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Piracy in South America

Beginning with the voyages of Columbus, the Caribbean Sea was transformed into a Spanish lake. The term “the Spanish Main” was applied to the Caribbean basin and the northern coast of South America. It stretched from the Isthmus of Panama to the mouth of the Orinoco River, incorporating a number of offshore islands such as Trinidad, Tobago, and Margarita.

Spanish settlement was concentrated in the Greater Antilles and Hispaniola, where they established their first permanent settlement at Santo Domingo. Although the Spaniards failed to find much gold there, Santo Domingo rapidly became the mother settlement from which relay migration funneled settlers to Mexico and other areas of Latin America.

When Cortés defeated the Aztec people, he sent back to Spain a cargo of treasure that included two gold necklaces, one studded with 185 emeralds, the other with 172 emeralds and 10 pearls. That was the beginning of Spain’s system for acquiring New World gold: steal it, stamp it, ship it.

With treasure, of course, came crime. As shipping cargoes increased in size and value, so did their risk of capture and theft. Piracy was inevitable.

When the treasure fleets, called flotas, began sailing in the 16th century, Spain’s powerful, royally controlled House of Trade (Casa de Contración) ordered merchant ships to travel in convoys guarded by armed warships. Colonists could trade only with merchantmen approved by the House of Trade. Most authorized trade was bestowed on the flota, which typically numbered from 30 to 90 ships.

In a typical year the first of the two annual treasure fleets left Spain, entering the Caribbean near Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. Here the flota usually split in two and followed courses that took them to the ports of the Spanish Main, as the English called the northern coast of South America and the Caribbean islands. One convoy sailed to Veracruz where it unloaded its goods. The second followed a course that took the ships to Cartagena, Colombia, and west to Porto Bello, Panama, which was the collecting point for silver from the mines of Peru. In late summer the merchant ships and war galleons sailed to Havana to form the treasure fleet. In theory, the warships defended the merchant vessels against pirates. Often, however, ships were scattered due to bad weather or poor seamanship. Undefended ships often fell victim to pirates on the high seas.

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