The Battle Against Piracy in Spanish Territories

This article delves into the history of piracy in Spanish territories, the measures employed to combat it, and the challenges faced in eradicating this criminal activity.

The Battle Against Piracy in Spanish Territories
Punishments, flotillas, and navies: the measures implemented to stop pirate attacks in New Spain. Image by Stable Diffusion

In the Spanish Crown's territories, piracy posed a significant challenge, and despite the implementation of various security measures, the attacks persisted. This article delves into the plans that aimed to bring an end to this problem.

Piracy has been a persistent issue since ancient times, but it reached its peak with the establishment of the Atlantic trade routes, particularly the navigation networks connecting Spain to its overseas possessions. These routes facilitated the circulation of stolen riches from the New World, particularly silver. It's worth noting that Spain benefited greatly from the territories it explored in the west due to the Alexandrine Bulls, which excluded other nations from the colonial distribution of America.

In response to this situation, certain groups viewed piracy as a means to acquire Spain's riches. Some operated outside the law as pirates, while others had the support of their monarchs and a privateer's license allowing them to attack other kings' ships, particularly merchant vessels. In either case, these groups roamed the seas in pursuit of loot by boarding ships and raiding ports.

The first trials against pirates in New Spain occurred in the 16th century. The Inquisition was responsible for prosecuting this type of crime since the majority of those who attacked Spain's colonies' maritime routes and ports were from other nations, such as England, Turkey, France, Holland, and China. Furthermore, they often practiced a different religion, which made them subject to being labeled as heretics.

One of the Inquisition's earliest cases occurred in 1560 when Friar Francisco Navarro ordered the capture of a group of Frenchmen for looting, theft, and causing a disturbance in Spain's territories. The crew, led by Pedro Bruxel, consisted of Juan Inglés, Guillermo Francés, Juan Oliver, Matorín Lefretier, Jaque Laoet, Luis Layera, Nicolás Feilie, Guillermo Caxiol, and Lorenzo Geneset. During interrogations, it was revealed that these individuals were not only guilty of piracy but also of heresy and Lutheranism.

Despite the Spanish authorities' harsh stance against piracy from the outset, the practice persisted, and sightings and encounters with pirates along the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts were frequent throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Pirate attacks also occurred in the Pacific, with the Manila Galleon and the trade routes of the viceroyalty of Peru being among the most affected.

Piracy's expansion quickly extended to ports, with Veracruz and Yucatán being the two primary areas impacted by pirate incursions in New Spain. Due to the lack of a New Spain army, pirates took advantage of the situation to plunder the ports. However, when such events occurred, the viceregal authorities called on civilians to take up arms and expel the pirates from the mainland.

Several security measures were employed to counteract the pirates' criminal activities, including the fleet system or navigation flotilla, which aimed to protect merchant ships leaving the port of Veracruz for Spain. The flotilla consisted of at least two warships, a patache, and four merchant ships, all of which were designed to repel pirate and enemy vessel attacks. The ships had between 10 and 80 cannons, which served as the primary defense and offense system. Soldiers used muskets and crescent spears or chuzos to fend off boarders.

To address the problem of piracy, the Spanish Crown implemented various security measures, including a fleet system to protect merchant ships leaving the port of Veracruz and a pirate hunting system. However, these measures proved ineffective as the pirates continued to plunder the seas. One of the main fleets tasked with pursuing and punishing pirates was the Armada de Barlovento, which was established in 1635 but disappeared with the decline of the Spanish empire.

Pirates who were captured faced severe punishments, including hanging or being put to the sword and all other prisoners were condemned to the galleys. Despite these measures, piracy persisted and ultimately contributed to the decline of the Spanish navy and the end of the colonial empire.

Full Citation: Nación, Archivo General de la. “Castigos, Flotillas Y Armadas: Las Medidas Implementadas Para Frenar Los Ataques Piratas En La Nueva España.”, 21 Feb. 2023,