An Introduction to Piracy in Cuba

Detail of a Map of Cuba by Jose de la Torre, 1853

Detail of a Map of Cuba by Jose de la Torre, 1853

Havana during the 16th and 17th centuries is a place full of contradictions. On one hand, between 1520-1540 it is estimated that Cuba as a whole witnesses an approximately 80% decline in the population of Spaniards. At the same time, Cuba in the first years of control by the Spanish, witnessed an absolute collapse in its indigenous population, a key factor in whether the Spanish were able to develop the colony economically (de la Fuente 3). Any yet, not only was it evident to the Spanish crown “as early as 1532” that Havana would play a central role in the empire, as it became an almost mandatory stop for ships returning from mainland colonies, but French pirates were aware of its significance as well, with a major attack by a French corsair occurring in 1538 (de la Fuente 5). The question becomes, what made Havana so important a base and target, even while it was failing to prosper demographically?

Havana during the 16th and 17th centuries is a place full of contradictions. On one hand, between 1520-1540 it is estimated that Cuba as a whole witnesses an approximately 80% decline in the population of Spaniards. At the same time, Cuba in the first years of control by the Spanish, witnessed an absolute collapse in its indigenous population, a key factor in whether the Spanish were able to develop the colony economically (de la Fuente 3). Any yet, not only was it evident to the Spanish crown “as early as 1532″ that Havana would play a central role in the empire, as it became an almost mandatory stop for ships returning from mainland colonies, but French pirates were aware of its significance as well, with a major attack by a French corsair occurring in 1538 (de la Fuente 5). The question becomes, what made Havana so important a base and target, even while it was failing to prosper demographically?

On July 10 1555, a vessel arrived off the coast of Havana, that, instead of seeking entry into the port of Havana, continued sailing westward, anchored in an inlet a quarter of a league west of town and disembarked with two hundred men. The leader of the force, the French privateer Jacques de Sores, proceeded to march the force into Havana by land, occupy the city, demand a high ransom, and burn the town down upon it not being met. This episode demonstrated two significant features of Havana before its designation as the navigational center of the Spanish empire: it was relatively undefended compared to the threats it faced from pirates, and it was demographically quite small. When the governor of Havana in 1555 attempted to raise a force to counterattack that of Sores, he could only raise 335 troops, which were crushed by Sore’s forces. Only 10% of the governor’s forces were Spaniards (de la Fuente 5). Simply put, for the attention that Havana was being given by both privateers and pirates and the imperial center, it was neither adequately defended nor populated. The attack of Sores would in part stimulate a change in policy that would transform Havana by 1610 with regard to both these deficiencies. The population of heads of households in Havana in 1610, based off the chart from de la Fuente, is estimated to have grown twelve-fold from 1550 estimates.

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The governor at the time of the attack of Sores, Perez de Angulo, was in fact a lawyer, not a military man, potentially owing to the defeat of his force of 355 men. After 1555 governors of Cuba were always military men and situated in Cuba. Investment in Havana after 1555 primarily came from imperial coffers, rather than from domestic sources of revenue as had been the case before. Within several decades Havana would have three forts garrisoned by 450 people (de la Fuente 5). Furthermore, by the early 17th century African labor almost completely replaced indigenous labor on the island, correlating to the steep rise in the slave population of Havana depicted in the chart from de la Fuente’s work.

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The nature of the attack of Sore’s also raises the issue of geography: why did Sore’s attack by land and not assault the port directly. Maps of the port of Havana show that the mouth of the port is surrounded on both sides by jutting peninsulas, which the Spanish, intuitively, constructed the base of their defenses of the port on. These include the fortress attacked by Sores and on the eastern peninsula, San Salvador de la Punta, shown in “Situating Yourself in the Port of Havana”. Furthermore, it has been clear to privateers, travelers, Cubans and Spaniards for centuries that the coast of Cuba is very hospitable to those trying to pillage or wreak havoc on towns. The famous explorer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, described the coasts of Cuba as such:

“The North side of the island, from Cape Mulas. N.N.W. of Baracoa, to the port of Nuevitas, is equally free from banks and reefs. East of Cape Mulas, ships find excellent anchorage in the bays of Tanamo, Cabonico, and Nipe, and, west of that cape, in the bays of Sama, Naranjo, Padre, and Nueves Grandes…. The chain of cays and reefs that lines the shore of Cuba is so broken that it affords small but clear channels to the harbors of Guanaja, Moron, and Remedios” (von Humboldt 176).

“we find again a safe coast from Point Hicacos to Cabanas bay, with the harbors of Matanzas, Puerto Escondido, Havana and Mariel. Further west, beyond the harbor of Bahia Honda, the possession of which might well tempt any maritime power at war with Spain, the chain of shoals and reefs, again commences, and continues, without interruption, to Cape San Antonio” (von Humboldt 176).

Alexander von Humboldt is writing in 1761, well after the period being studied. Physical geography, of course, does not change quickly enough for it to matter. It is clear that Havana was attractive to pirates not only because of its designation as the navigational and commercial center of empire, but also because of its accessible coastline that made total defense of the island difficult.

The Tower of La Chorrera in a painting by Esteban Chartrand, 1882

The Tower of La Chorrera in a painting by Esteban Chartrand, 1882

 

A map of sixteenth century Cuba by Coronelli, a Venetian Cosmographer

A map of sixteenth century Cuba by Coronelli, a Venetian Cosmographer

Castillo de La Real Fuerza

Castillo de La Real Fuerza

 

 

 

 

 

 

A notable change in 1559 was the changing of the nationality of most pirates. This was because of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, which ended the conflict between Spain and France. With several decades, because of skirmishes between English privateers and the Spanish over the increasing activity of the English in the Caribbean, English privateers began carrying out major attacks in the 1580s. Elizabeth I explicitly gave support to Francis Drake, the privateer, in an effort to “punish the King of Spain in his Indies”, this support having been established in September 1585 (Pons 37).

Francis Drake

Francis Drake

Drake was successfully able to capture and pillage Santo Domingo in early 1586. He then went to present-day Colombia and took the city of Cartagena in March 1586, with a force of 1,000 men. Interestingly, Drake’s attack of Cartagena would be the inspiration for a short passage in the 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel-Garcia Marquez, widely considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Drake could, however, not attack Havana or Cuba because an army of defenders had been recruited from all over the island. Drake instead decided to return to England, although he pillaged St. Augustine along the way (Pons 37).

These episodes of piracy, followed for over a decade and a half by a continual deluge of pirates financed by English merchants and the crown, demonstrated several facts about the state of Havana in this period, and how it had changed. Unlike in 1555, Havana and Cuba were populated and fortified enough that Drake, a very well financed privateer, was unable to invade the island or attack the city, despite attacking many other cities in the Spanish Caribbean. Drake’s attacks in 1586 also pushed the Spanish to more quickly fortify their ports in the Caribbean; fortifications went ahead with greater urgency in Havana, Puerto Rico, Cartagena, Portobelo, Veracruz, and St. Augustine (Pons 38).

A map of Francis Drake's route in 1586 around the Caribbean and across the Atlantic.

A map of Francis Drake’s route in 1586 around the Caribbean and across the Atlantic.