When Christopher Columbus first blundered into the New World, he landed first on the island of Hispaniola. This large landmass – the largest island of the region – he named after his Spanish financiers. The region was named for the Carib Indians, the largest native population of the area at the time. The two main island groups were named for a mythical archipelago. “Antilles Islands” had been appearing at the far west of European maps for over a century, blots of land imagined by chart makers out of thin air. Sometimes these imaginary islands included the Isle of Avalon, final resting place of King Arthur.
The Caribbean Sea is bounded to the west by South America, to the north by the Greater Antilles islands (Cuba, Jamaica, the Caymans, Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola) to the south by the Lesser Antilles (including the islands of Barbados, St Kitt’s, Aruba, Antigua and the Virgin Islands). Its waters cover an area of 750,000 square miles (1,940,000 km). The sea floor is divided into three basins separated by undersea ridges. Cayman Trench, south of Cuba, reaches a depth of 25,190 feet (7,678 m), the deepest part of the Caribbean.
Currents and trade winds travel almost directly to the Caribbean from Europe, which is how Columbus found the place. Water enters the Caribbean through the Windward Passage through the Greater Antilles, and the Anegada Passage though the Lesser Antilles. It swirls around in a counter-clockwise fashion, being warmed by the sun in the large shallow expanses, and exits up the coast of Florida, forming the Gulf Stream.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to reach the area, and they immediately set out to plunder it of anything valuable. When Columbus wrote his first reports of the economic potential of his discovery, he noted especially that the natives would make fine slaves.
For a hundred years, the Spanish were the sole owners of the region, by their own claim and by Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 Treaty of Tordesillas. The Spanish believed that they were bringing the benefits of civilization and spiritual salvation to the region. They also devastated the native population and hauled out so much gold and silver that the entire economy of Spain, and later Europe, was radically altered overnight.
From the very beginning, pirates haunted the Caribbean waters. Spain learned that the natives did not, in fact, make good slaves. Encountering European diseases like smallpox and measles for the first time, they died in droves, and those that lived were likely to escape to the jungles. The Spanish imported criminals and their own poor citizens to work the mines and maintain settlements. But these people, too, escaped to live lawless lives in a tropical paradise where fruit and wild game could support a settlement.
With ships carrying millions of dollars in precious metals back to Spain, fortune hunters flocked to the area. Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh were two of the most successful. Letters of marque, and the fact that they gave large portions of their profits to the British government, kept their activities barely legal, from the English perspective. The Spanish called such people pirates and shot them on site.
In addition to outright attack on Spanish ships, fortune hunters hoped to cash in on treasure ships destroyed in storms. The Caribbean is the point of origin for most hurricanes in the Western Hemisphere. Though hurricane activity peaks in August through November, storms can strike at any time.
One Spanish treasure fleet was broken up by a storm on July 30th, 1715, and lost 11 out of twelve ships. Looters drawn by the millions of dollars of gold and silver, came from all over the world to salvage the wrecks. Such notable pirates as Henry Jennings and Sam Bellamy started their careers in the ensuing chaos. Gold coins from the sunken ships still wash up on Florida beaches.
Spain’s problem was that the area was simply too far from their homeland, and too massive to hold or administer. The English, the Dutch and the French founded colonies on the less appealing islands and it was too much trouble to chase them all off.
Spain held Cuba and the mainland, while other islands traded hands in a variety of wars and skirmishes. These colonies did not produce gold, but plantations raising tobacco, indigo (a plant which produced a blue dye) rice and sugar made fortunes for those who hacked them out of the wilderness.
Plantations ran on slaves, and in the New World, slaves had a chance to escape. Irish, French, English and Africans all came in chains to do manual labor in the Caribbean, and ran off whenever they had the chance. Some of them lived along beaches, living off the land and curing meat in a technique called “bucan” by the natives, a word that gives us “bacon” “barbecue” and “buccaneer.”
The Caribbean has over 1,000 islands, and thousands of miles of deserted mainland beaches. The buccaneers could row out in canoes to attack trading ships, and take over the ships to become full-blown pirates. And the pirates could land in secluded places to clean and repair these ships, or to meet with unscrupulous merchants to trade gold and other plunder for gunpowder, shot and liquor.
There was too much open space, and too little authority to stop them.
The islands of the Caribbean are primarily volcanic in nature. The movement of the Caribbean tectonic plate produces frequent earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Scientific data reveals that over the last 500 years the area has seen a dozen earthquakes above 7.5 magnitude, even greater than the 7.1 earthquake which struck Haiti in 2010.
One such earthquake was the Port Royal earthquake of 1692, an event which leveled the largest city in Jamaica and dropped most of it into the ocean. The city of Saint-Pierre in Martinique, once called the Paris of the Caribbean, was destroyed twice. In 1780 a hurricane flooded the town in 30 feet of water, and in 1902 a volcanic eruption killed 30,000 people, leaving only two men alive, one of whom was a criminal locked in the city jail.
Moralists at the time of the Port Royal earthquake attributed it to the Wrath of God, since Port Royal had been a haven of pirates, called the “wickedest city on earth” for over a decade.
The wild landscape, large uninhabited areas, political chaos, and abundance of gold and silver in the Caribbean created a perfect place for fortune hunters, runaway slaves, political dissidents and sailors who had jumped ship to make their fortunes. Many of them did. Many more died for their crimes, some slipped back into obscurity. But the boldest and most colorful live on as the pirates of the Caribbean.