When we think of the Spanish Inquisition, we imagine a group of fanatic Medieval Churchmen who torture people for fun and burn “witches” at the stake. It doesn’t seem to have any effect on pirates.
But the Spanish Inquisition was a legal entity that started in 1478, set up by the same Spanish rulers who financed Columbus’ trip to the Caribbean. And the Inquisition lasted until 1854, well after the end of piracy’s Golden Age. For some pirates it was a matter of life and death.
What was the Spanish Inquisition, anyway?
An Inquisition was a legal entity that operated under “license” from the Catholic Church. There existed a broad “Christian Inquisition” and three more regional inquisitions, the Portuguese Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, and the Spanish Inquisition. All were intended to protect the Catholic Church by finding and stopping entities that placed it in danger – from Christians who did not practice their faith in accordance with the rules of the Church to witches to homosexuals.
The Spanish version of the Inquisition was mostly aimed at making sure that Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism maintained the practices of the Catholic religion. Southern Spain had been invaded and held by Muslim Moors for centuries, and because of this, the Catholic Spanish felt that their religion was under attack. When the Spanish began to drive out the Moorish forces, the Spanish government required that all Moors and Jews who remained in Spanish territory converted to Catholicism.
Many people converted in public, but maintained their ancestral religions at home. The Spanish Inquisition was specifically aimed at finding these people and punishing them for backsliding in their religion.
The Inquisition would come to a town, and announce a period of 30 – 45 days of “grace” in which anyone who confessed to wrong-doing would be forgiven and taken back into the Church. These people were punished, of course. Often they paid huge fines, or suffered physical punishment. Always, they were encouraged to inform on other sinners.
Once the grace period was over, action began against the sinners who were accused but had not confessed. Individuals were first incarcerated – sometimes for years. While in prison, the accused were not told what they were accused of, and often their property was confiscated to pay for their incarceration and trial.
Eventually the prisoner war interrogated. This often involved torture, but the torture was strictly regulated. Breaking the skin was forbidden. Inquisitors relied on a form of waterboarding where a rag was stuffed into the accused’s mouth, and water was poured on it to give the sensation of drowning. Also in use was the rack, where victims were tied to a device that pulled on their arms and legs. This could tear tissue and dislocate joints.
Most closely linked with the Inquisition was a torture method called strappado. In this, the victim’s arms were tied behind the back, then attached to a rope and pulley. The victim was lifted by the bound arms, and sometimes dropped and lifted again.
If a person being interrogated by these methods gave a confession after the torture had stopped, it was considered a confession under free will, and not under coercion.
A few people were able to convince the inquisitor that they were innocent, but most confessed. Those who confessed would then make a public confession of their crime, and accept punishment, which might include fines, whipping, and possibly a sentence to row on a galley ship for several years. This was a harsh punishment, and a term of 5 years of this labor almost always equaled a death sentence.
Of course, the ultimate punishment was burning at the stake.
But we are concerned with pirates. How did the Inquisition affect pirates?
For one thing, the conditions of the Inquisition drove many Jews out of Spain. Some came to the New World, but the Inquisition followed them. The first execution of unrepentant Jews in the New World took place when Hernando Alonso, a secret Jew, was burned at the stake on October 17, 1528.
Other Jews fled to the Netherlands, where they were offered sanctuary by the Protestant government there. This population of Jews, angry at Spain for prosecution of their relatives and confiscation of their family fortunes, often became pirates. Their piracy gave them a chance to fight back and regain wealth. Many of the pirates listed as “Dutch” were in fact Jewish.
Another issue of interest to pirates were galley slaves. As previously noted, service as a rower on a Spanish galley was a miserable and short life. Pirates were known to liberate slaves, and though galleys were not common in the Caribbean, pirates did encounter them sometimes, and added these people to their crews.
The Inquisition also targeted Native Americans who had been converted, but tried to maintain their own spiritual lives. Spanish punishment of these people destabilized relationships with the natives, and some groups of pirates used this to their advantage, forging friendly relationships with the natives, and using them to re-supply pirate ships.
Very occasionally, Protestants were caught up in the Inquisition. After all, the stated objective of the Inquisition was to protect the Catholic faith. The entire existence of the Protestant religion was seen as a threat, and an over-enthusiastic Spaniard might bring the Inquisition to bear on captured English sailors. If these individuals were not killed outright, they would be tempted to take the law into their own hands and become pirates.
The Inquisition held sway throughout the Golden Age of in all Spanish colonies throughout piracy’s Golden Age. It’s one more reason why the Spanish are almost always the Bad Guys in pirate stories.