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Early Modern Times – Caribbean there, done that

Early Modern Times - Caribbean there, done that

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Dear readers,

With the current collapse of the Venezuelan economy and the ensuing social and political chaos, BBC correspondent Colin Freeman (long may he remain a ‘free man’ in dangerous waters) reports on a new phenomenon: new pirates of the Caribbean, this time in the form mainly of desperate ex-fishermen who–armed with boats and guns–are preying on fishermen in Trinidad as well as smuggling drugs and arms into Trinidad while bringing back food and other basic supplies to Venezuela. Students in EMSP 2480/HIST 2750: The Pirate & Piracy learn that throughout the history of maritime piracy, people have turned to sea-robbery especially during times of lawlessness and disorder.

Let us turn to the original pirates of the Caribbean in the early modern period: why were sea-robbers attracted to that region, including Venezuela and Trinidad, beginning in the sixteenth century? And can I write this blog post without making terrible Trini-‘dad-jokes’? The answer to the latter is, of course, no. As for the former, early modern piracy in the Caribbean was linked to Europeans’ so-called ‘discovery’ of the ‘new world’ beginning with Columbus’s trans-Atlantic voyage seeking a northwest passage to Asia in 1492 and bumping into a not-inconsiderable land-mass lying between Europe and Asia (hence the term ‘Indians’ as misapplied to the indigenous inhabitants). With the expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese empires across the seas, partly as a response to the formidable Ottoman threat to the east of Europe (which for the Habsburgs in particular was hardly a ‘Turkish delight’), the Catholic Church decreed by Papal Bull that Africa and Asia were rightfully Portuguese possessions, while the Americas went largely to the Spanish. For indigenous peoples in the Americas as well as rival Protestant powers, this was Papal bulls**t.

The Spaniards discovered vast wealth in the form of precious metals and gems in their new colonial possessions, including the riches of pre-existent civilizations such as the Aztecs, Mayans, and Inca. Aggressive glory-seekers like Hernán Cortés and the Pizarro brothers sought their fortunes and fame in the Americas, but the looting of treasure to be shipped from the Spanish Main (i.e., their overseas American territories) back to the mother country attracted sea-robbers from the enemies of the Spaniards. Thus the Spanish domination of the Americas threw the Conquista-doors wide open for piracy. The first on the scene were French pirates, especially Protestant Huguenots who fled persecution in France and crossed the Atlantic. Being Calvinists, there were not into warm bodily embraces–they were indeed ‘hug-nots’–but instead into attacking the slow galleons of the Spanish treasure-fleets sailing in annual conveys between ‘the Main and Spain’ (which ‘stayed plainly in the reign’ of the Habsburgs).

Later in the sixteenth century with the turmoil of the French wars of religion, Elizabethan sea-rovers took over the bulk of piratical activity in the Caribbean. The greatest scourge of the Spanish was Sir Francis Drake, whom Elizabeth nicknamed ‘my pirate’ because of his repeated acts of sea-robbery and raiding throughout the Spanish Americas and even around the Iberian coasts (his enemies even nicknamed him El Draque, ‘the dragon’): it could be said that he drove the Spanish to the ‘Drakes’ of despair as his piratical exploits just seemed to ‘drag on’ and on. Like the French crown, Queen Elizabeth and her successors issued letters of marque authorizing acts of piracy against the enemies of England in exchange for a cut of the booty. Thus, Elizabethan pirates, such as Drake, his cousin John Hawkins, Sir Walter Raleigh, Martin Frobisher, and others, acted as privateers as well as explorers, businessmen, courtiers, and naval officers (as in the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada). Other European powers objected to such state-sanctioned piracy, so Elizabeth often had to restrict information about this kind of questionable political patronage to ‘private ears’.

In the following century, the pirates of the Caribbean took the form of the ‘Buccaneers’. The first Buccaneers were fleeing sailors, indentured servants, and Protestants who sought their fortunes in the island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) but were then forced off by the Spanish. They settled on the island of Tortuga, just to the north of Hispaniola, and survived by hunting the local fauna and then curing the meat on a wooden contraption (which they learned from the indigenous inhabitants) called a boucan: thus they were called boucaniers. They soon discovered, however, that an easy source of wealth came in the form of attacking Spanish shipping in the Caribbean, and so the Buccaneers became pirates. They could certainly make a ‘buck’ (and an ear) from their violent sea-robberies, and were known for their wild, distinctive appearance: seafarers’ apparel, musket, pistols, cutlass, wooden legs in some cases, and of course gold ‘Buccan-earrings’. The Buccaneers sailed in one-masted ships known as sloops and besides the occasional treasure galleon, tended to attack and seize small Spanish trading vessels known as barques. Thus the Buccaneers tended to sloop around the Caribbean, and if they were not too sloopy, make violent raids on unsuspecting Spanish traders–showing that a Buccaneer’s bite was worse than a Spanish barque.

The two most ferocious and infamous of the seventeenth-century Buccaneers were Jean L’Olonnais and Sir Henry Morgan. L’Olonnais was known for his excessive cruelty, often massacring entire crews in his piratical ventures and raping and pillaging entire towns such as Maracaibo in Venezuela. He often tortured his prisoners to extract information about hidden treasure; in one particularly bloody incident, his response to a captor who didn’t know which road to follow to avoid ambushes was to tear the heart from one prisoner and feed it to another. At least he was nutritionally-minded, as he wanted his prisoners to have a ‘hearty’ diet.

Sir Henry Morgan has enjoyed a better reputation in popular culture, including having his name on a popular brand of spirits (which Virginia Woolf memorialized in her now-lost essay on Morgan, A Rum of One’s Own), but he was no less cruel. He was clearly a redoubtable opponent, as indicated in his defeat (pictured above) of three Spanish men-of-war (well-armed ships) in Lake Maracaibo despite being trapped and outgunned: this showed his fearlessness and Maracai-boldness in battle. He also vanquished and sacked well-fortified towns such as Portobelo and Panama City, thereby pulling off a Panama hat-trick. But like L’Olonnais, he subjected his victims to horrible forms of torture, such that a German moralist like Kant would, if he met this pirate-privateer, certainly not greet him with a ‘guten Morgan’. Nevertheless, he was a clever businessman, investing his ill-gotten gains in real estate in Jamaica and retiring a very wealthy man. The moral of his life-story is surely that crime does pay (if done well). His autobiography/advice manual, if he had written one, could have been entitled Jamaica Fortune by Being a Pirate.

Of course, piracy in the Caribbean would continue into the early eighteenth century, known as the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’–which you can read about in Sarah Toye’s diverting and informative EMT posts on (well-read?) pirates of the Caribbean, piratical DNA from the deep, and Blackbeard’s timely death.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Caribbeanie-Babies Studies Program


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