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Pirates of New Spain, 1575-1742

Pirates of New Spain, 1575-1742

by Peter Gerhard

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Captivating, well-documented study focuses on piracy among Spain's Pacific coast colonies, ranging from Panama to points north. Gerhard traces the exploits of the Elizabethan pirates — most notably, Sir Francis Drake and the crew of the Golden Hind —Dutch raiders, mercenary buccaneers like Captain Morgan, and the incursions of English smugglers.


Captivating, well-documented study focuses on piracy among Spain's Pacific coast colonies, ranging from Panama to points north. Gerhard traces the exploits of the Elizabethan pirates — most notably, Sir Francis Drake and the crew of the Golden Hind —Dutch raiders, mercenary buccaneers like Captain Morgan, and the incursions of English smugglers.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Maritime
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Pirates of New Spain 1575-1742

By Peter Gerhard

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14914-1


The West Coast of New Spain


From the "discovery" of the Pacific by Núñez de Balboa in 1513, the Spanish conquest and occupation of its shore proceeded quite rapidly until, by 1550, nearly all the coastal Indians from Panamá to about 22° N. had been subdued. There was a rather dense Indian population along most of this coastal area, but it was very much reduced by disease and other factors within five to twenty-five years after the arrival of the Spaniards. Spanish settlements were few, partly because of the early extermination of Indian laborers, although in any case the more temperate highlands were preferred for colonization. After 1550 the conquest continued northward more slowly, reaching the valley of the Sinaloa by the end of that century and the Yaqui River toward the middle of the next. By 1700 Jesuit missionaries were in control of the coast of Sonora north to the vicinity of Guaymas and had begun subduing the primitive Indians across the gulf. The reduction of Lower California spread in both directions from Loreto, reaching the southern tip of the peninsula in 1730, while Upper California was not settled until after 1769.



The Isthmus of Panamá was, for most of the period with which we are concerned, attached to the viceroyalty of Peru, but a separate audiencia and bishop had their headquarters at Panamá City. The jurisdiction of the audiencia of Panamá extended through the province of Veragua (now the western part of the Republic of Panamá) to Burica Point, where it met the audiencia and captaincy general of Guatemala.


From Burica Point north and west almost to Tehuantepec extended the captaincy general and audiencia of Guatemala. While the viceroy of New Spain in theory had certain jurisdiction over this territory, in fact it was quite independent of him. The capitán general residing in Santiago de Guatemala (now Antigua) was also president of the audiencia, and reported directly to the king. Subordinate to him and ruled by gobernadores and alcaldes mayores were a number of vaguely defined provinces. On the west coast these included, from south to north, Costa Rica, Nicoya, Nicaragua, San Miguel, San Salvador, Sonsonate, Guatemala, and Soconusco.


Beginning with the province of Tehuantepec, the territory subordinate to the viceroy of Nueva Espana stretched west and north to California and beyond. The viceroy had his court in the city of Mexico and was responsible in a military sense for a vast region extending from the West Indies to the Philippine Islands. He was also president of the audiencia of Mexico, whose jurisdiction included the peninsula of Yucatán. There was a separate and independent audiencia at Guadalajara with judicial (and to a large extent political) control over the kingdoms of Nueva Galicia and Nueva Vizcaya, including the coast north of Navidad Bay. The Californias were directly under the viceroyalty of Nueva Espana. Along the coast, local government was entrusted to alcaldes mayores in the few Spanish settlements. These were, more than mayors, actually governors of often considerable territories, and exercised extensive powers within their jurisdictions. The coastal alcaldías mayores in Nueva Espana proper were Tehuantepec, Guatulco, Acapulco, Zacatula, Colima, and Autlán. Those in the audiencia of Guadalajara were La Purificación, Compostela, San Sebastián, and Culiacán.


The first Spanish settlements on the Pacific were in the Isthmus of Panamá. The village of Natá was settled in 1517. Two years later the city of Panamá was founded six miles northeast of its final site. It was a swampy, ill-chosen location with little in its favor but strategic importance. Panamá was the terminus of the treasure ships which brought silver and gold from Peru, to be carried across the isthmus and transshipped to Spain. It was also the depot for all Spanish goods destined for South America. The audiencia was responsible for receiving the Peruvian bullion and seeing that it got safely across the isthmus. Because of the extreme tidal range, ships had to anchor some three leagues (seven miles) southwest of the old city, at Perico Point. The original Panamá was mostly of wooden construction, and when visited by Gage in 1637 had a fort (Fuerte de la Natividad) and a few pieces of cannon on the seaward side but was undefended from the land. It was taken (from the land side), looted, and burned by Morgan in 1671, after which a new city was erected on the present site. In new Panamá extensive fortifications were built, including a stone wall completely surrounding the city with sufficient cannon to discourage any further attack. Again most of the houses were of wood and were destroyed by fire in 1737, after which more stone and brick were used in construction.

Along and near the coast west of Panamá were a number of small Spanish settlements (Natá, Villa de los Santos, Pueblo Nuevo, Santiago Alanje or Chiriqui), but much of the country was deserted. The inhabitants lived from cattle raising, lumbering, subsistence agriculture, and gold mining.

A convenient hide-out used many times by pirates was Coiba, or Quibo, a wooded, mountainous island twenty-two miles long and twelve miles from the mainland. Coiba had no permanent inhabitants, although occasionally pearl divers and fishermen camped on its shores. There was plenty of water and small game.

Between the provinces of Veragua and Costa Rica was a wild, mountainous country inhabited by Indians whom the Spaniards never completely subdued. Dulce Gulf, a large, deep, well-protected bay, had no Spanish settlement nearby and was consequently used by pirates as a port of refuge and a careening and watering place. Another such hide-out was Caño Island, off San Pedro Point, which also had fresh water.

In the latitude of 10° N. is the spacious and protected Gulf of Nicoya, also known in colonial times as Salinas Gulf. Its shores were colonized at an early date, there being two principal Spanish-mulatto settlements. One, called Nicoya, was near the mouth of the Tempisque River at the head of the gulf, with a shipyard and of sufficient importance to have an alcalde mayor much of the time. The other was at the Bay of Caldera, near the mouth of the gulf on the east shore, twenty leagues (sixty miles) from the capital of Costa Rica, Cartago. At Caldera there were several warehouses for the Panamanian and Peruvian trade, and a short distance inland was the Spanish village of Esparza (modern Esparta). In addition there were Christianized Indian villages on the west shore of the gulf and on Chira Island. Within the gulf were a number of unfrequented islands and coves occasionally used by pirates for careening and watering. The inhabitants of Nicoya province lived from agriculture and stock raising, their produce going to Panama and Nicaragua.

Not far above the Gulf of Nicoya is a deep, sheltered cove, Culebra Bay, described by the coast pilot as "the finest harbor in Central America." Although quite close to the main colonial trail, it does not seem to have been used a great deal either by Spaniards or pirates. There were a few cattle ranches nearby when buccaneers called at Culebra in 1685-86.

What is now the port of Corinto, in Nicaragua, was known until the late nineteenth century as Puerto de la Posesión or, more commonly, Realejo. It was the most important place on the coast of Central America. In early years the vicinity of the harbor itself was uninhabited except for a sentinel, the old town of Realejo being two leagues inland on a small river. It was connected by road with the city of Leon, colonial capital of Nicaragua, the final (after 1610) site of which was eight leagues to the east. Realejo began to be used as a shipyard and port for the Peruvian trade about 1530. The harbor is completely sheltered by a long island. The docks for launching ships were on the river's bank at the edge of the town, although normally ships did not go up that far. By the middle of the sixteenth century there was a sizable colony of European and mestizo carpenters, caulkers, sail-makers, and other specialists. Until 1585 the Manila galleons were built there. After Drake passed by, breastworks were erected near the entrance to the creek running up to Realejo town, and these fortifications continued to be used during successive visits of pirates. A chain or boom of trees was sometimes placed across the river opposite the breastworks.

Thirty leagues southeast of Realejo, beyond León, was the important colonial city of Granada. Although close to the Pacific, it had direct maritime communication with Porto Belo and Cartagena by way of Lake Nicaragua and the Desaguadero (San Juan River). Because of its relative wealth and its accessibility from both seas, Granada was attacked several times by pirates. Livestock and agricultural products were shipped from Nicaragua, both to Peru (via Realejo) and to Cartagena (via Granada and the Desaguadero). Other important articles of colonial trade were cotton cloth, pitch, and rigging.

In the mountains northeast of Realejo was the gold mining town of Nueva Segovia (modern Ocotal), on the upper waters of the Segovia or Coco River. This was the northernmost town in colonial Nicaragua, and the source of pitch, or pine tar, for the shipyard of Realejo and for export to Peru.

The next harbor, within the colonial province of Guatemala, was the Bay of Amapala, or Gulf of Fonseca. Inside the bay the chief anchorage used by the Spaniards was the port of Martin López, near the present site of La Unión and not far from the old town of San Miguel. The only other Spanish town near the shores of the bay was Jerez de Choluteca, on the east side. The islands of Meanguera and Amapala had Christianized Indian villages. Spanish ships not infrequently entered the bay to load pitch, cacao, and other products for Peru and Mexico. There was a regular ferry service from Martin López across to what is now Puerto Morazán in Nicaragua, to avoid the long mule trek around the swampy shores. In spite of this lack of privacy, Amapala was used by foreign ships as a center of operations from 1684 to 1721.

The next colonial seaport, and a very important one despite its disadvantages, was the open roadstead of Acajutla. A shipyard was established there in the early 1530s but was soon abandoned in favor of Realejo. Then Acajutla became the shipping point for cacao (chocolate) grown in the vicinity, and was frequently called at by ships engaged in the trade between Mexico and Peru. It was the chief Pacific port for the entire province of Guatemala, which included what is now El Salvador. Nearby was the Spanish town of La Santisima Trinidad de Sonsonate, and somewhat farther were the cities of Santa Ana and San Salvador. Besides the principal crop of cacao, there was a good deal of subsistence agriculture and cattle raising in the surrounding country.

The coast between Amapala and Guatulco was devoid of sheltered anchorages, but there were a few Spanish towns near the sea, including Chiquimula, Huehuetlán, and Tehuantepec.

Guatulco, or Huatulco, was the first seaport to be developed and used to any great extent by the Spaniards on the Mexican Pacific coast. It is a snug, sheltered bay well suited to the type of vessel in use during the colonial period, and the best natural harbor between Amapala and Acapulco, a distance of nine hundred miles. It had fresh water, firm anchorage, and a smooth, sloping sandy beach for boat landing. A trail ran from Guatulco across the mountains to the important city of Oaxaca, forty-five leagues (c. 125 miles) inland, where it joined the main road to Mexico City. Three leagues from the sea to the northwest was the Indian village of Santa Maria Guatulco, from which the port took its name.

The harbor of Guatulco came into use before that of Acapulco in spite of its much greater distance from the capital, because it was simpler to improve the existing Indian trail from Oaxaca than to open an entirely new road through the very rugged country between Cuernavaca and Acapulco. Thus Guatulco became at an early date the northern terminus of maritime traffic between New Spain and Peru. It also had an active local trade with Central America. Sometime between 1537 and 1540 Guatulco began to be settled by Spanish shipbuilders, business agents, storekeepers, and government officials. A good number of Indian laborers were moved down to the port. Complete facilities and materials were assembled there for building and refitting ships. By 1542 the settlement was important enough to have a corregidor (later, alcalde mayor). It had a church, a large customhouse, warehouses, and several hundred brush and wattle huts.


Position of houses is approximate. Modern names are shown in parentheses.

The heyday of Guatulco was the period from 1540 to 1575. There were commonly three or four ships a year to Peru, and a greater number of small vessels engaged in the local trade with Central America. The latter consisted largely of the exchange of goods (clothing, livestock, Negro slaves) from New Spain for cacao shipped from Acajutla. Ships leaving Guatulco for Peru carried a varying cargo of Mexican products and returned with Peru's exports, silver and mercury. The value of shipments from Guatulco was estimated in 1562 at 400,000 pesos annually.

Guatulco's importance declined from about 1574, after Acapulco became the chief port of the viceroyalty on the South Sea. The latter place was definitely established as the terminus for trans-Pacific trade with the Orient, and as the transshipment point for the extremely profitable extension of that trade to Peru. Guatulco continued for a time to handle a much diminished part of the local traffic with Peru and Central America, but by 1586 customs receipts at that port had dropped to less than 1,000 pesos a year. Both Drake (1579) and Cavendish (1587) entered and rummaged Guatulco, sailing away with everything of value they could steal. Cavendish left the town in ashes. Such attacks were made easy by the fact that Guatulco had no fort, nor any defense whatever except the few Spaniards who might happen to be there. Perhaps to eliminate such a temptation to pirates, the viceroy in 1616 ordered that the village at Guatulco port be destroyed, the houses torn down, and the Indian population moved inland to Santa María. Presumably from that date Guatulco ceased to be a legal port of exit and entry.

While there is some evidence that Guatulco was used for contraband shipment of Chinese goods to Peru after 1616, as far as we know the port remained deserted except perhaps for a sentinel and an occasional fisherman or local coasting boat from Central America. Several pirates called there to take shelter and fill their water casks, or rummage the surrounding country for provisions. When the English captains Swan and Townley went in there in 1685 they found the port abandoned and no trace of the former town except "a little chapel standing among the Trees, about 200 paces from the Sea."

Puerto de los Angeles, or Puerto Angel, just west of Guatulco, was not used by the Spaniards to any extent, but it was occasionally called at by pirates.

Acapulco, Mexico's only developed seaport on the Pacific for much of the colonial period, was discovered by the Spaniards in 1521 and was probably first settled about 1530. It has a fine sheltered harbor of easy access, by far the best and most spacious on the Mexican coast south of Lower California. An additional advantage is its relative closeness (110 leagues, or 280 miles) to the city of Mexico.

However, the extremely rugged nature of the country between Mexico City and Acapulco constituted a serious communications problem in the sixteenth century. There was a good trail south to Cuernavaca, but beyond there the mountains and innumerable river crossings made travel by horse or mule impossible. The trip took about a month on foot, and everything had to be carried on the backs of Indian tamemes. Consequently, in the early years of Spanish occupation Acapulco was used only by an occasional exploring ship. All trade with Central America and Peru was at first handled through the more accessible port of Guatulco. It was not until the late 1560s that a fair trail was opened from Mexico City, and even then the numerous unbridged rivers made it preferable to continue using Guatulco.


Excerpted from Pirates of New Spain 1575-1742 by Peter Gerhard. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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