3 Pirates and Protestants

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Power in Europe had long been shared by crown and church; a power jointly exerted even exploratory endeavors. The Pope had granted the New World to be shared between Portugal and Spain, yet, word of these new lands and its many marvels soon meant others wanted to join in. Blatantly disregarding the Pope’s edicts, French and British mariners would take to the seas for their own adventures and a chance at attaining wealth of their own.

Church, Crown, & The New World

With each story or reprinted letter spreading throughout Europe, many young men dreamed of becoming the men they read about and then there was the money to be made… Which is why, by the 1520s, many of them could be found on West Indian shores. However, life on ships and in the New World was greatly affected by the happenings in Europe. Notably the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s 95 theses; nailed to the doors of a church in 1517. The religious turmoil birthed by this action and subsequent movement caused religious fissures to radiate through Europe and the colonies or territories which they controlled. All the while, the Catholic Church scrambled to retain their dwindling power with the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

In terms of the Caribbean, these fissures was never more evident than in the attacks made on Spanish, therefore Catholic, ships by Protestant, therefore not Spanish, mariners. Further strengthened in their disregard for the Pope’s edicts, English, French and Dutch ships could be found docking in the West Indies to explore and plunder for wealth.

“Pirate PNG” licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

Pirates Rule the Seas

It was also at this time that contact was made with the loosely populated and settled Lesser Antilles. The natives, having long resisted Spanish or Portuguese control, were more than amicable and even traded with those they recognized as the enemy of their enemies and therefore their friends. The Spanish, however, saw these interlopers as pirates or corsarios luteranos (Lutheran corsairs). There are different types of pirates of course!

The Barbary pirates, from 1600 to 1644, would be responsible for the seizing of about 800 English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish ships along with those of other countries totaling to about 12,000 people and their ships. Yet, so as not to be left out and needing a justification, Northern Europeans would also capitalize on the religious turmoil and commandeer the valuables of Spanish ships. This was, of course, not to the liking of the Spanish royal family and the newly crowned King Philip II was no different. Although the king could console himself with the metals, such as silver, that still made it back to Spain despite these logistical issues and impediments. Then again, there was his insatiable greed for these metals that became a problem.

Spain & New Markets

In the 1560s, Spain had established port cities along the way to China in Cebu and the Philippines. At the time China was a isolated and self contained market, therefore untapped by European influence and control. The Spanish, understanding this, would successfully attempt to breach these isolation barriers. The Chinese received silver and were more than willing to trade their wares for them; thus making Spanish ships the last puzzle piece in connecting and creating an early form of global trading.

Word of Spain’s China connection would spread and soon all of Europe wanted to be part of the trade. This, unfortunately for Spain, meant the Pirates had even more reasons for stealing silver or gold laden Spanish ships. The goal was no longer to reach the east but rather sailing farther and farther west.

Rising hatred for all things Catholic began producing vicious and rancorous French, Dutch, and English crews to dock in the Caribbean. The Dutch, especially, hated Spain for parts of the Netherlands having been given to Philip II by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  For Dutch pirates, attacking Spanish ships became part of the 8 year war for independence that began with a 1568 revolt. In solidarity with their Protestant brethren, England would also join the fight and attack Spanish ships.

“Sir Francis Drake” by Ann Longmore-Etheridge, available under Public Domain Mark 1.0

Pirates and Freebooters

The attacking pirates previously mentioned became privateers as wars waged and crowns handed out carte blanche for those attacking Spanish ships. Pirates acting without such license and freebooters would at times go on privateering jobs although they were distinctive. They would seize and raid ships without having to return a portion of the claimed valuables to any particular crown or country. The crew were also often made up of both male and female mariners with a couple of slaves and or ex-slaves thrown into the mix. The majority of freebooters were, however, from the lower classes. A demographic changed by the 1600s and 1700s as freed and runaway slaves became apart of the crew. This life was better for many than being enslaved, although there were those enslaved to the ship owners abroad as well.

The legal pirates did so as these nations had no actual navy as part of their military; something that would be rectified much later. Legal piracy, between Spain and England, would end in 1604 with a treaty that would broker a peace agreement lasting until 1618 and the start of the 30 Years War. Said war, with religious undertones, would involve all of Europe.

A 17th Century Crisis & the Caribbean

The religious sparked war, political tensions, and piracy as well as the continued colonization efforts in the Caribbean forced Europe to see the world threw a different lens. The rise in trade and global movement brought never before seen sights from the New to the Old World. The study of plants took flight with doctors looking for their abilities to cure ailments in a time far from modern day conveniences such as hospitals and the discovery of DNA. Another plant to be discovered would be tobacco. Native to the Americas, and having spread to the Caribbean, it would revolutionize, yet again, the lives of Europeans back home. Doctors soon discovered its medicinal and non-medicinal properties. Tobacco would soon be used throughout Europe in forms such as: smoking, sniffing, chewing, drinking, or in creams. Medically speaking it would be used for its nicotine properties and therefore its ability to stimulate the brain and numb pain.

This was, however, not the first time a European would come into contact, much less smoke, tobacco. Columbus and his crew were introduced to the crop in 1492 and simply did not bring any back with them on the return trip. Columbus believed it to be the reason for the native pagan practices.

“Tobacco Plant in South Georgia” by Judy Baxter, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Tobacco’s Boom

Tobacco would become a social norm in the 1560s, thanks in part to John Hawkins bringing back the plant when he returned to England. That is not to say that the English were the first to use it for medicinal or social purposes as the Spanish and French had long been studying the plant and smuggling seeds. England’s King James I would, however, not be partial to the social norm. He would go so far as to wish it banned, yet, he spoke too little too late. Tobacco was the new fad and merchants were making money off the plant and its “necessary” accessories or parahelia. By the 17th century Europeans introduced it to the Far East and the whole world was into it. Spain would, however, retain a monopoly on the cultivation and trade of the crop much to the chagrin of other European countries. England would destroy the

monopoly with its  Virginian colony; established 1607. Virginia would, by 1618, be producing 20,000lbs of the crop and 500,000lbs by 1627. England’s colony, Bermuda would soon follow as a cultivation center thereafter; although their tobacco would prove inferior to that of Virginia.

The tobacco boom would also signal the rise in power of other European countries.

*Created using the data, numbers, or footnotes given in Gibson, Carrie. Empire’s Crossroads: The Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day. Pan Macmillan, 2014. ISBN: 0802124313 / 9780802124319

Spain’s Fall from Grace

Spain had left their colonies unguarded and capitalizing on the erroneous mistake would see Spain’s monopoly destroyed and its colonies taken away.

The colonies and territories mentioned to the right were taken by the respective countries; although they have not all remained in those hands. For example, the Order of the Knights of Malta would buy St. Kitts, St. Martin, Tortuga, and St. Croix and later sell them to France in 1665. Yet, no matter who their colonizer, life on these lands was far from easy. As opposed to the Spanish, life and infrastructure would be slow and difficult to establish as well as protect from mother nature; although they would soon find their proverbial sea-legs.

Supply & Demand

Spain, although having a virtual monopoly on tobacco trade, feared that others who grew the crop did so to mask their illegal trading; for smuggling was just as much a temptation as piracy. Yet, even more concerning were the merchants with their realization that delaying the shipment of goods could drive up demand as well as the asking price. Those in the colonies would be so desperate upon the ships arrival that many paid any exorbitant price with taxes as well (when required).  For other Europeans, this proved a mistake on Spain’s part. The British and Dutch were quick to begin selling goods and wares at a lower price than the Spanish merchants while still making a profit. The settlers were more than happy to turn to these less than legal markets as they not only paid less but avoided taxes as well. The colonial government officials were also willing to participate, by turning a blind eye, for a small fee.

However, not all colonies turned grudgingly to these markets. Hispaniola, for example, gladly and eagerly turned to them as it was most often a case of buy illegal goods or buy nothing as Spanish ships preferred the ports of Havana, Cuba instead.

Risky Business

Merchants understood the risks they undertook and often conducted business without even setting foot on land. They would drop anchor just off the shore and those who wished to buy would come by row boat. If a secluded spot could be found they would drop anchor and trade on the very beach so as to facilitate an immediate escape. The trading itself would be done by the ships resident ex-slaves or slaves and the government for a fee acted blind.

In terms of Hispaniola, this would prove a problem for Spain. The hides being sent back were often of low quality as most had been traded through the illegal markets. This became such an issue that colonial official Baltasar López de Castro proposed to end the trading by depopulating the northern are in which it was done; forcing them to move to Santo Domingo. This solution had been put forth before and quickly set aside but López gave his proposal at the right time and by 1602 it was approved by the Council of the Indies.

The implementation, however, was not smooth, well received or economically smart. The people resisted until 150 Puerto Rican soldiers were brought in to force the issue. Economically, trading in hides and what little ginger and sugar was produced all but stopped.

Maritime Law

With the evolution in travel, wars and constant seafaring a question was soon raised: who owned the water ways? Some answered by saying the water belongs to no one or country. Anything that was publicly used could not be privately owned and citing the air or sea as examples. Others argued for some form of government as these were lawless frontiers in addition to the confusing mess of maps that existed.

Spain took matters in their own hands and answered the question by granting the Dutch rights of navigation, in 1609, in the East Indies after a treaty ending the war for independence was struck. The Dutch people were not happy and the war for independence began once more in 1621. Simultaneously the Dutch West India Company was founded with the primary purpose of privateering along side goals of expanding control in Brazil and increase the number of slave imports.

This company was founded 2 decades after that of the British which was not created with the goal of holding a monopoly of West Indian trade. Through violence, the East India Company, would colonize and act as proxy rulers for India and south-east Asia.

English Colonies

The success found in Virginian tobacco plantations soon drew others wanting to replicate the situation in the Caribbean. The circumstances and history of Providence and Barbados would explain what happened to those willing to turn dreams into reality.

“Barbados” by the CIA, This image is a work of a Central Intelligence Agency employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a Work of the United States Government, this image or media is in the public domain in the United States.

On the edge of the Lesser Antilles sits Barbados with its neighbors being water to the east and St. Lucia and St. Vincent to the west; the two having no European inhabitants as of yet. Barbados was a flat and also uninhabited island. Interest piqued, Sir William Courteen would sent the brother of a friend, Henry Powell, along with 80 settlers and 10 Portuguese captured slaves to the island.

This colony was uniquely run, in comparison to those we’ve previously discussed, in that the settlers were not given land but were paid wages instead. Yet, this would not dissuade more settlers from arriving as 1628 saw the exportation of 100,000lbs of tobacco. These new arrivals, however, were often indentured servants coming over on 3-10 year contracts.  Courteen’s rule would end over a dispute in ownership and the Earl of Carlisle would take over in 1629. This returned the running of the colony to the familiar system, of granting land for a fee and all further responsibility lying with the owner of the parcel. It worked, but with the drop in price for the crop many could no longer survive.

“Caribbean Population Cartogram” by Worldmapper.org, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licensed.

The need to survive saw these settlers turning to the cultivation of cotton and indigo but were once more struck down by a drought in 1631; known as ‘starving time’. This would become the islands pattern well into the 1640s. Hope came in the form of James Drax and his experiment in growing cane but this too would fail. With agriculture on the island non-existent the population was quite varied. By 1652, the island was home to 13,000 indentured servants many of whom were fleeing religious persecution (the Irish Catholics) or abject poverty. This would drop to 1,500 by 1715 and any further attempts at agricultural cultivation would have to be done with the backs of a different work force.


“Saint Kitts and Nevis – Location Map (2013) – KNA – UNOCHA” by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

St. Kitts

St. Kitts was much like Barbados and was established with intentions of growing tobacco. Settlers following Thomas Warner arrived in 1623 only to have the first fruits of their labor destroyed by a hurricane along with some of their provisions. Recovery was difficult but a crop was pulled from the ashes, yet, this would not be the end of Warner’s troubles. In 1626, the natives would rise up and be bloodily put down. In 1629, passing Spaniards violently took over with the island going partially to the French. The French settled in St. Kitts, Guadeloupe and Martinique to grow tobacco.

Yet, as is always the case, European politics manifested themselves in the colonies. Undaunted by the violence, Warner would expand his operations to Nevis in 1628 and then to Antigua as well as Montserrat in 1632. Amassing a fortune he would die in 1648 and was believed to have been survived only by a bastard son; he had with a native from Dominica.

Sweet & Salty

Sugar was at the time the main export and commodity available for profit given its popularity; although cultivation and refinement of the cane was still not an exact science. Yet, there were those whose priority was salt rather than sugar. The Dutch’s main export was herring which required salting to preserve it and prepare it for exportation. Initially excluded from the Iberian salt trade in 1585 and the Dutch would not benefit from the 1580 union of Portugal and Spain. Portugal being the largest salt supplier at the time. On the eve of the union, the Dutch fell out of the 12 year truce once established with Spain and were now desperate for a new source.  With this in mind they would take Curaçao from Spain in 1634 as well as nearby Bonaire and Aruba shortly thereafter.  However, the claiming of Curaçao was not only good because of the salt pans but because of its strategic location; which allowed for a stopping point for the Dutch on their way to New York.

The climate of the new territories was optimal for the establishment of several salt pans. Which proved excellent given the profitability of selling salted fish for certain Catholic observances. Then there is the expansion of provision carried aboard ships for slaves, which grew to include salted fish. The English, during this period, also were in need of salt but were able to come to an arrangement with Portugal to use their salt pans on the Cape Verde islands.

“Coffee Chocolate Morning”. Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required

Coffee & Chocolate

The major trading crops were now: salt, tobacco and sugar. However, one more crop would be added to the market… Coffee. It had spread from its native Ethiopia long ago but a new interests would be taken in the crop. It would spread throughout the Caribbean but never more so than in Haiti.

By the 1780s, half of the worlds exporting coffee would be coming from Haiti. While not as adventure inducing as tobacco or a money maker like sugar, coffee became a hit just as much as English tea. This beverage would take off simultaneously with chocolate out of Central America which soon rampaged through the palette of Europe’s ultra rich.

Although, tobacco and sugar would hold an important place in the history of the Caribbean, the region would also be responsible for the exportation of ginger, cacao, cotton, and indigo.

Politics & War: England, Spain & the Dutch

With the “discovery” of the Americas and the Caribbean, came interconnecting trade and travel routes. This meant that European politics affected them all; including the bloody and later non-religious Thirty Years War. Its resulting peace agreement dictated many things, one of which was the ban of privateering. While certain dictates of the agreement were honored the former was not. Soon a civil war would break out in England which cleared the way for the Dutch to dominate, to an extent, certain aspects of shipping and commercialization. England in turn, once securely under Oliver Cromwell’s rule, would not like these turn of events and set out to rectify the matter with the Navigation Act of 1651. The act which did not allow for any other than the British to ship goods to their territories; this was the final strike to launch the first Anglo-Dutch War. This war would end in 1654 only to see the start of, yet another, war between England and Spain.

Matters were finally settled, in England, with Cromwell’s death in 1658 and the disintegration of his commonwealth. Upon his return to the throne, Charles II passed a second Navigation Act with similar stipulations and no ability to enforce them another war broke out. This war would end with the Dutch receiving Suriname in exchange for Britain getting New York.

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Politics & War: Others in Europe

During this time of constant warfare, France would rise to be the 4th major power. The French West India Company, however, paid particular attention to the island of Tortuga; just of Hispaniola’s shores. The island had long been a strategic launch point for attacks and for buccaneers. The sailors who usually found their way there, survived by learning from the remaining Hispaniola natives; the land at times being home to escaped slaves as well. Often acting as pirates, these buccaneers often pillaged and plundered ships and coastal villages for whatever the island could not supply. The distinguishing factor from them and pirates bring that they were not opposed to attacking Spanish ships and would hunt and trade on the land.

This is, however, not to say that Caribbean life consisted of nothing but colonizing oppression, slavery or piracy. There were those scientifically interested in the region as previously mentioned. Yet, in 1707, this would all take a backseat to the ground shaking merger of Scotland to England and Wales to form Great Britain; through the passing of the Acts of Union.

New World Trees

Europe had long deforested its lands and had systematically run through that of all territories they acquired. Demand for wood would decline and then surge with the discovery of mahogany luxury wood. Supplies which came from Santo Domingo and later Honduras which would dominate the market by the 1770s. Not understanding ramifications such as land erosion or global warming Europeans made a mad dash for the jungle trees.

The golden age of piracy having passed at the beginning of the century things shifted to eliminating the conveniently “criminal” enterprise. Although, governments were unable to eradicate the pests of the high seas. For the waves gave off a sense of freedom unattainable on land. The belief of endless opportunity and possibility, the distance between Europe and the West Indies was nearly non existent. By bridging the gap, new markets opened, new ways to trade and new ways to govern and rule were born along with new ways to find cheap (free) labor as well. All of this would lead to the birth of an even better money maker than piracy… sugar plantations!

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