Challenges to the Spanish monopoly in America until 1585 (I)

The Spanish conquest of the Caribbean after Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 is normally not regarded as warfare at sea. The conquistadors did not meet any maritime resistance from the indigenous population. The invaders’ maritime skills and the fact that Columbus stumbled into the only large agglomeration of islands in the New World are nevertheless important ingredients in the early Spanish penetration of America. It became to a large extent a maritime enterprise where the conquest of Caribbean islands was followed by scattered coast settlements in Central America, on the north coast of South America and on the western coasts of the Americas. The conquests of Mexico and Peru added large continental territories to the empire but the maritime character of the enterprise remained.

The rapid spread of Spanish power and the fairly strong control which the Spanish state was able to exercise on a distant continent are difficult to explain if the close connection between settlements and seaborne trade controlled from Seville is not taken into account. The islands and the coastal settlements were easy to defend against attacks from the indigenous population for a power which was supreme at sea. The same supremacy made central control from Spain conceivable as the settlements would be isolated without seaborne communications. Even Peru was connected with the rest of the empire by a sea route to Panama. In the 1560s, Spanish expansion westward continued, with a small settlement on the Philippines and a monopoly on trade between Asia and America. Even if the control of this ocean was extremely limited, the Pacific became a ‘Spanish lake’ where other Europeans were not welcome and no other power regularly sailed across it from one side to the other.

An empire built around maritime lines of communication was also vulnerable to attack from powers which shared the same maritime skills. In the long run, experience was to show that only Europeans who decided to settle in America were a serious threat to sovereignty over colonies. Fleets and armies sent out from Europe were often struck down by tropical diseases to which the local inhabitants had become immune and major expeditions of conquest were difficult to undertake without a local base of food production. But even small-scale attacks against local shipping and scattered settlements might be resource-consuming for the defender as it was difficult to predict where seaborne raiders might strike. Modern fortifications might delay an attacker long enough to give mosquitos and disease time to defeat him, but such fortifications were expensive.

The French, English and later Dutch penetration of America had three aims: plunder, interloping trade and settlements. These aims were partially overlapping and based on violence. Piracy and privateering were naturally based on armed force. Interloping trade had to be carried out with well-protected ships and with at least symbolic amounts of violence as the Spanish settlers had to show that they had been forced to trade against their will. It was often not very difficult to force them to do so as small Spanish settlements were badly served by the monopoly traders. The interlopers could offer products of good quality at better prices. Finally, the establishment of alien settlements in defiance of Iberian claims of a monopoly – based on their ‘discovery’ and their investments in the conquest – had to be protected with armed force. Even if an alien colony was established far from any existing settlement, Spain and Portugal feared that it might serve as a base for piracy and illegal trade. The Spanish authorities were also restrictive in selling licences for foreigners to trade, except sometimes to the Portuguese who could supply slaves from Africa. Foreign capital, especially Genoese, was also important in financing the Seville merchants.

Up to 1560 the threat against Spanish Atlantic trade and American settlements came from France. Most of it was normal privateering activities during the numerous French­ Spanish wars. They gradually increased in intensity and spread westward. In the period 1536–45 privateering attacks mainly took place on the European side of the trade route, in the ‘Atlantic triangle’ between the Azores, Madeira, the Canary Islands and the Iberian peninsula. It was in this area, also threatened by attacks from North Africa, that in the 1520s Spain began to organise convoys for its trans-Atlantic trade. Portugal (to which the Azores and Madeira belonged) also had naval patrols in the area to protect its in- and out-bound shipping to the Indian Ocean, Africa and Brazil. On some occasions warships of the Portuguese navy (Spain had no navy) also protected Spanish shipping. In 1548–50 Portugal and France were involved in informal armed conflicts as Frenchmen attempted to create settlements in Brazil and French ships also acted as interlopers in the Portuguese-controlled trade with West Africa where English interlopers also began to appear in the 1550s. Portugal resisted the intrusions with armed force.

During the 1550s the French attacks against Spanish interests in America intensified, especially in the eastern part of the Caribbean where they were able periodically to cut the communications to Spain. In 1555 French privateers even conquered Havana. The French also developed a flourishing interloping trade, partly by selling goods they had captured from Spanish ships to local Spanish settlers who during wars must often have had to trade with those Europeans of any nationality who actually came to them with goods. The fact that the French usually traded with the settlements, rather than plundering them, indicates that they were thinking in a longer perspective and hoped to create trade relations. Spain sent weapons and small forces of soldiers to America and the crown organised local militias as well as patrols with armed ships in the Atlantic triangle and the Antilles. The merchants of Seville preferred convoys with merchantmen of a minimum size. This system favoured their interest in controlling the trade as a monopoly system.

The classical Spanish convoy system found its definite form by 1564 and was in use beyond 1650. Each year two convoys sailed from Seville and its outports in Cadiz Bay, one in April for Vera Cruz in New Spain (Mexico), Cuba, Santo Domingo (Haiti), and Honduras, and one in August for the Tierra Firme (the north coast of South America) and the Panama Isthmus. Both convoys were to leave for Havana early in the following year and from there return to Spain in March. In practice, war, weather and economic factors often changed the convoy schedule but the basic pattern remained. Westbound convoys took a southerly course, passed the Canaries and entered the southern half of the Caribbean, while eastbound convoys sailed north of Cuba and through the Bahamas, often calling at the Azores for reorganisation before the final and dangerous passage to Seville.

This system was developed to make best possible use of the prevailing winds and to avoid sailing in the Caribbean during the hurricane season in late summer. The eastbound convoys carried large amounts of American silver which in the sixteenth century gained crucial importance for Spanish power and the European economy. The silver from Peru was sent by ship to Panama, brought over the Isthmus by mule-trains and loaded on to the Tierra Firme convoy. Each convoy had at least two large armed merchantmen as escort. When the threat to the convoys grew, squadrons of purpose-built warships were added as extra escorts and as carriers of silver. The convoys were strong enough to resist anything except attacks from major enemy fleets and before 1650 it only happened once (Matanzas 1628) that an entire convoy with its silver was captured.

In the 1560s the most spectacular confrontations were an attempt to establish a French Huguenot colony in Florida and the ambition of the Plymouth merchant John Hawkins to become a supplier of slaves from Africa to the Spanish settlements. The French colony was ideally placed as a corsair base for attacks against Spanish shipping but it was eliminated in 1565 by soldiers sent with a fleet from Spain. Hawkins’ expeditions were financed by merchants in London and leading men in the navy. They came to an end in 1568 on his third voyage. Hawkins had the misfortune to be at San Juan de Ulúa, the roadstead of Vera Cruz in Mexico, when the heavily armed New Spain convoy arrived at its destination. His fleet – which included two major warships hired from the queen – was to a large extent annihilated by the Spanish force.

Many smaller French and English attempts to penetrate the Spanish monopoly in the 1560s and 1570s were more successful. Spain continued to lose ships to raiders, and interlopers returned year after year. The evidence is vague, but it is probable that the armed ships which attacked Spanish shipping and settlements were sometimes the same as those who traded with the Spaniards. Attacking Spanish ships was one way of getting goods to trade with, but also a method for eliminating competition. Some interlopers also fought each other, another way to reduce competition with violence. The Spanish patrol squadrons sent out to eliminate raiders and traders were also a problem for the mercantilist Spanish system, as they often took part in the illegal trade themselves. Some privateers showed a high degree of skill in commanding daring enterprises. Francis Drake gained both fame and fortune when in 1573 in co-operation with runaway slaves, he attacked a trans-Isthmus shipment of
Peruvian silver. As late as 1568 he had been master on one of John Hawkins’ slave-ships – flexibility in European behaviour might be profitable overseas.
The crown of Castile organised the defence of shipping and settlements in much the same way as it organised protection of trade in Western Europe. Merchants and settlers had to pay for much of it themselves, and convoy escorts and patrol ships were often armed merchantmen, The state provided some money, weapons, military and naval leaders and specialists, a legal and institutional framework, and rules of behaviour. In the Atlantic triangle, where Portugal and Spain had a joint interest in protecting their shipping, the two powers often co-operated. Portugal appears to have deployed a considerable part of its royal navy in this area.

The first major attempt to protect the Caribbean and trans-Atlantic trades with specialised warships belonging to the crown were made in 1567/68 when 12 small galleons with auxiliary oars were built. This force, the first real royal sailing navy of Castile, served for about a decade as convoy escort and patrol force. It was not able to be everywhere and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, since the 1550s the strategist behind the defence of Spanish trade and colonies, intended it to intercept raiders and interlopers when they were homeward bound in the north-eastern Caribbean. The prevailing wind and currents system made it relatively easy to predict their route and to concentrate the Spanish warships in its narrowest part. Intense demands for local defence and convoy escorting made it impossible to fulfil this ideal. From 1577 the galleons were replaced by galleys and small vessels in the Caribbean, making the system of defence strikingly similar to the Mediterranean system with forts and local patrol forces. For a time galleys were a successful deterrent against small corsair ships as they could defeat them in calm weather and in shallow waters. A new squadron of larger galleons was ready by 1583/84, but by then it was no longer small privateers that were the main threat. Full-scale war with major fleets operating in the Atlantic hemisphere was imminent.

The European civil wars at sea, 1559–85

After the general peace of 1559 international politics in Western Europe was dominated by the effects of revolts and civil wars, while the states officially remained at peace with each other until 1585.9 The first of these crises occurred in Scotland where a Protestant revolt against the regent, the French-born dowager queen Marie de Guise, broke out. The regent, who ruled in the absence of her daughter, Mary Stuart (who until 1560 was in France as consort to King Francis II), kept it under control with her French troops. In late 1559 the French decided to send a fleet with more troops to Scotland. The situation was especially dangerous for England, as the legitimacy of Queen Elizabeth was not beyond doubt and Mary Stuart was a claimant to the English throne. Elizabeth reacted by sending a fleet to the north. Winter expeditions in these waters were risky and the French fleet was dispersed by gales and had to return home. The English fleet persisted in its mission and arrived in the Firth of Forth in January 1560. This limited the operational freedom of the French troops and reduced their hope of relief. By the summer they had been forced to leave Scotland and Mary Stuart had to accept Elizabeth as Queen of England. The almost eternal Anglo­-Scottish conflict had reached a settlement which proved to be lasting and French influence in the British Isles was eliminated.

In 1562 the first French civil war began. The English decided to intervene on the Protestant side by taking control of Le Havre and a major fleet was mobilised to support the operation. It ended with a costly failure, as Le Havre had to be evacuated when it was attacked by superior forces after the truce in France in 1563. For more than two decades the English refrained from getting involved in continental embroilments during the French and Dutch civil wars, but they were active in them at sea through private warfare. From her position on an island Elizabeth could refine the use of limited and, often, even profitable violence at sea as an instrument of policy and at the same time keep the increasingly aggressive English seafaring community occupied with overseas ventures in plunder, trade and settlements. Elizabeth could permit, redirect or prohibit such ventures but they were hardly part of a central plan, least of all of a plan for empire building.

Especially in works written during the culmination of British seaborne imperialism, this has sometimes been regarded as a faulty strategy or the result of a capricious policy of a woman. It should, instead, be regarded as an efficient way of co-ordinating very different kinds of information: the government’s knowledge about the complicated and volatile political situation on the continent and the seafarer’s superior and rapidly increasing know-how about how to explore opportunities for trade and violence in parts of the world where few Europeans had ever been. The private investors and the enterprising seamen acted at their own risk which might have made them eager to develop technology and skills on their own initiative. They were allowed to do so, and the government co-operated with them, invested in the enterprises and integrated the new know-how with the permanent navy – a number of investors in private warfare were also naval administrators.

However, the crown concentrated its own efforts on English security policy in Europe. When that policy forced England to go to war with Spain, a much stronger power, the joint development of private and state-controlled sea power had forged an instrument that technologically had a decided advantage over Iberian sea power, in spite of Spain’s long sea­faring traditions. This had been achieved without any dramatic increase in taxation or state formation. In a world with men of many and often irresponsible and destructive ambitions,

Elizabeth might appear as the mistress of well-controlled ambitions, aiming at increasing security, power and reputation all at the same time. She was not, in fact, a state builder or an empire builder, but a ruler who allowed her subjects to gather power and wealth by developing new competencies, without fearing that she might lose control over them. In the Western Europe she lived in, this was unusual behaviour.

After 1563, civil wars and revolts continued in France and the Huguenots were especially strong on the Atlantic coast. Much of the seafaring population turned Protestant and the great port of La Rochelle became the most important stronghold for the Huguenots. They also controlled much of the legal framework of French activities at sea as the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny was admiral of France and the Huguenot king of Navarre (later Henry IV of France) was admiral of Guienne. As such they could commission privateers with papers that were legally acceptable to friendly powers. For the politician Coligny a war in the Atlantic against the Spanish arch-enemy might unite France behind an expansionist and profitable policy and also give the Protestant groups increased influence. He shared this interest with many in the French maritime communities who during the civil wars attacked Spanish and Portuguese shipping, to get both financial support for the Protestant side and to hit the religious enemy. These attacks intensified from the mid-1560s and were the main cause behind the strengthened Spanish naval presence along the trans-Atlantic trade route. The French crown vacillated between lukewarm support for a maritime policy that might strengthen the country and fear that it might strengthen groups which undermined the authority of the central state. In practice it exercised no control over overseas ventures or the groups which undertook them.

In these same years the political situation in the Netherlands reached a crisis when the authority of Philip II was undermined by popular Calvinist revolts and elite resistance against attempts to strengthen the power of the central Habsburg government in Brussels. To break this resistance Philip sent a large army under his most experienced general, the Duke of Alba. The Army of Flanders, for nearly a century ahead a centre of gravity in European power politics, had been created. In 1568, William of Nassau (the Prince of Orange) and his brothers organised an attempt to raise a revolt with the help of German mercenaries, but it was defeated by Alba’s army. The Netherlands, a conglomerate of provinces and cities with a strong tradition of self-rule, seemed to be on its way to becoming a centralised territorial state and a mere appendage to Spanish power. Philip II had no intention of giving his industrious subjects in the north free rein for a development that might undermine his own power.

Philip II had sold his Dutch navy after the peace in 1559. His lack of permanent armed force at sea became immediately apparent when the Dutch rebels in 1568 began to organise a force of privateers which sailed under commissions from the Prince of Orange in his capacity as sovereign prince in a small city-state in southern France. These privateers, the Sea Beggars (geux de mer or watergeuzen), were often successful but were also notoriously undisciplined. They co-operated with French Huguenot privateers and English privateers with French letters of marque and together they could use English and French ports, as well as Emden in Germany, as bases. During the years 1568 to 1572 this coalition of privateers cruised from the North Sea to the Azores and Canaries and made Western Europe into a war zone where no seafarers, Spanish, Dutch, French or neutral were safe if they were Catholics, loyal to Philip II or carried enemy goods. The attacks were extended to the Caribbean and rumours of a great Protestant attack against the Iberian and Catholic empires circulated. It became impossible for Philip II to send men and money by sea to the Netherlands, especially since Queen Elizabeth in 1568 had made a forced loan of money on Spanish ships which had sought protection from the privateers in Plymouth. In the future, Spain sent galleys with silver to Genoa where the bankers organised the payment of Spanish troops in the Netherlands through their financial network. This increased the financial power of Genoa. The Army of Flanders was logistically connected with Spain and Italy through the famous ‘Spanish Road’ over the Alps, in itself a proof of Spain’s inability to control the sea route between Spain and the Netherlands.

The Huguenots were successful in controlling the Bay of Biscay during the French civil war of 1568–70. The Sea Beggars were able to blockade Dutch ports to such an extent that grain shipments from the Baltic were reduced. Food prices rose and this increased the dissatisfaction with Alba’s rule, preparing opinion for a renewed revolt. Alba made no attempt to create a Habsburg navy in the Netherlands. He relied on the mobilisation of private ships for war, primarily from Amsterdam, and he concentrated his army to resist a possible invasion from France, leaving the coastal provinces of Holland and Zeeland more or less without soldiers.

In early 1572 the English asked the Sea Beggars to leave English ports. The result was unexpected. On 1 April the Sea Beggars took the town of Brielle (Brill) in southern Holland. In a few months, internal revolutionaries and Sea Beggars had taken control of a large number of cities, especially in the north. The Protestant Dutch sea forces rapidly switched from privateering to becoming a provisional navy in the struggle for inland waterways and the coastal regions.16 In 1572/73 the Zeelanders and South Hollanders gained control over the Rhine/Maas and Scheldt estuaries which also meant that they could control trade to the great port of Antwerp. The North Hollanders and the Frisians gained command over the Zuiderzee, finally confirmed in a naval battle on 13 October 1573. By 1574 Habsburg naval power in the Netherlands was practically eliminated, although Amsterdam remained loyal to Philip II until 1578 and could, for some time, maintain control over some internal waterways. The Dutch began to make money for their navy from their control of the sea routes in the Netherlands. They sold licences to trade with the enemy to their own ships and to neutral shipping, a source of income that was to be important for the Dutch navy.

Philip II was slow to react by sending major naval forces from Spain to regain control of the sea in the north. He was engaged in the great struggle with the Ottomans in the Mediterranean and, apart from the already over-strained guard fleet for the American trade, he had no permanent Atlantic navy. However, early in 1574 he began to mobilise a large fleet in northern Spain through the traditional method of requisitioning armed merchantmen. The first intention was to use it to relieve Middelburg, Philip’s last outpost in Zeeland, but this city fell in early 1574. The new plan was to send the fleet to the Channel and, if possible, to base it on Ireland or the Scilly islands in order to gain control of both English and Dutch trade. It seems doubtful if a fleet of this size could have been successful as it would have resulted in a total mobilisation of the English navy. However, the plan is interesting as early evidence of the great Spanish optimism about what they might achieve in the Channel. The plan had to be abandoned as the fleet was severely struck by illness.

In 1575 Spain suffered one of its recurring financial crises and further offensive operations on land and at sea were impossible for a time. A truce was concluded in the Netherlands in 1576. In France the civil wars ended for a time in 1577. Spanish plans for major offensives in the Atlantic were made, however – among them a somewhat imaginative project of 1578/ 79 to hire 30 warships, several of them large, from Sweden. Anglo-Spanish relations became less tense, but English attacks continued outside Europe. The most spectacular was that of Francis Drake who in 1578 sailed around Cape Horn and attacked Spanish interest in the Pacific. His great success was the capture of a silver-laden ship on its way from Peru to Panama.20 Spain knew of only one place where the English were vulnerable to retaliation for such activities: Ireland. In 1580 a small Spanish force landed at Smerwick to support Catholic rebels, but it was quickly eliminated by a force brought to the scene by an English squadron.

In 1580 a decisive change took place. A lasting truce in the Mediterranean was reached with the Ottoman empire and Philip II of Spain became king of Portugal too. As the son of a Portuguese princess he had a legitimate claim to the throne when the last king of the House of Aviz died and he was the only person who could support his claim with overwhelming military and naval power. The resistance organised by Dom Antonio, an illegitimate son of a Portuguese prince, was crushed by Spanish military and naval power and Portugal became a Habsburg kingdom. It was agreed that the Spanish and Portuguese empires were to be kept separate, but that the two powers should co-operate in the defence of their transoceanic interests, something they in fact already did. For the Habsburgs, the acquisition of Portugal meant that they obtained a permanent sailing navy, an excellent naval base in Lisbon, and a seaborne empire which stretched across the world. The two Iberian empires met each other in the East Indies archipelago (the Moluccas/the Philippines) and in South America.

Dom Antonio went to France and England to get help. He promised to open the Portuguese Atlantic empire to those who supported him and, as nominal king of Portugal, he became a convenient legal source of letters of marque for privateers who wished to attack Iberian interests. Initially he had an important asset as one part of Portugal remained loyal to him after 1580: the Azores. A small Spanish fleet attempted to take control of the islands in 1581, but it failed. The Azores were of great strategic importance for the Spanish convoy system and for Portugal’s communications with her empire. They were also an excellent base for a European power who wished to challenge Philip II and penetrate the Iberian empires. The influential dowager queen of France, Catherine de Medici, became interested and decided to resume the Atlantic policy of admiral Coligny, murdered in 1572, possibly on Catherine’s initiative. Her ultimate aims are not clear but as an experienced negotiator she probably intended to use Dom Antonio, the Azores and further conquests in the Portuguese empire in order to extract concessions from Philip II. Queen Elizabeth was less interested in the project than some of her privateers and only a small English force took part in the expedition to the Azores which left France with Dom Antonio on board early in 1582.

The size of the French fleet – which formally was a private venture – is not known in detail but various reports indicate a size of around 60 ships (about half of them large) and around 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers. This was the largest French force sent overseas before the age of Louis XIV. It met an Iberian fleet of two large Portuguese warships, 19 armed merchantmen and ten transports with 7,000 men of which 4,500 were soldiers. This force was smaller than planned as part of the fleet was delayed, but the Spanish commander, the Marquis of Santa Cruz (Don Alvaro de Bazan Jr) decided to fight. After an indecisive gunfight on 24 July 1582 the fleets met two days later in a fierce close battle south of the island of St Miguel. The French initially had the advantage of the wind and attacked the Spanish rear with superior forces but that gave the Spanish commander the opportunity to gain the wind for the Spanish van, which in its turn attacked the French. Several French ships took flight. The magnitude of French losses is uncertain but they were heavy and decisive .
An improvised French fleet had not been sufficient to challenge the Spanish in the Atlantic triangle. In 1583 a Spanish fleet with about 16,000 men systematically conquered the Azores. It comprised five large sailing warships, 31 armed merchantmen, two galleasses, 12 galleys and 48 small vessels. This was the largest force any European power had sent out in the Atlantic up to then, and it indicates both the rising Spanish ability to organise large sailing battle fleets and the importance of the Azores in their Atlantic strategy.

The conquest of Portugal was the start of a general Spanish offensive in the Atlantic and Western Europe which lasted until 1588. Peace in the Mediterranean and massively increased shipping of American silver were two preconditions. The galley fleet remained strong to secure the former and the convoys from America were the lifeline which secured the latter. The Army of Flanders was reinvigorated and became again a highly efficient force under the Duke of Parma, who, unlike his predecessor Alba, was also a skilled politician. In 1582–85 Parma retook most of the rebellious provinces in a series of offensives, sieges and political compromises with the elite groups. In 1579–81, the seven provinces in Northern Netherlands had formed a union and declared themselves independent, but their situation became increasingly desperate. Dunkirk and Nieupoort on the coast of Flanders were taken in 1583 giving Parma ports where he began to create a force of light ships for attacks on trade and an invasion of England. However, the supply lines for his army remained the ‘Spanish Road’ as the shallow coast outside the Flanders ports was closed to ships from Spain by the small Dutch warships. William of Orange was assassinated in 1584 and the great port of Antwerp fell to Parma’s army in 1585. By 1585 the new Dutch Republic had lost much of its territory. Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, protected by the small ships of the new navy and the Rhine–Maas delta were still beyond Parma’s control, but, if no help were to arrive, the future looked bleak.


To be followed