The Spanish Main

The Spanish Main

When Christopher Columbus discovered the islands of the Bahamas in 1492, he began an era of Spanish colonial expansion that gave her control of South America and the Caribbean basin.

The Caribbean includes the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the island once called ‘Hispaniola’ which is now divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

This new world for Spain was the site of brutal attacks and enslavement by armies of Spanish Conquistadors, including Hernando Cortez, who conquered Mexico. The Spanish controlled the entire region in the 1500’s and exploited the native populations in order to gain wealth that they shipped back to Spain. By the late 1500’s, the Caribbean became known as ‘The Spanish Main.’

Potosi Mountain in Peru, the richest
silver mine in the world during the time of
the Spanish Main.

Spanish mines extracted vast treasures in gold and silver from Mexico, Venezuela and Peru. The Spanish build huge, well-armed sailing ships called galleons that they filled with New World treasure. The galleons would then form large convoys near the island of Cuba and then sail back across the Atlantic to Spain. These galleons, loaded with gold and silver, became the targets of pirates and buccaneers.

‘Pieces of Eight’ were coins minted on
the Spanish Main and shipped back to Spain.

While Spain was nearly all-powerful in the Caribbean, England and France managed to establish several settlements on the fringes of the Spanish Main. These settlements were never safe from Spanish attack and so they began to rely on piracy to attack Spanish ships and ports.

In the 1570’s, English ships ventured into the Caribbean, attacking and plundering shipping and towns. Francis Drake was the most famous of these English raiders. He probably operated with the full knowledge and approval of Queen Elizabeth I. She even financed many of his raids.

Drake was known as a ‘privateer.’ A privateer was one who attacked ships and towns of his country’s enemy. He usually had a ‘Letter of Marque,’ issued by the Queen which said that he was instructed to rob by command of the Queen. Drake frequently committed piracy without a Letter of Marque from the Queen, but these indiscretions were overlooked by his country and he became a national hero in England.

The Elizabethan pirates disrupted the flow of gold and silver from the mines of the Americas to Spain. Most pirates had no allegiance to any Queen or country. They simply had a desire to plunder vast riches from Spanish ships.

Next: The Spanish Galleons

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