KRIS E. LANE. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500-1750. (Latin American Realities.) Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998. Pp. xxiv, 237. Cloth $58.95, paper $19.95.
Pillaging the Empire is the first book written by Kris Lane, the current France V. Scholes Professor of Colonial Latin American History at Tulane University. Lane specializes in early modern Spanish American history, with particular interests in metal extraction and forced labor in colonial Quito. Pillaging was funded entirely by Lane, written during a year-long visitorship at the University of Miami, where he was teaching an experimental course entitled “Piracy in the West Indies.” The book is a concise, chronological “overview of the phenomenon [of piracy] as it developed in American waters, including the Pacific, during the early modern era (c. 1450-1750).” It is a “world history approach” to maritime predation in the New World, foregrounding the ways in which diverse groups of people—all of whom were labeled as pirates by European empires at one time or another—contributed to gradual yet colossal historical changes, most notably the breakdown of Luso-Hispanic monopolies in the Western hemisphere. Though short, Pillaging is broadly interpretive, deeply analytic, richly specific, and wisely enhanced by supplementary materials. Sixteen years after its initial publication, it remains the best companion text to any introductory course on the history of American piracy.
Lane organizes Pillaging by devoting each of its thirty-page-long, six chapters to one of the major stages in the history of New World maritime predation. These chapters proceed chronologically through 1) the Barbary piratas and the French corsarios of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, 2) the Elizabethan contrabandists, adventurers, and privateers of the late sixteenth century, 3) the Dutch sea beggars and varendvolk of the early seventeenth century, 4) the multinational buccaneers and flibustiers of the early-to-mid seventeenth century, 5) the South Sea raiders of the late seventeenth century, and, finally, 6) the East India rovers of the 1690s and the democratic freebooters of the early eighteenth century. Each of these chapters details the exploits of the most notable figures of the era. The chapters end with a recapitulation of the period’s significance, followed by a “fact box” that addresses one aspect of material life in the age of piracy; these aspects include money, food, ships, gambling, and navigation and diving instruments. In addition, Lane has supplemented the book with extra resources, including illustrations, maps, timelines, endnotes, and a bibliography for further research.
By exploring New World piracy “in the aggregate,” rather than at one particular historical moment, Lane is able to recapture the pivotal role that Spain’s overseas empire played in the rise of maritime predation. He is also able to demonstrate the crucial and ultimately ironic role that piracy played in the opening of the New World for the major players of northern Europe: the English, the Dutch, and the French. Following the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, Spain employed a variety of tactics—including strict mercantilist principles and sweeping papal declarations—to secure a monopoly over territories and resources “beyond the line.” For over two centuries, in times of both war and peace, a dramatis personæ of raiders, privateers, and contrabandists worked to force open these monopolies for their respective home markets. This diverse cast includes slavers like Richard Hawkins, aristocrats like Sir Francis Drake, navy admirals and stockholders like Piet Heyn, renegades like Diego de Los Reyes, and privateering captains-turned-national-icons, like Henry Morgan.
Pillaging goes a long way in explaining the gradual decline of Spain’s global empire. Both the specter and reality of pirate attacks—sometimes in collusion with African cimarrons or rebel Natives—forced the thinly stretched Spanish empire to divert massive amounts of energy, time, worry, and finances to reinforcing its coastline and defending its shipments. Pirate raids forced the Crown to increase the avería taxes that put enormous pressure on the creole colonists, many of whom were disgruntled at having to finance the transportation of extracted wealth that did not necessarily benefit their existence. Meanwhile, the crown was forced to mobilize galleys, regiments, castillos, armadas, and armadillas to protect port cities, mule trains (reguas), and treasure flotas like those in Santo Domingo, Darién, Cartagena, Havana, and the prized Manilla, Nueva España, and Terra Firme galleons; the Spanish crown had to outfit, equip, victual, and salary the soldiers and sailors for each of these efforts at tremendous cost. Also, the uncertainty of where an attack would occur meant that Spanish authorities squandered exorbitant resources protecting areas that were never seriously endangered.
Whether through “belligerent commerce” that involved blockades and the ransoming of hostages, full-scale land invasions that culminated in the sacking and razing of cities, or sea battles that ended with the devastation of entire defense fleets, Lane makes it clear that the multinational rogues who terrorized Spanish commerce for over 200 years were much more than gadflies. These individuals forced Spain to answer to their presence in an era when the energies of the empire were consumed by the project of the Counter Reformation and continual wars on the European continent. Although both the Spanish navy and privately funded militia forces occasionally won maritime encounters with their piratical enemies, these victories were generally pyrrhic. In the long run, Spain was unable to guarantee the permanent security of the Pacific and Caribbean offshore islands that served as bases for the sea rovers, among them New Providence, Tortuga, St. Thomas, Île-à-Vache, Coiba, Cocos Gorgona, Juan Fernández, Tres Marías, and the Isla de la Plata. Likewise, the empire was not strong enough to force the home governments of its rivals to check colonial governors—like Edward D’Oyley of Jamaica, Bertrand D’Ogeron of Tortuga, or Adolf Esmit on St. Thomas—who sponsored the pirates.
Once the hard work of opening up the New World for the states of northern Europe had been completed, and the English, French, Danes, and Dutch were all reliably ensconced in their respective colonies, the official attitude toward piracy changed greatly. The same empires that had once commissioned piracy against Spain in its many forms suddenly began to receive a taste of their own medicine. For the first time, pirates—many whom were begrudged sailors with serious class antagonisms—began turning their cannons on non-Hispanic vessels. Mavericks like Henry Avery and William the Kidd threatened the lucrative English commerce of the burgeoning East India Company, while English rogues like Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, and Bartholomew Roberts plundered the English shipping routes of the Triangle Trade. Lastly, with the Caribbean Sea cramped with various competing empires, French privateers like Laurens de Graaf began plundering more than just Spanish vessels. Since the various empires of Northern Europe were not willing to stand by and suffer the same fate that they had brought upon Spain, they instituted a unilateral campaign to exterminate piracy.
Lane traces the crackdown on piracy in the American colonies through legislation, military expeditions, and the appointment (or transformation, as in the case of Henry Morgan) of colonial administrators. Crown governors like de Cussy, Thomas Lynch, and Woodes Rogers recalled old privateering commissions and were ordered to no longer harbor pirates in the former havens of Port Royal, Petit-Goâve, and New Providence. Laws passed in 1670, 1677, 1681, 1683, and 1699 made it illegal to grant letters of marque, sail under foreign colors, and commission pirates, while also giving local officials the authority to hang pirates without consent from the home government. Finally, authorities commissioned naval expeditions, under captains like Robert Maynard and Chaloner Ogle, to hunt and kill those pirates who did not accept the King’s pardon. In what is perhaps the ultimate irony, the cultural ancestors of the pirates who terrorized Spanish shipping for over two centuries would meet their end not at the hands of the Spanish, but at the hands of the very governments that had originally supported them.
In Lane’s Pillaging, readers will get a viewpoint of piracy that is strikingly less romantic than that of the Marxist historian Marcus Rediker. Although the diverse pirates who preyed upon Spain’s empire often cited specific religious, political, and social reasons for their actions, Lane argues that these must properly be understood as pretexts rather than motives. Pulling back on Rediker, he states that it was the “appropriation of property belonging to others” that drove the pirates “first and foremost,” and not their vocalized arguments of past injustices. Either way, the epigraph that begins Pillaging—a quote by Washington Irving about the discipline of History as a register of past crimes—applies most aptly to the victimization of the Spanish empire, which is attacked from all sides following its initial success in the Americas. A short lead-in about the depredations of the Barbary pirates—committed mostly by the practice of rescate and through the support of Algeria beys—in both the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic serves to remind readers that Spain was the target of periodic seaborne attacks since the completion of the Reconquista in 1492. If he has succeeded at anything, Lane has used piracy to demonstrate the severe price that Spain paid for its early success in the Americas.