Locations like the Caribbean and the Spanish Main can bring to mind romantic images of clear blue waters, chests of gold, and massive ships loaded with treasure. These waters were once part of some of the busiest trade routes in the world.
From the 1500s through to the early 1800s, fabulous amounts of wealth passed through the Spanish Main on its way to Spain: gems, precious metals, spices, hides, and other items were loaded onto the ships from all over Mexico, and Central and South America. Trade ships from the Far East delivered their goods to Acapulco, which were then brought across the mainland to the Pacific ports.
The Silver Fleet
The Spanish empire established the silver fleet (a common nickname for the Spanish treasure fleet) to act as a convoy between Spain and the New World from 1566 to 1790. Despite the romantic name, the fleet carried an assortment of goods, including precious metals, but also lumber, pearls, sugar, tobacco, and other goods the Empire needed. People and goods went the other way, too; by 1500, there were up to 1000 Spanish settlers in Hispaniola, and the numbers continued to grow as trade increased.
While many ships and explorers had ventured to and from the New World, the Spanish fleet maintained the first permanent trade route across the Atlantic.The convoy system was established in response to French privateers sacking the city of Havana in the 1560’s. The route over the Atlantic, sailed by the Caribbean Spanish West Indies Fleet (Flota de Indias), departed from Seville and stopped at ports like Veracruz, Cartagena, and others, before rendezvousing in Havana to make the journey back to Spain. The Pacific route, sailed by the Manilla Galleons (Galeón de Manila), joined the Philippine Islands to Acapulco. From there, the goods were loaded onto mules and taken overland to the Atlantic ports to be shipped to Spain.
Pirates and Privateers
Naturally, these prolific trade routes, full of ships heavy with goods and gold, were a tempting target for pirates and privateers. Many countries participated in privateering. One of Canada’s most popular modern folk songs, “Barrett’s Privateers,” recounts the story of a young Canadian man whose privateering in the Caribbean goes badly awry. Only marginally more legal than outright piracy, privateers (sometimes called buccaneers or corsairs) were private individuals commissioned by a government to attack and raid ships from foreign governments, and bring those ships in as prizes. These battles rarely resulted in sunken ships or lost treasure, since the goal was to capture a ship and cargo intact; most such losses occurred during harsh weather rather than battles at sea.
In the two hundred and fifty years that the flota operated, it was only captured once; Piet Hein successfully captured the ships in 1628, bringing the cargo and ships to the Dutch Republic. The crews of the ships were deposited on the Cuban cost with enough supplies to march back to Havana; Hein collected 11,509,524 guilders of loot from the fleet.
Robert Blake attacked the flota in 1656 and 1657, but only made off with a single galleon; the Spanish officers preserved most of the silver on board the other ships. The Atlantic fleet was destroyed in 1702 in Cadiz, Spain, during the War of the Spanish Succession, but little cargo was lost; most of it had already been unloaded. While losses did have a heavy impact on the Spanish economy, the fleet was one of the most successful and lucrative maritime operations of all time.