The Caribbean between maps and pirates: adventure, navigation, and treasure hunt in the 17-th century

08/04/2021

In the second half of the 16th century, the cartography boom began in Europe, especially in nations such as Germany, Italy, Holland, and England, whose production coincided with the arrival of conquistadors to America, who were fleeing from the political and religious problems of the old continent. Therefore, maps were of great importance at the time of crossing the Atlantic and reaching the Caribbean.

However, not all maps were accurate. An error in a 17th-century map led Europeans to believe for a long time that California was an island. During his travels through America -between 1613 and 1623-, mainly in the Caribbean, Captain Nicolás Cardona came across a map where California was seen independent from the continent, he knew that the cartography was inaccurate, but "he thought it was fun to keep it".

While sailing in the Gulf of California, European pirates seized his ship, he managed to escape to the coast but lost the map. Years later, the map was presented in Spain and was considered reliable. It was not until 1747 that a Royal Order was issued prohibiting the publication of maps showing California as an island.

Cardona was a chronicler best known for the maps he drew of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, including those of the coasts of Campeche, Veracruz, Tehuantepec, Acapulco, Cartagena (Colombia), Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, among others, in which he also included navigation times.

Pirates of the Caribbean

The beginnings of piracy in the Caribbean dating back to 1630, and arose for two reasons: the violent invasion of the Spanish in Caribbean islands and the enslavement of Europeans and Africans brought to America. At that time, half of the Caribbean island of St. Kitts was occupied by the French and the other half by the English, both of whom were buccaneers who grew vegetables and fruits to sell to sailors, mainly Spaniards.

The Spanish buccaneers invaded the island of San Martin and San Bartolomé -now the Dominican Republic-, killing most of the population, the rest took refuge in Tortuga Island after being attacked violently and without reason.

"They were people who did not seek to be pirates, but were forced to do so after losing their farmland," commented Michel Antochiw, researcher of the Mexican Association of Caribbean Studies.

This gave rise to piracy in the Caribbean, where European and African slaves were the key point. Before black slavery, there was white slavery. An example of this was that to pay the war expenses involved in England's expansion to Scotland and Ireland, 30,000 Scots were enslaved to sell to the colonists who conquered Jamaica.

When they arrived in America, the white slaves who came from England and Iceland had to pay the transportation costs. Some were indentured laborers who worked for years without being able to pay their debt. However, they did not foresee that the climate would kill many of the European slaves coming from temperate and cold countries. To compensate for the death of slaves, the colonists established in the Caribbean turned to the African population because they were accustomed to the hot climate.

It was not until 1686 that a law was established stating that for every black servant in the Caribbean there should be one white slave. The Caribbean refugees from islands such as Tortuga, bought many of these men on pirate ships for their service, so the crew was made up of all kinds of people, criminals, businessmen, merchants, black slaves, whites, and mulattos.

By Mexicanist, Source INAH