History of the Galapagos Islands - The Evolution of Piracy


Planning a Galapagos Island cruise? Study up on history first and you'll see the islands as the centerpiece in a rich adventure story dating back to the sixteenth century. Soon after laying claim to vast areas of the Americas, Spain began hauling its booty from the New World back to the Old. With such riches, it was inevitable that the plunderers would become the plundered. The penalty for piracy was death. Yet, it was as irresistible a profession as it was lucrative.

The French got into the business first. Arriving in the new world intending to settle, they lived off the feral animals left by the Spanish, learning the Tupi Indian technique for curing meat on wood frames called boucans. They became known as "buccaneers."

For a time, the Spanish tried to oust these squatters from their territory, killing the animals they relied on for their livelihood, helped along by packs of wild dogs. The buccaneers fought back. Forced into other lines of work, some of these hearty newcomers became farmers, but others turned to piracy.

They developed a knack for their exciting new trade, learned to be seamen and organized themselves into fleets that attacked the Spanish both on land and sea. They acquired their ships the same way they came by their loot--stealing them from the Spanish. In dug-out canoes or other rudimentary vessels, they would approach the galleons after nightfall, and jam the rudder before climbing aboard.

In most industries that boom, it's difficult to sustain a monopoly. The buccaneers were soon joined by privateers from other European nations. For countries such as England and France, worried about Spain's growing power, piracy was a logical strategy to help undercut their enemy's economic might. The pirates served another valuable purpose: Should war come, these brave men were well-equipped to fight.

Galapagos Sky In the absence of international law, the practice of piracy became formalized as a way to settle grievances without provoking all-out war. An ingenious instrument called the "Letter of Marque and Reprisal," was devised for contracting with a privateer. The document authorized the arming of a privately-owned warship and its crossing into another nation's territory (marque means frontier). It also described what acts of property seizure and/or destruction would be considered appropriate "reprisal" against the offending government. The sanctioning government would receive a split of the take. If the privateer overstepped the bounds of the contract, the ship's crew could be prosecuted by its own government.

With tacit government approval, those who entered the trade weren't scoundrels and criminals. Some even had "Sir" in front of their names, such as Sir Francis Drake. Many were sometime-navigators, explorers and military commanders, lending the ruthless profession a certain swashbuckling honor. Though other countries saw their share of retaliatory theft as well, for a long time Spain remained the chief target in the Pacific, and its protests in the courts led nowhere.

By the mid-1500s, the Spanish were fed up. Unable to make any headway diplomatically, the government set up an elaborate convoy system, consolidating shipments from the Americas and the Far East into twice-yearly voyages across the Atlantic. Still, the bloated galleons were no match for the smaller quicker vessels the pirates had commandeered. They could be easily overtaken, and successful get-aways were the norm.

In the new century, a symbiotic relationship developed between the settlers and the privateers. At pirate prices, merchandise could be had more reasonably than what the Spanish charged. The fledging communities viewed the pirates as well-endowed trading partners and high spending tourists who would arrive in town with plenty of money to squander and could be counted on for repeat business. With the pirates around, their ports were temporarily safe from Spanish incursions.

As alliances between nations back home shifted, piracy evolved with it. More criminal types entered the profession, making it a rougher and more competitive business. New generations of pirates couldn't be counted on to follow established rules of engagement and picked on anyone with something to steal. Settlers began to see pirates as predators and the Spanish as worthy trading partners. The gentleman pirate eventually became extinct.

Accept among the lawless, piracy eventually died out completely, replaced by legitimate trade between nations. By the early 1900s, privateering had been renounced by all the countries that had practiced it.