Why did pirates come to the Caribbean?

Speaking of pirates, the first thought of most people might be the famous film series — Pirates of the Caribbean. This film series has achieved both critical and financial successes since it hit the cinema in 2003. Well, certainly we are not trying to advertise this film series. Instead, we have a question here: why did the director make films about pirates in the Caribbean instead of those in somewhere else?

The answer is simple: there were really a very large number of pirates in the Caribbean.

Why did pirates come to the Caribbean?

We have to begin with Spain, a “nouveau riche” in western Europe.


1.Spain, the “nouveau riche”in western Europe

As we know, the Age of Discovery which began in the 15th century opened a new era. Spain and Portugal first discovered the Americas (also known as the New World) and scrambled to explore the continents for treasures. In the early 16th century, Spain made fortune after Spanish explorers discovered the huge vaults of the Aztec empire and Inca empire.

However, the Pope had designated the Americas as the sphere of influence of Portugal and Spain under the duress from the two countries, in other words, Portugal and Spain were the “legitimate” rulers of the Americas, while the other countries in Europe like England and France were not allowed to reach their hands to the Americas.

Pirate Jewelry

Treasures found in the Americas were continuously shipped to Spain. As the saying goes, men turn evil when they get rich. Spain became more and more arrogant and presumptuous after they obtained the treasures from the Americas. Spanish did not spend their money in investments or economy, but luxuries and military. This presumptuous “nouveau riche” country irritated other countries in western Europe, particularly England and Netherlands.

The Dutch War of Independence broke out between Netherlands and Spain, lasting on and off for eighty years.


2 Religious conflict and the “letter of marque”


The Reformation burst forth in the 16th century. Martin Luther’s The Ninety-Five Theses struck rabidly at the ruling base of Catholic Church. Spain was a devout Catholic country, while England and the Netherlands became Protestant after the Reformation and they share the same strong anti-Catholic attitude. To suppress the Catholic Spain, England launched a war.

Profited from colonies in the Americas, Spain was strong in economic strength. Accordingly, Elizabeth I of England introduced “letter of marque” and allowed privateers to help Protestant Dutch in their struggle for independence. In other words, she legalized piracy.

Pirate necklace

At that time, navy as a part of state military force was not completely maturated. Therefore, pirating and privateering were conducted instead of naval operations for both political and financial purposes. England used pirates to undermine Spanish trades in the Americas. The famous English pirate John drake had defeated the mighty Spanish Armada and was made a duke.

With the influence of anti-Catholic sentiment and the policy support from government, privateers from Netherlands, England and France swarmed into the Caribbean. The pirates with official permissions began to prepare for their robberies. Where would be the best place to ambush the Spanish ships then? They chose the Caribbean which connects the both American continents.


3 The “superior” geographical position of the Caribbean


The route via Caribbean is the only option for Spanish ships which shuttled between Europe and the Americas. And King Philip II of Spain was very greedy on precious metal in the Americas. During this period, Spanish treasure fleet, a more systematic mode of transport was adopted. Every spring, this large fleet loaded with Spanish merchandises such as olives and wine set sail from Sevilla and headed for the Caribbean.

When they arrived in the Caribbean, the fleet divided into two flotillas, one headed for Mexico and another sailed to Panama. The merchants made deals after the merchant ships reached the ports, meanwhile, precious metal carried by mule teams was loaded on ships moored in Mexico and Panama. The two flotillas set off again when ships were loaded with gold and silver, they rendezvoused at Havana before crossing the Atlantic for Spain. It is observed from these routes that the Caribbean is where the Spanish fleets had to pass through.

In the Caribbean, ports like Nassau, Port Royal and Île de la Tortue became dens of pirates due to their superior geographic position. These islands were close to the Spanish routes, making it easy for supplies and very favourable for the development of piracy in the Caribbean.

In this case, it’s no surprise that pirates swarmed into the Caribbean.


4 The ”self-management” of Caribbean pirates


Most pirates were from the bottom of society. It is estimated that fugitive slaves made up one in four of the pirates in the 17th and 18th century. It was easy to have conflicts among such a complex group of people onboard, causing internal contradictions. To strengthen the management, pirate fleets began to set and implement strict rules and regulations. Such as prohibitions of  gambling and whoring onboard, and a vote in affairs of moment.

It is really surprising that these plundering pirates also had a strong sense of self-management.

Supported by government policy and promoted by religious morality, these pirates of a strong sense of self-management assembled in the Carabbean waters and made Spain suffer terribly. As a result, the fame of Caribbean pirates spread.

skull Jewelry

The Caribbean pirates thrived because of Spain. The 16th and 17th century can be said to be the century of Spain, during that period, Spain was very prosperous. The Caribbean pirates emerged in the 16th century and reached their peak in the 17th and 18th century. But when Spain declined, the European countries did not need pirates any longer, and thus stopped supporting piracy. The Caribbean pirates faded away consequently.

Who could ever have imagined that a few centuries ago countless pirate ships had been plundering in the Caribbean? And we just cannot help wondering if there are still some wrecks of Spanish ships lying under this water.