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Opposition to Spanish Monopoly: The Unwelcomed French, English and Dutch

  • Nicole Plummer-Rognmo Institute of Caribbean Studies & Reggae Studies Unit University of the West Indies (UWI), Jamaica

Boucanier

The economic system which governed the colonisation of the Americas was mercantilism or merchant capitalism. To be effective, mercantilism had to operate in tandem with colonialism to ensure that the wealth of the subordinated country belonged to the dominant one. It was believed that if the mother country could control all goods in and out of the colony, ensuring that no other country could trade with it, then she would have total control of the wealth that derived from the settlement. Thus, all goods produced in the Spanish colonies had to be exported to Spain and settlers could only officially purchase goods from Spain. Bullion and agricultural products would profit Spanish citizens and expand her treasury as well as increase employment and industries such as shipbuilding.

Spain took several steps to effect her monopolisation of the Americas. In the first place, to solidify her ‘discovery’ and ensure that her claim was recognised, effectively monopolising the Americas in accordance with her mercantilist aspirations, Isabella and Ferdinand sought the ratification of Pope Alexander VI. The Pope divided the world outside of Europe in half. Lands to the west of the Azores belonged to Spain and those to the east belonged to Portugal. This was the Treaty of Tordesillas, ratified in 1494 wherein Portugal would receive Brazil and West Africa, while all 'discoveries' in the Americas belonged to Spain. Though Spain and Portugal, Roman Catholic countries, believed that the Pope’s authority would ensure that Christian Europe would recognise their American claims, the Reformation resulted in Protestant countries such as England and Holland to whom his endorsement of the Treaty of Tordesillas meant very little. In fact, they believed that the Pope should not be involved in secular affairs such as this. France was also interested in Spain's overseas colonies and ignored the Pope's endorsement. 

In another attempt to ensure the efficacy of the mercantilist system, in 1503 Spain established the Casa de Contratacion (House of Trade), located in Seville, to control trade in the colonies. The House granted asientos - or trade licenses - which would become increasingly important in the supply of Africans, to foreigners such as the Portuguese who desired to trade with her colonies. An agent associated with the House was placed in the American colonies and would ensure that duties were paid and the trade effectively regulated. Despite her attempts, England, Holland and France managed to oppose Spain's monopoly in several ways; through exploration, piracy/privateering/buccaneering, smuggling (trading illegally with Spanish colonists) and settlement. 

Called interlopers since they were unauthorised to enter the Spanish Americas, French, English and Dutch exploration of the Caribbean was vigorously opposed by armed Spanish vessels. Spanish fears were well grounded, particularly since interlopers often sought to establish trade with the eager Spanish colonists. Though trade was a fairly innocent motive, under the system of monopoly Spain had established, all attempts to establish trade ties were illegal and thus many interlopers resorted to smuggling in less popular and sometimes even popular ports. Smuggling was necessary to the survival of the Spanish colonists who were irregularly supplied by the Spanish traders. This situation became chronic after the institution of the convoy system which departed Spain twice a year. Colonists often faced a lengthy wait when they tried to send goods to Spain which resulted in the spoilage of perishable items. They therefore willingly traded with Englishmen such as John Hawkins who in 1563 arrived in Hispaniola with ships carrying up to four hundred captive Africans. For the captives, Hawkins received hides and sugar and paid all local customs and taxes. Though unfavourably treated by officials in Spain, Hawkins carried out another trading voyage, this time on the mainland where he was paid in gold. The legacy of Hawkins' profitable trade was to encourage others to attempt trade with the Spanish colonies. Of note were the Dutch who before the end of the sixteenth century became popular carriers, trading regularly with the Spanish colonies. Of great importance were the captive Africans they provided. 

Piracy and privateering, essentially the same thing, were also attempts to break the Spanish monopolisation of the Americas. Piracy was unauthorised attack and robbery of sailing vessels and could include attacks on ports and port towns. Pirates tended to attack ships indiscriminately and were thus fearsome to many. Privateering on the other hand was the authorised or sanctioned attack and robbery of ships and raids on islands and coastal areas in the America,s which lay “beyond the line”, or external to the territorial limits established by treaties which often lay south of the Tropic of Cancer. Thus, during periods of warfare, privateers were granted commissions or letters of marque from government officials to attack the vessels of opposing states. In exchange for their support, privateering vessels were required to provide the government with a share of the loot. This was worth the price since letters of marque ensured that sailors would not be hung as pirates for their looting but rather as would be treated prisoners of war. English privateers were active during periods of war and include John Hawkins (after he savagely was attacked by Spanish vessels), Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. French privateers, called corsairs, include Jean D'Ango and Francois le Clerc who managed to capture several Spanish galleons filled with bullion from the mainland as well as provisions from Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. 

Buccaneers, essentially pirates, were active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when they preyed on Spanish merchant vessels. Derived from the term boucan which referred to the practice of drying cattle meat on grills, buccaneers were often of English, French and Dutch origins. In between attacking vessels, they would hunt cattle on Hispaniola, dry the meat and sell it to passing ships. This practice earned them the name boucaniers which was anglicised to buccaneers. One of the most renowned buccaneers was the Welshman Henry Morgan. 

Taking the view that lands unoccupied by Spain were free for settlement – the principle of effective occupation – interlopers defied the Treaty of Tordesillas. The English, French and Dutch therefore established settlements in the Americas. The English established colonies in North America and the Leeward Islands. Amongst the earliest were St. Christopher, Barbados, Nevis, Montserrat and Antigua. The French also established a colony in St. Christopher and later Martinique and Guadeloupe. The Dutch were active at first in Brazil and later established colonies in Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Martin. 

In the end, the Spanish monopoly failed. They did not have the naval strength to ensure that the interlopers could be kept out of the Caribbean and so the Dutch, English and French would go on to establish permanent colonies and presence in the Caribbean.

Catégorie : Waves of Colonization

Pour citer l'article : Plummer, N. (2013). "Opposition to Spanish Monopoly: The Unwelcomed French, English and Dutch" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/waves-of-colonization/opposition-to-spanish-monopoly-the-unwelcomed-french-english-and-dutch.html.

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