PAUL E. HOFFMAN. The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean, 1535-1585: Precedent, Patrimonialism, and Royal Parsimony. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Pp. xiv, 312. $30.00.
The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean is the first book written by Paul E. Hoffman, current professor of History at Louisiana State University. Hoffman specializes in the history of colonial Latin America and the American southeast, especially the frontiers of Florida, prior to the year 1821. In this particular work, Hoffman relies upon his in-depth sleuthing of primary sources related to royal defense spending—taken mostly from the General Archives of the Indies (AGI) in Seville—to tell the story of the Spanish crown’s efforts to defend its holdings in the Indies against mostly French and English corsairs between the years 1535 and 1585. All in all, Hoffman’s The Spanish Crown is an historical work that the specialist will surely cherish, as it is filled with tables of raw economic data, and it concludes with a lengthy reflection on the intricacies of applying quantitative methodologies to primary sources from the Spanish archives. The generalist, however, will more likely find the body of the work to be a monotonous play-by-play of isolated instances, piled on ad nausea in the form of stale prose and passive voice. Thankfully, the closing chapter, entitled “Summary and Conclusions,” is more than enough to understand the full thrust of Hoffman’s main arguments.
Hoffman uses the famous cruise of the English privateer Sir Francis Drake in 1586 as an entrepôt to discuss the evolution of Spanish defense systems in the fifty years prior to that date. For Hoffman, the fact that Drake landed on the beaches of Santo Domingo with 1,000 men, when his corsair predecessors had typically sailed with only 100 each, speaks to the success of Spanish defense strategies. In The Spanish Crown, Hoffman seeks to describe these strategies across four distinct time periods and through the influence of eight individual factors. These four time periods are 1535-1547, 1548-1563, 1564-1577, and 1578-1585, and they are delineated by peak periods of royal defense spending (often corresponding to periods of European war) and significant changes in overseas defense strategies, such as the Spanish introduction of shallow-draft, oared galleys (in contrast to frigates and galleons) to the Caribbean arena. To paraphrase Hoffman, the eight explanatory factors are (1) geography; (2) changing military technology; (3) diplomatic failures and other problems in Europe; (4) patrimonialism; (5) parsimonious spending habits; (6) limited population resources; (7) availability of war matérial (e.g. saltpeter and bronze cannons); (8) and the changing pattern of corsair activities.
Hoffman’s “Indies” are comprised of four distinct geographic areas: the Spanish Main on the northern coast of South America; Central America, which covers New Spain as well as the regions held by the Audiencia of Guatemala; the Antilles, composed mainly of the gateway islands of Cuba, Española, and Puerto Rico; and the Atlantic Triangle, a crucial trading region in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean bordered by the Azores islands to the west, the principal ports of Spain to the east (Sanlúcar, Cádiz, and Seville), and the Canary Islands to the south. This definition serves to demonstrate the sheer geographic extent of the overseas empire which the Spanish crown was tasked with defending. Goods derived from mining, trading, or planting operations in the New World needed to be protected as many distinct points on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to the empire being stretched so thinly, the Spanish crown was ultimately willing to earmark only a small portion of its total expenditure to the defense of the indies. Even at its most expensive period, Hoffman tells us that “the average yearly costs of defending the Indies and their commerce were less than the crown had paid to maintain the royal household in Spain in 1536 or the Mediterranean galleys in 1561 and only about a tenth of the average yearly cost of the [contemporaneous] Dutch wars.”
Extreme parsimony on the part of the Spanish crown meant that it was not interested in implementing the kind of comprehensive yet idealistic defense programs that were proposed by figures like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (~1533) and Pedro Menendez de Aviles (~1570). Instead, the crown adopted the relatively inexpensive plan set forth in the memorandum of Blasco Núñez Vela y Villalba (~1538), who argued that the majority of holdings in the vast Spanish empire did not need extensive military infrastructure, personalized coastal patrols, or salaried armies in residence. Rather, Núñez Vela argued that 90% of corsair attacks could be successfully repelled by small “caretaker garrisons.” These modest defense structures would need to be little more than earthworks, breastworks, batteries, or forts built in the simple, medieval style of keeps and baileys. These garrisons would be staffed by locally trained militia, who could be supplied with modest amounts of munitions and artillery shipped from the Casa de Contratación on individual petition. For the occasional larger attack, the crown could answer on a case-by-case basis by deploying roving squadrons or coastal patrols to the besieged port in question. Generally, this would happen once a year, when the squadrons were already in the Caribbean, preparing to escort the treasures convoys home.
Overall, Núñez Vela’s plan corresponded well to the parsimonious nature of the Spanish crown. It saved the administration untold costs by making the defense of the Indies a matter of naval warfare, based on the individual sailing ship, rather than land fortification, based on the castillo or presidio. Unfortunately, the primary economic motivation of the Spanish crown was to ensure the safe passage of its treasure convoys from Terra Firme, Manila, and Nueva España across the Atlantic and back to Seville. This meant that patrols like the Española Squadron, and its successor the Indies Fleet, were often pulled in competing directions. Colonists wanted these military ships to guard their ports and coastal trading operations, but the crown wanted to use them as convoys to escort the Flota de Indias across the Atlantic and through the Triangle. The disinterest of the crown in protecting the export trades of hides, cacao, sugar, tobacco and other products from the Antilles, as well as the coastal trades from the Main, resulted in widespread smuggling operations that flouted the imperial navigation acts. Many colonists encouraged these operations, which were necessary to their livelihood. Often, they even refused to give reliable information on the presence of corsairs to the military patrols.
The tradition of patrimonialism is another important factor that Hoffman uses to explain the logic of Spanish defense strategies in the Indies. Speaking broadly, this refers to the cultural idea that the Spanish crown (composed mostly of the monarch, the Council of the Indies, and the Casa de Contratación) had an inherent paternalistic obligation to protect the rights of its people by hearing their royal petitions on an ad hoc basis. While patromonialism was noble and perhaps even Confucian in its theory, its application on the ground was something completely different. A colonies’ ability to have its needs taken seriously were largely determined by the strength of their patronage ties to bureaucracy in the Spanish court. Relatively unimportant colonies like Santo Domingo could afford to send an advocate [procurador] to lobby at court and solicit at the Casa de Contratación or receive an ambassador [visitador], while poorer yet more strategically important colonies like Puerto Rico and Cartagena could not.
The third salient factor that Hoffman emphasizes in regards to the defense of the Spanish Indies is precedent. During the first stage of defense—when the majority of corsair raids took place in the Atlantic Triangle—the crown based its commerce defense strategies on a series of state-sanctioned armament laws called the Formula of 1522. These were later revamped in the New Convoy System of 1543 and the Ordinance of 1552. These laws required merchant convoys to leave the peninsula at two set times during the year (in Spring and Fall), to be escorted by at least one warship, and to meet minimum requirements of tonnage, number and caliber of guns, and accompanying soldiers. As time passed, this standard method of trans-Atlantic shipping was revisited again in the early 1560s (1561, 1562, 1564, and 1567). It eventually resulted in the formation of the famous Flota de Indias. To put it simply, the precedent that was established in the early sixteenth-century was that the crown would spend the lion’s share of its financial and administrative resources protecting the semi-annual convoys. It would put the onus of meeting these state shipping requirements on the actual merchants who fitted out their ships, and it would answer petitions from each of the colonies on a contextual basis.
Generally speaking, the crown would do almost anything to shift the burden of paying for the indies elsewhere in the empire. Its innovative strategies included getting the merchant’s guild [consulado] to fund the protection of its own shipping, ordering governors [adelantados] to pay for the defense of their own provinces, and even encouraging administrative roadblocks when royal funds were not convenient. In order to meet its goal of financing the defense of the Indies without depleting royal coffers—especially by dipping into the precious capital accrued by the treasure convoys—the crown levied excise taxes, port duties, and averías to cover its costs. The crown skimped on munitions and armaments, and spent monies on fortifications only when they seemed absolutely necessary. The crown doubled-up by trying to use the same military vessels for two purposes: escorting the treasure convoys and protecting the Indies. Obviously, these vessels could not be in two places at once. When this strategy inevitably failed, the crown relied upon individual audiencias and vecinos to raise their own defenses.
The economic wisdom of this royal parsimony, and the prudence of Núñez Vela, was revealed in the mid-1560s, when the crown deviated from its stingy policies after the appearance of two French colonies in Florida. One of these colonies was at Santa Elena (1562) and the other was at Fort Caroline (1564). Afraid that the loss of Florida would leave the treasure convoys vulnerable at their choke point in the Gulf Stream, the crown appropriated funds to finance a string of military garrisons on the coastline. In a very short period, the crown squandered a quarter of its total funding in the Indies to supply fourteen, short-lived garrison and “Military-Missions” that were essentially useless. These frontier garrisons were never attacked, yet they ate up royal funds for victuals, salaries, fortifications, and armaments. This is exactly what Núñez Vela feared. There were just too many places “beyond the line” that corsairs could attack. The empire could not defend them all without draining its treasury.
Between 1535 and 1585, the Spanish crown lived in palpable fear of large-scale invasions from giant fleets like that of Cartier-Roberval, Count Louis of Nassau, and Sir Francis Drake. However, the reality was something very different: thirty to forty ships of 100 men or less, half of them corsairs and half of them smugglers, operated in the Indies on an annual basis. They did not operate in the triple-decked man-of-war. Rather, they plied the waters in shallow-draft boats (with both oars and sails) that could successfully maneuver the rivers, bays, shoals, and islets that were inaccessible to larger Spanish galleons. Hoffman argues that it was not until Drake’s raid in 1586 that the Spanish crown fully understand that these corsairs would pillage in the Indies regardless of the political situation in Europe. The crown continued to believe that it could rely on passive and reactionary strategies of defense. As a result, we will never know for certain if a more aggressive strategy of hunting the corsairs down would have succeeded. Hoffman’s opinion is that cutting off their exits from the Caribbean Sea by securing the Mona, Windward, and Florida Passages would have worked.
Hoffman concludes his book with an excellent summary of the assumptions that “were subject to turning false” in the otherwise “good system” of Núñez Vela and his successors. In addition to the absence of a master plan that would allocate resources appropriately and root out the corsairs, many of the coastal fortifications that were actually constructed in the Indies were ill-placed. Perhaps reflecting the dominating interest of the crown to protect its treasure convoys, forts tended to guard wharfs and harbors while leaving approaches from the land or beach entirely undefended. Also, the crown and Casa both dragged their feet when it came to the supply train from the peninsula, partly because they did not want to encourage a need for salaried garrisons. The result was that militias were outmanned, undersupplied, ill-equipped, and ill-led. In most cases, all the crown could expect from them was to retreat into the woods and hide there with their valuables until the raiders left. The crown was late in adopting its naval technology to meet the shallow-draft ships of the corsairs; and, finally, a lack of reliable intelligence plagued the crown throughout the period. It could not get “timely information” about enemy plots, and so the Spanish Indies were often caught completely unawares.
If we characterize The Spanish Defense purely on the basis of Hoffman’s methodology, then it is a work of undeniable, solid economic analysis. This would be commendable if the body of the work was not an attempt at a more narrative, play-by-play commentary of naval warfare. Here the story of “what happened” in the Indies year-by-year is played out in monotone lists of things requested by the colonies, things paid for by the crown, and things ignored by the crown. Most of the sentences are written in a scientific tone and with a passive voice, and there is very little attempt to understand the motivations of individual actors. The handful of corsairs that appear by name in this book—such as John Hawkins, Jean Bontempts, and John Oxenham—are barely discussed, and the influence of cimarrons, indigenous agitators, and labor are almost completely ignored. Even the Spanish monarchs, the secretaries of the Casa, and the merchants of the Consulado are left mostly nameless and faceless. Their actions, like others in this book, are assumed to be the products of forces that are much larger than themselves.
In conclusion, while there is no denying the importance of the economic data brought forth and published in The Spanish Defense (one can only image the sheer number of historians who will rely on Hoffman’s tables for their own work), that data is simply not enough, in and of itself, to support a history of this momentous period that is both engaging and truly personal. Scholars who do not plan on reproducing the economic methodologies of Hoffman, and who want to avoid slogging through a tutorial of bureaucratic and economic events that is bland, sterile, and protracted, are better off extracting the finer points of Hoffman’s analysis from the conclusion and moving on to a more interesting work.