After the discoveries of Columbus, the Spanish mind seems to have been filled with the idea that the whole undiscovered world, wherever it might be, belonged to Spain, and that no other nation had any right whatever to discover anything on the other side of the Atlantic, or to make any use whatever of lands which had been discovered. In fact, the natives of the new countries, and the inhabitants of all old countries except her own, were considered by Spain as possessing no rights whatever. If the natives refused to pay tribute, or to spend their days toiling for gold for their masters, or if vessels from England or France touched at one of their settlements for purposes of trade, it was all the same to the Spaniards; a war of attempted extermination was waged alike against the peaceful inhabitants of Hispaniola, now Hayti, and upon the bearded and hardy seamen from Northern Europe. Under this treatment the natives weakened and gradually disappeared; but the buccaneers became more and more numerous and powerful.
The buccaneers were not unlike that class of men known in our western country as cowboys. Young fellows of good families from England and France often determined to embrace a life of adventure, and possibly profit, and sailed out to the West Indies to get gold and hides, and to fight Spaniards. Frequently they dropped their family names and assumed others more suitable to roving freebooters, and, like the bold young fellows who ride over our western plains, driving cattle and shooting Indians, they adopted a style of dress as free and easy, but probably not quite so picturesque, as that of the cowboy. They soon became a very rough set of fellows, in appearance as well as action, endeavoring in every way to let the people of the western world understand that they were absolutely free and independent of the manners and customs, as well as of the laws of their native countries.
So well was this independence understood, that when the buccaneers became strong enough to inflict some serious injury upon the settlements in the West Indies, and the Spanish court remonstrated with Queen Elizabeth on account of what had been done by some of her subjects, she replied that she had nothing to do with these buccaneers, who, although they had been born in England, had ceased for the time to be her subjects, and the Spaniards must defend themselves against them just as if they were an independent nation.
But it is impossible for men who have been brought up in civilized society, and who have been accustomed to obey laws, to rid themselves entirely of all ideas of propriety and morality, as soon as they begin a life of lawlessness. So it happened that many of the buccaneers could not divest themselves of the notions of good behavior to which they had been accustomed from youth. For instance, we are told of a captain of buccaneers, who, landing at a settlement on a Sunday, took his crew to church. As it is not at all probable that any of the buccaneering vessels carried chaplains, opportunities of attending services must have been rare. This captain seems to have wished to show that pirates in church know what they ought to do just as well as other people; it was for this reason that, when one of his men behaved himself in an improper and disorderly manner during the service, this proper-minded captain arose from his seat and shot the offender dead.
There was a Frenchman of that period who must have been a warm-hearted philanthropist, because, having read accounts of the terrible atrocities of the Spaniards in the western lands, he determined to leave his home and his family, and become a buccaneer, in order that he might do what he could for the suffering natives in the Spanish possessions. He entered into the great work which he had planned for himself with such enthusiasm and zeal, that in the course of time he came to be known as "The Exterminator," and if there had been more people of his philanthropic turn of mind, there would soon have been no inhabitants whatever upon the islands from which the Spaniards had driven out the Indians.
There was another person of that day,—also a Frenchman,—who became deeply involved in debt in his own country, and feeling that the principles of honor forbade him to live upon and enjoy what was really the property of others, he made up his mind to sail across the Atlantic, and become a buccaneer. He hoped that if he should be successful in his new profession, and should be enabled to rob Spaniards for a term of years, he could return to France, pay off all his debts, and afterward live the life of a man of honor and respectability.
Other ideas which the buccaneers brought with them from their native countries soon showed themselves when these daring sailors began their lives as regular pirates; among these, the idea of organization was very prominent. Of course it was hard to get a number of free and untrammeled crews to unite and obey the commands of a few officers. But in time the buccaneers had recognized leaders, and laws were made for concerted action. In consequence of this the buccaneers became a formidable body of men, sometimes superior to the Spanish naval and military forces.
It must be remembered that the buccaneers lived in a very peculiar age. So far as the history of America is concerned, it might be called the age of blood and gold. In the newly discovered countries there were no laws which European nations or individuals cared to observe. In the West Indies and the adjacent mainlands there were gold and silver, and there were also valuable products of other kinds, and when the Spaniards sailed to their part of the new world, these treasures were the things for which they came. The natives were weak and not able to defend themselves. All the Spaniards had to do was to take what they could find, and when they could not find enough they made the poor Indians find it for them. Here was a part of the world, and an age of the world, wherein it was the custom for men to do what they pleased, provided they felt themselves strong enough, and it was not to be supposed that any one European nation could expect a monopoly of this state of mind.
Therefore it was that while the Spaniards robbed and ruined the natives of the lands they discovered, the English, French, and Dutch buccaneers robbed the robbers. Great vessels were sent out from Spain, carrying nothing in the way of merchandise to America, but returning with all the precious metals and valuable products of the newly discovered regions, which could in any way be taken from the unfortunate natives. The gold mines of the new world had long been worked, and yielded handsome revenues, but the native method of operating them did not satisfy the Spaniards, who forced the poor Indians to labor incessantly at the difficult task of digging out the precious metals, until many of them died under the cruel oppression. Sometimes the Indians were kept six months under ground, working in the mines; and at one time, when it was found that the natives had died off, or had fled from the neighborhood of some of the rich gold deposits, it was proposed to send to Africa and get a cargo of negroes to work the mines.
Now it is easy to see that all this made buccaneering a very tempting occupation. To capture a great treasure ship, after the Spaniards had been at so much trouble to load it, was a grand thing, according to the pirate's point of view, and although it often required reckless bravery and almost super-human energy to accomplish the feats necessary in this dangerous vocation, these were qualities which were possessed by nearly all the sea-robbers of our coast; the stories of some of the most interesting of these wild and desperate fellows,— men who did not combine piracy with discoveries and explorations, but who were out-and-out sea-robbers, and gained in that way all the reputation they ever possessed,—will be told in subsequent chapters.