Piracy has probably existed since man first took to the water. There are reports of piracy from as long ago as the early Roman Empire. Pirates pillaged the seas, and kidnapped for ransom. Even the famous Julius Caesar was the prisoner of pirates at one time. Piracy has given much to our literature and history, including works like Treasure Island and countless documentaries and legends. Of all the pirates and their domains, none has been more inspirational than the Spanish Main, a land of danger, adventure, and treasure.
The Spanish Main
The Spanish Main was a large territory in the New World that was captured by Spain in the late 16th Century. This land contained the empires of the Aztecs and the Incas, two fabulously rich peoples. They had incredible amounts of silver, gold, precious and semi-precious stones. In some places they even had whole buildings covered in gold. Despite their wealth, the natives were easily overthrown by the Spaniards' foreign weapons. Along with the Aztec and Inca empires, this land contained the silver mines of Peru and Ecuador. The land claimed by Spain reached from Northern California to the tip of South America.
The Treasure Fleet
Every year the Spanish sent many ships to the Spanish Main to bring back treasure. These ships were known as the 'Treasure Fleet'. Each year the fleet would collect about 25 million pesos. That was about twice the revenue of the King of England! Obviously the Treasure Fleet and the Spanish Main itself became virtual magnets for pirates of every kind. Because of this threat to her treasure, Spain guarded the fleets with many war galleons, and the land with war fleets, soldiers, and the like. The Spanish Main became a constant battleground.
Many so-called pirates were really privateers. Privateers were privately commissioned crews, ordered by the monarchs of countries like England, France, and the Netherlands to raid and capture enemy ships. Documents would be given to the privateers from the king or queen making this legal, but only in times of official war with the target country. Pirates would capture and steal in war or peace. They were not commissioned by anyone, and therefore piracy, unlike privateering, was illegal. But since the supposed privateers often forged their documents, the line between the two was blurred. A third type of pirate was the buccaneer. These were adventurers of the high seas, drawn by the promise of the Spanish Main. Spain's enemies often made good use of the buccaneers.
The Spanish Armada
The actions of England's privateers were one of the main reasons King Philip II of Spain ordered the famous Spanish Armada built. Its purpose was to attack and overthrow England. However, the Spanish Armada was quickly defeated in 1588 by the English ships and bad weather. Ironically the funding for the ships that defeated the Spanish Armada was mostly what England's privateers had stolen from the Spanish Main and the Treasure Fleets.
Pirates didn't like authority. Navy ships of the various countries were commanded by the (usually unskilled) privileged class, and sailors were often treated miserably by their captains. Pirates had nothing like that. A pirate ship elected its captain through a vote. Contrary to popular belief, most pirate captains didn't command with an iron fist. They commanded because of skill, daring, and the ability to win prize and booty. If the captain fell into disfavour, the crew would be quick to maroon him, or throw him overboard, or perhaps if he were lucky they would just let him off at the nearest port. The captain didn't have all the power; the quartermaster, for instance, would be the one to decide which booty was worth taking. All gold, silver, or coin was taken, but if the ships were cramped, spices and exotic materials were usually burned rather than stolen.
The End of the Spanish Main
Despite some defeats like that of the Spanish Armada, Spain had great military might. In fact it was this strength of arms that kept the worst at bay from the Spanish Main. The military power Spain kept there made it a name to be whispered and a place to be avoided by ships that wanted to stay in one piece. However, spending all her money on the military weakened Spain. It was this faulty investing of her riches that led to the downfall of Spain, her treasure fleets, and the Spanish Main itself.
A few hundred years ago Spain was forced to withdraw from the New World because of financial problems. Today the Spanish Main is just another part of the Americas, and there are no pirates such as the ones that fought with cutlasses and flew the Jolly Roger. We don't have a cultural need for pirates today, as the memory of the old ones lives on. Black flags, burning ships, and peg legs survive in the literature, memories, and dreams of today.