English Piracy After the Armada I



In the summer of 1591, the Revenge, commanded by Sir Richard Grenville, took part in an English expedition to the Azores. Lord Howard’s fleet was surprised by a much larger Spanish force, and while most of the English ships managed to escape, the Revenge was unable to follow them to safety. Grenville’s ship was overhauled, and soon the Revenge was surrounded by Spanish galleons, pouring shot into her at close range. The fight lasted for around 16 hours, the English crew repulsing numerous boarding attempts, while their ship lay battered and helpless. Wit the Revenge unable to fight back, and with most of his men killed or wounded, the dying Grenville finally surrendered his ship. The picture shows the action soon after dawn, when the Revenge was surrounded by three Spanish galleons: the San Barnabe on her port side and La Asuncion and La Serena pinning her bow. Having just driven off a fourth galleon pinned to her stern, the Revenge is exchanging fire with the rest of the Spanish fleet, massed in the darkness off her starboard beam.

Every year between 1585 and the end of the war in 1604 a minimum of 100 ships sailed from England under letters of marque and reprisal, rising to double that number in the years when some grand project increased the sortie rate. It was to be expected that the private promoters of the corsair war should have run their ventures more cost-effectively than the state, but there were also occasions when they undertook military-strategic operations that contrast favourably with the public-private expeditions. There were several such operations, but two will suffice for the purpose of comparison.

The first was the month-long occupation of Recife, the port from which most Brazilian sugar was exported, in 1595. The expedition was led by the merchant James Lancaster, newly returned from a disastrous expedition to the East Indies plagued by scurvy in which all except one ship, sent home early with the sick, were lost. In October 1594 Lancaster sailed in Consent (350 tons) owned by John Watts, followed by Simon Boreman’s Saloman (170) and Virgin (60). It was a joint-stock venture with Watts, Boreman, Paul Bayning, John More and William Shute as the leading investors. On the outward voyage the expedition took several small prizes and was joined by Edward Fenner, owner-captain of Peregrine out of Portsmouth and Welcome of Plymouth, with a large prize of their own.

Lancaster sailed directly to Recife after he learned that the cargo of an East India carrack wrecked on the Brazilian coast had been taken there, arriving in April 1595. In harbour were three large Dutch fluitschips hired to carry the carrack’s cargo to Portugal. Lancaster took the town and agreed a fee with the Dutch captains to take a load of looted sugar and brazilwood to England instead, with Virgin along to make sure they did. A group of five French corsairs arrived during the occupation and Lancaster agreed to share the spoil with them in return for their assistance in defeating several Portuguese counter-attacks.

It’s safe to assume that the month-long pillage of Recife put a smile on the face of every French and English sailor. In addition, the declared value of the bulk goods from the carrack brought back by Consent and Salomon was £31,000, and the cargo of Virgin and two of the fluitschips was assessed at £15,000. Peregrine, Welcome, their prize, and the other fluitschip must have carried at least as much, which in total would have represented a tidy £6,100 for the Lord Admiral and £3,050 for the queen.

Leaving aside the glaring anomaly that over-rewarded the Lord Admiral simply for issuing letters of marque on behalf of the queen, this was how the guerre de course should have been run, and indeed had been run by Admiral Coligny. He had taken a fifth for the Huguenot cause, but in return ensured that subordinate officials dealt honestly with the corsairs. This was not the case in England, and we may be sure that the real value of the goods brought back from Recife was considerably greater, with the difference shared among the promoters and corrupt port and treasury officials. Merchants also built and supplied their ships themselves, making the investment per ton far lower than it was for royal ships, the costs of which were inflated by corrupt collusion in everything from building materials to fraudulent manning returns.

The second and more spectacular example was the 1598 capture of San Juan, Puerto Rico. By this time Cumberland was to all intents and purposes acting as the agent of the London merchants who were his principal creditors and who also joined or backed this venture. Cumberland’s expedition can be usefully compared to the private component of Drake’s 1587 raid to ‘singe the King of Spain’s beard’ at Cadiz because so many of the participants were the same. The average size of their ships, however, had markedly increased:

Cumberland himself provided Malice Scourge (600), Sampson (260), Guiana (200, hired from Ralegh), Anthony (120), the frigate Discovery (12), the pinnace Scout and two barges;

John Watts sent his namesake son as Cumberland’s flag captain on Malice Scourge and contributed Alcedo (400), Consent (350), Galleon Constant (250), the veteran Margaret and John (180), Affection (120) and Pegasus (80);

Thomas Cordell sent Prosperous (400), Merchant Royal (350, jointly with William Garraway), Centurion (300) and the pinnace Bark Ley;

William Garraway sent Ascension (400) under Robert Flick, commodore of the London squadron in 1587 and 1588, and Royal Defence (190).

Bearing in mind that Merchant Royal was the largest armed merchantman in the 1588 Navy Royal, the above list shows that Lord Burghley’s ambition to encourage private owners to build ships that could serve as a potent naval reserve force had finally been realized. 1 Malice Scourge was as powerful as any galleon built for the Royal Navy since 1588 and Alcedo, Prosperous and Ascension were on a par with all except the biggest. With the exception of Cumberland’s squadron, all of them engaged in trade as well as corsairing ventures, often on the same voyage.

This was another joint-stock venture in which, along with the shipowners, the leading capitalists were (once more) Paul Bayning, John More and William Shute, joined by James Lancaster, whose share of the proceeds from the Recife raid permitted him to graduate from hired captain to investor. The expedition included 1,000 raw troops under Sir John Berkeley, an experienced soldier, and royal permission was obtained to repeat Lancaster’s raid on a grander scale. However, the fleet did not sail until March 1598, six months after the queen’s commission was granted, by which time Philip II had learnt of it and sent reinforcements to Brazil.

It’s highly likely that the story about Recife was disinformation and San Juan was always their target, as it seems most unlikely that the queen and Cumberland’s partners would have accepted such a fundamental last- minute change of plan without demur. Cumberland did not tell the other captains about the new destination until they were at sea.

The contrast between the queen’s indifference to Cumberland’s qualities and the confidence in him shown by the hard-headed London merchants is striking. It was not misplaced. Cumberland first sailed to the mouth of the Tagus hoping to intercept the outgoing flota of East Indies carracks, but these were held back and missed their annual journey. An aviso was also sent to the West Indies ordering the returning flota to stay in Havana, so Cumberland achieved as much as the late Sir John Hawkins could have wished.

After taking a few small prizes Cumberland sailed on to the West Indies, pausing in the Canaries to give Berkeley a chance to drill his men. The crossing was rapid and operational surprise was achieved, followed by tactical surprise when Cumberland landed his troops on the Puerto Rican mainland 12 miles/19 kilometres to the east of San Juan island.

Since 1595 the Spanish had built Fort Matadiablo (Kill Devil) to replace the two batteries that drove off Drake. It also covered the narrow crossing between the island and mainland known as El Boquerón, which was further defended by stakes in the channel. Cumberland and Berkeley, who had hoped to cross in small boats, instead abandoned them and marched inland to attack the causeway linking the island to the mainland. This had a drawbridge covered by another fort, but Cumberland learned from an escaped slave that the channel at this point was fordable at low tide.

Dressed in a full suit of armour he led a storming party across the creek at night and nearly drowned when he tripped at the deepest point and could not get up again. Rescued by Berkeley he pressed on, spewing brackish water as he went. The assault failed and the storming party was forced to retreat to the mainland to avoid being cut off by the rising tide. Undaunted, Cumberland and Berkeley recovered the boats and sent 200 men along the coast to land behind Fort Matadiablo the following night. One of the small prizes was driven aground to fire at the fort from the sea while Berkeley’s men fired at it from behind and across the channel. After Matadiablo surrendered, the men at the fort covering the causeway fled and Berkeley was able to march his main force on to the island.

The English had now cut off the retreat of the inhabitants of San Juan and could block the arrival of any reinforcements from the mainland. Leaving a garrison to guard the crossing, Cumberland and Berkeley marched along the island to the city of San Juan to find that the inhabitants had taken refuge in the Morro fortress, which covered the entrance to the harbour. After a show of defiance, on 21 June the governor negotiated a capitulation and all the Spanish were permitted to leave the island unmolested by the English troops, who were on notice from Cumberland that he would hang anyone who laid hands on them. The fleet then sailed into the harbour and took possession of perhaps a dozen small ships and warehouses full of sugar, hides and ginger. An orderly spoiling of the town followed, with the proceeds distributed fairly among the sea and land captains and their men.

But then an outbreak of the ‘bloody flux’ began to winnow the troops, and the possibility of retaining San Juan as a naval base faded. Cumberland thought he could hold the island with 500 men, but by August he had nearly 400 dead and as many more sick, including Berkeley. Cumberland sailed with his own ships on the 13th, leaving the rest to follow once Berkeley recovered. The fleet reassembled at the Azores but once again had missed the East Indies carracks and so returned home. The return was marred by the loss of Discovery off Ushant and Pegasus on the Goodwin Sands, both probably due to there being too few healthy crewmen left on board.

The declared value of the goods taken from San Juan was only £16,000, but the notable lack of complaints from the partners suggests that all of them had more than covered their costs, which would have included at least the interest on their loans to Cumberland, before declaring the remainder. Like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark in the night, the absence of acrimony indicates that this was not only the best disciplined and led of all the Elizabethan amphibious operations, but also profitable. It hardly needs stating that the capture of San Juan shows how much more successful an honestly regulated guerre de course conducted by private operators might have been than the public-private expeditions led by political appointees.

There were other examples, although none on the scale of Cumberland’s last venture. Puerto Caballos in Honduras was particularly vulnerable, being taken by Christopher Newport, sailing for Henry Cletherow and John More, in 1592. Walter Ralegh’s protégé William Parker, sailing for a Plymouth syndicate, and the French corsair Jérémie Reymond took the town in 1594. Reymond returned to burn Puerto Caballos in 1595 but was trapped and killed shortly afterwards. Another Anglo-French corsair consortium sacked it in 1603. In 1595 Sir Amyas Preston and Sir George Somers took the port of La Guaira in Venezuela and marched inland with 300 soldiers to seize Caracas, which they looted for five days and burned when they departed. Parker took Campeche in 1597 but was driven out and lost the pinnace Adventure and her crew. His last raid was on Porto Bello in Panamá, which he seized in February 1601 and came away with 10,000 ducats.

These were simply the more audacious highlights of a grinding war of attrition against Spanish and Portuguese shipping, extended to ships of any other nation carrying goods to Iberia. In this, the London merchants rapidly became dominant. Professor Andrews, drawing on the very partial documentation that still exists, found 70 of the 236 corsair ships known to be active in 1589-91 were from London, including the great majority (17 of 25) over 150 tons. In 1598 it was 43 of 86, including 23 of 28 over 150 tons. Given that about 160 private warships accompanied Essex’s 1597 voyage, the figures for 1598, in particular, are much too low – but the trend towards larger ships, based in London, was clear.

Rather than attempt an inadequate précis of the vast and fascinating amount of data in Elizabethan Privateering, I will concentrate on two men who epitomize, respectively, the groups of individuals Andrews classifies as ‘The Great Merchants’ and ‘The Professionals’.

John Watts, described by the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of Saint James in 1607 as ‘the greatest pirate that has ever been in this kingdom’, was born in about 1550 in Hertfordshire, a long way from the sea. His big break was marrying the daughter of Sir James Hawes, a leading figure in the Clothworkers’ Guild and Lord Mayor of London in 1574-75, with whom he went into business, mainly with Spain. During the early 1570s Watts may also have moved into the space vacated by the Hawkins brothers in trade with the Canary Islands, and in 1577 he was a founder member of the Spanish Company, which so strongly disapproved of Drake’s activities and lobbied successfully against English participation in Strozzi’s 1582 expedition to the Azores.

That changed in 1585 when five ships owned by Watts and his partners were among those seized by the Spanish. Issued with letters of marque and reprisal for the amount of £15,000, Watts joined John Bird and John Newton of the Barbary Company to send out Bark Burr, Golden Noble and Little John in 1585-86. By 1587 Watts owned Margaret and John, Little John, Drake and the pinnace Examiner, all sent with Drake himself to singe the King of Spain’s beard at Cadiz. Drake and Examiner stayed off the Spanish coast in consort with Thomas Cordell’s George Bonaventure and John Ridlesden’s Prudence, taking several prizes that more than compensated Watts for his original loss.

In 1588, as captain of Margaret and John Watts led the charge to attack the galleass San Lorenzo at Calais, but his other ships were among the few that sailed on reprisal in the Armada year. Thereafter he sent out a growing fleet of corsairs in 1590, 1591, 1592, 1594 and 1597, sometimes in partnership with Paul Bayning but more often alone. He was the foremost sponsor of Lancaster’s 1595 raid on Recife, and as we’ve seen he sent the biggest contingent with Cumberland to Puerto Rico in 1598.

We know from the participation of Margaret and John in the battles with galleys in 1586 and 1591 that Watts was trading in the Mediterranean from the beginning of the war, and in 1592 he was elected to the new Levant Company. He became an alderman from 1594, and after building the great ships Alcedo and Consent in 1595 was certainly among the foremost London shipowners. He was not one of those invited to form the East India Company in 1600, but the omission was quickly corrected and he was the company’s second governor in 1601-02.

Watts’s career illustrates as well as any that London merchants would not have made the heavy investment in armed ships necessary to open trade with the East Indies if Philip II had not closed the doors to peaceful commerce. They used the corsair war to obtain the goods from ships on the high seas that they previously obtained by trade at Iberian ports, but the staggering wealth taken from Madre de Deus opened their eyes to the advantages of by-passing the Portuguese middle men.

Although they did well out of the war the London magnates were happy to see it end, not least because in the final years Spanish corsairs, particularly those operating out of Dunkirk, took a rising toll on English shipping. Thus after peace was declared Watts played a leading role in the re-birth of the Spanish Company and reverted seamlessly to peaceful trade as though he had not spent the intervening 19 years waging war on Spanish commerce.

James I knighted Watts on 26 July 1603, shortly after his coronation, from which we may assume that he had been of financial service to the new king. Evidently the relationship continued, because when Watts was Lord Mayor of London in 1606-07 the king paid him the exceptional honour of dining at his home. This was at a time when the first permanent settlement was made in North America, and as the leading London merchant Watts can fairly be credited with being the godfather of the Virginia Company, of which he was a founder member. Watts was also involved in the development of the tobacco trade with Guiana. He died, very wealthy, in 1616.

Watts’s career was interwoven with that of the great sea captain Christopher Newport, for whom the town of Newport News in Virginia is named. Christopher Newport University in that town boasts a wonderful Falstaffian statue that shows Captain Newport with two arms, a regrettable solecism given that he had the right one shot off in 1590 when boarding a bullion ship off the coast of Cuba. This, his first voyage as a commander, was aboard Watts’s Little John in company with his friend Abraham Cocke on Harry and John. To add insult to injury, the treasure ship sank before they could unload it.

The loss of his arm proved no handicap, but it was a step down from the 100-ton Little John to the 60-ton pinnace Margaret in which he set out early in 1591 for a London syndicate including John More, Robert Cobb, Henry Cletherow and John Newton. He sailed to Morocco (Barbary) to trade and then to the West Indies on reprisal, returning with a modest prize loaded with hides and sugar. It was enough to convince the syndicate, however, and in 1592 he sailed on the 130-ton Golden Dragon in command of a 4-ship flotilla. This was the journey during which he captured Yaguana on Hispaniola and Puerto Caballos in Honduras, and rounded it off by participating in the capture of the Madre de Deus off Flores. It is to be assumed that as the man entrusted with sailing the carrack back to England, Newport did better than most from the plundering that lightened her load so notably.

For 1593 a letter of reprisal was issued to the More-Cobb-Cletherow syndicate, joined by Sir John Burgh, for Golden Dragon, Roebuck, Prudence and Virgin, which indicates either that Burgh had done so well from Madre de Deus that he could hire Roebuck and Prudence, or else he was in partnership with Ralegh and Ridlesden. There’s no record of this venture, but in 1594 Newport sailed in Golden Dragon with owner-captain Ridlesden’s Prudence to the West Indies, taking two prizes with cargoes of hides and timber. The London merchants appear to have been even more litigious than the gentry, and Newport’s promoters sued Watts for a share in a rich prize taken at this time by his ship Affection, alleging that Golden Dragon was in consortship at the time.

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