Pirates and Buccaneers

1522-1588: Pirates and bold captains change Caribbean history

Spain's exploratory journeys into the New World yielded a great amount of new territory and, with the excavation of gold and silver, new wealth as well. However, it wasn't long before the rest of Europe began to pay attention and clamor for a piece of this new territory - and for a bit of gold.

During this period, Spain moved its Caribbean capital to Havana, Cuba, because of its location along main shipping routes. In 1550, it became the official residence for the governors. But as ships filled with Spanish treasure made a yearly convoy from Havana to Spain, entrepreneurial vagabonds jumped at the chance to plunder some of Spain's riches.


When a papal decree divided the non-European world between Spain and Portugal, the remaining European nations, which were predominantly Protestant, began looking for a way to share in the profits that Spain was returning from its new colonies.

England, France, the Netherlands, and a few other nations found privateering to be extremely profitable. This was especially true after 1522, when a buccaneer for France named Verrazano took three Spanish ships. Two of the three were filled with gold from Mexico, and the third offered the "gold" that could now be found on Hispaniola: sugar, pearls, and hides. When pioneering pirates demonstrated the profitability of piracy, the practice became extremely important.

One of history's most feared buccaneers in the region was Sir Francis Drake, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth in England. His plunder of a Spanish ship from Peru in 1573 was extremely troubling to the Spanish, and he also proved his naval prowess again in 1588, when the British defeated the Spanish Armada. Drake eventually became so legendary that parents would warn their children about him, almost as bedtime stories or cautionary tales.

Although the words are most often used interchangeably, pirates fought only for themselves, while privateers were hired out by a nation to attack the ships of the opposing nations. Buccaneers are the odd men out. Historians attribute this word to a number of different types of plunderers, but one thing is clear: These men would attack and pillage the same way pirates and privateers would.

Losing Control

No matter which name is used to describe the practice of martial law at sea, one thing is certain: The piracy that took place in the Caribbean served to undermine Spain's power and control in the region. And while Drake was widely feared, Dutch pirates were a formidable force, too. In fact, their prowess at sea allowed them to begin settling the region despite Spanish objection.

In addition to piracy, another important act in 1562 also undermined Spanish authority in the region. Trade was very strictly regulated between Spain and Portugal, that is until Sir John Hawkins brought in slaves to trade on Hispaniola. Those on the island who needed the labor didn't care from which country their labor was purchased, and though Hawkins' deal ended up causing him trouble with Spain, it did show other traders that there was plenty of room for them in the Caribbean.

Spain found itself unable to control the whole territory the Pope had designated as theirs. Piracy would soon spin into an open war between the Dutch and the Spanish, but the naval battles ensured the ability of England, France, and the Netherlands to create their own colonies.


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