Caribbean, the island of Curacao was the equivalent of England’s port at Barbados. This large, rich, well-defended free port, open to the ships of all the European states, offered good prices for sugar that was re-exported to Europe and also sold large quantities of manufactured goods in return to the colonists of every nation in the New World. A second Dutch-controlled free port had also developed on the island of Saint Eustatius which was settled in 1636.The constant back-and-forth warfare between the Dutch and the English for possession of it in the 1660’s later damaged the island’s economy and desirability as a port. The Dutch also had set up a settlement on the island of Saint Martin which became another haven for Dutch sugar planters and their African slave labor. In 1648, the Dutch agreed to divide the prosperous island in half with the French.

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