Tropics Bound: Elizabeth's Seadogs on the Spanish Main

Tropics Bound: Elizabeth's Seadogs on the Spanish Main

by James Seay Dean

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For the first time, and long awaited, we have the view from the gun deck of the wide world that opened to the Elizabethans on the Spanish Main and among the islands of the Caribbean. The tang of salt air stings the story. So does fearsome reality, the diseases and storms that wreaked havoc on sailors and ships alike and, more often than not, ruined the ambitions of many a financier. With the seapower of Imperial Spain still dominant, England’s private adventurers could “singe the beards” of the haughty Spaniards but wherever possible still evaded Iberian naval firepower and the dreaded Inquisition. Tropics Bound, rich in documentary research, reveals in triumph and failure the lives of privateers who deserve to be remembered – of wealth acquired, of health forsaken, and of risks so often surprisingly achieved.’

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752496689
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 09/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 4 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

JAMES SEAY DEAN is Emeritus Professor of English&Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He has taught maritime history and published numerous articles in nautical, literary and historical journals. He is also an experienced sailor and is the author of Sailing a Square-Rigger. He lives in Racine, Wisconsin.

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Tropics Bound

Elizabeth's Seadogs on the Spanish Main

By James Seay Dean

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 James Seay Dean
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9668-9


Brave New World, 1516–68

Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.

Sir Walter Ralegh, History of the World, 1614

The first English mariners reached the Caribbean in 1516, greeted by fiery Spanish cannon. As the English ship bore into the harbour at Santo Domingo, Governor Francis de Tapia writes that he 'caused a tire of ordnance to be shot from the castle at the ship, for she bare in directly with the haven. When the Englishman saw this, they withdrew themselves out, and those that were in the shipboat, got themselves with all speed on shipboard.' The English sailed on to St John,

and entering into the port of S. Germaine, the English men parled with those of the town, requiring victuals and things needful to furnish their ship, and complained of the inhabitants of the city of S. Domingo, saying that they came not to do any harm, but to trade and traffic for their money and merchandise. In this place they had certain victuals, and for recompense they gave and paid them with certain vessel of wrought tin and other things. And afterward they departed toward Europe.

The events are first recorded by a Spaniard, Gonsalvo de Oviedo, translated to Italian, then into English. Thus Richard Hakluyt, assiduous translator, editor and cleric, presents this first account of the English in the American tropics in his monumental Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1589, and its retitled sequel, Principal Navigations, 1598–1600. Who were these first Englishmen in the West Indies? Hakluyt reports that an English fleet commanded by Sir Thomas Pert and Sebastian Cabot had been sent by Henry VIII on a voyage of discovery to Brazil, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. 'Fleet' or 'vessel' may, in translation, be one and the same and may be what Oviedo describes. Hakluyt roundly criticises Pert's 'cowardice and want of stomach' as well as his 'faint heart' for failing to bring back the 'infinite riches' of Perú to the Tower of London. Hakluyt's successor, cleric Samuel Purchas, wrote in 1625 that Henry VIII had sent Sir Thomas Pert and Sebastian Cabot to sea with a fleet destined for the West Indies, and suggests the English ship that appeared at Hispaniola and other Caribbean islands the same year could have been part of Henry's fleet.

For the next 100 years, the thrust and parry of this first English-Spanish encounter was to be repeated over and over again along the Spanish Main and throughout the Caribbean, compounding this story of trade, pillage and plunder, all for profit. As England hotly fought Spain in America's tropical waters, these battles were, above all, for wealth.

The issue was initially 'traffique', the word Hakluyt emblazons on the title page of his second edition. The emphasis, especially in the first two decades of the century, is on trade, not politics or religion. Henry VIII's break from Rome came only in 1534 and his subsequent excommunication in 1538. Before Columbus' discovery in 1492, England and Spain had signed the Treaty of Medina del Campo in 1489, recognising unfettered trade between the two countries. The discovery of the Americas changed all that. The Spanish Pope Alexander VI's Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), signed by João II of Portugal and Ferdinando II of Aragón, defined the newly discovered lands as either Portuguese or Spanish. Other countries were excluded. Thus to the Spanish, foreign voyages to the Americas, including those of England, violated the terms of that document.

That pivotal treaty gave to Portugal all lands east of a meridian 370 leagues west of the centre of the Cape Verde Islands, off the African coast in the Atlantic, and gave to Spain all lands west of that line. To settle João II's objection that Portuguese discoveries would not be recognised, especially Cabral's discovery of Brazil in 1500, Pope Julius II issued the papal bull Ea quae (1506), which moved the original meridian further westward. Two decades later, Portugal and Spain were again at odds, this time over the Oriental spice trade, specifically cloves from the Moluccas. The Portuguese paid the Spanish some 350,000 ducats and the two powers signed the Treaty of Saragossa (1529), which set the anti-meridian at 297 ½ leagues east of the Moluccas, making the spice trade a Portuguese affair.

To the English, even before England's break with Rome, all these treaties were a matter of popish presumption. Why should England herself not have the right to trade freely? If she could trade with Portugal and Spain in Europe, why not in Africa or the Indies? Furthermore, a paper treaty or a few stone pillars along Africa's coastline did not confer exclusive trading rights or sovereignty over these non-European areas. Only substantial occupation, exploitation and governance could do that.

Brazilian King Dines at Whitehall

In 1530, fourteen years after that first voyage to the West Indies, William Hawkyns the Elder set sail from Plymouth in his 250-ton Paul on the first of at least three voyages to Brazil. It was this William Hawkyns, senior member of the famous family of West Country merchant-shipowners, who started the profitable triangular trade route of England–Africa–America and round again to England. A contemporary of Henry VIII, Hawkyns (c. 1490/1500–1554), shared his king's belief that stalwart ships and profitable cargoes made for a strong country. His two sons, William (c. 1519–89) and John (c. 1532/33–95), eventually carried on and expanded the family business of merchant shipping. John, besides engaging in trade, also took on responsibilities as treasurer and later comptroller of the Royal Navy, gaining a knighthood in fighting the Spanish Armada. The second William Hawkyns also had a son, William (the third, c. 1560–1613), and John Hawkyns a son, Richard (1560–1622). Both John and his son Richard were knighted by the Crown. More than any other sixteenth-century family, these three generations of Hawkyns dominated Elizabethan maritime enterprise.

All of the elder William Hawkyns' voyages – those of 1530, 1531, 1532 and probably others – were undertaken for trade, not plunder, and not dominion. He sailed to Guinea on the west coast of Africa where he trafficked with the people there for elephants' teeth and other commodities and then sold these in Brazil, where 'he used there such discretion and behaved himself so wisely with those savage people that he grew into great familiarity and friendship with them'.

On his second voyage he brought back to England a Brazilian 'king', leaving behind in exchange one of his crew, a Plymouth man named Martin Cockeram. The Brazilian king, or chief, was presented to Henry VIII:

lying as then at Whitehall: At the sight of whom the King and all the nobility did not a little marvel, and not without cause: For in his cheeks were holes made according to their savage manner, and therein small bones were planted, standing an inch out from the said holes, which in his own country was reputed for a great bravery. He had also another hole in his nether lip, wherein was set a precious stone about the bigness of a pease [a pea or lentil]. All his apparel, behaviour, and gesture, were very strange to the beholders.

This exotic spectacle in 1531 anticipated Martin Frobisher's return from the Arctic in 1576 with a captive Inuk, who was pleased to demonstrate his skill with his kayak in the River Avon before the amazed mayor and citizens of Bristol. Such spectacles fired the English with a sea fever designed to fuel further investment in the Americas.

The Brazilian king stayed in England for nearly a year before Hawkyns set out with him back towards Brazil, but unfortunately, 'by change of air and alteration of diet, the said Savage king died at sea'. Hawkyns persuaded the Brazilians that his account was honest, and so they returned Martin Cockeram. Resuming his business in Brazil, Hawkyns saw his vessel 'freighted, and furnished with the commodities of the country', then weighed anchor and returned to England.

William Hawkyns the Elder apparently made other voyages. In a letter dated 1536 to the Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, in which he asks for aid from the Crown, the style helps flesh out the man. Hawkyns writes that at various times he had successfully ventured his ship and goods to bring back commodities from unknown countries. He explains that only because one of his pilots had lately 'miscarried by the way' is he now asking Cromwell to commend his request to the king:

to have of His Grace's love four pieces of brass ordnance and a last of powder, upon such good sureties to restore the same at a day. And furthermore, that it may please His Grace, upon the surety of an hundred pound lands, to lend me £2,000 for the space of seven years towards the setting forth of three or four ships. And I doubt me not but in the meantime to do such feats of merchandise that it shall be to the King's great advantage in His Grace's custom.

[Signed] Your most bounden orator, William Hawkyns of Plymouth.

Here was West Country enterprise, if verbose.

Records do not show that the Crown paid Hawkyns. The Paul apparently made another Africa–Brazil voyage, since Plymouth Customs Register shows that in October 1540 the ship returned to Plymouth with 'one hundredweight of elephants' teeth' and '92 tons of Brasil Wood'. We have no knowledge of further voyages to Brazil by William Hawkyns.

An Englishman in México

Politics in Europe was changing shipping in the 1540s. The Anglo-French War (1543–46) brought English ships back to home waters. Overseas commerce gave way to privateering in the Channel. Profit could be found closer at hand, without the hazards of the long sea voyages. In 1554 Queen Mary married the Spanish royal, Philip, and two years later Philip became King of Spain.

During the shifting winds of succession in politics and religion, from the death of Henry VIII in 1547 to the accession of Elizabeth eleven years later, how fared these English mariners, the seadogs? When Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, John Hawkyns was about 26 and, though still a burgess and merchant of Plymouth, he moved to London that year. Francis Drake was then about 18 and Walter Ralegh a boy of about 5. These West Countrymen – Sir John Hawkyns, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh – are the principals in this drama. There were others too who figure in the great account on the watery stage, including George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, and ciphers such as Job Hortop.

In 1555 Catholic Mary had been on the English throne for two years and was to reign for another three. The English merchant Robert Tomson, from Andover, Hampshire, sailed in 1555 from Bristol on a three-year voyage, first to Spain and then to the American tropics. Tomson's detailed account, printed decades later, shares several features of the episodic Elizabethan romances popular in the 1580s and 1590s: short on character but long on coincidence, fact and action. His fastidious notes cover the trade goods and their cost, the currencies in use, and commentary on the food, housing, work and religions of the Indians and the New World Spanish.

Tomson had left Bristol on his 'travail' with other local merchants in March 1555 in the 'good ship' Barke Yong. He stopped at Lisbon before continuing to Cádiz and on to Seville, where he sought out the house of an English merchant, John Field and his family, resident there a long time. Tomson lived with the Fields for a year, 'the one to learn the Castilian tongue, the other to see the orders of the country, and the customs of the people'.

Field, his family and Tomson embarked from Sanlúcar aboard a caravel owned by another Englishman, John Sweeting, whose daughter-in-law was Spanish. The captain of the caravel was Sweeting's son-in-law, Leonard Chilton. Still another English merchant was in their company: Ralph Sarre from Exeter. The caravel sailed to the Canaries, where ship and passengers waited eight months to join the Spanish fleet bound for Nueva España (México). The fleet of eight set out from the Canaries for the Indies in October. After a short thirty-two-day passage it made landfall on Hispaniola and entered the port of Santo Domingo, where they stayed sixteen days watering and reprovisioning.

Tomson and the Fields left Santo Domingo in early January 1556 for Nueva España. Twenty-four days out and 15 leagues from San Juan de Ulúa, the small but important port from which México shipped her treasures back to Spain, the fleet was struck by a tropical cyclone or hurricane. Tomson describes the event: 'There rose a storm of northerly winds, which came off from Terra Florida, which caused us to cast about into the sea again, for fear lest that night we should be cast upon the shore before day did break, and so put ourselves in danger of casting away.'

The wind and sea grew so foul and strong, he reports, that within two hours from the onset of the storm, their eight ships had been so dispersed they could no longer see one another. 'One of the ships of our company being of the burden of 500 ton called the Hulk of Carion, would not cast about to sea as we did, but went that night with the land, thinking in the morning to purchase the port of S. John de Ulúa, but missing the port went with the shore and was cast away.' Seventy-five men, women and children drowned. Sixty-four were saved. The storm raged on for ten days 'with great might, boisterous winds, fogs and rain'. The vessel that the Fields and Tomson were on, 'being old and weak was so tossed, that she opened at the stern a fathom under water, and the best remedy we had was to stop it with beds and pilobiers [pillows?], and for fear of sinking we threw and lightened into the sea all the goods we had or could come by: But that would not serve'.

They cut away the mainmast and threw all their ordnance into the sea,

saving one piece, which early in a morning when we thought we should have sunk, we shot off, and as pleased God there was one of the ships of our company near unto us, which we saw not by means of the great fog, which hearing the sound of the piece, and understanding some of the company to be in great extremity, began to make towards us, and when they came within hearing of us, we desired them for the love of God to help to save us, for that we were all like to perish. They willed us to hoist our foresail, as much as we could and make towards them, for they would do their best to save us, and so we did. And we had no sooner hoisted our foresail, but there came a gale of wind and a piece of a sea, stroke in the foresail, and carried sail and mast all overboard, so that then we thought there was no hope of life.

In dire peril they prepared themselves for death:

And then we began to embrace one another, every man his friend, every wife her husband, and the children their fathers and mothers, committing our souls to Almighty God, thinking never to escape alive: Yet it pleased God in time of most need when all hope was past, to aid us with his helping hand, and caused the wind a little to cease, so that within two hours after, the other ship was able to come aboard us, and took into her with her boatman, woman and child, naked without hose or shoe upon many of our feet. I do remember that the last person that came out of the ship into the boat, was a woman black Moor, who leaping out of the ship into the boat with a young sucking child in her arms, leapt too short and fell into the sea, and was a good while under the water before the boat could come to rescue her, and with the spreading of her clothes rose above water again, and was caught by the coat and pulled into the boat having still her child under her arm, both of them half drowned, and yet her natural love towards her child would not let her let the child go. And when she came aboard the boat she held her child so fast under her arm still, that two men were scant able to get it out.

The crew, Tomson, the Fields and the other passengers abandoned the English caravel and her cargo, worth, writes Tomson, 4,000 ducats. On 16 April 1556, three days later, the fleet reached San Juan de Ulúa.

Tomson, a practical Protestant, writes that during the storm, in the night:

there came upon the top of our main yard and main mast, a certain little light, much like unto the light of a little candle, which the Spaniards called the Cuerpo santo, and said it was S. Elmo, whom they take to be the advocate of sailors. At which sight the Spaniards fell down upon their knees and worshipped it, praying God and S. Elmo to cease the torment, and save them from the peril that they were in, with promising him that at their coming on land, they would repair unto his chapel, and there cause masses to be said, and other ceremonies to be done. The friars cast relics into the sea, to cause the sea to be still, and likewise said Gospels, with other crossings and ceremonies upon the sea to make the storm to cease, which (as they said) did much good to weaken the fury of the storm. But I could not perceive it, nor gave no credit to it, till it pleased God to send us the remedy and delivered us from the rage of the same, His Name be praised therefore.


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Table of Contents


one Brave New World, 1516–68,
two Storm Swell, 1569–76,
three Near Gale, 1577–81,
four Severe Gale, 1582–88,
five Profit in Piracy, 1589–91,
six Indigo, Sugar, Penguins, 1591–93,
seven A Daintie at Dear Cost, 1593–95,
eight Committed to the Deep, 1595–96,
nine Taken at the Flood, 1596–1603,
ten No Scallop Shell of Quiet, 1604–10,
eleven Maidenheads Lost, 1611–181,
twelve Epilogue: After 1619,
About the Author,

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