Monday, February 27, 2017

Spanish Government in the New World

 Though a lot of people, myself included, have painted the Spanish as Bad Guys in the New World, it's important to remember that they did not consider themselves evil. In fact, they believed that they were exercising their territorial rights, and bringing enlightenment to people who otherwise would surely be going to hell.



Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean Islands in 1492, the same year that the kingdom of Castille finally drove off the invading Moors, people from North Africa who had been trying to invade Europe by coming through Spain for nearly 300 years. In only a few years, Castille united with Aragon only a few years later, creating the modern nation of Spain.

Upon learning of a new land, where the only metal seemed to be gold, and emeralds came the size of eggs, the Castilian Queen – Isabella - immediately thought that it should be conquered. This was pretty standard practice for the time. European nations fought each other and took over new territory all the time. It was the Medieval way of life. and because of the ongoing war, Spain was still solidly Medieval in their way of thinking and governing.



Spain wanted to set up a governmental system just like the one they had at home. It's very likely that at first the rulers had no idea how much territory they were dealing with. No one had ever tried to govern a territory more than 83 times the size of the homeland – and more than 3000 miles away.

Queen Isabella's original grant to Columbus made him "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," and ruler of all the lands he discovered. When Isabella realized that Columbus how much Columbus had discovered, she revised her decree and the Crown began governing the New World.

Queen Isabells

 The initial clashes between conquistadors made for a wild and woolly environment. With no real rules to live by, and any kind of advice or directions taking two years to travel to Spain and back, these warriors acted like warriors. They fought – the natives and each other.

But by the middle of the 1500’s, the Spanish government began to get a firm grip on the New World. The conquistadores had been supposed to carve out medieval-style baronies for themselves. The “serfs” in these territories would farm and serve as unskilled foot soldiers when called upon.

This didn’t work out. The natives had no understanding of their expected roles in this society, and besides, they died in droves from European diseases. The remaining ones found it relatively easy to flee into the jungles when pressed. Spain needed to send colonists, and so they did. Many of these people died from New World diseases, but by only 1500, nearly 1000 Spanish lived in the Americas.

Spain's American empire was divided into viceroyalties. These appointed men were literally vice-roy’s, or under-kings. Deriving authority from a belief system that claimed that the king was appointed directly by God, and ruled by divine will.



Within a viceroyalty was the captaincies-general. The captain-general operated much like a junior viceroy, usually governing a region distant from the viceregal capital, such as Chile and Guatemala.

The oidores (judges) were the most important officials. They were important people in Spain with legal training. And people of great consequence and who received high salaries in the colonies. In some instances, the power of the judges overlapped those of the viceroy. It is believed that this was intentional, since it required the power of the actual king to mediate.

    The audiencia was legal a court, which was its chief function. As time went by and population grew, it divided into special courts and added a number of oidores. It could question the actions of other officials and discipline them. It could execute laws. When it was in a viceregal city, the viceroy was automatically its president but there was always tension between the audiencia and the viceroy no matter where the audiencia sat.

The viceroys and governed through a Council of the Indies in Spain. The Council of the Indies was formally created on August 1, 1524. The king was informed weekly, and sometimes daily, of decisions reached by the Council. which came to exercise supreme authority over the Indies at the local level. Civil suits of sufficient importance could be appealed from an audiencia in the New World to the Council, functioning as a court of last resort.

So, a plan existed. When the system did not work, the Crown made efforts to make it work. At various times additional viceroys were assigned. The governing council was overhauled in 1524, and new laws were written. The intention was to create a civil, effective government.

But civil government is hard to maintain when huge amounts of gold, silver, and jewels are floating about. The remnants of the medieval system meant that no middle class was envisioned. The folk who mined the riches were not the ones who profited by them – except when the riches went missing, or “shrank” to use the modern euphemism for theft.




Monday, February 20, 2017

The East India Company – Original Mega-Corporation

Okay, not the original corporation, but one of the most powerful institutions that has ever existed. Also called the “Honourable East India Company” or the “British East India Company” and informally as “John Company,” this joint-stock company at one time controlled half the world’s trade.
A joint stock company is business venture in which individuals own shares of a company. Each share is worth an equal percentage. But by dividing the ownership into shares, different people can own different percentages of the company. (A person who owns 20 shares owns twice as much of the entity as a person who owns 10.)

China created the first such businesses, but the earliest European example was in France in about 1250. In England. this sort of thing was jump-started by the discovery of the New World. In 1553, The East India Company received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I. Royalty and rich men owned the shares.

The charter awarded the newly formed company a monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan for a period of fifteen years. Anybody else who traded in that half of the world was in breach of the charter. If the trader had not been issued a license from the Company, it would forfeit their ships and cargo (half of which went to the Crown and the other half to the Company).  Owners of such a company could also face imprisonment at the "royal pleasure."

The ship Red Dragon was the East India Company's first war ship.

The first two successful voyages were made in 1601 (returning in 1603) and 1604, while a third voyage lasted from 1607 to 1610. Though the company originally struggled, facing stiff competition from the Dutch East India Company, when they began to start factories for the processing of pepper and other spices, profits began to grow.

King James I of England renewed the Company’s charter in 1609, allowing the Honorable East India company an indefinite monopoly on trade in the East. In 1612, he authorized agents of the Company to act as ambassadors to the rulers of India, the Moghul Empire. This resulted in more factories and more trade.



Not content to have the only trading rights between India and England, the Company began a series of battles with its competition, the Dutch East India Company and the Portuguese and Spanish.  By 1717, the monopoly existed from both ends. India had also given John Company exclusive trading rights

The English crown continued to grant favors to the East India Company. By 1690, it was able to mint its own money, acquire new self-directed territory, build forts and castles, raise and command armies, and literally to wage war. For all intents and purposes, the Company was a sovereign nation. It used this power to gain influence in China and even Japan.



Then in 1690, Henry Avery, pirate captain extraordinaire, captured an Indian trading ship belonging to the Grand Moghul, and carrying at least one member of the Royal Family. Avery’s men terrorized the passengers and crew of the ship, made off with some £600,000 in gold and jewels (this amount is in the money of the time, and could be said to be worth roughly two BILLION dollars in today’s money.)

The Indian government gave the strongest possible protest, and England’s government responded by offering roughly a million dollars reward for Avery’s capture, and making him ineligible for any future pardons offered to other pirates.

Despite this, rioting broke out near the East India Company’s holdings. Four of its factories were seized and destroyed. Company officers were jailed, and nearly lynched by angry Moguls.



At about this time, the company’s monopoly was rescinded by the English crown. New trading companies were started. But the East India was so firmly entrenched in the region’s trade that no real competition took place. Shares of the rival companies were bought up by the East India’s officers and main shareholders, and the major competitor, the English Company Trading to the East Indies, was absorbed by the older company.

The British government began to make efforts to re-assert control, but a series of skirmishes between Britain and France caused the government to renew and continue granting extensions to the monopoly. In return, the Company loaned the government £1,000,000. When war finally broke out, it was between the Company and France. And it took place on Indian soil. The Company was victorious again.

Over the next several years, The East India built a private army and navy, the strongest in the region, and conquered fresh territory, all in the name of the English Crown. Territories conquered by the Company became the direct property of the English ruler (as opposed to territories granted to Britain by treaty, which belonged to the nation.)



The company began to trade in the materials used to make gunpowder, started and won a war with China, and took over almost the entire Indian sub-continent.

But you can’t rule a country the way a business is run. Pandemics, uprisings, and famines took their toll on the lands run by the Company, and in 1857, the British government formally took over ruler ship of the vast lands it had conquered.

And what has all this to do with pirate in the Caribbean? Not very much. Though pirates like Avery did cruise the Indian Ocean looking for (and often winning) plunder and riches, the East India Company did not ever directly control territory in the Caribbean.



So why does John Company appear in pirate tales as the Bad Guys? For one thing, the Company was outside of any government control for most of its history. Its Board of Directors, managers, and employees committed any number of atrocities against various non-European natives, while its official monopoly prevented many daring and talented traders from ever making the fortunes that they might otherwise have amassed.

And, quite frankly, the giant, impersonal business makes just the foil for freedom-loving pirate. So, 300 year later, we can make-believe that the Honorable East India came to the Caribbean and caused trouble for our friends, the pirates

It may not be true, but it makes a great story.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Emeralds - Treasure of the New World

When we think of piratical plunder, we usually think of gold and silver. But in fact, pirates stole anything that had value – from armchairs to zebrawood. One of the most valuable items to be shipped out of the New World was emeralds, and pirate took them, along with any other valuable items they could find.



Emeralds are part of the mineral family known as beryl. In its most pure form, beryl is colorless. It is the presence of additional mineral deposits which lends clear beryl a color and transforms it into a valuable gemstone. Chromium is what gives emeralds their signature green color. If the beryl is touched by iron deposits instead, the result is an aquamarine, a stone that is much less valuable.

Emeralds had been first mined in Egypt, beginning about 360 BCE. The green gems were said to have magical properties. It was said that they increased intelligence, protected marriages, provided safety to women during childbirth, and enabled their possessors to predict future events.  Cleopatra, it was said, especially loved emeralds. Demand for the stones was high, though the gems from Egyptian mines are not considered today to be of very high quality.

Cleopatra's Emerald Mine

 By the early middle ages the mines were considered played out. Only a few stones of poor quality continued to be mined.

Egypt was thought to have the only emeralds in the world until the sixteenth century. But in , early 1500’s the Spanish found a mine in Muzo, near Columbia.  The Muzo people were a Carib-speaking people who lived in the Andes mountains, on the eastern slopes, in what is now Columbia. They were a warlike people, and performed cannibalism on their defeated enemies.



They also mined emeralds. Veins of the gems were close to the surface, and the Muza people picked the stones from surrounding rock with long poles, then flushed the area with water. They traded the emeralds all over the region, and when the conquering Spanish saw the gems, they knew they were looking for precious stones.

The Muza had been battling their enemies for centuries. Their experience with war helped them to fight off the encroaching conquistadores. It took 20 years for the Spanish to conquer them.

Rough emeralds in rock


When the Spanish did take control of the Muza area, they discovered emeralds of every size. Including some of the largest that had been found to date.  The Spanish claimed the mine and even forced the locals to work extracting all of the gems that could be removed. 

The stones were unusual not only in quantity, but in color. African emeralds tended to be blue, due to the existence of iron ore when they were developing. They also tended to have a large number of flaws, and to be smaller. Unlike Egyptian emeralds, New World emeralds had developed in sedimentary rock. They were large, with a pure, fiery green that Europeans had been seen before.



Meanwhile, in the Peruvian city of Manta, at about the time of the Spanish Conquest, an emerald the size of an ostrich egg was said to be worshipped and adored as a goddess. Its name was Umina. The emerald was only brought out and worshipped on high feast days and, according to the temple priests, the best way to honor the ‘mother emerald’ was to bring smaller emeralds, or ‘daughters’, to her.

Because of this, the conquering Spanish found a huge store of emeralds at the shrine. But the “mother” emerald remains a mystery. The priests managed to hide Umina, and she was never found again.


The stones that were found often received rough treatment. The conquistadors were soldiers, not gemologists.  Emeralds were enshrined in legend, and the Spaniards mistakenly believed that the beautiful, valuable stones should be harder than a diamond.  Because of this, the men “tested” the stones by smashing them against an anvil. We will never know how many stones were destroyed by this ‘testing’.

Despite these enormous losses, a large number of emeralds made their way back to Europe, where the royalty took note and quickly made the gems a part of their royal jewel collections. Skilled artisans set Colombian emeralds into New World gold. Because of the softness of emeralds, and the difficulty of cutting them, the gems were most often simply polished into a dome-like shape called “cabochon”. 



Like many of the treasure looted from the Spanish colonies, emeralds were stolen from the Spanish government by Spanish ship captains, mule train drivers, dock workers, and anyone else who had a chance to pocket some of the goods. Pirates, in turn, stole from both official transporters and the smugglers of illicitly acquired goods. We may never know where all the emeralds ended up. But isn’t it fun to imagine such a treasure washing ashore during your Caribbean vacation?




Monday, February 6, 2017

Israel Hands

Israel Hands holds a unique position in all of the lore of pirates. He is, at the same time, a character out of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and a real-life pirate of some fame.

First the historic man. Like most pirates, the real Israel Hands first comes to our attention as a grown man, his origin completely unknown. It seems that he was Blackbeard’s second-in-command.


 On April 4th or 5th, 1718, Blackbeard, sailing the Queen Anne’s Revenge, had been harassing shipping coming to and from the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico. While doing this, he captured a logwood cutting ship named the Adventure and captained by David Herriot.

Blackbeard forced Herriot to join his crew, and gave the ship to Hands, who became her captain. Hands continued in the ship as companion to the Queen Anne’s Revenge, until June of that year, when Blackbeard (some say intentionally) ran the ship aground on a sandbar near Beauford Inlet NC.

Hands attempted to use the Adventure to help kedge the Queen Anne’s Revenge  off the bar, but the much larger ship was too badly stuck. So Blackbeard and Hands loaded the Adventure will all of the treasure and half the crew of the QAR and set sail for the Ocracoke Island, off the shore of North Carolina.



It was here that Blackbeard spent time “going straight.” He made contact with Governor Eden, spent treasure buying a house in the town of Bath, received a pardon for his piracies, a according to some sources. Married a local girl.

But Blackbeard also kept up his old ways. Hands and the remaining pirates formed a camp on Ocracoke, where they could watch the local shipping lanes, and occasionally sailed out for quick raids, mostly on shipping from Virginia. In between these pirating adventures, Blackbeard threw epic parties on the island, along with visiting pirates such as Charles Vane and Jack Rackham.



It is said that at during a long night of drinking and cards, Blackbeard shot Israel Hands in the knee. When Hands, understandably upset, complained, Blackbeard replied with the immortal words, “I have to kill one of you now and again, or people will forget who I am.”

The next morning the island was attacked by members of the Royal Navy, and Blackbeard was killed and beheaded. The fate of Israel Hands is a little uncertain. He did not take part in the battle. Some people place him on the mainland, some at camp in the island. Some claim that he received a pardon in exchange for testifying against his fellow pirates and the corrupt officials that they dealt with. Others say that he merely pointed out that he had taken no part in the battle, and that there was only his attendance at the party the night before to link him to the pirates. (One other man escaped hanging with this same excuse.)



And after that? We don’t really know. Captain Charles Johnson writes that Hands died in poverty, but Johnson was writing to please a publisher, and the authorities wanted MORAL tales about pirates, and that meant an unhappy death for those who did not reform. Hands’ actual ending remains a mystery.

But his name lived on, and what a grand one it was! “Israel Hands,” possibly Dutch, maybe even one of the renegade Jews who had fled Spain for Holland inches ahead of the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a great name for a pirate, and that’s for sure.

So he conjured up a sailor named Israel Hands, fond of spitting, and coxswain of the ship Hispaniola. This Hands is second in command to Long John Silver, in much the same way the historic Hands was to Blackbeard. This Israel is also noted as having been Flint’s gunner, and then men set great store by his talents.



But in the fictional work, Hands is a man who wants his dues now, and not in the uncertain future. Silver berates him for it “I know the sort you are. I'll finish with 'em at the island, as soon's the blunt's on board, and a pity it is. But you're never happy till you're drunk. Split my sides, I've a sick heart to sail with the likes of you.”

Hands and a pirate named O’Brian are the only two aboard the Hispaniola when Jim Hawkins swims out to cut the ship’s anchor cable. Hands and O’Brian are deep in their cups, fighting about something that is never explains. Jim does not see the murder done, but Hands kills O’Brian, though he is injured himself.



Jim comes across Israel Hands, who asks for brandy, and announces that he has no regret that he has “settled (O’Brian’s) hash.” Jim tries to enlist Hand’s aid in getting the ship steered around the island and run aground on a sandy shore. But Hands turns traitor, takes up a knife and tries to kill Jim.

In one of the most famous scenes from the book, Jim climbs the rigging and takes refuge in the crow’s nest. The pirate approaches.



“He (Hands) began to see the dice going against him, and after an obvious hesitation, he also hauled himself heavily into the shrouds, and with the dirk in his teeth, began slowly and painfully to mount. It cost him no end of time and groans to haul his wounded leg behind him, and I had quietly finished my arrangements before he was much more than a third of the way up. Then, with a pistol in either hand, I addressed him.
"One more step, Mr. Hands," said I, "and I'll blow your brains out! Dead men don't bite, you know," I added with a chuckle.

Dead men don’t bite, but some of them do live on. Israel Hands, real pirate and fictional. I wonder what he’s think of his fictional legacy?