A period during which pirates were most successful was from the 1650s until the 1730s
Piracy flourished in the Caribbean because of the existence of relatively lawless British seaports such as Port Royal in Jamaica and the French settlement at Tortuga. Piracy arose out of the conflicts over trade and colonization among the rival European powers of the time, including the empires of Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and France. Pirates were also depicted as always raising their Jolly Roger flag when preparing to hijack a vessel.
Piracy in the Caribbean resulted from the groups of Europeans, mostly English, Dutch and French, who were marooned or shipwrecked. They were called buccaneers by setting up smokey fires and boucans with prepared meat of marooned cattle, these castaways could get a ship to draw near for trading, at which time the buccaneers could seize the ship. The buccaneers were later chased off the island by colonial powers and had to seek a life at sea. There they created lucrative but illegitimate opportunities for common seamen to attack European merchant ships (especially Spanish fleets sailing from the Caribbean to Europe) and seize their valuable cargo, a practice that began in the 16th century. Piracy was sometimes given “legal” status by colonial powers, especially France under King Francis I (r.1515–1547), in the hope of weakening the sea trade of their rivals who established a mare clausum policy in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. This “legal” form of piracy is known as privateering. From 1520 to 1560, French privateers were alone in their fight against the Crown of Spain and the vast commerce of the Spanish Empire in the New World. They were later joined by English and Dutch privateers.
The growth of buccaneering on Tortuga was augmented by the English capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The early English governors of Jamaica freely granted letters of marque to Tortuga buccaneers and to their own countrymen, while the growth of Port Royal provided these raiders with a far more profitable and enjoyable place to sell their booty. In the 1660s, the new French governor of Tortuga, Bertrand d’Ogeron, similarly provided privateering commissions both to his own colonists and to English cutthroats from Port Royal. These conditions brought Caribbean buccaneering to its zenith.
The Caribbean had become a center of European trade and colonization after Columbus’ discovery of the New World for Spain in 1492. In the 1493 Treaty of Tordesillas the non-European world had been divided between the Spanish and the Portuguese along a north-south line 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde. This gave Spain control of the Americas. On the Spanish Main, the key early settlements were Cartagena in present-day Colombia, Porto Bello and Panama City on the Isthmus of Panama, Santiago on the southeastern coast of Cuba, and Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. In the 16th century, the Spanish were mining staggering amounts of silver bullion from the mines in New Spain(Mexico) and in Bolivia. The huge Spanish silver shipments from the New World to the Old attracted pirates and French privateers, both in the Caribbean and across the Atlantic, all along the route from the Caribbean to Seville.
To combat this constant danger, in the 1560s the Spanish adopted a convoy system. A treasure fleet or flota would sail annually from Seville in Spain, carrying passengers, troops, and European manufactured goods to the Spanish colonies of the New World. This cargo, though profitable, was really just a form of ballast for the fleet as its true purpose was to transport the year’s worth of silver to Europe. The first stage in the journey was the transport of all that silver from the mines in Peru and New Spain in a mule convoy called the Silver Train to a major Spanish port.
The Spanish, despite being the wealthiest state in Christendom at the time, could not afford a sufficient military presence to control such a vast area of ocean or enforce their exclusionary, mercantilist trading laws. These laws allowed only Spanish merchants to trade with the colonists of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. This legal arrangement allowed for constant smuggling to break the Spanish trading laws and new attempts at Caribbean colonization in peacetime by England, France and the Netherlands. Whenever a war was declared in Europe between the Great Powers the result was always widespread piracy and privateering throughout the Caribbean.
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Pirates of the Caribbean • Locations & Activities