The myth of English piracy: less than 1% of Spanish galleons were captured

Cesar Cervera

Anglo-Saxon literature and propaganda have exaggerated the episodes of a war that Spain won. Between 1540 and 1650, of the 11,000 ships that made the America-Spain route, only 107 were lost due to pirate attacks.

English historiography has insisted on repeating that pirate activity was a constant source of problems, with privateers of dubious morale like Francis Drake or John Hawkins at the head, for the transfer of gold, silver and other goods from the New World to Spain. Thus, according to the image still present in the cinema and in literature, Felipe II and the rest of the Spanish monarchs of the Habsburg dynasty ended up desperate in the face of the attacks sponsored by the English monarchy and other European kingdoms. However, the numbers of ships that arrived in the Spanish ports deny this romantic and falsified version of history. The Fleet of the Indies was revealed as a solid, almost seamless system.

Engraving from the time where Queen Elizabeth I knights the privateer Francis Drake

Engraving from the time where queen Elizabeth I knights the privateer Francis Drake

“The sun shines for me as for others. I would like to see the clause in Adam’s testament that excludes me from the division of the world”, assured the French King Francisco I after the Treaty of Tordesillas, where the Spanish and Portuguese divided the New World with the approval of Pope Alexander VI. And of course the two Iberian empires – later joined together by Felipe II – were not willing to share their inheritance. That is why the French monarchy and other enemies of the empire began to finance pirate expeditions against the ships used by the Spanish to transport goods.

In 1521, French pirates under the command of Juan Florin managed to capture part of what is known as “Moctezuma’s treasure”, the bulk of the wealth that Hernán Cortés sent to Carlos V after the conquest of Tenochtitlan, opening a whole new avenue for assaults and approaches. However, the Spanish soon learned to defend themselves against French pirates, who were later joined by the English and Dutch, through impressive galleons, better armed than the pirate ships, and a convoy system that centuries later, would serve the allied nations in the World War I to structure their defense against the German submarines.

Between 1540 and 1650 – the period with the greatest flow in the transport of gold and silver – of the 11,000 ships that made the America-Spain route, 519 ships were lost, the majority due to storms and other reasons of a natural nature. Only 107 did so due to pirate attacks, that is to say, less than 1%, according to the calculations of Fernando Martínez Laínez in his book “Tercios de España: Una infantry legendaria”. A very small damage, explained by the great effectiveness of the convoy system organized by Philip II.

Thus, the Monarch established by Royal Decree as soon as he reached the throne the conditions to ensure a naval defense system immune to pirate attacks. The voyage of the Fleet of the Indies took place twice a year. The starting point was located in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the fleet carried out the last inspections, and from there it left for La Gomera, in the Canary Islands.

After the aguada -the collection of water on land -, the squad made up of about 30 ships sailed between twenty and thirty days, depending on the weather conditions, to the islands of Dominica or Martinique (Central America) where supplies were replenished. Throughout the entire journey, the convoy was led by the flagship and the best-armed galleons stood to the windward – where the wind blows – to provide escort for the group. The overall goal was that no ship was lost from sight or strayed on its own. And at night the ships lit a huge lantern aft to serve as a reference to the one behind them.

The Spanish convoy system, whose theorist was captain Menéndez de Avilés, would be copied by England and the United States in the two world wars. But the true proof that it fulfilled its purpose is that only two convoys were completely seized in all its history: the first, in 1628, close to Matanzas (Cuba), at the hands of the Dutch admiral Piet Heyn; and a second time in 1656.

Was the Spanish Empire wounded by piracy?

Unable to attack the Indian Fleet or large galleons, the activity of Francis Drake and others of his size was limited in most cases to attacks against defenseless Caribbean populations. Not surprisingly, the defensive system of some Spanish towns was really deficient and it was easy to take advantage of the incompetence of the local governors. For example, on January 1st, 1586, the aforementioned Drake took the city of Santo Domingo for a month and then burned it with impunity.

However, after the disaster of the Armada in 1588, Felipe II took the problem of piracy seriously and allocated eight million ducats for new ships and fortifications in the Caribbean. These, like the impregnable Cartagena de Indias, were reinforced by the best architects of the Empire. A logistical effort that accelerated the decline of this type of piracy, sponsored and promoted in the shadows by countries such as England, France, or the Netherlands. It should be remembered that, although characters like Drake had a privateering license, Spain did not recognize these pirates as corsairs but as pirates, since they acted in times of peace.

It is for all these reasons that the historian Germán Vázquez Chamorro downplays the influence that piracy could have on the decline of the Spanish Empire. In his opinion, the most famous pirates raised to fame, especially by English literature and propaganda, actually attacked fishing boats or boats of little or no value to the Spanish Crown. In fact, the enemies of Spain stopped allying with the pirates when they discovered other methods to gain ground from this empire. Thus, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all nations conspired to mercilessly hunt down and punish pirates.

Sources

This post was translated from:

Cervera, C. (2015) ‘El mito de la piratería inglesa: menos del 1 % de los galeones españoles fue apresado’, ABC, Madrid, 28 April. Available at: https://www.abc.es/espana/20141109/abci-mito-pirateria-inglesa-capturaron-201411081642.html (Accessed: 5 February 2021).

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1534 Sebastián de Belalcázar founded the city of Quito (Ecuador), with the name of San Francisco de Quito.

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