We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Smashing the Spanish Empire and grabbing the British Empire

I have just begun reading Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made The Modern Word, and I know that it will be a finisher, so to speak. Here is his description of how the British Empire got started:

In December 1663 a Welshman called Henry Morgan sailed five hundred miles across the Caribbean to mount a spectacular raid on a Spanish outpost called Gran Grenada, to the north of Lago de Nicaragua. The aim of the expedition was simple: to find and steal Spanish gold – or any other movable property. When Morgan and his men got to Gran Grenada, as the Governor of Jamaica reported in a despatch to London, ‘[They] fired a volley, overturned eighteen great guns . . . took the serjeant-major’s house wherein were all their arms and ammunition, secured in the great Church 300 of the best men prisoners . . . plundered for 16 hours, discharged the prisoners, sunk all the boats and so came away.’ It was the beginning of one of the seventeenth century’s most extraordinary smash-and-grab sprees.

It should never be forgotten that this was how the British Empire began: in a maelstrom of seaborne violence and theft. It was not conceived by self-conscious imperialists, aiming to establish English rule over foreign lands, or colonists hoping to build a new life overseas. Morgan and his fellow ‘buccaneers’ were thieves, trying to steal the proceeds of someone else’s Empire.

The buccaneers called themselves the ‘Brethren of the Coast’ and had a complex system of profit-sharing, including insurance policies for injury. Essentially, however, they were engaged in organized crime. When Morgan led another raid against the Spanish town of Portobelo in Panama, in 1668, he came back with so much plunder – in all, a quarter of a million pieces of eight – that the coins became legal tender in Jamaica. That amounted to £60,000 from just one raid. The English government not only winked at Morgan’s activity; it positively encouraged him. Viewed from London, buccaneering was a low-budget way of waging war against England’s principal European foe, Spain. In effect, the Crown licensed the pirates as ‘privateers’, legalizing their operations in return for a share of the proceeds. Morgan’s career was a classic example of the way the British Empire started out, using enterprising freelances as much as official forces.

For a more respectful, and proudly Welsh, view of Morgan’s place in history, try this. And see also this posting here, early last year, about the TV show Ferguson did after writing his book.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on VK

13 comments to Smashing the Spanish Empire and grabbing the British Empire

  • David Crawford

    Considering what Spain was up to in the new world, they deserved to have everything damn thing stolen from that could be.

    Thieving ill-gotten gains from a murderer is no crime in my book.

  • Arrrrr, them be the days.

  • Euan Gray

    I’m not sure it isn’t a little simplistic to say the British empire had its roots in the private activities of freebooters. A good part of it was consciously planned – for example, the Western Design of the Protectorate government in the 1650s. Indeed, Cromwell’s Protectorate is seen by many as the true precursor of empire.

    Although it is fair to say that the empire followed the Navy, which in turn followed and protected trade, it should be remembered that the privateers and freebooters were doing this sort of thing for a long time before the late 17th century, without the establishment of colonial bases.

    EG

  • Is that the same Morgan immortalized by the rum inustry?

  • Gary Gunnels

    Euan Gray,

    Well, one could also argue that the land grabbing going on in Wales and Ireland by England (during the middle ages) was the start of the “British Empire” and that England’s efforts in the Hundred Years’ War was a setback. Many, many historians view England’s efforts in Ireland – in ruling Ireland – as a testing ground for how to run a colony.

    It probably also should be noted that much of the British empire was garnered by the efforts of individuals and entities only loosely (if at all) associated with the British government – this is true of India, the sphere of influence in China, numerous African colonies, etc. (the second French empire expanded similarly as I understand).

    …it should be remembered that the privateers and freebooters were doing this sort of thing for a long time before the late 17th century, without the establishment of colonial bases.

    Well, one should also acknowledge the very important Baltic and Levant trades that were carried out during Elizabeth’s reign (and that of James I/VI for that matter), which at least some historians argue swamped (in overall economic importance) the far flashier efforts of folks like Raleigh, etc.

    Though I haven’t read Ferguson’s book, from what I can tell of what others have said of it, it treads over the same themes and ideas that have been out in the world (of historians at least) for a couple of decades.

  • JotaEle

    ‘Thieving ill-gotten gains from a murderer is no crime in my book’

    Please compare the ethnic backgrounds of the populations of the U.S. and Canada (formerly British and French colonies) to those of Latin America, in order to establish where the murders took place.

    Although there were several wars of conquest by Spain in South America, most of the deaths were caused by diseases brought from Europe. Once the wars were over and the natives immune to germs, the native populations grew.

  • Julian Taylor

    Although there were several wars of conquest by Spain in South America, most of the deaths were caused by diseases brought from Europe. Once the wars were over and the natives immune to germs, the native populations grew.

    When I read something like that I wonder if JotaEle’s descendants will, in a few hundred year’s time, say that there was no such thing as a holocaust under the Nazis, but that people died mostly from typhus and malnutrition instead.

    Perhaps I might recommend Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other’ as a rather informative volume on this subject? Once you have read that, or indeed scoured the internet for information, you might discover that one of the favourite methods of genocide favoured throughout history is, indeed, disease and plague.

  • Ken

    How does Ferguson justify describing the start of the British Empire thus? I could have sworn a large number of American colonies were formed before 1663

  • Ken

    Ferguson’s point is that this is the kind of thing it began with, not that this particular operation was the first such.

    Plus, he explains that whatever the morals of how the Spaniards had been behaving, the English would have done just the same if they could have. But, having failed to find gold, or anything much else, they had to switch to robbing those who had found it.

  • Ken

    Right, thanks for the clarification. I think then, he is misplaced about entirely how the Empire was started, for establishing British rule in foreign lands was important, if only as trading posts and military bases.

  • David Gillies

    You could solve a lot of the problems with piracy in South East Asia by issuing modern-day Letters of Marque and Reprisal. Let Executive Outcomes hire a missile destroyer and start sinking scurvy pirates. Arrr!

  • Sam

    Again the Spanish bashing. Actually, most historians that Spanish rule was the most benevolent of all the empires in the new world. Most of the bad press Spain gets was actually heavily exaggerated by their foes who needed reasons to fight them. If you don’t beleive it, why don’t you look at how many natives there exists in the former British and French colonies (next to none), and how many natives are in the former Spanish colonies (the base population).

  • Lluis

    Right, accusing Spain is the first thing that comes to mind in the Anglo-American world when they are told of the misery that they’ve created. Learn some dignity at least in the hours of your eclipse. Not to mention the pathetic that it is that of the Americans, many descend from the victims of the genocidal policies of the English against the Irish. Pathetic.