England, until the mid-sixteenth century, was Spain’s strongest ally. The friendship between the two countries, however, ended with the death of Mary Tudor in 1558 and “the accession to the throne of Elizabeth I.” Under Elizabeth I, England became a Protestant nation. Queen Elizabeth firmly maintained it was England’s God given right to have a share in the wealth of Spanish America. Every attempt the Queen made to secure friendly trading relations with Spain ended on the brink of disaster. As a result, her attitude towards Spain became bitter.
Throughout the reign of the Tudors, English sailors and merchants engaged in small-scale raids in the Caribbean, not funded by the English crown. Their aim was purely out of individual interests for personal wealth and profit. Under Elizabeth I, piracy became a national business. It was one which attracted Protestant men from other parts of Western Europe. “Between 1568 and 1572 French and Dutch Protestant privateers went into partnership with England’s West Country pirates.”
One of the most notorious pirates of the era was Sir Francis Drake. He was most renowned for his skills as a seaman and privateer. In 1572, Elizabeth I granted him a commission to sail over the Atlantic, plunder Caribbean and coastal villages, and bring the booty back to the English court. Drake’s voyage almost ended in disaster. More than half his men, including his brother, died from disease and injuries in the swampy jungles of the Panama. His dismal expedition made a drastic improvement when he and his men came across a mule train stacked with bars of silver and gold. Drake, with the help of his remaining crew captured it, violently seizing all of the precious metal from the helpless Spanish merchants. This expedition earned him a title and immense fortune when he returned to England. His success on this commission also earned him the firm respect and backing of the Queen. Elizabeth granted Drake a second commission, and in 1577, he sailed once again across the Atlantic with the intention of sailing through the straight of Magellan in Southern Chile.
It took him sixteen days to sail through the Magellan straight before he entered the Pacific Ocean. Drake then sailed up the Coast of Southern America, ruthlessly attacking Spanish merchant ships. He took more than half of all precious metals and other exotic goods from these ships. His ship, the Golden Hind nearly sank underneath the heavy weight of the gold and silver bars, gems and minted Spanish coins. Even after throwing half of his booty into the ocean to keep his ship afloat, Drake still “yielded a 4,700 per cent profit.”
When Drake arrived in Plymouth Harbour, his ship filled with treasure and spices, he was welcomed by the Queen with a huge public celebration. She gave him royal approval for his piratical activities in Spain’s imperial waters by knighting him on board the Golden Hind. This greatly encouraged many common English sailors who sailed for the Caribbean in increasing numbers. Of course, not all sailors were sanctioned by the crown. Much like the pirates of the Tudor era, these men were attracted to the precious metals and other treasures of Spanish America. They were determined to obtain a significant portion of this wealth for themselves.
As the seventeenth century progressed, piracy in the Caribbean increasingly became an individual business not sanctioned by the crown. This form of piracy reached its zenith in the last decade of the seventeenth century and in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Piracy declined throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the development of steam engines and the growth of the British and American navies. Piracy, however, did not vanish altogether. In recent times, a number of cargo vessels have been the target of modern-day pirates. Piracy in the Caribbean still continues today but is most prevalent in the “waters off Indonesia and Somalia.” It is highly doubtable if piracy will ever end. It will last as long as people continue to create new and criminal ways of obtaining economic wealth without having to work for it.
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: Arcturus 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.