West Indies Companies

1621-1674: West Indies Companies make a difference in island control

Although the islands had been divided by the four major European powers, history would show that the fighting would continue for centuries. Amid these territorial fights, there were a number of important developments, including the formation of companies.

Going Dutch

It is important to remember that the colonization in the West Indies followed movement toward the East Indies by a number of nations. Therefore, it's no surprise that the Netherlands created the Dutch West India Company, a sister to its East India Company.

The West India Company came into being in 1621. However, for three years the company essentially left the region alone, allowing independent ships, who often allied themselves with English and French captains, to do as they wished.

Then, in 1624, the company set out with large-scale attacks, hoping to take control from the Portuguese of sugar plantations in Brazil and slave stations in Africa. Portugal was Spain's ally, and another part of the attack was concentrated on attacking the Spanish fleets, carrying gold and silver from Havana, Cuba, to Spain.

The Dutch managed to take control of a portion of Brazil in 1637 but lost it again in 1645. They retained one fortress in Brazil until 1654. Another attempt by the company was to take the El Moro fort on Puerto Rico in 1625. However, after a five-week siege of San Juan, the Dutch could not take the fort.

The biggest victory by the West India Company was when Piet Heyn's fleet captured the entire Mexican treasure fleet off of Cuba in Mantanzas Bay in 1628. The following year, the company could afford to pay a cash dividend of 70 percent to its shareholders - based only on this one capture. By 1635, the Dutch controlled the majority of the trade in the region - a practice that would continue for years.

The company eventually allowed outside traders to work for them. The earliest were Dutch and Jewish, but later Portuguese independent sailors worked with the company. First, these traders took on the salt trade in 1633, but trade with Brazil began in 1638, and trade with Curacao was added in the 1640s.

By 1646, the company had realized that its schemes for domination of trade in the West Indies were failing, so the company reorganized itself the following year as a commercial group, supplying slaves and goods to the Caribbean while relying on the Dutch crown for protection. The company itself was re-chartered in 1647, and for a while Spain turned a blind eye to illegal trade between their colonies and the Dutch. The Danish followed suit, creating their own West Indies Company to take part in history in 1671.

Following in French

The French also created a number of companies in the colonies, and the first, called Saint Christophe, was on St. Kitts. The French had claimed St. Kitts in the early 1600s and divided the space with the British in 1627. However, it was their own political capital.

It became their capital in the West Indies when one of the adventurers who made his way to the island, Pierre Belain, sieur d'Esnambuc, brought back a great deal of tobacco to France. Tobacco was still extremely valuable, and French Prime Minister Richelieu put the island under the name of the Compagnie de Saint-Christophe and included other nearby islands in the company.

In 1635, the growing French colonies gave cause to change the company. It became the Compagnie des Isles d'Amerique. Both Guadeloupe and Martinique were settled in this year. However, in the 1640s the company failed, and several islands were bought by former investors to recoup their losses.

Later, Louis XIV began the French West Indies Company, taking a page from the Dutch company. However, the company was only in business for 10 years, ending in 1674.

These companies played an important role in the expansion of the Caribbean, each having their own agenda during the years they were established.


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