PART THREE: THE SPANISH MAIN
The 1500s saw Europe plunge into an increasingly violent cycle of wars at home and abroad that stretched from the Habsburg-Valois Wars beginning in 1520 to the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. The 1500s were dominated by attempts by the rulers of France and England to undermine the power of the Habsburg family that ruled The Holy Roman Empire and Spain. In the early days monarchs sought to maximize their sea-power by recruiting privateers, ostensibly seeking reprisal from wrongs to king and country. Privateers proved to be quite forthcoming, lured by Spain’s American gold.
Spain’s colonies were run as closed shops. Foreign trade in the colonies, however profitable for the colonials, was regarded as detrimental to the king’s pocketbook and banned. In 1568 the Spanish shot up some slave-smuggling vessels commanded by Englishmen John Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake. Queen Elizabeth granted Drake permission to take reprisals and the Anglo-Spanish war at sea was on in earnest.
Soon English, French and Dutch ships were scouring the seas in search of Spanish and Portuguese prey. As the sea-dogs grew in might they were able to seize and pillage lightly defended Spanish colonial cities. Havana had fallen to the French raider De Sores as early as 1555. Drake accounted for Panama, Santo Domingo, Valparaiso, St. Augustine, and Cadiz on the Spanish mainland.
The Reformation gave the new sea-marauding an ideological angle, pitting Protestant against Catholic. England and the Netherlands adopted Protestantism as the state religion. While France never formally rejected Catholicism, the growth of the Huguenot movement fueled forty years of inter-religious civil war. Protestant raiders could see themselves not simply as loot-greedy pirates, but as crusaders for the Reformation.
The growth of national identities was boosted by the sea-wars. Drake, the erstwhile privateer, became a national hero in the Armada Campaign in 1588. The Sea-Beggars, as the Dutch raiders were called, were part of modern Europe’s first national liberation struggle. The Netherlands, infuriated by heavy-handed Spanish rule, revolted in 1567. They took to the sea in “fly-boats,” an early type of schooner. The Dutch terms for flyboater were corrupted into filibuster and free-booter.
The old war between Christian and Muslim still raged in the Mediterranean. North Africa was fragmented into the semi-independent Barabary States of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and the sultanate of Morocco. The new wealth from Asia and the Americas gave the European economy a decisive boost over the barren shores of North Africa. Slavery was a major motivation for corsair raiding. While the Spanish might carry off some Moors to slavery in the colonies, the teeming population on the Christian side of the Mediterranean was a ready source of wealth for the Barbary Corsairs. That is not to suggest that the Christian realms were morally superior, rather they found easier pickings further south.
A substantial number of European pirates “turned Turk” and joined the corsairs, bringing valuable expertise in shipbuilding and gunnery. The corsairs were willing to work on installment, accepting payment to leave a particular ruler’s ships alone. These arrangements tended to suit the dominant sea-powers as they could bear the burden better than second-tier commercial rivals.
Privateers formed a sea-going militia for their countries. But a desire for loot as for love of country of religion motivated these sea-rovers. This disjunction of interest often put the privateers at odds with the authorities they ostensibly served. Privateers operated under letters of marque (for service to a ruler in war) and letters of reprisal (for wrongs done at any time) with specific limitations and expiration dates. In practice these were often ignored, frequently with connivance of officials who got a share of the loot. Privateers that attacked neutral ships or made raids in peacetime could involve their sovereigns in awkward diplomatic incidents. The end of the Anglo-Spanish War in 1605 saw King James I of England struggling to suppress the pirates who had lately been heroic defenders of the realm. King James’s efforts proved to be a rather minor interlude.