In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Piracy

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Latin American Studies Piracy
Kris Lane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0018


From early colonization in the 1490s to independence in the 1820s, piracy, or larceny at or by descent from the sea, plagued Latin America. Although some native peoples such as the Caribs raided by sea and even held hostages for ransom, most pirates in colonial Latin America were northern Europeans hoping to poach on Spanish and Portuguese gains—mainly gold and silver on its way to Europe or Asia—but also enslaved Africans, sugar, alcohol, and tobacco. French pirates were first to raid Iberian American ships and towns, from Columbus’s first voyages to the late 1560s. Next came English corsairs in the era of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1604), then Dutch raiders between the 1590s and about 1650. Sovereigns or state officials sponsored many of these pillagers, and most set out from European ports. The next wave of piracy, led by multinational marauders between about 1650 and 1700, was different. This was the heyday of the Caribbean buccaneers, motley crews of out-of-work soldiers and ex-indentured servants who used bases in Jamaica, St. Domingue, and elsewhere to launch their raids and launder their gains. Welshman Henry Morgan became a celebrity after leading an amphibious raid on Panama City in 1670–1671, an act that won him knighthood and the lieutenant governorship of Jamaica, but the international tide soon turned against the pirates. Spanish, English, and French repression in the 1680s drove many buccaneers into the eastern Pacific, where they raided until the early 1690s. The 1702–1713 War of the Spanish Succession absorbed many buccaneers, but survivors returned to lead another great wave of pillage lasting from 1713 to 1730. This Golden Age of piracy produced Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts, plus legendary female pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read. “Black Bart” stole Brazilian gold, but much piracy in this period damaged English shipping, provoking harsh reprisals by the British admiralty courts and fledgling Royal Navy. A century of privateering, or state-sponsored private raids in wartime, followed, and some of the biggest prizes of the colonial period were taken by British privateers, mostly in the Pacific. Uninhibited piracy resurged in the Americas during the Napoleonic Wars and independence struggles. By this time the British navy used antipiracy laws to suppress the transatlantic slave trade. Scholars of colonial Latin America have been interested in piracy for many years, and some of the most balanced studies of the topic have been written by Latin American historians or others capable of comparing the Spanish and Portuguese documentary records with those produced by foreign marauders.

General Overviews

Early modern piracy in the Americas has been frequently glossed, but few scholars have treated it in the perspective of overall Spanish and Portuguese developments, or worked with primary sources. A pioneer historian of piracy who used Spanish manuscript sources to balance the narrative was Haring (Haring 1910). Other historical works that have blended Spanish sources with those produced in France, England, and the Netherlands include Gerhard 1990, Andrews 1978, Earle 2003, Moreau 2006, and Lane 1998. Lucena Salmoral 1992 offers a sound narrative in Spanish, mostly drawn from secondary sources. Latimer 2009 places English piracy, much of it dependent on Spanish treasure, at the center of his history of the rise of the British Empire.

  • Andrews, Kenneth R. The Spanish Caribbean: Trade and Plunder, 1530–1630. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.

    A thorough examination of corsair activity in the early Spanish Caribbean, mostly comparing English and Spanish accounts, along with some French and Dutch material.

  • Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London: Methuen, 2003.

    A rich narrative of early modern piracy in the Americas by a venerable historian of the topic. Earle argues, prefiguring Latimer 2009, that not only English piracy but also English suppression of piracy helped establish the British Empire. The precious metals came mostly from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

  • Gerhard, Peter. Pirates of the Pacific, 1575–1742. 2d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

    Originally published in 1960, this remains a valuable and carefully researched examination of corsairs, buccaneers, and other raiders of the Spanish Pacific.

  • Haring, Clarence Henry. The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the XVIIth Century. London: Methuen, 1910.

    A pioneering work blending archival materials from England and Spain to round out the history of buccaneering in its 17th-century heyday. The 1655 English seizure of Jamaica proved a fateful loss for Spain and its circum-Caribbean colonies.

  • Lane, Kris. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500–1750. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

    A long-range and hemispheric narrative of early modern piracy that emphasizes Spanish responses and the overall economic and social effects of two and a half centuries of pillage. Also published under the title Blood and Silver: A History of Piracy in the Caribbean and Central America (Oxford: Signal, 1999).

  • Latimer, Jon. Buccaneers of the Caribbean: How Piracy Forged an Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    A serious examination of mostly English buccaneers, emphasizing the shifting blend of nonstate and official violence in relation to Caribbean trade and plunder.

  • Lucena Salmoral, Manuel. Piratas, bucaneros, filibusteros y corsarios en América: Perros, mendigos y otros malditos del mar. Madrid: Editorial MAPFRE, 1992.

    A good general overview of early modern piracy in the Spanish American context, based mostly on secondary sources.

  • Moreau, Jean Pierre. Pirates: Flibuste et piraterie dans la Caraïbe et les mers du sud, 1522–1725. Paris: Tallandier, 2006.

    An especially valuable study of French corsairs and buccaneers in the Americas that makes use of Spanish and French archival sources.

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