Locations > The Spanish Main

The Spanish Main

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration

Background

America - Theodor de Bry (1592)

Piracy in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries needs to be understood in the broader geopolitical picture of the time. Before the Buccaneers were able to crack open the New World for other colonial powers, the Americas were dominated by Spain and Portugal. Following the landing of Columbus in 1492, the Spanish had defeated the Aztec and Inca empires under Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro and were extracting considerable wealth back to the mainland of Spain.

As it became known, the territory of the Spanish Main included Florida, the Gulf of Mexico including Texas, Central America and the northern coast of South America. It consisted chiefly of the ports of Porto Bello on the Isthmus of Darien, Cartagena de Indias in New Grenada, Maracaibo on the Orinoco Delta. The Mexican cities of Veracruz and Acapulco were also very important Spanish centers.

The Spanish Main was home to vast natural and mineral resources such as gems, hardwoods, spices, dyes, hides along with the plundered gold of the Aztec and Inca. Silver in form of coined pieces of eight was brought to Spanish Main ports by llama and mule train from all over the Inca and Aztec empires. The exotic goods coming from the East Indies on the Manila galleons were offloaded on the Pacific port of Acapulco and brought overland.

All of this vast wealth of the Spanish was collected in the ports of the Spanish Main to be shipped out of the region back to Europe via the Treasure Fleet system. This made the Spanish galleons laden with unimaginable riches prime targets for pirates and buccaneers.

Privateering Era

Buccaneering Era

The Buccaneering Era really saw the opening up of the New World to other colonial powers and saw many buccaneer raids along the Spanish Main on a scale never seen before or again. 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.

Pirates History - Buccaneering Era

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.

Haunts of the Brethren of the Coast (1898) - Frank Stockton

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 Carolines, 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.

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