Part 3 of 9
Translated by Simona Draghici, revised by Greg Johnson
This period of new beginnings coincides with an important technological achievement. In that too, the Dutch were in the forefront. In 1600, they were the undisputed masters of ship-building. It was the Dutch who perfected the new sail and the new types of sailing ships that replaced the oar-vessels and made possible the navigation of the recently discovered oceans of the world.
About 1595, out of the town of Hoorn in Western Friesland, which is in the northern part of the Netherlands, came a new type of vessel with square sails. Unlike older boats, this kind of ship was not pushed by the wind blowing from behind but rather sideways and could put the wind to quite a different use, unlike the traditional sail. Since then, the tackle and the art of navigation improved beyond all expectations. “The collapse of medieval navigation looks like a catastrophe,” remarks Bernhard Hagedorn, the naval historian. while talking about the event. It is the great turning point in the history of the relationship between land and sea. All that could be done out of the available materials for ships and tackles was by and large done then. One had to wait until the nineteenth century for another technological revolution in ship-building. It is Hagedorn’s opinion that the scrapping of the larger saiI, and the exploitation of all the advantages offered by the smaller sai1 must have appeared as a genuine revelation to the navigators. As a consequence of this technological accomplishment, the Dutch became the “haulers” for every European country. Moreover, they took over the trade of the German Hanse. Spain herself, although a world power, had to hire Dutch vessels to keep her overseas traffic going.
The sixteenth century also witnessed the appearance of a new man of war, which marks another stage in naval warfare: a sailing ship equipped with cannons that fired broadside salvos at the enemy. This kind of combat turned naval confrontations into long-distance artillery duels undertaken with a highly perfected art of sail maneuvering. It was only then that one could start talking of naval battles, because as we have already seen, the clashes between the crews of oar ships had been but land combats “on board.” The new and complex art of maneuvering before, during, and after the engagement was a radical about-face in the tactics of the naval battle and of the art of sea warfare in general. The first scientific treatise, in the modern sense of the word, about this new art was compiled by a Frenchman, the Jesuit Paul Hoste and published at Lyon in 1697 under the title The Art of the Naval Armies, or Treatise of Naval Evolutions (L’art des armées navales, ou du traité des évolutions navales). It is a critical analysis of the naval maneuvers and battles of the Dutch, English, and French during the wars waged by King Louis XIV against the Dutch. Other French works followed. It was only as late as the eighteenth century, and more exactly in 1782, that an Englishman, John Clerk of Eldin, joined the ranks of the great theoreticians of naval tactics.
All the nations of Central and Western Europe had their part in the great epic of the discovery of the new Earth that led to the domination of the world by the Europeans. The Italians perfected the compass and drew the nautical maps. It is above all thanks to the genius and knowledge of Toscanelli and Christopher Columbus that America was discovered. The Portuguese and the Spaniards undertook the first great exploratory expeditions and were also the first to complete the voyage round the world in their sailing ships. Great German astronomers and eminent geographers made their contribution to the new image of the world. It was a German cosmographer, Waltzemüller, who coined the name America in 1507, and the Welser venture in Venezuela was the first important colonial enterprise, despite the fact that in the long run it could not withstand the Spanish boycott. The Dutch carried the day in whale hunting and ship-building technology. As for France, her possibilities were vast, both owing to her geographic position, surrounded as she was by water on three sides (the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the English Channel), and to her material wealth and the maritime frame of mind of the inhabitants of her Atlantic shoreline. It was a French Viking, Jean Fleury, who dealt the first serious blow to Spain’s world power by capturing two galleons loaded with treasure that Cortez had sent from America to Spain. As early as 1540, another Frenchman, Jacques Cartier, discovered Canada, the “New France,” and took possession of her in the name of his king. The corsairs who went to work from La Rochelle had a considerable share in the energetic maritime upsurge of the period. Finally, thanks to the genius of a naval secretary like Colbert, France overtook England by several decades with regard to the building of men of war in the seventeenth century. It goes without saying that the feats of the English sailors were no less remarkable.
Notwithstanding, it was only after 1570 that the English crossed the Equator. It was in the last quarter of that century that one saw the English privateers take the great plunge and join the race over the oceans and to America.
Sea roamers of all kinds, pirates, privateers, sea trade adventurers, together with the whale hunters and the sailors, formed the vanguard of that elemental surge towards the sea that came to fruition in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Here we are dealing with another foolhardy type of “children of the sea.” Among them there are famous names, names of heroes of sea and pirate legends: Francis Drake, Hawkins. Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Henry Morgan, celebrated in many books. Their lives were adventurous, indeed. They would seize the silver cargo of Spanish galleons, and had that been their only feat, their stories would still have been exciting. Generally speaking, the literature on piracy is extensive, and there are quite a few great names that have found their way in it. The English have even compiled a directory, amusingly entitled The Pirates’ Who’s Who.
Long is the list of those enterprising pirates who have won historic glory by striking the first blows at Spain’s world power and trade monopoly. In the same category belong the Protestant pirates of the maritime fortress, La Rochelle, who during Elizabeth’s reign, joined the Dutch “sea-wolves” to fight the Spaniards. Then, there were the Elizabethan privateers, who played an active part in the undoing of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Queen Elizabeth’s privateers were followed by those of King James I, among them, Sir Henry Mainwaring, a much feared old pirate who was pardoned by the king in 1616 and became a hunter of pirates, in turn, only to and his life overwhelmed by duties and honors. Then there were the freebooters and the wild buccaneers who would go on wide raids from their bases in Jamaica and the West Indies: French, Dutch, English. Among the latter, one finds Sir Henry Morgan who pillaged Panama in 1671, was knighted by king Charles II, and appointed governor of Jamaica. Their last brilliant feat was the seizure of the Spanish fortress of Cartagena in Colombia, in 1697, with the help of the French royal fleet, and which they plundered ruthlessly, as soon as the French were gone.
The sea element surged up through those sea roamers. Their heroic era lasted approximately a century and a half, from 1550 to 1713, or said differently, from the beginning of the struggle carried on by the Protestant powers against the world power of Catholic Spain, and until the Peace of Utrecht. Of course, pirates are of all times and in all the seas. We have already talked of those who some thousand years ago had been chased out of the Eastern Mediterranean by the Cretan empire, while as late as the 1920s and the 1930s, those manning the Chinese junks were still attacking and plundering the merchantmen in the Far East. Nonetheless, the privateers of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries are a chapter apart in the history of privateering. One had to wait for the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 to see the demise of piracy. It was the time when the European state system was consolidating. From then on, the war fleets of the maritime powers were capable of effectively controlling the seas. It was also then that England’s new domination of the world, based on the sea element, started to affirm itself. To be sure, privateers were still making war with the consent of their governments, as late as the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the world went on organizing itself, ship-building technology and navigation techniques kept advancing to become increasingly scientific, whereas piracy, as an English naval expert would say, was a “pre-scientific phase of naval warfare.” The pirate acting on his own came to be regarded as a pitiful law-breaker. There were indeed exceptions, too, as always. One of them was the French captain Misson who tried to set up a strange Kingdom of Humanity in Madagascar, round 1720. Generally speaking, since the Peace of Utrecht, however, the pirate became marginal to world history. In the eighteenth century he was no longer but a wild creature, a criminal. Although occasionally, he could still be the hero of captivating stories, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, his role in history was nil.
Not so, the privateers of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, who played a considerable part in history. Arms in hand, they participated in the great confrontation between England and Spain. Treated as common criminals by their Spanish enemies and hanged as thieves and murderers whenever caught, they were given the cold shoulder by their own governments whenever they were an embarrassment, or international poll tics demanded it. It was often a matter of chance whether a privateer ended his career as a royal dignitary holding high office or as a pirate dangling on the gallows. In everyday life, we use such words a pirate, privateer, or merchant-adventurer interchangeably, while in fact each has a particular meaning. Legally there is a big difference between a pirate and a privateer: unlike the pirate, the privateer holds a legal title, a commission from his government, a formal letter of marque from his king. He is entitled to fly his country’s flag. On the other hand, the pirate navigates without legal authorization. His only flag is the black flag of the pirates. Nevertheless, this distinction, so clear and elegant in theory, was quickly blurred in practice. The privateers often exceeded the limits of their licenses and navigated using forged letters of marque, and at other times, were armed only with licenses from non-existent governments.
Still, there is something more important than these legal matters: all those buccaneers and adventurers had a common, political enemy: the powerful Catholic Spain. As long as they remained true to themselves, they would capture only Catholic vessels, at least in principle a task which in all good faith, they regarded as blessed by God. Thus, they would make the frontline of world history, on the side of world Protestantism and against the world Catholicism of the day. Indeed, this cannot justify the massacres, arsons, and plunder they carried out. In any case, in the general context of that ruthless age, they undeniably had their place and historic rank.