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The Western Invasion: Privateers and The Settlement of North America

The Western Invasion: Privateers and The Settlement of North America


Predatory Commerce. European powers did not trade with one another in North America during the sixteenth century. In part such commerce failed to develop because the mercantilist economic policies of the day forbade it. More to the point, European states had established only a handful of settlements on the continent with which trade could be conducted, and only one, St. Augustine, survived for more than a year. Through privateering, however, the French, British, and Dutch engaged in a form of predatory commerce against Spanish shipping in

the waters off Florida. Small at first but increasing as the century progressed, privateering raids ultimately came to play an important part in shaping the exploration and colonization of North America.

Beginnings. Privateering originated as a way for merchants to settle disputes with foreign governments. Having had a ship or goods expropriated by a foreign nation, a merchant would apply for a letter of reprisal that entitled its bearer to seize on the high seas vessels and merchandise owned by citizens of the offending country. This system thus provided a well-regulated means for traders to redress international commercial grievances without putting governments in conflict. Over time, though, privateering became so profitable that adventurous merchants and gentlemen who had lost no goods began purchasing letters of reprisal from government officials only too happy to look the other way for a bribe or a percentage of the take. Hostilities with Spain, moreover, led the French and then the British governments to view privateering as a cheap tool they could use to chip away at Spanish power.

Wars of the Sixteenth Century. The French were the first to prey upon Spanish shipping in the West Indies. During early hot periods in the collection of conflicts known as the Hapsburg-Valois Wars (1522-1559), French buccaneers cruised the Caribbean alternately trading and plundering in a region Spain considered to be its exclusive sphere. After 1552 the French government began to send large squadrons of ships to attack the Spanish treasure fleets in an effort to interrupt at its source the flow of bullion on which Spanish power rested. Though French Protestants known as Huguenots continued to raid shipping in the Caribbean following the conclusion of the Hapsburg-Valois Wars, Britain rapidly surpassed France as Spanish king Philip IIs chief nemesis in the New World. Greed and religious hatred combined initially to motivate daring men such as Sir John Hawkins to plunder Spanish vessels and settlements in the West Indies. When war with Spain broke out in 1585, though, the desire to undermine Philips financial base spurred the British to organize massive raids such as Sir Francis Drakes devastating 15851586 cruise.

Impact on Settlement. Privateering shaped virtually all colonization efforts in North America prior to the seventeenth century. In the 1560s, for example, the French Huguenot leader Adm. Gaspard de Coligny sent a force to establish a privateering base at the site of present-day Port Royal, South Carolina. Though this settlement failed, he also sent René Goulaine de Laudonnière to found Fort Caroline on the Florida coast as a base from which ships could raid the treasure fleet on their return voyage. When war broke out between Spain and Britain in 1585, meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Sir Walter Raleigh to construct a settlement at Roanoke Island from which corsairs could raid Spanish shipping year-round.

St. Augustine. Privateering also played an indirect part in the founding of the first permanent European settlement in North America. Following Pedro Menéndez de Aviléss destruction of Fort Caroline in 1565, Philip II concluded that Spain could ensure against another European power building a privateering base in Florida only by maintaining a fortified colony on the peninsula. As a result he ordered Menéndez to turn the temporary base of St. Augustine into a permanent colony.


Kenneth R. Andrews, The Spanish Caribbean: Trade and Plunder, 15301630 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978);

Karen Ordhal Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman&Allandheld, 1984);

Max Savelle, The Origins of American Diplomacy: The International History of Angloamerica, 14921763 (New York: Macmillan, 1967);

J. Leitch Wright Jr., Anglo-Spanish Rivalry in North America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971).

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