A History of Piracy in the Caribbean: Part 1

Very often when people think of piracy, famous historic pirates Captain Kidd, Bartholomew Roberts, Calico Jack, and Disney’s renowned Captain Cook and Jack Sparrow come to mind. Throughout the ages, writers and filmmakers have aggrandized the lives of pirates without fully acknowledging why ‘piracy’ in the Caribbean began and why such men chose to live outside the law. In order to delve into this subject, one must first examine the historical events that lead to the rise of piracy in the Caribbean.

In response to Columbus’s discovery of the Caribbean Islands, Pope Alexander VI took action to clear up confusions that might arise between Spain and Portugal over newly acquired territory. He issued the Treaty of Tordesillas, a decree that “established an imaginary line running north and south through the mid-Atlantic.” Under these terms, Spain held possession of unclaimed territory west of the line and Portugal held possession of unclaimed territory to the east of the line.

In 1519, a decade later, Hernan Cortes “mounted an expedition to Mexico” and with a few hundred Spanish conquistadores and thousands of Indian allies, he “crushed the Aztec empire.” After his victory, in August 1521, Cortes sent three ships full of remnants of the fallen Aztec empire home to Spain to prove King Charles V of his triumph. On board included “gold and silver bars, three hundred pounds of pearls, large emeralds, jade statuettes, feathered masks, ceremonial robes and three live jaguars.” These goods were to show the immense wealth of Spain’s newly conquered territories.

Both the Treaty of Tordesillas and the Spanish conquest of Mexico brought on the attention of other western European powers. Neither the French nor English Monarchs were willing to accept this Treaty. These powers commonly agreed that they were being robbed of their economic prosperity. Throughout the sixteenth century and for half of the seventeenth century much of the money in Royal coffers was spent on the improvement of land based warfare, and on the building of elaborate palaces. As a result, Monarchs’ could not afford to fund navies and pay sailors to fight Spain for access to the precious metals and other valuable resources of her overseas colonies. At the same time, they were not willing to let Spain have all the wealth. Monarchs’ privately funded bands of privateers to plunder Spanish vessels and bring back stolen goods to heir home country. The first of these Monarchies was King Francis I of France.


A Brief History of Piracy on The History Channel Website, http://www.history.com

Cawthorne, Nigel. A History of Pirates: Blood and thunder on the high seas. London; Toronto: rcturus Publishing Limited, 2003.

Koeller, David W, “The Treaty of Tordesillas: 1494” in the Central and South America
Chronology (1998)http://www.thenagain.info/WebChron/Americas/Tordesillas.html
Accessed 29 July, 2008.


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