Spanish Empire

The Spanish Main

Golden Age of Piracy > The Spanish Main

The Spanish Main

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration


The topic of 16th, 17th and 18th century piracy in the West Indies needs to be understood within the context of the time that they lived. There were many conditions that led to the development of classic piracy in this era that were mostly derived from the hegemony of the Spanish Empire in the New World at the time. The Spanish conquistadors throughout the 16th century were able to subjugate the local population and establish colonies on the shore to extract the considerable wealth back to the mainland of Spain.

The Spanish Main was the primary source of piracy in the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries. Centered around the northern part of South America, the Spanish Main was the cadre of colonies in the New World owned by Spain. From the 16th to the 19th century these colonies were all designed for one purpose, to aid in the full scale plundering of the indigenous Aztec and Inca civilizations in the New World along with agriculture and mining. This wealth was then transported back to Spain once a year via the Spanish Treasure Fleet system.

The Spanish Main - Spanish Main Map

Spanish Main Map (17th Century)


It included present-day Florida, the western shore of the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and Mexico, Central America and the north coast of South America. In particular, the term is most strongly associated with that stretch of the Caribbean coastline that runs from the ports of Porto Bello on the Isthmus of Darien in Panama, through Cartagena de Indias in New Granada, and Maracaibo to the Orinoco delta on the coast of Venezuela. Veracruz in New Spain was another major port.


From the 16th to the early 19th century, the Spanish Main was the point of departure for enormous wealth that was shipped back to Spain in the form of gold, silver, gems, spices, hardwoods, hides and other riches.[1] Silver in the form of pieces of eight were brought to the Spanish Main by llama and mule train from Potosí via the Pacific coast, while wares from the Far East that had arrived at Acapulco on the Manila galleons were also then transported overland to the Spanish Main. From there, they were shipped to Spain by Spanish galleons. Because of the tremendous riches shipped from it, the Spanish Main was ripe territory for pirates and privateers.[1]

Columbus & Conquistadors

The Spanish Main - World Known Before 1492

World Known Before 1492 - Discoverers & Explorers (1900)

After Christopher Columbus discovered a few of the islands in the Caribbean during his expedition in 1492, the monarchy in Spain claimed these as colonies and set to work on building an economic and military presence in the region during the 1550's. Spanish conquistadors following Christopher Columbus' discovery massacred and killed a large majority of the amerindians such as the Aztecs. Their vast empires of gold and treasure were sent to the Spanish settlements along the coast to be processed and sent back to Spain.

The Spanish Main - Landing of Columbus

Landing of Columbus - John Vanderlyn (1846)

However, as the Spanish began to expand into South America and Central America in the 17th century they discovered a wealth of mineral wealth such as gold and silver, including the legendary silver mine at Potosi. By the time the English had barely established colonies in the New World in 1650, the Spanish had already set up an intricate network of governments and principalities to control the production and transport of wealth back to the Old World.

Viceroyalty of New Spain

By 1650 Spain controlled Mexico and parts of Central America in a division called the Viceroyalty of New Spain, or more simply New Spain with Mexico City as the capital. Mexico was the site of the conquered Aztec empire and their vast gold stores. Mexico City was also where the mined gold and silver was minted into pieces of eight. Another important settlement for the Spanish was Veracruz which received all of the gold and treasures from Mexico bound for Spain through the Spanish Treasure Fleet. Overall, the Spanish Main was the point of departure from which gold, silver, gems, spices, hardwoods, hides, sugar cane and many other commodities were shipped from the New World to Spain.

Spanish Empire - Spanish Caravan

Spanish Caravan - Discoverers & Explorers (1900)

The countries of Panama and Honduras were controlled by a governor who reported to the viceroy in Mexico City. Major settlements here included Panama Viejo on the Pacific Ocean and Portobello on the isthmus of Darien. The silver was transported from Panama Viejo to Portobello with the Spanish Silver Train where it was processed, minted and then stored awaiting the treasure fleets.

Viceroyalty of New Granada

The country of Viceroyalty of New Granada was composed of Venezuela and Colombia and had Cartagena de Indias as its capital. Other settlements included Maracaibo and Gibraltar centered around Lake Maracaibo and the Orinoco Delta. These settlements were responsible for processing the emeralds and other precious stones that came out of South America.

Next the Spanish controlled the Viceroyalty of Peru which contained great mineral wealth and was the site of the conquered Incan Empire. Peru was most noted for providing massive deposits of silver that were transported to Panama.

In the Caribbean, Spain controlled the islands of the Greater Antilles and named them Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. This entire New World complex was devoted to one thing; the production of agricultural and mineral wealth for Spain.

The Spanish Main - Spanish Flag (17th Century)

Spanish Flag (17th Century)

They mined Potosi and other great mines dry using indigenous slave labor, and when they all died due to exhaustion, disease or starvation they simply replaced them with slaves from the West African coast.

While these civilizations were self sustaining, very few had achieved prosperity because the Spanish simply drained them of their resources and sent them back to Europe. Most of the early Spanish settlements at the Colony of Santiago, also known as Spanish Jamaica and Hispaniola were simply places for the fleets to restock and resupply. There was a slightly larger garrison on the Central American mainland due to the massive riches being stored there.

Unimaginable Wealth

It was no easy feat to exterminate civilizations, manage massive armies of slaves and still manage to plunder the countryside at the same time. Thus the entire New World had to be organized in order to effectively and efficiently send the treasure and goods back to Spain. They accomplished this with a system of government called viceroyalties, and the use of military convoys.

Numbering just seventeen ships in 1550, the Spanish had more than fifty larger vessels by the turn of the century. During the Buccaneering Era the Spanish were in grave economic position and had a fleet less than half the size of their peak and all of the ships were in derelict condition. The Spanish economy recovered by the 18th century and saw resurgence during the War of the Spanish Succession and the Post Spanish Succession Period.

In order to better understand how the Spanish Main operated, we need to look at where the natural resources were individually coming from and the settlements along the coast that they helped spawn. Once the settlements are understood we can get a better picture of the path that the Spanish Treasure Fleet took and begin to see the whole region in motion.

Spanish Empire - Pieces of Eight

Spanish Pieces of Eight

At first the only way the Spanish got mineral resources was to steal them from the native Aztecs and Incas. In 1545 however, the Spanish would discover Potosi and focus all of their efforts on mining its great silver deposits. In fact, over the next hundred years the Spanish mined more silver out of Potosi than existed in all of Europe at the time

However, they needed someone to do the work since the Spanish were not going to do that themselves. From the 1550s up until 1717 the Spanish relied on the encomienda system of forced labor. The Spanish first used the native Americans as forced labor, however when they all died due to the brutal conditions and diseases that they lacked natural immunity too, the Spanish replaced them with slaves from Africa.

Suddenly the New World gave Spain the resources necessary to wage the endless wars of Europe however there was one problem. There needed to be a safe and reliable way to transport the massive wealth generated at these sites. The Spanish designed a system to transport the silver to the coast at Panama Viejo through a grueling llama and mule train that snaked through the Andes Mountains. Here at Panama Viejo it was minted and processed into pieces of eight (8 reales). Each piece of eight contained 25 grams of silver (same as US Silver Dollar).

Once the riches were all gathered along the coast, the treasure fleet would leave Seville in the spring, sail around the Spanish Main and collect from each settlement before sailing back. They would often trade clothing and supplies from Europe at the colonies and became one of the major economic trade routes operating at the time.

16th Century

Privateering Era

17th Century

The beginning of the 17th century was defined by the Thirty Years War that lasted between 1618 and 1648. This war was the result of the Protestant and Catholic conflicts alongside the Habsburg dynasty in Spain and the Bourbon King of France. While the war was mostly fought in Germany, there were significant effects felt in the New World.

Focusing more of their effort on fighting a multi-front war in Europe, Spanish influence in the New World declined and the settlements in Central and South America along with the Caribbean all began to experience financial decline and the loss of defending soldiers as more were recalled to Spain. This caused the Spanish to require increasing numbers of slaves to manage the plantations, ranches and mine gold, silver and other minerals from places like Potosi in the Viceroyalty of Peru.

With the declining Spanish influence in the Caribbean, other countries in Europe such as Europe and France took the opportunity and ended the Spanish monopoly over resources in the New World. In England, many people left England facing religious persecution and seeking a better life in the New World. After the first English settlements at Jamestown failed, they built much stronger ones on Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis along with New Providence Island where the pirate haven Nassau was located. All of these settlements have survived to become permanent centers of civilization to this day.

In France, the Bourbon King Louis XIII who ruled between 1610–1642 was also religiously oppressive and forced the Huguenots to flee France and to the New World in order to establish colonies there. These French huguenots went on to become the early buccaneers. Then, giving even more cause for the French colonists to attack the Spanish, France went to war with Spain on behalf of Germany in the Thirty Years War.

The Spanish Main - Attack on a Galleon (Book of Pirates - 1921)

Pirate Attack on a Galleon - Book of Pirates (1921)

Buccaneering Era

Both the French and English went on to establish separate early colonies in the early 17th century. The English and French settled on the island of Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1623, which would become a wealthy sugar plantation. The French also occupied part of the island known as Saint Christophe, and held the upper hand in the area. Also, after being pushed back from their settlement in northern La Florida at Saint Caroline, the French made an illegal settlement on Tortuga, which they forcibly took from the Spanish, along with a few settlements on the mainland of Hispaniola itself.

These settlements provided a great opportunity to hit the Spanish treasure fleets as they made their year long journey across the Spanish Main.

By the middle of the 17th century, Spain was facing financial ruin after the disastrous Thirty Years War. The Spanish colonies in the New World were completely neglected which became a prime opportunity for privateers and sailors who spent decades in naval and ground warfare. These privateers pillaged and looted the defenseless Spanish colonies with ease, with Spain not caring too much at all due to its problems back home. However, the English and French colonies were also growing at this time which gave the pirates a huge new pool of talent to recruit from. Most of these English and French were fleeing the chaos and turmoil back in Europe and many often took to the life of buccaneer or pirate.

18th Century

Post Spanish Succession Period

Spanish Empire






Primary Sources

Exquemelin, A. (1678). The History of the Buccaneers of America. Great Britain:

University of South Carolina: Race Books and Special Collections (Mexico)

Secondary Sources