The island of Santo Domingo was one of several in the West Indies which had early in the 16th century been almost depopulated by the oppressive colonial policy of Spain. Along its coast there were several isolated establishments presided over by Spaniards, who were deprived of a convenient market for the produce of the soil by the monopolies imposed by the mother country. Accordingly English, Dutch and French vessels were welcomed and their cargoes readily bought. The island, thinned of its former inhabitants, had become the home of immense herds of wild cattle; and it became the habit of smugglers to provision at Santo Domingo. The natives still left were skilled in preserving flesh at their little establishments called boucans. The adventurers learned "boucanning" from the natives; and gradually Hispaniola became the scene of an extensive and illicit butcher trade. Spanish monopolies filled the seamen who sailed the Caribbean with a natural hate of everything Spanish. The pleasures of a roving life, enlivened by occasional skirmishes with forces organized and led by Spanish officials, gained upon them. Out of such conditions arose the buccaneer, alternately sailor and hunter, even occasionally a planter - roving, bold, unscrupulous, often savage, with an intense detestation of Spain. As the Spaniards would not recognize the right of other races to make settlements, or even to trade in the West Indies, the governments of France, England and Holland would do nothing to control their subjects who invaded the islands. They left them free to make settlements at their own risk. Each nation contributed a band of colonists, who selected the island of St Kitts or St Christopher, in the West Indies, where the settlers of both nations were simultaneously planted. The English and French were, however, not very friendly; and in 1629, after the retirement of several of the former to an adjoining island, the remaining colonists were surprised and partly dispersed by the arrival of a Spanish fleet of thirty-nine sail. But on the departure of the fleet the scattered bands returned, and encouragement was given to their countrymen in Santo Domingo. For buccaneering had now become a most profitable employment, operations were extended, and a storehouse secure from the attacks of the Spaniards was required. The small island of Tortuga (north-west of Hispaniola) was seized for this purpose in 1630, converted into a magazine for the goods of the rivals, and made their headquarters, Santo Domingo itself still continuing their hunting ground. A purely English settlement directed by a company in London was made at Old Providence, an island in the Caribbean Sea, now belonging to Colombia. It began a little before 1630, and was suppressed by the Spaniards in 1641.
Spain was unable to take immediate action. Eight years later, however, watching their opportunity when many buccaneers were absent in the larger island, the Spaniards attacked Tortuga, and massacred every settler they could seize. But the others returned; and the buccaneers, now in open hostility to the Spanish arms, began to receive recruits from every European trading nation, and for three-quarters of a century became the scourge of the Spanish-American trade and dominions.
France, throughout all this, had not been idle. She had named the governor of St Kitts "Governor-General for the French West India Islands," and in 1641 he took possession of Tortuga, expelled all English from the island, and attempted the same with less success in Santo Domingo. England was absorbed in the Civil War, and the buccaneers had to maintain themselves as best they could, - now mainly on the sea.
In 1654 the Spaniards regained Tortuga from the French, into whose hands it again, however, fell after six years. But this state of affairs was too insecure even for these rovers, and they would speedily have succumbed had not a refuge been found for them by the fortunate conquest of Jamaica in 1655 by the navy of the English Commonwealth. These conquests were not made without the aid of the buccaneers themselves. The taking and re-taking of Tortuga by the French was always with the assistance of the roving community; and at the conquest of Jamaica the English navy had the same influence in its favour. The buccaneers, in fact, constituted a mercenary navy, ready for employment against the power of Spain by any other nation, on condition of sharing the plunder; and they were noted for their daring, their cruelty and their extraordinary skill in seamanship.
Their history now divides itself into three epochs. The first of these extends from the period of their rise to the capture of Panama by Morgan in 1671, during which time they were hampered neither by government aid nor, till near its close, by government restriction. The second, from 1671 to the time of their greatest power, 1685, when the scene of their operations was no longer merely the Caribbean, but principally the whole range of the Pacific from California to Chile. The third and last period extends from that year onwards; it was a time of disunion and disintegration, when the independence and rude honour of the previous periods had degenerated into unmitigated vice and brutality.
It is chiefly during the first period that those leaders flourished whose names and doings have been associated with all that was really influential in the exploits of the buccaneers - the most prominent being Mansfield and Morgan. The floating commerce of Spain had by the middle of the 17th century become utterly insignificant. But Spanish settlements remained; and in 1654 the first great expedition on land made by the buccaneers, though attended by considerable difficulties, was completed by the capture and sack of New Segovia, on the mainland of America. The Gulf of Venezuela, with its towns of Maracaibo and Gibraltar, were attacked and plundered under the command of a Frenchman named L'Ollonois, who performed, it is said, the office of executioner upon the whole crew of a Spanish vessel manned with ninety seamen. Such successes removed the buccaneers further and further from the pale of civilized society, fed their revenge, and inspired them with an avarice almost equal to that of the original settlers from Spain. Mansfield indeed, in 1664, conceived the idea of a permanent settlement upon a small island of the Bahamas, named New Providence, and Henry Morgan, a Welshman, intrepid and unscrupulous, joined him. But the untimely death of Mansfield nipped in the bud the only rational scheme of settlement which seems at any time to have animated this wild community; and Morgan, now elected commander, swept the whole Caribbean, and from his headquarters in Jamaica led triumphant expeditions to Cuba and the mainland. He was leader of the expedition wherein Porto Bello, one of the best-fortified ports in the West Indies, was surprised and plundered.
This was too much for even the adverse European powers; and in 1670 a treaty was concluded between England and Spain, proclaiming peace and friendship among the subjects of the two sovereigns in the New World, formally renouncing hostilities of every kind. Great Britain was to hold all her possessions in the New World as her own property (a remarkable concession on the part of Spain), and consented, on behalf of her subjects, to forbear trading with any Spanish port without licence obtained.
The treaty was very ill observed in Jamaica, where the governor, Thomas Modyford (1620-1679), was in close alliance with the "privateers," which was the official title of the buccaneers. He had already granted commissions to Morgan and others for a great attack on the Isthmus of Panama, the route by which the bullion of the South American mines was carried to Porto Bello, to be shipped to Spain. The buccaneers to the number of 2000 began by seizing Chagres, and then marched to Panama in 1671. After a difficult journey on foot and in canoes, they found themselves nearing the shores of the South Sea and in view of the city. On the morning of the tenth day they commenced an engagement which ended in the rout of the defenders of the town. It was taken, and, accidentally or not, it was burnt. The sack of Panama was accompanied by great barbarities. The Spaniards had, however, removed the treasure before the city was taken. When the booty was divided, Morgan is accused of having defrauded his followers. It is certain that the share per man was small, and that many of the buccaneers died of starvation while trying to return to Jamaica. Modyford was recalled, and in 1672 Morgan was called home and imprisoned in the Tower. In 1674 he was allowed to come back to the island as lieutenant-governor with Lord Vaughan. He had become so unpopular after the expedition of 1671 that he was followed in the streets and threatened by the relations of those who had perished. During his later years he was active in suppressing the buccaneers who had now inconvenient claims on him.
From 1671 to 1685 is the time of the greatest daring, prosperity and power of the buccaneers. The expedition against Panama had not been without its influence. Notwithstanding their many successes in the Caribbean and on land, including a second plunder of Porto Bello, their thoughts ran frequently on the great expedition across the isthmus, and they pictured the South Sea as a far wider and more lucrative field for the display of their united power.
In 1680 a body of marauders over 300 strong, well armed and provisioned, landed on the shore of Darien and struck across the country; and the cruelty and mismanagement displayed in the policy of the Spaniards towards the Indians were now revenged by the assistance which the natives eagerly rendered to the adventurers. They acted as guides during a difficult journey of nine days, kept the invaders well supplied with food, provided them with canoes, and only left them after the taking of the fort of Santa Maria, when the buccaneers were fairly embarked on a broad and safe river which emptied itself into the South Sea. With John Coxon as commander they entered the Bay of Panama, where rumour had been before them, and where the Spaniards had hastily prepared a small fleet to meet them. But the valour of the buccaneers won for them another victory; within a week they took possession of four Spanish ships, and now successes flowed upon them. The Pacific, hitherto free from their intrusion, showed many sail of merchant vessels, while on land opposition south of the Bay of Panama was of little avail, since few were acquainted with the use of fire-arms. Coxon and seventy men returned as they had gone, but the others, under Sawkins, Sharp and Watling, roamed north and south on islands and mainland, and remained for long ravaging the coast of Peru. Never short of silver and gold, but often in want of the necessaries of life, they continued their practices for a little longer; then, evading the risk of recrossing the isthmus, they boldly cleared Cape Horn, and arrived in the Indies. Again, in 1683, numbers of them under John Cook departed for the South Sea by way of Cape Horn. On Cook's death his successor, Edward Davis, undoubtedly the greatest and most prudent commander who ever led the forces of the buccaneers at sea, met with a certain Captain Swan from England, and the two captains began a cruise which was disastrous to the Spanish trade in the Pacific.
In 1685 they were joined in the Bay of Panama by large numbers of buccaneers who had crossed the isthmus under Townley and others. This increased body of men required an enlarged measure of adventure, and this in a few months was supplied by the viceroy of Peru. That officer, seeing the trade of the colony cut off, supplies stopped, towns burned and raided, and property harassed by continual raids, resolved by vigorous means to put an end to it. But his aim was not easily accomplished. In this same year a Spanish fleet of fourteen sail met, but did not engage, ten buccaneer vessels which were found in the Bay of Panama.
At this period the power of the buccaneers was at its height. But the combination was too extensive for its work, and the different nationality of those who composed it was a source of growing discord. Nor was the dream of equality ever realized for any length of time. The immense spoil obtained on the capture of wealthy cities was indeed divided equally. But in the gambling and debauchery which followed, nothing was more common than that one-half of the conquerors should find themselves on the morrow in most pressing want; and while those who had retained or increased their share would willingly have gone home, the others clamoured for renewed attacks. The separation of the English and French buccaneers, who together presented a united front to the Spanish fleet in 1685, marks the beginning of the third and last epoch in their history.
The brilliant exploits begun by the sack of Leon and Realejo by the English under Davis have, even in their variety and daring, a sameness which deprives them of interest, and the wonderful confederacy is now seen to be falling gradually to pieces. The skill of Davis at sea was on one occasion displayed in a seven days' engagement with two large Spanish vessels, and the interest undoubtedly centres in him. Townley and Swan had, however, by this time left him, and after cruising together for some time, they, too, parted. In 1688 Davis cleared Cape Horn and arrived in the West Indies, while Swan's ship, the "Cygnet," was abandoned as unseaworthy, after sailing as far as Madagascar. Townley had hardly joined the French buccaneers remaining in the South Sea ere he died, and the Frenchmen with their companions crossed New Spain to the West Indies. And thus the Pacific, ravaged so long by this powerful and mysterious band of corsairs, was at length at peace.
The West Indies had by this time become hot enough even for the banded pirates. They hung doggedly along the coasts of Jamaica and Santo Domingo, but their day was nearly over. Only once again - at the siege of Carthagena - did they appear great; but even then the expedition was not of their making, and they were mere auxiliaries of the French regular forces. After the treachery of the French commander of this expedition a spirit of unity and despairing energy seemed reawakened in them; but this could not avert and scarcely delayed the rapidly approaching extinction of the community.
The French and English buccaneers could not but take sides in the war which had arisen between their respective countries in 1689. Thus was broken the bond of unity which had for three-quarters of a century kept the subjects of the two nations together in schemes of aggression upon a common foe. In the short peace of 1697-1700 England and France were using all their influence, both in the Old World and in the New, to ingratiate themselves into the favour of the king of Spain. With the resumption of hostilities in 1700 and the rise of Spain consequent upon the accession of the French claimant to the throne the career of the buccaneers was effectually closed.
But the fall of the buccaneers is no more accounted for fully by these circumstances than is their rise by the massacre of the islanders of Santo Domingo. There was that in the very nature of the community which, from its birth, marked it as liable to speedy decline.
The principles which bound the buccaneers together were, first the desire for adventure and gain, and, in the second place, hatred of the Spaniard. The first was hardly a sufficient bond of union, among men of different nationalities, when booty could be had nearly always by private venture under the colours of the separate European powers. Of greater validity was their second and great principle of union, namely, that they warred not with one another, nor with every one, but with a single and a common foe. For while the buccaneer forces included English, French and Dutch sailors, and were complemented occasionally by bands of native Indians, there are few instances during the time of their prosperity and growth of their falling upon one another, and treating their fellows with the savagery which they exulted in displaying against the subjects of Spain. The exigencies, moreover, of their perilous career readily wasted their suddenly acquired gains.
Settled labour, the warrant of real wealth, was unacceptable to those who lived by promoting its insecurity. Regular trade - though rendered attractive by smuggling - and pearl gathering and similar operations which were spiced with risk, were open in vain to them, and in the absence of any domestic life, a hand-to-mouth system of supply and demand rooted out gradually the prudence which accompanies any mode of settled existence. In everything the policy of the buccaneers, from the beginning to the end of their career, was one of pure destruction, and was, therefore, ultimately suicidal.
Their great importance in history lies in the fact that they opened the eyes of the world, and specially of the nations from whom these buccaneers had sprung, to the whole system of Spanish-American government and commerce - the former in its rottenness, and the latter in its possibilities in other hands. From this, then, along with other causes, dating primarily from the helplessness and presumption of Spain, there arose the West Indian possessions of Holland, England and France.
A work published at Amsterdam in 1678, entitled De Americaensche Zee Roovers, from the pen of a buccaneer named Exquemelin, was translated into several European languages, receiving additions at the hands of the different translators. The French translation by Frontignières is named Histoire des avanturiers qui se sont signalez dans les Indes; the English edition is entitled The Bucaniers of America. Other works are Raynal's History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies, book x., English translation 1782; Dampier's Voyages; Geo. W. Thornbury's Monarchs of the Main, etc. (1855); Lionel Wafer's Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America (1699); and the Histoire de l'isle Espagnole, etc., and Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France of Père Charlevoix. The statements in these works are to be received with caution. A really authentic narrative, however, is Captain James Burney's History of the Buccaneers of America (London, 1816). The Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series (London, 1860 et seq.), contains much evidence for the history of the buccaneers in the West Indies.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)