Mobilities of violent appropriation: slavery, privateering, and piracy


1. Privateering, piracy, and contraband

1.1. Privateering and piracy legitimised by the European enemies of Spain for two hundred years

During the 16th century, the Spanish were the only Europeans to lastingly appropriate Caribbean territories, across both the islands and the continental mainland. The other European monarchies endeavoured to seize the riches emanating from this new America. To that end, they opted for privateering with the open sea as their field of engagement. Furnished with English or French “Letters of Marque” from their respective sovereigns, these privateers strove to pillage the treasures taken from America, reserving a share of their hoard for their royal patrons. For the latter, this type of enterprise avoided any official declaration of war with Spain, whose infantry was considered the best in Europe. These naval engagements were often associated with audacious actions: the privateers were excellent sailors, battle hardened with fast, manoeuvrable, and well-armed ships. Their main strength was the element of surprise, coupled with a rapid increase in the usual violence all too common in such combats. Given the heavy defence of the main Spanish ports, the success of the privateers depended on great audacity. The very same privateers would turn into pirates when boarding their prize, honouring “neither faith nor law,” and certainly no national flag. As such, the terms privateer, pirate, buccaneer... might well apply to the same individuals, depending on the circumstances in which they found themselves.

The French and the English behaved accordingly during the whole length of the 16th century: the first plundering takes place in 1522 with the seizure of part of the treasure of Moctezuma, the prize from the recent conquest of the Aztecs by Tenochtitlan. They pillaged the main Spanish ports from 1530 to 1555.

The second half of the century saw the triumph of English privateers like John Hawkins or Francis Drake who laid waste to Nombre de Dios (Isthmus of Panama) in 1572 and Cartagena (Colombia) in 1585.

The frequent sacking of Spanish ports was accompanied by widespread torching, high ransoms and plunder, as much of public as of private assets, but all readily convertible into actual currency. The European attackers were sometimes assisted by the Amerindians, particularly the Kalinas of the Lesser Antilles who habitually undertook warring expeditions by canoe into the Greater Antilles to the North, and towards the Orinoco basin in the South.

Together with the capture of galleons, this repeated destruction of the main port installations proved very costly for the Spanish crown.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Spanish would lose the naval domination of their vast empire. Basking in the glory of their Mediterranean victory over the Turkish fleet at Lepanto (1571), the Spanish had made preparation for the invasion of Britain. The defeat of the Great Armada (1588) by the English marked the beginning of an irreversible decline of the Spanish fighting navy in the face of its British rival’s increasing strength.

From the second half of he 17th century, the young Dutch republic in its war of independence from Spanish Flanders would launch itself towards a maritime destiny in which they would become the “carriers of the seas.” With their superb naval shipyards, Amsterdam constructed solid ships, both cheaply and quickly. The Dutch fleet would dominate European maritime trade in the 17th century.

Henceforth, pirates would prove to be as often Dutch as English or French, so much so that in 1628 Dutch privateers seized part of the ’Flota’ convoy at Matanzas (Cuba). As for Henry Morgan, he plundered Portobelo (1668) and more especially would capture Panama in 1671.1 But with progressive European colonization of the West Indies, the actions of the privateers would end up countering the designs of the colonizers, despite the privateers cum pirates having been party to the origins of this enterprise.

Privateers and pirates had need of regional bases. They found them in the islands abandoned by the Spanish. As such, the Bahamas were well situated to intercept the ‘Flota’ using the Florida Strait. Equally, the archipelagos of the Virgin Isles, the Grenadines and the islands of Venezuela provided places of refuge. In the Lesser Antilles, the pirates had to deal with the Kalinas in order to obtain fresh water and various fruits and vegetables. However, the most elaborate system was that developed by the ‘Brotherhood of the Coast,’ between the pirates of Tortoise Island and the buccaneers of the northern coast of Hispaniola. The latter provided buccan meat, plus other food and drink in exchange for money and the spoils of pillage. 

1.2. Contraband or the failure of a system of exclusive trade links

Each of the colonizing European monarchies in the Caribbean reinforced one of the basic tenets of mercantilism: the monopoly of their national flag as regards all trade with their colonies. For Spain, above all else, this meant maintaining the security of the long logistical circuit of its gold and silver convoys in which the ports and sea passages represented the weak links. Through its “Navigation Acts” of 1650-1651, England established a strict monopoly, followed later by France. But the extent of the Spanish overseas domain was such that ensuring the supply of provisions to its colonies, whether insular or continental proved inadequate and irregular. It became the regular subject of complaints by Spanish colonists directed to their sovereign for the whole duration of the colonial period.

The Low Countries in turn would profit from this situation. The strong Flemish commercial tradition led them to distributing across the whole of northern Europe, the riches and monies procured from the American empire. Once independent from Madrid, they accrued this role also ensuring maximum damage in the process to their former master. Whether by force or complicity with local authorities, they sold contraband goods to the Spanish colonists supplying whatever their needs (timber, )canvas, tools, arms, flour, wine, alcohol, cloth), and brought back tropical goods (tobacco, cotton, spices, sugar, rum, leather). In order to procure these commodities the Low Countries had established themselves in islands left aside by the other European powers: St Maarten, St Eustatius, and especially the islands skirting the lagoonal coastline of the South American mainland, which included salt marshes2 (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao).

The British colonies established in the 17th century along the northeast coast of North America also played a significant role in this regional contraband. To the Spanish colonies, but also the French, they began furnishing timber, cloth, dried fish, flour in exchange for spices, sugar, and rum. 

2. The Antillean plantation system

2.1. An African slave workforce housed in sugar plantation quarters as part of a colonial system dependent on long-distance logistical maritime links

2.1.1. The heavy legacy of the slave trade

This odious trade dates from the 16th century, and did not finally come to an end until the second half of the 19th century. It always encompassed tow elements: the officially sanctioned treaties and licenses granted to others to undertake the trade, which would afford the Portuguese a certain pre-eminence up until the 18th century, after which Britain would dominate this whole activity until its abolition. Spain was never able to satisfy the needs of its colonies in slave labour, including the period after the Union of Iberia, which allowed it to benefit from Portugal’s contribution. It was the same for France. Contraband thus became an essential component of this trade,3 whether official or illegal, with the slave trade at the very origin of the latter, well-known triangular trade, which inter-linked the monarchies of Europe with their merchants and ship owners, the slave supplying coasts of West Africa (from Cape Verde to the Gulf of Guinea) and the Caribbean, especially the islands where the survivors of these sinister human cargos were sold.4 The transatlantic segment of the return journey served to ship the fruits of this sugar plantation colonial system back to Europe. 

2.1.2. The sugar plantation, socio-economic system of the Antilles

The form taken by this socio-spatial colonization was very different to that of the Spanish colonial model: it took shape in the 17th century in the Lesser Antilles under the dual domination of the French and British. With its inheritance of a farming model dating from the 15th century introduced by the Portuguese in Madeira, this agricultural unit integrating slave labour would become the socio-economic base of the European colonization of the Lesser Antilles. For economic, social, and technical reasons, it would remain the quasi-unique model until the arrival of the steam engine in the second half of the 19th century. The spatial entity in question demanded a certain minimum sized surface area so to ensure a profitable return from the cane sugar mill of which were extracted the sugar and alcohol. This issue of scale implied a class of sufficiently wealthy planter-proprietors who, together with their land-holdings, possessed a ready supply of servile labour transhipped from black Africa within a highly rigid socio-racial system that would impregnate Antillean society for centuries to come. 

2.1.3. Human mobilities codified by race

  • For the slaves: an incarcerated mobility dictated by the needs of the workplace. The European colonization of the West Indies was one based on a settler population: very quickly, the dominance of the sugar plantation at the expanse of all other agricultural activity5 would make ever-increasing demands on captive Africans, enslaved on their arrival in the islands. From 1670 to 1680, the population of European origin becomes a minority (Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe). This situation imposes a veritable legislative shackle on the slave population, whether under English Law (1688 code) or French (Black Code of 1688). The texts define the slightest facet of everyday life for a slave, applied with repressive intent for fear of rebellion. The movement of slaves was dictated by their function, that of a simple tool of labour to be maintained so as not to be lost, but watched over so as not to allow any possibility of escape. The work assigned to different categories of slave involved a basic hierarchy. In the fields, from sunrise to sunset, the slave has only his bare feet to move about based on a strict timetable and under constant surveillance between his place of work and his hut. The house slave might benefit from a little more freedom of movement, but within a domestic context dictated by the wishes of his matter, whom he might occasionally accompany on particular journeys. Generally, servile mobility was very limited, repetitive, and monitored. Periods of rest were few, and mainly nocturnal.
  • The emancipated, within this society, remained few in number. In an urban setting, those who benefitted from this status might enjoy more ample living space, comparable to that of the white lower classes.
  • The slave master, especially if he was of noble descent, enjoyed all the prerogatives attached to this class of plantation owner. However, it was rare for someone of this background to have undertaken the transatlantic crossing. The role was a privilege reserved for senior colonial civil servants, and military personnel, successful merchants or young aristocrats leaving the metropolis to undertake ‘good works’ abroad.

West Indian society in the 17th and 18th centuries mirrored the social classes of European society. Because of the terrible association with slavery, it becomes an intensified reflection of this structure in which the slave is viewed simply as a commodity, where the fear of his rebellion against his present state reinforces the iniquity and violence of the controls forced on his person.

The geography of the sugar islands allowed for the co-existence of areas given over to habitation and those more extensive uninhabited and forested zones. The former were found particularly in the coastal plains, the latter in the mountainous interior (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Jamaica). The main towns were ports with the exception of a few settlements in the interior of the large islands. More frequently than in the Spanish territories, the plantation owners lived on site. The towns, above all, were the trading posts for the merchants and the places of residence for the colonial, civil, military, religious, judicial, and administrative authorities. Architecturally, pragmatism often over-ruled the sumptuous-ness reserved for a few special edifices and the wealthiest residences. In the Antillean town, the military forts defended the aligned shops and warehouses along the bay, whilst the local authorities also provided for a parade ground. The colonial towns of the Lesser Antilles would up to the present day retain a less attractive cachet than that of their Spanish counterparts in the Greater Antilles or on the mainland continent.

The poor condition of the local route networks whether within settlements or between them and the ports of embarkation limited choice as regards means of moving around. For slaves and the poorest whites, trekking up from the port would sometimes include the burden of carrying various goods. Within the settlement, carts were plentiful as were storehouses, particularly around the sugar refineries. Pack animals, oxen and donkeys were used to power the mills, but also to pull the carts loaded with sugar cane, and running on solid wooden wheels. Choice of transport was increased through the use of drays and wagons for cartage down to the ports. Members of the ruling authority would benefit from a coach, whilst the rich planters travelled in landau, cabriolet and other ‘tilbury,’ when not using their horse, a privilege afforded only to a wealthy white.

The coastal embarkation points represented the key locations of the colony, such was the total dependence of its economy on external trade, selling all that it produced and buying all that it needed, including slave labour. It might constitute just a bay, with the larger ships generally remaining offshore and smaller boats going to and fro, loaded with barrels, sacks and jarrets.6 The porters were slaves; some of those freed took on jobs linked to port activities. The latter also attracted the lowest ranks of the white population. 

2.2. The splitting up of the West Indies into rival colonial fiefdoms

At the beginning of the 17th century, the English and French monarchies, followed in the second half of that centuries by the newly independent Low Countries, would seek to grant themselves colony status over parts of the West Indies. Their pirates often pioneered these newly established entities, which as a complement to their more predatory activities with regard to Spanish territories, would become permanent as well as sources of wealth in their right. The settlement of these colonies initially proved difficult to establish because of the hostile reactions of the Kalinas across the Lesser Antilles. It is only around 1680 that the conflicts between Amerindians and Europeans would cease. The former were rapidly disappear in the face of the new slave demographic introduced in the ‘sugar islands.’

Even if occasionally the English and the French were united against the Amerindians, going as far as a shared division of the island of Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), very quickly the two monarchies would become opposed once again. Anglo-French conflicts would dominate the history of the West Indies from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th. During the 17th century, the Low Countries would join in the conflict, allied to one or other of the main protagonists, but more often allied to the English. The islands of the Antillean arc would change their national affiliation several times, with whole-ale destruction also brought about by pirate-led expeditions.7

Whilst the Low Countries were only able to lay claim to a few archipelagos (see above) and Suriname, France grouped its possessions around Martinique and Guadeloupe before Santo Domingo achieves full sovereignty the following century. In Barbados and Jamaica, the English would establish their strongest bases.

It is during the 18th century that the Anglo-French conflict would become more pronounced and generalised.8 It was to be the Antillean reflection of a wider confrontation developing both in Europe and in other continents (Asia, North America) as evidenced during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The islands captured during the war proved less brutal than in the previous century, with the new sovereign content to guarantee continuity as regards his new subjects’ economic activities.9 The terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763) thereby demonstrate the importance of the ‘sugar islands.’ Defeated, France nevertheless succeeded in retaining Martinique and Guadeloupe in contrast to her failed ambitions in North America. At the time, this was considered a diplomatic success.10

The ‘sugar islands’ brought great wealth to these two monarchies in the 18th century. Together they constituted Europe’s richest colonial periphery, together with Spanish America underpinning commercial Europe with its precious metals.11 This wealth benefitted the merchant class more than the plantation owners, with the latter often in their debt. It also profited the ship-owners, and the commercial bourgeoisies of ports like London, Bristol, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Nantes, La Rochelle. It also contributed to consolidating the power of the merchant adventurers’ who out of their large future profits financed inventors giving birth to the industrial revolution, which in turn would itself bring about the demise of colonial mercantilism. The conflicts across the West Indies were above all naval battles. Whilst the reign of Louis XIV had seen the considerable strengthening of the French naval fleet, the 18th century would witness the triumph of its rival English counterpart, concluding with the Franco-Spanish disaster of Trafalgar (1805) at the height of the Napoleonic period.12 With each Antillean encounter, the naval dimension was reviewed differently by the two enemies. France had no squadron based in the Caribbean. When conflict loomed, a fleet of ships had to be brought over from the metropolis carrying troops of infantry for terrestrial warfare. The difficulties of the long crossing demanded a period of recuperation before becoming operational.

In contrast, Britain kept a squadron permanently stationed in the Caribbean, often based at English Harbour13 in Antigua, a few dozen miles to the north of Guadeloupe. Britain thereby compensated for the relative weakness of its infantry with the ready availability of its fleet in situ.

The British fleet had no equal. Its warships had become huge in scale with multiple decks of which the best placed carried massive firepower and a rigging system albeit difficult to handle during a naval battle; but on which depended the speed of manoeuvre of the fleet, the effectiveness of transmitted orders, the efficiency of the gunners on the cannons, and the genius of the admiral-in-chief to quickly size up the overall situation. The British officers were of the highest quality, similarly the quarter-masters, the sailors well-trained as were the cannoneers manning cannons capable of rapid and precise fire.

Each naval battle won signalled the greater chance of victory in the overall conflict. Who dominated the sea, dominated the Caribbean. Accordingly, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea became maritime spaces which in turn Spain would dominate, then latter the Low Countries, and finally Britain. 

2.3. Illegitimate mobilities: the obsession with authoritarian rule

2.3.1. On land: the dread of slaves fleeing

Very early on, slaves attempted to revolt. The official records chronicle the numerous insurrections always brutally put down. The obsession of the slave-based regime was simply that their slaves, whether rebelling or fleeing, threatened the whole sugar plantation system itself.

For the slaves, fleeing was a means of escaping their lot, in spite of the horrible retribution incurred. The expansion of the sugar plantations across the islands reduced the areas which might otherwise offer sanctuary. In an island such as Barbados, with its gently undulating topography, concealment was much more uncertain than in the mountainous terrain found in Dominica, Grenada and the upland interior of Guadeloupe, or the karstic regions of Jamaica (Cockpit Country). A close solidarity developed between the authorities and the plantation owners to search out and punish the runaways.

Why did not the runaways attempt to escape by sea? Here in, without doubt, lies a key Antillean mental trait inherited from slavery. These African populations retained a horrifying memory of their transatlantic voyage deep in the holds of European slave ships. For them, the sea was synonymous with enslavement and misfortune. It was also the domain of pirates and privateers who would capture them to trade on as booty. The sea was also a space of war where royal navies patrolled. For most of the fugitive slaves, the sea became a forbidden space, dangerous, padlocked whether by the legal authorities or pirates, neither of which had any interest in undermining a system that fed them.

Nevertheless, the Maroons would connive with other rebels: the Amerindians who had taken refuge in islands like Dominica or Saint Vincent.14 They also used the sea passages between the islands, and there were those that joined forces with pirates after a few expeditions. But, weakly versed in ‘seamanship,’ the fugitives much referred to lose themselves deep within the largely empty, forested mountains (Blue Mountains in Jamaica15). It is in the immense forested areas of Guyanas that they fared best, establishing veritable communities, re-utilising the waterways of the indigenous Amerindian populations. Right up to the present-day, these black peoples (Saramaca, Boui) are the finest dugout canoeists of the Guyanese rivers.

The Maroons lived apart so as to ensure their security, with an adopted lifestyle that echoed some of their pas African ways and customs. Their subsistence food producing economy was the antithesis of that of the sugar plantations. 

2.3.2. The persistence of piracy and contraband

As Europeans became more and more settled in the West Indies, royal ‘Letters of Marque” became less and less in evidence. The royal authorities, both in France and Britain, increased their influence in both the administration and commercial exploitation of the colonies. The private trading companies initiated by the entrepreneurial Dutch merchant class, and imitated by France, led to more centralist royal role, which reinforced the rigidity of colonial mercantilism. This thwarted the objectives of numerous ‘sea wolves,’ who up until then operated on their own account to the extent of creating veritable fleets crewed from all over. During the 18th century in particular, the pirates and buccaneers became the enemies of the royal navies. Under certain circumstances, they might be associated with the royal fleet, obtaining their share of the booty. But with the increasing exacerbation of Anglo-French conflicts and the volatility of alliances, they were forced either to integrate or take the risk of illegality in the face of more and more powerful official navies.

As an incentive, illegality as previously mentioned would be used to exploit the gap between the needs of the colonists across the whole of the Caribbean and what was actually provided by their national fleet. In these externally totally dependent colonial societies mirroring European lifestyles barely adapted to the tropical context, the needs were varied: commercial goods, boatloads of slaves, transatlantic travellers, representing as many opportunities for enrichment for the predators of the sea as responding in their different ways to the needs of the colonists. To the latter could be added the pillaging of port-towns without fear of colonial military alliances and the national flag flying above these settlements. All, following in the wake of Spanish towns, would be fortified, as much against enemy military expeditions as pirate raids.

Contraband and piracy were thus closely connected. But contraband activities were also practiced by regular navies. The most astute in this respect were the Dutch: remaining out at sea, their merchant ships awaited the opportunity of bribing the Spanish authorities to set up later transactions, particularly in the coastal Caribbean ports of South America. Similarly, the British colonies in North America were involved in trading contraband with the Spanish Greater Antilles and the French islands. 

3. Conclusion

During the last third of the 18th century, before the British colonies on the mainland rebelled and winds of revolution emerged from out of the enlightenment, the Caribbean represented a vitally important region for the European monarchies. Supremacy was disputed between the two most powerful, the British and French, in which Caribbean space was only one of their theatres of war. Hostilities tended to be concentrated around a few nodal points, or in the event of any truce, always precarious, when competition would be less fierce. The first of these strategic locations was the Windward Passage between Spanish Cuba to the West, and French Santo Domingo to the East, and Britain Jamaica to the South. The second lay across the western exit from the Gulf of Mexico between Spanish Florida, the British Bahamas, peppered with islands, providing the retreats of buccaneers. Through this channel passed most of the ships from the Caribbean embarking on the transatlantic crossing.

Another maritime gateway could be found in the South, between the island of Trinidad, a late British possession, the trio of Dutch islands off the coast of New Grenada, which refused to recognise the legal existence of the three French, British, and Dutch Guyanas. Finally, the Isthmus of Panama attracted envious eyes with the existence of a narrow tongue of land offering access to the rich Andean mines, and the spices of the Far East.

European colonization would overwhelm the Caribbean world. Through its annexation to the West, it was forced to pay an exorbitant price with regard to its decimated and enslaved aboriginal populations, and their obliterated cultures. It saw the imposition across the islands and encircling coastal mainland of a system of sugar plantation-based exploitation, founded on the mass transfer of slaves torn away from their native Africa. Across the centuries, the African slaves became creolised within an incarcerated societal system from which they could not escape whether than into extensive forested and mountainous areas. The Spanish mining-pastoral based colonial system, together with the Antillean ‘sugar islands’ were dependent on an economic extroversion underpinned by a vital transatlantic logistical supply line. Its operation and management over four centuries would prove to be one of the central stakes in a conflict between European monarchies, given that the latter derived from their Caribbean colonies a major part of their power.


1 The celebrated British pirate took Panama by surprise from the landward side after crossing the Isthmus. The town was destroyed: the ruins of this disaster are still visible today. Henry Morgan finished his career as the Governor of Jamaica.

2 Bonaire still remains a salt producing island. The saltpans of St Maarten were still operational during the Second Empire.

3 By seizing the slave ships with their cargos or going themselves to fetch these captives on the African coasts, the pirates would subsequently threaten the Spanish ports where at a high price they forced the sale of their cargo.

4 The mortality rate of black African captives during the transatlantic crossing has been estimated at a quarter of the total transported.

5 The cultivation of tobacco was the first crop to be exported from the West Indies, produced on small farms with a labour force in part comprising hired white workers. During the second half of the 17th century, the production of tobacco using slave labour in the North American British colonies supplanted that of the Lesser Antilles. The production of food crops was limited to the needs of the slaves.

6 The West Indies supplied high value products in reduced volumes (sugar, rum, coffee) easily handled (in sacks and barrels) and not easily perishable.

7 Destruction of plantations, the capture of slaves, pillaging of fortified towns.

8 The Low Countries were allies of the British, with Spain allied to France.

9 Accordingly, during the British occupation of Guadeloupe during the Seven Years War, local sugar competed with Barbadian sugar on the London market.

10 In 1782, the birth of the United States appeared in part as an act of revenge for the French monarchy.

11 In 1790, the trade between Barbados and Britain alone was superior in value to that between Britain and the United States.

12 French defeat at the Bay of Saints, in Guadeloupe, in 1782.

13 It was here that the young naval officer Nelson underwent his apprentice-ship at the end of the 18th century.

14 Unable to bring an end to the rebellions and fleeing slaves, the British at the end of the 18th century deported the negroes of mixed race, together with the Kalinas (known as ‘Black Caribs’) to the islands of the Gulf of Honduras, located off the coast of British Honduras.

15 In the Karstic interior of Jamaica, marooning was never eliminated by the authorities, who would be obliged to sign a treaty of coexistence with the Maroon communities of this region.

Author: Jean-Pierre Chardon
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith