SINCE GOD created the world there has been no empire in it as extensive as that of Spain, for from its rising to its setting the “ sun never ceases to shine for one instant on its lands.” So wrote the Spaniard Francisco Ugarte de Hermosa in 1655. For about one hundred years, from about the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century, Spain was undoubtedly the most powerful nation in Europe, in command of an empire that did indeed, as Hermosa so proudly stated, extend around the globe. Spanish ships dominated in the Atlantic Ocean, Spanish ships dominated in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Spanish armies dominated a significant portion of Europe. For much of this period, Portugal too was a superpower: Portuguese ships dominated the African coast, the Indian Ocean and Indonesia. The wealth of the world was transported in a maritime network of trade routes that were thousands of miles long and could take months or even a year to sail—all to enrich the royal houses of Spain and Portugal.
In 1581, after many generations of corruption and conflict, these royal houses were finally united when the young Portuguese King Sebastian I died without an heir and the crown was ultimately claimed by Philip II of Spain, the son of Charles I and Isabel of Portugal. Since Philip was heir to both the Spanish and the Portuguese crowns, both halves of the non-Christian world as defined by the papal proclamations and the Treaties of Tordesillas and Zaragoza were now under the control of a single monarch. It was under Philip II and his successor Philip III that the Spanish Empire reached its apogee, its golden age rhapsodized by Francisco Ugarte de Hermosa, with territories on nearly every continent and power over huge swaths of Europe. But it was also during this time of Spanish and Portuguese ascendancy that the most serious threat to European unity occurred.
In 1517, a middle-aged priest and professor of theology in the German town of Wittenberg had become ever more frustrated with what he believed were corrupt practices within the Catholic church. What particularly bothered him was the sale of indulgences, which absolved Catholics of the need to do penance for their confessed sins, and the practice of simony, or the selling of church offices, which occurred nearly as often then as it had during the days of Pope Alexander VI, a generation earlier. At this time Pope Leo Xwas attempting to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and had sent agents to Germany to increase the sale of indulgences for this purpose. One of these agents, Johann Tetzel, is believed to be the man who claimed, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther, offended that anyone would have the audacity even to presume to sell freedom from God’s punishment, wrote the “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document, which has become known as the “Ninety-Five Theses,” he nailed to the church door at the university for public viewing. He posed many searching questions, such as: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” Essentially, Luther challenged what he believed to be the ingrained corruption of the church hierarchy, which extended all way to the pope.
The Ninety-Five Theses were quickly translated from Luther’s original Latin text into German and other languages. Aided by the printing press, these translations made their way, in cheap pamphlet editions, to France, England, Italy and beyond. Luther’s ideas were taken up by others and quickly and popularly accepted, reflecting the general anger at corruption and the frustration with local taxes and tithes being siphoned away to Rome instead of remaining closer to home. Eventually Luther was ordered to retract his theses both by Pope Leo X, who was a young man in Florence during the time of Alexander VI, and by Charles I, the new king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, who had recently sent Magellan off around the world. In 1521, when Luther refused to back down, the pope excommunicated him and the emperor pronounced him an outlaw, making it a crime to support or shelter him and perfectly legal to kill him. Undeterred, Luther widened his criticism of the church and challenged the legitimacy of the papacy to represent individual Christians. Soon there were more revolts and uprisings and an ever-increasing number of preachers espoused similar doctrines of Christians’ spiritual independence. In England, the conflict famously revolved around Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon (the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella).
The Protestant Reformation had many regional variations and often it was linked with politics, but by the end of the sixteenth century most of Europe was at war over religion. The northern, Protestant nations of England and the Netherlands were aligned against the southern, Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal, with France, containing both Catholics and Protestants, balanced between. J.H. Parry nicely sums up the situation in his comprehensive book The Spanish Seaborne Empire: “As the maritime nations of the North-West, aggressive, piratical and Protestant, threatened Spain in Europe as well as in the Americas, it was natural that Catholicism in Spain and in America should become more intransigent, more suspicious of empiricism and rationalism and the new sciences of Europe.”
This questioning of the church’s authority and of the spiritual unity of Europe did not go without challenge. Philip II, who ruled from 1556 to 1598, viewed himself as the foremost defender of Catholicism in Europe. Rather than countenance the growth of Protestantism in his territories, he chose military suppression of dissenting religious views and avidly supported the Catholic League in France, which sought to kill or otherwise eradicate any Protestants. Any deviation from official Catholic beliefs and practices, he decided, was blasphemy and heresy, and punishable by death. Philip II had a great deal of gold and silver bullion from the Americas to back up his convictions: the wealth that Spain and Portugal had obtained through their monopolies was astronomical, enabling the economies of these two nations to dwarf those of other European nations, and Philip channelled this wealth into defending the primacy of the Roman church. He also financed the Holy League in the Mediterranean and halted Ottoman advances in Europe, particularly after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation led to an interminable string of religious wars between the Catholic church and the numerous breakaway Protestant sects. The Habsburg dynasty of Charles and Philip’s lineage, the hereditary rulers of Spain, Portugal and diverse regions in central Europe such as Austria, the Netherlands and a significant part of Germany, were staunchly Catholic and disinclined to tolerate religious freedom or diversity within their realms. Many of the local German and Dutch nobility were Protestant and received financial and military aid from other regions sympathetic to their cause, such as Denmark, France and Sweden. In the mid-seventeenth century this conflict culminated in the terrible struggle known as the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648), in which the resulting devastation and plundering killed somewhere between a quarter and more than a third of the population of central Europe. The Thirty Years War did not end until the Peace of Westphalia, when the nations agreed that local princes would have the right to establish the official religion in their state, but would respect variations of the faith. This agreement effectively ended the temporal and political power of the papacy in Europe.
In a not entirely coincidental corollary, western Europe was divided into two groups: nations that were the beneficiaries of the Treaty of Tordesillas and those that were excluded, and this division coincided with religious affiliation. Spain and Portugal remained staunchly Catholic while the Netherlands or England and, to a lesser degree, France—the countries that stood to benefit most from a disbandment of the provisions of the treaty—leaned most strongly to the Protestant cause. By having so blatantly chosen favourites in 1494, Pope Alexander VI had helped to erode the unifying and common spiritual affinity among European nations. The division of the world was yet one more grievance blocking reconciliation between religious factions in the sixteenth century. To accept papal authority meant being shut out of world commerce and accepting second-class status as a nation.
Prior to the Reformation, few ships crossed the line of demarcation. But when the maritime nations of England and the Dutch Republic broke with the Catholic church, the arbitrary line was increasingly ignored. Throughout the sixteenth century, there was an escalating struggle for unhindered access to the waterways of the world, while Spain and Portugal fought to retain these avenues for their sole use. The northern European nations at first settled their internecine quarrels with licensed privateers as the weapon of choice, which lay in wait to plunder returning treasure fleets of Spain and the spice-laden caravels of Portugal. But now that they had thrown off their former spiritual leader, the economic reasons to challenge Spain and Portugal and sail to regions of the world where they had formerly been forbidden to enter seemed more feasible. Why not trade or plunder in the formerly forbidden corners of the world? They could strike a blow at their enemy and at the same time perhaps make a profit while stimulating the growth of their merchant marine fleets.
THE FIRST English mariner to truly defy the Spanish monopoly of the West Indies was Sir John Hawkins. The son of a West Country mariner who had shipped slaves from Africa to Brazil, Hawkins heard of the demand for goods and slaves in the Indies and speculated that many Spanish landowners and merchants would be willing to risk a breach of Spanish law to get what they needed. With the backing of a consortium of wealthy Bristol and London merchants, Hawkins sailed from England with three ships in 1562.
His first destination was Sierra Leone, where he captured or traded for over three hundred African slaves. Cramming his human cargo into the reeking holds of his vessels, he plunged west across the Atlantic to Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, entered the port, disembarked a band of armed men and demanded the right to trade. Since 1540, Spanish colonial officials had been ordered not to trade with any foreigners—the punishment for illegal trading was a severe fine, loss of official title or death by decapitation. Merchants and landowners on the islands, however, pressured the officials to allow goods to be traded, secretly and illegally if necessary. Because they needed what the traders offered, they devised an ingenious face-saving scheme.
To preserve his reputation (and his official appointment) Lorenzo Bernáldez, governor of Santo Domingo, made a pretence of armed resistance against the English fleet. In reports to the Spanish Crown he implied that Hawkins had threatened the colony with destruction unless the English were allowed to trade peacefully. Part of Bernáldez’s agreement with Hawkins was that the English traders were to “give” 104 slaves to Bernáldez as payment to enter the market, ostensibly ransom for the English soldiers who had been “captured” during the conflict. Bernáldez accepted the bribe, and presumably sold the slaves later. After donating over two-thirds of his cargo to appease the many government officials, Hawkins was able to reload all his ships to capacity with hides, ginger, sugar and pearls.
As Hawkins and his crew happily departed, both parties were pleased with their simple scheme. Although he blundered by trying to sell his contraband in Spain (a portion was confiscated by suspicious officials), this error did not deter Hawkins. By October 1564 he had sailed from England again, this time with four ships.
He followed the same trade route, but with one change: he stopped his fleet for a brief holiday in the Canary Islands, where his English crew, never having been to the tropics, feasted on plums and sweet grapes, drank nectar and wine and generally enjoyed themselves. Reluctantly leaving the idyllic island, the traders navigated south to the African coast, where they traded and captured more humans in Guinea and loaded them onto the ships for the Atlantic crossing. The voyage was bad for the English but worse for the Africans, chained in the steamy, stinking hold of primitive galleons without clean air or water. The brutality of the trade is impossible to comprehend.
Losing the wind for eighteen days, the ships were becalmed in the doldrums. Water became extremely scarce, the food went foul and morale plummeted. Luckily, according to John Sparke the Younger, who wrote the only report of the voyage, “the Almighty God who never suffereth his elect to perish, sent us the sixteenth of Februarie, the ordinary Brise, which is the Northwest winde, which never left us, till wee came to an island of the Canybals, called Dominica, where wee arrived the ninth of March.” Desperate for water, Hawkins ventured to the land of the Caribs, “the most desperate warriors that are in the Indies.” The Caribs were a fierce and violent people, noted for their refusal to allow strangers into their territory. The violence of the Caribs of the Lesser Antilles was one of the primary reasons the Spanish had failed to occupy those lands. Spanish military expeditions against them had consistently failed, and the crews of wrecked vessels on their islands were frequently killed and consumed. Fortunately for the English, a drought had forced the Caribs from the coast, preventing a bloody conflict.
Spanish officials were aware that Hawkins had arrived in the West Indies. He had attempted to trade at Margarita, but was unable to negotiate a deal—not all Spanish colonial governors were willing to disregard the laws. Hawkins had equally poor luck with the Spanish soldiers at Cumana, on the Spanish Main, but local natives traded with him for fruits, potatoes, corn and pineapples. Cruising along the coast of the mainland (Venezuela), Hawkins encountered more natives on a small island who tried to lure him ashore by displaying golden trinkets. He declined the offer, later learning that these were cannibalistic Caribs who knew of the Europeans’ desire for gold, and that they would almost certainly have attacked and devoured the party, as they had reputedly done with Spanish crews before.
Hawkins continued north along the coast, eventually arriving on April 3 at Borburata on the Venezuela coast. He produced a letter addressed to Alonzo Bernáldez, the governor of Venezuela. The letter was written by Alonzo’s nephew, Lorenzo Bernáldez, the governor of Hispaniola, with whom Hawkins had traded the previous year. Lorenzo suggested to his nephew that trading with the English was very profitable and easily arranged, despite Spanish law. Still Alonzo refused. Hawkins demanded the right to trade, agreeing to pay a tariff. Alonzo, in turn, demanded a tariff so high that the English refused to pay (thirty gold ducats per African slave—enough to erode all profit, even at inflated colonial prices). Hawkins began marching towards the town with armed soldiers, issuing threats to the people. Faced with a violent English “army,” Alonzo finally agreed to Hawkins’s terms.
The official show of force, though a farce, was needed to keep the governor’s head from rolling. The elaborate game had to be played, the charade enacted, but as long the price was right both sides were willing players. Hawkins made a substantial profit, local citizens could trade for their slaves and the governor appeared to be a patriotic master negotiator by “buying off” violent English mercenaries who undoubtedly would have plundered the town. This was the pattern for business in the Spanish colonies in the Americas during the late sixteenth century. And Borburata was apparently a popular port; before Hawkins departed, an “illegal” French ship arrived in the harbour, battered and damaged from enduring a storm off the coast of Africa. That night a contingent of nearly two hundred Caribs silently canoed towards the town, hoping for a surprise assault. The attack failed, however, possibly because of the alertness occasioned by the illegal trading. The Caribs were defeated and fled, except for one who was captured, impaled in the town square and left to die slowly. A jagged carved stake was “thrust through his fundament, and so out his neck” according to John Sparke. Whether or not the French ship was able to trade is not known.
Hawkins continued to ply his trade throughout the Caribbean, first continuing on to Rio de la Hacha on the mainland, then to Santo Domingo. His elaborate ruse of conflict was played out at Rio de la Hacha, more bribes were paid, and enthusiastic trading followed. Ever on the lookout, Hawkins did thwart one serious attempt at treachery when Spanish soldiers tried secretly to manoeuvre artillery near the harbour entrance, perhaps hoping to blast his ships and claim their cargo. Hawkins quickly moved his ships to the far side of the harbour. The trade remained profitable, and by June, with ships loaded to capacity, he departed to explore the islands and coastline of the Caribbean Sea. His four-ship squadron was alternately churned by violent storms, stalled by poor winds and disoriented by strange ocean currents; two ships were almost wrecked on shallow reefs off the coast of southern Florida. Finally arriving at Fort Caroline, a primitive French settlement on the west coast of Florida, the English flotilla put in for supplies and a rest. After lingering with the French settlers, Hawkins took note of the region’s peculiar weather and current patterns, charted some of the coast and finally headed north to Newfoundland, where he traded with French fishers for salted cod. All four of his ships returned triumphantly to England by September 20. The profit from this voyage was enormous for a trading expedition. Hawkins, his crew and his financial backers were all pleased with the venture, and soon another expedition was outfitted. Clearly the days of an unchallenged Spanish monopoly on trade in the Caribbean were quickly drawing to a close.
Hawkins led a third expedition from Plymouth on October 2, 1567, this time with a squadron of six ships outfitted for both defence and trade. Travelling with him on this voyage was his cousin, a young seaman named Francis Drake. Drake, later called El Dracoby the Spanish, had voyaged to the Caribbean once before, in 1566. Under the command of John Lovell, he had tried to trade slaves at Rio de la Hacha (the agreement had been arranged the year before by Hawkins) but due to inexperience had failed to successfully pull off the scheme. In 1567 Drake was again ready to venture “beyond the line.” The English marauders sailed to Guinea to capture or trade for more African slaves, but encountered more difficulty than usual. Hawkins’s trade contact, a West African tribal leader, had no slaves to trade and so proposed a joint attack on an inland tribe. Although Hawkins captured over 450 tribesmen during the raid, their resistance was fierce and resulted in the deaths of ten of his sailors. Resigned to the loss of his mariners (yet clearly unconcerned with the plight of the Africans), Hawkins departed Africa, crossed the Atlantic and landed at Santo Domingo, where he traded humans for cloth, food, corn and iron. His ships then proceeded to Borburata, where they had traded successfully in previous years.
They were not so fortunate this time. Illegal trade with the Spanish colonies had expanded at an alarming rate. Five separate fleets called to trade in Borburata in 1567. Prior to Hawkins’s arrival, one French fleet and one English fleet, under the command of John Lovell, Drake’s partner from the previous year, had already landed, traded and departed. The market there was saturated with slaves, so Hawkins continued along the coast searching for a market for his wares. At Rio de la Hacha, Hawkins “attacked” the town after the citizens refused to trade. During the assault, two of his men were pierced with “H’arquebuse shot” and died, but the town was taken with “no hurt done to the Spaniards because after their volley of shot discharged, they all fled.”
When colonial authorities reported the incident to officials in Spain, they reported that the English force was over six hundred strong and that thirty had died taking the town before the governor, badly outnumbered, was forced to submit to their extortions. The report to the Spanish authorities told how the governor “had rendered such signal service that all were astonished by his great valour, for certainly it was a business that today, looking back on it, fills with fright those who were present and those who hear it related.” Frightened as they were, the Spanish citizens paid with gold, silver and pearls for slaves and cloth. Trade was booming.
Continuing their coasting along the Spanish Main, Hawkins’s flotilla neared Cartagena on July 12. Here the resistance to the English traders was genuine. “At Cartagena the last towne we thought to have seen on the coast, we could by no means obtaine to deal with any Spaniard, the governor was so straight, and because our trade was so neare finished we thought not good either to adventure any landing, or to detract further time, but in peace departed from thence the 24th of July.” This turned out to be the only city to seriously resist the English traders. Hoping to leave the Caribbean before the hurricane season, the fleet headed towards the Florida straits. Near the western tip of Cuba, however, “an extreme storme which continued by the space of foure dayes” struck. Hoping for sanctuary, they “sought the coast of Florida, where we found no place nor Haven for our ships, because of the shalownesse of the coast.” Damaged and helpless, the fleet was sucked farther into the Gulf of Mexico by the strong currents.
The only sheltered port in the region was that of Vera Cruz, on the east coast of New Spain, as the former empire of the Aztecs was then called. Filled with entrepreneurial spirit, Hawkins captured three Spanish ships and their more than one hundred passengers as he neared Vera Cruz. He planned to use the “hostages” as a bargaining ploy, “the better to obtaine victuals for our money, and a quiet place for the repairing of our fleet.” The arrival of six armed English ships in Vera Cruz surprised the port authorities. Hawkins noted that the harbour was crowded with “twelve ships which had in them by report two hundred thousand pound in gold and silver.” While his ships slipped into the harbour, the annual treasure fleet (the Flota), which contained the collected bullion from all of New Spain for an entire year, was waiting for an armed convoy to arrive and escort them back to Spain.
Hawkins had neither the force nor the inclination to assault this massive fleet. Using his hostages for security, he began repairing his damaged ships. Then the Spanish war galleons arrived from Seville: thirteen huge, well armed man-o-wars, bristling with soldiers and cannons. Hawkins had two choices: block the Spanish ships from entering the harbour, thereby condemning his fleet to destruction in the September hurricanes, or allow the fleet to enter and risk capture once they were safe. “I am in two dangers, and forced to receive the one of them,” Hawkins noted in his journal. “Fearing the Queen Majesties indignation in so weightie a matter” (England and Spain were officially at peace), Hawkins chose to “abide the jutt of the uncertainty, than the certaintie.” He decided to allow the Spanish fleet to enter after securing their promise to permit him to finish his repairs and depart unmolested. He manoeuvred his small fleet to the low island breakwater (upwind and up-current from the rest of the harbour, should their mooring lines be cut), and exchanged ten hostages with the Spanish officials.
Martin Enríquez, the new viceroy of New Spain, who had arrived with the fleet, readily agreed to Hawkins’s terms, noting, “I well believe that your honour’s arrival in that port was forced by the great need your honour had of subsistence and other things . . . Wherefore I am content to accept the proposal which your honour makes in your letter . . . I well believe that although the people of this fleet enter without arms into the island, they will not be prevented from going about their affairs, nor harassed in any fashion. And I am very confident that when we meet, friendship will augment between these fleets, since both are so well disciplined.”
The colonial officials with whom Hawkins had dealt in the past were distant from the Spanish court, and their interests and his own were not altogether different—mutual trade. The viceroy of New Spain, however, had his own agenda. His career, and perhaps his life, depended on apprehending the English interlopers, who, by Spanish law, were not even allowed to be in the Spanish half of the world, let alone trading there or dictating rights of entry into Vera Cruz harbour to the Spanish imperial fleet and the viceroy of New Spain. Enríquez had no intention of letting the English ships depart.
The viceroy’s scheme was to secretly load 150 troops, well-armed with arquebuses, swords and shields, aboard a nine-hundred-ton hulk, which would be let loose to drift near to the English ships. When it was alongside them, the Spaniards would burst forth and begin the battle. Meanwhile, shore troops would attack the small island where Hawkins had stationed his sailors and artillery. But Hawkins suspected a plan: “Some appearance shewed, as shifting of weapons from ship to ship, planting and bending of ordnance from the ships to the Iland where our men warded, passing too and fro of companies of men more than required for their necessary business, and many other ill likelihoods, which caused us to have a vehement suspicion.” The viceroy assured him that there was no need for concern. As evening approached, though, the hulk drifted near Hawkins’s ships. Fearing a Spanish plot, he ordered his squadron to sail as quickly as possible. Then the Spanish hulk opened fire.
Seizing Hawkins’s envoy, the viceroy sounded the attack. Hawkins mournfully remembered that “our men which warded a shore being stricken with sudden feare, gave place, fled, and sought to recover succor of the ships; the Spaniards being before provided for the purpose landed in all places in multitudes from their ships which they might easily doe without boats, and slewed all our men a shore without mercie. A fewe escaped aboard the Jesus. The great ship which had by the estimation three hundred men placed in her secretly, immediately fell aboord the Minion.” A raging battle ensued, during which the town of Vera Cruz was plundered by uncontrolled Spanish troops.
Fortunately for Hawkins, the viceroy had signalled the attack before the hulk was perfectly aligned with the English fleet, giving them time to prepare for the onslaught. Hundreds of Spanish soldiers leaped from the hulk, fighting to board the English ships. In desperation, the lightly armed English sailors retaliated furiously, blasting the Spaniards with small cannons and hacking at them with swords, but it was a lost cause. They were far outnumbered and outgunned. Hundreds of English traders were slain in the first assault, while others slipped into the murky depths of the harbour and drowned, or were captured and later tortured and killed.
Against all odds, three of the six ships in Hawkins’s fleet slipped their moorings and escaped through the narrows to the open sea, only to be relentlessly pounded by Spanish shore artillery. One of the ships was nearly blasted apart, its rigging shredded beyond repair and its spars and masts snapped by cannon shot. Hawkins manoeuvred the vessel to use it as a shield in protecting the remaining two. Then, through the smoke and mist, a burning fire-barge, loaded with pitch and oil, came lumbering towards Hawkins’s beleaguered trio of ships. Most of the men escaped before the barge hit, but some were stranded on board and later taken captive from the burning wreckage. The acrid clouds of spent gunpowder, billowing smoke from burning sails and ships, and approaching dusk probably saved Hawkins’s crew from utter destruction.
During the night Francis Drake took command of the smallest ship and fled to England. Hawkins and his compatriots were left in a terrible situation. They were stranded with a badly damaged ship, with almost no provisions and dozens of wounded (among three hundred survivors) in a hostile land. Fortunately another storm prevented the Spanish fleet from leaving the harbour. After repulsing the English fleet, the viceroy immediately commanded his troops to begin repairing the damaged treasure ships and war galleons for the Atlantic crossing. Getting the gold to Seville was far more important to the viceroy than pursuing two battered English ships too weakened to pose a serious threat to Spanish interests. Hawkins rode out the two-day storm on a small nearby island, and then began desperately searching the coast for water and food. After two weeks, he found a suitable landing site. Over half his sailors elected to remain ashore on the island, fearing an Atlantic crossing in an under-provisioned and damaged vessel more than Spanish patrols or the strange Florida Indians, the source of many frightening rumours.
Hawkins and his remaining sailors followed the coast of Florida to the north, waiting for favourable winds to propel them east to England. But fortune was not on their side. Hawkins noted that “growing neere the colde countrey, our men being oppressed with famine, died continually, and they that were left, grew into such weaknesse that we were scantly able to manage our shippe, and the winde being alwayes ill for us to recover England, we determined to goe with Galicia in Spaine, with intent there to relieve our companie.”
So, turning east, the starving band of wounded traders survived a turbulent ocean crossing. They spent three weeks hiding in inlets along the Spanish coast, replenishing their supplies of food and water. As a final hardship, many of the starving mariners devoured their food so quickly that, wracked with internal pain, they died. The fortunate few survivors returned sadly to England in early January. Overcome with his misfortune and the crew’s hardships during the return journey, Hawkins noted that “if all the miseries and troublesome affairs of this sorrowfull voyage should be perfectly and thoroughly written, there should neede a painefull man with his pen, and as great a time as he that wrote the lives and deathes of the martyrs.”
Francis Drake had arrived in England only a few days before Hawkins, and immediately sought letters of reprisal from the government against the Spanish on behalf of Hawkins and himself. We can only guess what Hawkins felt about Drake for abandoning him at Vera Cruz, but he did not let his feelings interfere with his quest for revenge. Drake was an eloquent and passionate speaker, likely to secure support for a voyage of reprisal. Although Queen Elizabeth denied the duo their “official” revenge, Drake had undertaken at least two voyages to the West Indies before he was officially sanctioned by the queen. Despite Elizabeth’s fear of angering the powerful Spanish nation by venturing beyond the line of demarcation, her desire to see English merchants trading in the Caribbean prompted her to turn a blind eye to privately funded reprisal expeditions against Spanish shipping.
As foreign trade increased throughout the West Indies, so did Spain’s efforts to suppress it. Angered at the “illegal” traders, who were also heretics, and eager to defend the division of the world, the Spanish navy attacked and destroyed the French Fort Caroline on the Florida coast and massacred the settlers there in 1562 (a few months after Hawkins had visited the colony). Although its aggression in defending the sanctity of the line of demarcation created a state of unofficial warfare with France and England, Spain had little alternative if it wished to maintain the monopoly justified by papal decree.
As the sixteenth century progressed, papal authority dwindled in northern Europe. Northern European nations were increasingly rejecting the authority of the Catholic church in favour of “homegrown” Protestant churches (sometimes state-based). This shift in religious allegiance had its foundation as much in international politics as in religion. After 1569, English, French and Dutch traders and privateers in the Caribbean were more aggressive, more violent and more politically motivated. The days when a little illicit trade was enough to satisfy the foreigners were over, and outright plunder became the new industry of English privateers. By 1571 Francis Drake was attacking Spanish ships off the coast of Panama, near the Chagres River. In league with French corsairs, Drake developed a technique that was later copied with great success by other privateers in the region. Drake hid his main ship in a secluded inlet and used an oared pinnace to do his pirating. The pinnace was fast, hard to detect and could navigate close to shore, where larger ships could not safely venture. In this manner Drake and his privateers ravaged coastal communities and inshore shipping. In less than three months, they had captured “twelve or thirteen Chagres River Barks, loaded them with bales of clothing and merchandise, to an approximate value of 150,000 pesos; and, finding themselves in possession of so great a number, they selected two of these barks, loaded them with bales of clothing and boxes and carried them off.” Drake returned to England with a princely cargo before the summer ended. And he was back in the Spanish half of the world again the following year, this time with an even more audacious plan.
The Cimarrons, escaped black slaves who dwelt in the jungles of Panama, preyed upon Spanish mule trains both for survival and for revenge. They could be ruthless and violent, often killing entire bands of travellers between Panama and Nombre de Dios. To the relief of Spanish officials, the Cimarrons had no interest in gold or silver—heavy but soft metals that had no value in the jungle. They would strip their victims of clothes, weapons, food or wine, but seldom bothered with bullion. This changed after 1572, when they met up with Francis Drake.
Drake sailed from England directly to Hispaniola to take on water and food, and then proceed to “Fort Phesant,” a sheltered bay on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Here he constructed a huge palisade fort thirty feet high, encompassing almost an acre of land. Within two weeks, Drake led his privateers from this base directly to Nombre de Dios, planning to plunder the town. At night, the English raiders snuck ashore, surprising the militia. As they approached the town square, the privateers began a blaring cacophony on trumpets and drums and ignited large firebrands, which “served no less for fright of the enemy than light of our men, who by this means might discerne everie place verie well, as if it were near day, whereas the inhabitants stood amazed at so strange a sight, marvelling what the matter might be and imagining, by reason of our Drums and Trumpets sounding in so sundry places, that we had been a farre greater number than we were.”
After a brief skirmish in the central market, where the Spanish militia fired a “jolly hot volley of shot” from their muskets that wounded a few of the English and killed one of the musicians, the Spanish fled, believing Drake’s force to be much larger. Drake led the momentarily victorious troops down the narrow streets, straight to the governor’s house. They burst in, and there before them, according to Drake’s later testament, was “a huge heap of silver . . . (as neere as we could gusse) seventie foote in length, of ten foot in breadth, and twelve foot in hight, piled against the wall.” Astonished, but leaving the silver for later, Drake led the small crew of warriors towards the King’s-treasure house “neere the waters side,” where Drake claimed there were (perhaps to entice his men to greater acts of valour) “more gold and jewels than our foure pinnaces could carrie.”
Then, without warning, as Drake leaped forward, “his strength and sight and speach failed him, and he began to faint for want of bloud, which as we then perceived, had, in greate quantitie, issued upon the sand, out of a wound recieved in the legge in the first encounter.” Fearing for their commander’s life (and knowing that, if he died, they would likely never see home again), the soldiers, “who thought it not credible that one man should be able to spare so much bloud and live,” quickly returned to the harbour dragging the wounded Drake, loaded him into a pinnace and fled to a nearby island to recuperate. Drake’s volunteers, still keeping their heads about them despite the imminent danger, had the foresight to bring with them a Spanish ship loaded with barrels of wine to provide “for the more comfort of our companie.”
Frustrated with failure and fearing the low morale of his men, Drake planned a quick assault on another major Spanish New World city, Cartagena. As they sailed south along the Spanish Main, they learned that word of their assault had travelled throughout the region. Drake quickly aborted the attack on Cartagena when he noticed that the town was heavily defended and wary of intruders. The English now turned to petty plunder to satisfy their urge for revenge and need for provisions. They raided a small town north along the coast from Cartagena (up the Magdalena River) and captured six small frigates loaded with livestock, maize and other food. Now they were very well supplied for a long stay in the West Indies.
Drake prepared to wait out the rainy season and then to secretly assault the treasure-laden mule train the following spring. The bullion train never departed Panama City until the Spanish fleet, the Galleones, had arrived in Cartagena. When the fleet arrived, the annual Nombre de Dios fair began: a fair noted for its high prices, corruption, filth, unsanitary accommodation and disease. Drake planned to avoid the fair and capture the overland bullion shipment en route. With the help of the Cimarrons, the English marauders kept busy during the rainy season by exploring the region and planning their ambush. Drake was impressed with the efficiency, organization and cleanliness of the Cimarron village he visited, hidden deep in the Panamanian jungle.
It was a long wait. Despite being well provisioned, his crew suffered, not from starvation or scurvy, but from yellow fever. Ten privateers, including one of Drake’s brothers, Joseph, succumbed to the disease, dying horribly in the mucky swamps. In an effort to understand how his brother died, Drake despairingly ordered the vivisection of the bloated corpse. The surgeon “found his liver swollen, as it were sodden, and his guts all faire.” Medical science was not advanced, however, by this crude experimentation, and Drake’s chronographer noted that “this was the first and last experiment that our Captain made of Anatomy in this voyage.” The following spring, Drake and his privateers were anxious to leave their makeshift fort. They rendezvoused with their Cimarron allies at a concealed location. From here, the Cimarrons organized the entire operation: travel, provisions, shelter, even shoes (of which the English had none, but which were vitally important in the rough terrain); everything except the ambush, which would be done by Drake and his men in February. The select group of warriors, led by fifteen Cimarrons followed by eighteen English soldiers, and with another fifteen Cimarrons bringing up the rear (in case the English became lost in the jungle), marched “thorow woods very coole and pleasant, by reason of those goodly and high Trees that grow there so thicke that it is cooler travelling there under them in that hot region, than it is in the most parts of England in the Summertime.”
Hearing rumours of the great South Sea from the Cimarrons, Drake climbed the tallest tree on a high hill. Through the dense foliage he was able to view the Pacific Ocean, the fabled “Spanish Lake,” becoming the first Englishman to view that body of water still forbidden to Englishmen—indeed, to any voyagers who were not Spanish. Drake burned with desire to sail those waters, quietly asking “Almighty God of his goodnesse to give him life and leave to sayle once in an English Ship in that sea,” and his dream of sailing around the world was born that day.
The Cimarron warriors led the English privateers down to the hilly plains near the Pacific coast of Panama and awaited their quarry. This time, the wait was short: a mule train was due from Panama the next day. Despite the able efforts of the Cimarrons, who patrolled the roads and captured a Spanish sentry, the grand scheme was spoiled by one of Drake’s own men, John Pike: “having drunken too much Aqua Vitae without water, [Pike] forgat himself, and entising a Symeron forth with him, was gone hard to the way,” and attacked the mule train. It was a foolhardy act, and the Spaniards were alerted to the ambush.
The concealed Cimarrons rushed the Spaniards, firing their muskets and brandishing other weapons, but to no avail. Although many Spaniards were slain (which pleased the Cimarrons) and many supplies were left behind (which also pleased the Cimarrons), those mules that contained Spanish gold, silver and jewels turned around and, heavily laden though they were, hastened back to the small nearby town of Venta Cruz. Drake was not thwarted so easily. “Knowing it bootlesse to grieve at things past,” Drake resolved to obtain the Spanish bullion, and “considering the long and wearie marches we had taken, and chiefly that last evening and the day before, to take now the shortest and readiest way.”
While the men feasted on the provisions they had captured, Drake scrutinized Venta Cruz, calculating its defensive capabilities. Soon, the English privateers and Cimarrons were charging the town, with Drake urging them on. Approaching the town, they stumbled upon a group of Spanish soldiers and friars, who immediately fired their muskets, killing one of Drake’s men. In the bloody hand-to-hand combat that followed, a Cimarron, disembowelled with a pike, tore at the Spanish soldier who had stabbed him, killing his enemy before expiring himself. Six Spaniards died, including one friar. The rest of the Spanish fled. In the town, Drake was again denied his hoard; the treasure could not be found. The Cimarrons, however, collected the practical items that were invaluable to them. Finally, the demoralized crew shambled, disheartened, back through the jungle to the Atlantic coast. It took them three weeks. If the Spanish were alarmed and frustrated, so were Drake’s men. The elusive Spanish bullion had escaped again. Drake urged them to dream of the wealth they would surely have within a month if they held firm to their plans. Drake, who knew “that no sickness was more noysome to impeach any enterprise then delay and idlenesse,” busied his men in repairing the pinnaces, practising with their weapons and exploring.
While on the coast, they were met by French privateers who informed them of France’s St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, in which French Protestants were killed en masse. Hearing the news, Drake’s men were roused into hatred of the Spanish and began planning a new raid. The French joined them in their grand design, though whether out of patriotism or greed it is impossible to ascertain. The invaluable Cimarrons also agreed to join the raiding party. Two months after their failed ambush near Venta Cruz, the privateers were again on the march. They planned to intercept the treasure train just before it entered Nombre de Dios, on the east coast, to avoid the three-week slog through the jungle.
This time the multinational troupe of bandits crouched low in the foliage beside the road, quietly awaiting the Spanish treasure. The next day, Cimarron scouts heard the clamour of an approaching mule train. And this time, the assault was successful (perhaps Drake had lessened the Aqua Vitae allotment). The “fortie five Souldiers or there abouts . . . caused some exchange of Bullets and Arrows for a time . . . But in the end these [Spanish] Souldiers thought it best way to leave their Moyles with us, and to seeke for more helpe abroad.” Within a few hours Drake and his crew had stripped the mules of their most valuable treasures, such as gold ingots and bars, buried “about fifteen Tun of silver” and fled the scene, stumbling through the jungle under the crushing weight of their fabulous new treasure.
They were rich, and safe. Resting in their fort by the sea, the weary survivors rejoiced in their success and contemplated the progress of their year-long venture: first disillusionment, then disaster, then hopelessness, but finally outrageous success. The treasure was divided between the French and English privateers, and the “excess” ships were scuttled and burned so that the Cimarrons could salvage the ironworks and nails. Before sailing for England, Drake was so pleased with his accomplishments that he gave his valuable Cimarron allies all the extra cloth and various other trade goods from the hold of his ship—perhaps because these goods were not worth their weight in gold. Drake recorded that they took “leave of that people” with “good love and liking.”
A year and three months after sailing from England, Drake’s fleet of privateers returned. Hated by the Spanish, Drake was a hero in England. He had seized Spanish gold right from its source, directly threatening Spain’s claim to the lands beyond the line of demarcation. A new precedent had been set. After his return, the number of English privateers plundering in the Caribbean increased greatly. Spain and England were not, however, officially at war. While they could be at peace in Europe, the same laws did not apply west of the Tordesillas line. In 1577, Drake again sailed into Spanish waters, this time around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, the secret “Spanish Lake” he had glimpsed while raiding mule trains in Panama in 1574. He sacked Spanish ships and towns from Peru to Panama before following Magellan’s track west across the Pacific Ocean and around the world. After a three-year voyage, a battered remnant of his fleet returned to England with a fabulous quantity of booty from Spanish ships in the Pacific. For his services, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
Throughout the 1570s and 1580s English privateers, inspired by Drake’s success, intensified their depredations against Spanish shipping in the West Indies. Spanish retaliations, not surprisingly, became more common. Still, European monarchs ignored the situation, at least publicly. King PhilipII intrigued with Mary, Queen of Scots, and English Catholics, while Queen Elizabeth strove to prevent an all-out war by publicly denouncing English privateers. Privately, though, the English crown rarely prosecuted or punished even the most flagrant privateers, so long as they restricted their depredations to Spanish ships. It was a precarious situation, and one that couldn’t last for long. Laying an intellectual challenge to the line of demarcation, Elizabeth claimed that “the use of the sea and air is common to all; neither can any title to the ocean belong to any people or private man.” Her adviser, William Cecil, informed the Spanish ambassador in London that “the Pope had no right to partition the world and to give and take kingdoms to whomever he pleased.”
By the 1580s war seemed inevitable. In 1585 Queen Elizabeth sent English troops to the aid of the Dutch Republic, which was fighting for independence from Spain. Perhaps in retaliation, English ships harboured in Spanish ports were confiscated along with their cargo, and the crews were imprisoned. The resulting outcry in England was predictable: merchants demanded compensation. Within two months, the Lord Admiral of the British Navy was examining the claims of merchants, and if they seemed legitimate they were issued Letters of Reprisal, legally allowing them to outfit vessels for war and to seek repayment by piracy. This was not an official declaration of war: after all, these were private, not political, claims. Throughout 1585 privateers swarmed to the West Indies. The English government became even more liberal in issuing Letters of Reprisal; for a small fee and a share in the profits, almost anyone could obtain the desired papers.
Although some merchants had legitimate grievances, many fabricated their original losses to obtain the papers, while some vessels dispensed with formalities and sailed as pirates without a shred of legality. The distinction was academic anyway, as Spanish officials treated all privateers—papers or not—in the same way: they were hanged, or killed in some other manner. Not to be deterred, the seemingly fearless Drake sailed again to the West Indies in September 1585, this time with a fleet of twenty ships manned by more than 2,300 soldiers and sailors, to attack Santo Domingo and Cartagena. But disaster struck. Seven hundred of his men were stricken with yellow fever en route, and the fleet returned.
During the remainder of the sixteenth century, hundreds of private expeditions against Spanish shipping in the Caribbean were launched by enthusiastic merchants and adventurers inspired by Drake’s remarkable success. Drake himself sailed again in 1587, 1589 and 1595 (when he finally died of disease, off the coast of Nombre de Dios). John Hooker, an English seaman, wrote in the 1580s that Drake’s voyages “inflamed the whole country with a desire to adventure unto the seas, in hope of the like good success, that a great number prepared ships, mariners and soldiers and traveled every place where profit might be had.” Many impoverished English sailors, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, willingly took great risks to better their lot in life. “Predation” best describes the situation.
Despite the increasing hostilities, England and Spain still had not declared war by 1587. Philip II patiently conspired with English Catholics to dethrone Elizabeth I and place Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a potential heir to the English throne, in her place. Roman Catholics, both in England and in Europe, did not recognize Elizabeth’s claim to the English throne because, according to Catholic doctrine, she was an illegitimate child, the daughter of her father’s second marriage. If Elizabeth was killed, they theorized, her cousin Mary would be the next queen of England. Mary was a devout Catholic, sympathetic to Spanish interests, and would presumably put a halt to the aggressive English privateering expeditions in the Spanish half of the world. But with a Protestant on the throne, there could hardly be any recognition of Pope Alexander VI’s division of the world, or of any legitimacy to Spanish claims of a right to monopoly in Atlantic waters.
In 1586, however, an assassination plot against Elizabeth I was uncovered, and Mary was executed for treason in February 1587. Spain finally declared war on England. The following year, the Spanish Armada, the “invincible” Spanish fleet, sailed north to England, with disastrous results. Vicious storms and nimble English naval manoeuvring destroyed most of the Spanish fleet. The official war between the two nations continued for fifteen years, until 1603, when Queen Elizabeth I died and was succeeded by King James I, who negotiated a truce.
WHILE SPAIN’S conflicts with England on the far side of the line of demarcation have become famous because of their heroic individualism, not to mention the fact that they were well-documented adventure stories, Philip II’s European quarrels were not limited to England, even as a proxy battle for the larger cultural and religious upheavals throughout western Europe. As we have seen, the Protestant Reformation and Philip II’s Counter-Reformation wracked western Europe with warfare and the destruction of the countryside for generations. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the wealth Philip extracted from the Americas was used primarily to fuel the religious wars of Europe, that the treasure chest that paid for these conflicts was filled with American gold and silver and the profits from Portuguese spices—from sources that were established by Pope Alexander VI’s division of the world.
Although Philip II’s foreign policies and strategies were inspired by his Catholic fervour and the future of his European dynasty, ideological war is an expensive pastime. The spiritual, social and administrative foundation of Europe’s religious conflict lay in a diverse crop of grievances and competing national identities, but the flow of treasure from the Americas was vital to Philip’s aggressive foreign policy. Philip funnelled the income from the conquered lands in the Americas to battle Islamic Ottoman invaders in eastern Europe and to strive for spiritual purity and unity—to stamp out Protestantism and heresy—in western Europe.
The English challenge to the division of the world occurred in the Atlantic Ocean in the form of piratical depredations of privateers. The challenge from another rising maritime nation, the Dutch Republic, was launched on the other side of the world, and was directed against the Portuguese rather than the Spanish (although, by this time, Philip II was the monarch of both nations). Dutch mariners fought for entry into the expanding global economy by sailing around Africa, into the Portuguese half of the world, with the twin objectives of trading and raiding. But they mounted a much more organized and coordinated assault than the one mustered by the English.