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Henry Morgan and the British presence in the Caribbean (1)


The word 'pirate' is derived from a Greek word meaning to attempt or to undertake, in French, entreprendre. So the words 'pirate' and 'entrepreneur' could be seen as synonyms. That the two concepts are indeed related becomes very obvious when we look at British history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the age of Hawkins and Drake, and of the 'buccaneers' of the Caribbean, and of the famous Welsh buccaneer, Henry Morgan.

The usual distinction is of course that the pirate operates outside the law.  Prior to the Reformation, the system of international law that prevailed in Western Europe was centred on the great transnational church, on 'Christendom'. In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and in 1493, the Pope - the most disreputable of all Popes, the Spanish Borgia, Alexander VI - issued an edict, Inter Caetera, granting the new territories Columbus had found to the Kingdoms of Castille and Leon. In it he praised Ferdinand and Isabella for their laudable desire to discover new territories and bring their populations into the fold of the Christian Church, and continued:

'out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ, which we hold on earth, [we] do by tenor of these presents, should any of said islands have been found by your envoys and captains, give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter, the said line to be distant one hundred leagues towards the west and south from any of the islands commonly known as the Azores and Cape Verde ...

'Furthermore, under penalty of excommunication late sententie to be incurred ipso facto, should anyone thus contravene, we strictly forbid all persons of whatsoever rank, even imperial and royal, or of whatsoever estate, degree, order, or condition, to dare, without your special permit or that of your aforesaid heirs and successors, to go for the purpose of trade or any other reason to the islands or mainlands, found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered ...

'Let no one, therefore, infringe, or with rash boldness contravene, this our recommendation, exhortation, requisition, gift, grant, assignment, constitution, deputation, decree, mandate, prohibition, and will. Should anyone presume to attempt this, be it known to him that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul.'

The bull refers in passing to the fact that 'In the islands and countries already discovered are found gold, spices, and very many other precious things of divers kinds and qualities.'

Columbus had been exploring to the West and no-one of course realised the enormity of what he had found. Portuguese navigators had been exploring to the East and similar, earlier, papal judgments had given them similar rights, though they had come up against peoples better able to defend themselves. The Portuguese still, however, believed that they had a right, grounded in international law, to control trade with the Far East. International trade, then, was dominated by Spain in the West and Portugal in the East operating on the basis of what they could argue was a genuinely God-given law - and the law at the Spanish ports was enforced by the Inquisition. Protestantism was a rejection of international law and, in both England and Holland, was intimately bound up with piracy. As the great nineteenth century British Imperialist historian, James Anthony Froude, puts it:

'English Protestants, it was too evident, regarded the property of Papists as a lawful prize wherever they could lay hands on it; and Protestantism, stimulated by these inducements to conversion, was especially strong in the sea-port towns. Exasperated by the murder of their comrades in the prisons of the Inquisition, the sailors and merchants looked on the robbery of Spaniards as at once the most lucrative and devout of occupations ...'

But leaving aside the robbery of the people who largely held the legal monopoly of world trade, 'piracy' - illegal economic activity - was a necessary precondition for what might be called ordinary trade. The British Isles had little of their own to trade by way of natural resources or skilled craftsmanship. Spices from the East were in the hands of the Portuguese, gold from the West in the hands of the Spanish. The trade that did  offer an opening was the slave trade.


Alexander's bull pretended that the aim of Spanish rule in the area was to convert the 'very many peoples living in peace, and, as reported, going unclothed and not eating flesh.' In fact the 'Indians' were, with quite astonishing speed, exterminated in the islands, reduced to slavery and worked to death in the gold mines of the mainland. Since it was illegal to hold Christians as slaves, Columbus had issued orders preventing the baptism of the Indians.

This state of affairs would soon be exposed by the priest Bartolomeo de Las Casas, creating a scandal throughout Catholic Europe. The Emperor Charles V prohibited Indian slavery but, on Las Casas's suggestion, replaced it with negro slavery (a suggestion he later regretted). The theory was that black Africans were more accustomed than the Indians to the state of slavery, the slaves would be people condemned by their own as criminals, their hours of work were regulated by law, their owners, who had paid money for them, would have an interest in their well-being, they could even earn money themselves and buy their freedom. To quote Froude: 'Negro slavery in theory was an invention of philanthropy' but in the event, of course: 'the river mouths and harbours where the Portuguese traders established their factories were envenomed centres from which a moral pestilence crept out among the African races. The European first converted the negro into a savage and then made use of his brutality as an excuse for plunging him into slavery.' (pp.54-5) 

The Spanish authorities did, however, try to tighten the legal restrictions on the trade, and this opened the way for English traders in the sixteenth century, led by John Hawkins, who found in the Spanish colonies willing buyers for slaves seized, in defiance of the Portuguese monopoly, from the shores of Africa. On his disastrous second voyage, when he barely escaped the Spanish with his life, Hawkins was accompanied by the young Francis Drake.


The fledgeling slave trade was at the  respectable end of British piracy - piracy in the eyes of the Spanish and of the Empire but authorised by the monarch in British law, which was now independent, or almost independent, of the law of Christendom considered as a whole. But the straightforward spoliation of Spanish cargo vessels and of Spanish colonies could also become respectable - 'legal' - activities when England was at war. Thus a large part of the country's economic life thrived on war and the opportunities for plunder which it provided.

The raids on South America of Sir Francis Drake and others like him in the late sixteenth century were all the more remarkable for the fact that they were conducted from England with no port anywhere near the Atlantic or Pacific coasts of America that he could be sure of for protection. Clearly the English (and the other rogue states of the time, the Dutch and the French - whose 'Gallicanism' or national Catholicism was only a step short of Anglicanism in its independence from international law) would have an advantage if they had their own colonies and properties in the area. Clearly the Spanish had an interest in preventing this, just as the Portuguese had an interest in preventing the establishment of non-Portuguese trading stations in the East.