Early Colonial Society : Privateering and Piracy

France, England and, later, the Dutch Republic refused to recognize the Treaty of Tordesillas. In order to secure their share of the wealth from the New World, they granted Letters of Marque to individual captains willing, at their own risk and expense, to wage war on the Spanish and Portuguese outside European waters - practically licenced piracy.
While they had to undertake voyages into the unknown (the Spanish and Portuguese kept their maps and sea-charts secret), had to risk the storms and disease, when it came to combat at sea, the French, English and Dutch were at an advantage as they often had better ships and cannons. Also, the Spanish settlements in the new world, throughout much of the 16th century, were practically devoid of fortifications. The first raid on Havana took place in 1538; others followed in 1555 and 1558.
Many privateers were regarded heroes in their native countries - Francis Drake, he took the annual Spanish silver shipment of 1568 while it was transported to the Panamanian coast by caravan, Oliver van Noort (the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the world) etc.

In the beginning, privateering paid, because there were numerous attractive targets, all Spanish, and many relatively easy pay. Over the decades, competition became tougher, the major Spanish cities fortified, the percentage of Spanish shipping in the Caribbean dropped dramatically. Full-scale piracy emerged, the crews of an international background, preying on any lucrative target. There were a number of pirate hideouts, logistical bases of organized piracy.
Spain complained that the practice of licensing privateers legitimized piracy and was harmful to peaceful trade. Yet England appointed Henry Morgan, an ex-pirate, Governor of Jamaica. Only the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 condemned piracy. When piracy became an increasingly dangerous business in the Caribbean, due to an increasing presence of regular navy vessels, many Caribbean pirates moved on to Madagascar, where they established the short-lived Republic of Libertalia.

The Spanish and Portuguese did not distinguish between peaceful settlers, privateers and pirates. The French settlement on Guanabara Bay, near Rio de Janeiro (since 1555) was taken out by the Portuguese in 1567. A French settlement in Florida, Fort Caroline (est. 1562) was taken out by the Spanish in 1565, the settlers executed. A group of English settlers who settled on St. Kitts in 1624 feared the same fate and welcomed a group of French settlers the following year; together they had a better chance of fending off a Spanish expedition.

Isle of Tortuga, by M. Bruyneel
Article Letter of Marque, from Wikipedia
Henry Morgan, 1635 - 1688 . A Welsh buccaneer and son of Monmouthshire., from Data Wales
Diego Suarez : Libertalia, by Alexandre Picard, in French
DOCUMENTS Letters of Marque, from Isle of Tortuga
REFERENCE Jan Rogozinski, A Brief History of the Caribbean (1992) London : Penguin 1994

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 27th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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