I find the colonization and trade patterns of the new world extremely fascinating. I recently learned a few fun and interesting facts, somewhat generalizing some history below in the sake of making it simple.
The pope acting on behalf of God granted Spain the entire western hemisphere, with the exception of Brazil which he bequeathed to Portugal. In the late 15th Century, just a year after Columbus “discovered” America, one man increased Spain’s real estate 80 times it’s size. The Spanish couldn’t possibly defend such a huge chunk of land so they ignored anything north of Virginia, allowing French and English settlements along the east coast in North America.
Spain also had huge problems securing land and precious goods in the Caribbean. The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese all wanted a piece of the action, each dominating and conquering different islands throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jamaica, Haiti, and Nassau were all strategic and sought after seaports. Since the royal navies were engaged in what seems like constant warfare, they encouraged, financially supported, and legally backed privateers. Robbing enemies boosted the colonial economy and helped finance their war efforts.
So what’s the difference between a privateer and pirate?
Privateers were licensed to attack enemy ships for a percentage of the plunder. They were like private contractors who profited during times of war. In periods of peace, they became desperate and turned towards piracy, capturing and looting any ship they could. Pirates is a generic definition referring to anyone who uses the sea to commit theft. So privateers are basically legal pirates.
Between the 16th-18th century Spain was often a target of theft since they manipulated and controlled trade routes. By the early 18th century, Spain had three highly armed treasure fleets with 30-90 vessels. Two of these fleets sailed every spring across the Atlantic from Seville, Spain to the new world. The ships hulls were filled with soldiers, weapons, wine and European goods needed in the American colonies. The New Spain fleet sailed to Veracruz, Mexico and loaded gold, silver and goods from a third Manila Fleet bringing porcelain, silk and other products back from Asia. The Tierre Firme fleet headed to Cartagena, Columbia to collect millions in silver and other goods from various ports. The two ships met up in Havana, Cuba and sailed together through the Straits of Florida back to Spain loaded with treasure.
Hurricanes were also a threat to these fleets, the worst occurring in 1622, 1715, 1733 and 1750. The remains of the 1715 fleet is one of the most sought after among treasure hunters. The fleet departed Havana on July 24th. The first five days were uneventful with the six day bringing large swells and early signs of a tropical storm. By 2:00 am on July 31st, a hurricane hit at full force destroying the entire fleet with the exception of the Grifon, which is believed to have survived the devastation by defiantly staying one-half point farther northeast than the rest of the ships. The fleet had no chance and were smashed against the Florida shoals, south of Cape Canaveral. In total, over seven hundred lives were lost, eleven ships destroyed and more than 14 million pesos of registered treasure submerged.
Seamen also had to deal with diseases such as scurvy, the plague, malaria and typhus. Their ships often corroded from the salt air and it was difficult to get replacement parts. This is still true today, and living in the Bahamas a personal nuisance. Our golf carts and boats are constantly breaking and corroding due to the harsh saline environment.