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Privateering, Piracy and British Policy in Spanish America, 1810-1830

Privateering, Piracy and British Policy in Spanish America, 1810-1830

Matthew McCarthy
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 186
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  • Book Info
    Privateering, Piracy and British Policy in Spanish America, 1810-1830
    Book Description:

    Private maritime predation was integral to the Spanish American Wars of Independence. When colonists rebelled against Spanish rule in 1810 they deployed privateers - los corsarios insurgentes - to prosecute their revolutionary struggle at sea. Spain responded by commissioning privateers of its own, while the disintegration of Spanish authority in the New World created conditions in which unauthorised prize-taking - piracy - also flourished. This upsurge in privateering and piracy has been neglected by historians yet it posed a significant threat to British interests. As numerous vessels were captured and plundered, the British government - endeavouring to remain neutral in the Spanish American conflict - faced a dilemma. An insufficient response might hinder Britain's commercial expansion but an overly aggressive approach risked plunging the nation into another war. Privateering, Piracy and British Policy in Spanish America assesses the varied and flexible ways the British government responded to prize-taking activity in order to safeguard and enhance its wider commercial and political objectives. This analysis marks a significant and original contribution to the study of privateering and piracy, and informs key debates about the development of international law and the character of British imperialism in the nineteenth century. Matthew McCarthy is Research Officer at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull. He was awarded his PhD by the University of Hull in 2011 and won the British Commission for Maritime History/Boydell & Brewer prize for best doctoral thesis in maritime history.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-185-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. List of abbreviations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    Matthew McCarthy
    (pp. 1-10)

    It is unremarkable that piracy inspired an anonymous composer to pen the above lyrics. Piracy has the quality to capture the human imagination and continues to influence poetry, books, music and movies to this day.² Likewise, it is unremarkable that piracy inspired artistic endeavour as early as 1822. Less than a decade previously, Lord Byron – the British poet and a leading figure in the Romantic Movement – had published The Corsair, in which the pirate captain Conrad fought for noble causes and won ladies’ hearts.³ What is remarkable about ‘The Pirates of 1822’, however, is that it refers not to fictional...

  7. 1 British Interests in Spanish America
    (pp. 11-22)

    On the evening of 10 July 1822, crowds began to gather at the City of London Tavern in Bishopsgate. The occasion was a public dinner hosted by the Friends of South American Independence in honour of the visiting Colombian minister, Francisco Antonio Zea. So enthusiastic were people in London to attend the dinner that every seat in the tavern’s great room was occupied by six o’clock. Towards the back of the tavern sat a reporter from The Times who despite being ‘at the extremity of one of the tables farthest removed from the speakers’ could still make out the figures...

  8. 2 Privateering and Piracy
    (pp. 23-45)

    Private maritime predation emerged from three separate sources during the Spanish American Wars of Independence. Firstly, it was authorised by Spanish American revolutionaries. Recognising the need to challenge Spanish sea power, yet confronted by an acute shortage of naval resources, revolutionary leaders issued licences for privateering.¹ Secondly, private maritime predation was authorised by the Spanish government. It was becoming quickly apparent that the Spanish navy was incapable of defending Spanish trade against insurgent privateers, so Spain also issued licences for privateering.² Thirdly, individuals acting without the authority of any government established bases along the coast of Cuba in the early...

  9. 3 Traders’ Ghastly Wounds
    (pp. 46-67)

    Private maritime predation had an impact on the lives of numerous British merchants and seafarers during the Spanish American Wars of Independence. This was so notorious by the early 1820s that ‘traders’ ghastly wounds’ had become the subject of poems speaking of the ‘unbridled rule’ in the West Indies of murder, pillage and rape.¹ In a letter to the Admiralty in 1822, the West Indian Association of Planters, Merchants and Ship Owners of Glasgow stated that this embroilment in the Spanish American prize war had stirred up ‘sentiments of regret and surprise’ among them because it had occurred ‘in a...

  10. 4 Response to Insurgent Privateering
    (pp. 68-90)

    Castlereagh was busily orchestrating a foreign policy that would bring about the defeat of France when he began to receive reports of insurgent privateering in 1813. This overriding foreign policy objective meant that with regard to Spanish America, Castlereagh was steering a neutral course that would allow British merchants to access Spanish American markets without jeopardising the Anglo-Spanish alliance. Given the importance of these broader concerns, Castlereagh paid little attention to reports that a small number of privateers from Cartagena were harassing a few British merchants trading in the West Indies. Letters from Admirals requesting additional instructions thus went without...

  11. 5 Response to Spanish Privateering
    (pp. 91-117)

    Just as in the case of the corso insurgente, Castlereagh quickly realised that Spanish privateering had the potential to threaten Britain’s neutrality in the Spanish American Wars of Independence. The problem he faced in this case was not that British merchant ships were being attacked by privateers commissioned by unrecognised states. Spain was an ancient nation and had been authorising privateering for centuries, which meant that Castlereagh could openly communicate with the Spanish government on the subject through regular diplomatic channels. However, Spanish privateering still raised delicate questions of a political nature. By remaining neutral in the Spanish American Wars...

  12. 6 The Anglo-Spanish Claims Commission
    (pp. 118-137)

    In the context of an impending French invasion of Spain in January 1823, William à Court hailed the Spanish proposal to resolve the privateering dispute by creating a mixed commission as ‘a great point gained’. But despite these obvious political advantages, à Court expressed some reservations about whether a mixed commission could effectively compensate British merchants. The 40 million reales that the Cortes had set aside was only a quarter of the amount that à Court believed British merchants were owed, while the proposed scheme of arbitration via a mixed commission was likely to lead to immeasurable difficulties.¹

    But such...

  13. 7 Response to Cuban-based Piracy
    (pp. 138-156)

    When challenged about their cautious responses to insurgent and Spanish privateering, British statesmen would often defend themselves by referring to the government’s wider political objectives. Privateering was intrinsically linked to the competing sovereignty claims of Spain and the Spanish American revolutionaries. Therefore, the British government’s response to privateering had to be carefully coordinated with its broader policy of neutrality in the Wars of Independence. However, when making this case British statesmen were quick to reassure their critics that if Britain ever faced the threat of simple piracy – dissociated from such political issues – their response would be swift and straightforward. George...

  14. Conclusion: Maritime Predation, Legal Posturing and Power
    (pp. 157-164)

    According to the anonymous composer of ‘The Pirates of 1822’, cited at the beginning of this book, the British government was guilty of neglect. While British subjects were perishing in ‘blood-stain’d graves’, the government was failing to provide ‘a sure defence against the foe’¹.¹ Historians might be accused of showing a similar, albeit less catastrophic, neglect for Britain’s experience of privateering and piracy during the Spanish American revolutions. This upsurge in nineteenth-century maritime predation has been omitted from or marginalised in general histories of commerce-raiding, while the handful of works that do address the subject have confused the chief characteristics...

    (pp. 165-176)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 177-184)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 185-185)