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Privateers, Pirates and the Wrecking of the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet

On the 31st of July 1715, a Spanish fleet of eleven ships was wrecked in a hurricane off the east coast of Florida. These ships were carrying treasure from the New World back to Spain and a cargo worth millions of silver pieces of eight was lost along with the lives of over a thousand unfortunate sailors. This was a catastrophe for Spain which badly needed its treasury replenished after its recent war with Britain. But the wrecking of the 1715 plate fleet (‘plata’ being the Spanish word for silver), had other, more far-reaching consequences for the Caribbean.

The 1715 Spanish treasure fleet was carrying millions of silver pieces of eight from America to Spain. - Chris Thorndycroft
The 1715 Spanish treasure fleet was carrying millions of silver pieces of eight from America to Spain. - Chris Thorndycroft

The Peace of Utrecht which resolved the War of the Spanish Succession, ushered in a period of peace for the various warring European powers. For many sailors in the Caribbean, it spelled disaster. No war meant unemployment as men and ships were demobilised and for many, it meant no more prizes.

For years privateers had enjoyed lucrative careers engaged in a form of legalised piracy. These privately-owned vessels were granted ‘letters of marque’ which authorised them to prey on the trade of enemy nations. Captured ships (or ‘prizes’) had to be declared in the admiralty court with a portion of the captured cargo’s value going to the crown while the rest went into the pockets of the ship’s investors, captain and crew. Now that England, France and Spain were at peace, this source of revenue was cut off.

It was certainly not unheard of for privateers to become outright pirates, especially in times of peace and the unemployment of so many sailors meant that the temptations of a life of crime became too much to resist. Many privateers were based in Jamaica and one of the most prominent was Captain Henry Jennings. Hailing from a wealthy Bermudan family, Jennings had estates in both Bermuda and Jamaica so it is unknown why he felt the need to go privateering or why he pursued it with such greed. When news of the wrecked Spanish plate fleet reached Jamaica, it caused a frenzy of excitement and Jennings was one of the first to fit out his ship to ‘go a-wrecking’.

Meanwhile, the Spanish were desperately trying to recover the eleven shiploads of treasure that had been sunk. The ships had been wrecked in relatively shallow waters and divers were able to reach the treasure by weighting themselves down with rocks. It was mostly Native Americans who performed this incredibly dangerous job that carried with it the risk of drowning and shark attacks. By 1716, the Spanish had recovered a good portion of the treasure and had a well-established salvage camp at Palmar de Ayes.

Setting out in his sloop Bersheba, Jennings had made for the Florida Straits which was attracting pirates and privately-owned vessels like flies to a honeypot. Jennings and several other privateers held letters of marque from the Jamaican governor, Archibald Hamilton, sanctioning them to attack pirate vessels. But Jennings had other plans, and, in December of 1715, he captured a Spanish mail ship and extracted the location of the Spanish salvage camp from her captain.

Governor Archibald Hamilton of Jamaica was accused of encouraging piracy - Chris Thorndycroft
Governor Archibald Hamilton of Jamaica was accused of encouraging piracy - Chris Thorndycroft

Jennings and the captains of two other ships descended upon salvage camp that January, robbing them at gunpoint and making off with around 120,000 pieces of eight. The governor of Havana was outraged by this act of piracy on Spanish soil. He dispatched a deputy to Jamaica to demand that Governor Hamilton recall all vessels and repay all the treasure that had been illegally taken. Hamilton warned that by making these legitimate privateers out to be pirates they would be forced to become just that and surely, nobody wanted to add to the growing problem of piracy in the Caribbean?

Jennings was already on that path however, as that spring, he embarked on a crime spree that saw him prey on French and Spanish ships and fish the wrecks at least three times. He occasionally put in at Nassau, New Providence, a failed British colony in the Bahamas which had been without a governor since 1704. Nassau had become the home of pirates, escaped slaves, illegal logwood cutters and various other individuals who lived outside of the law. It was a pirate’s nest in every sense of the word, perfectly situated near the biggest shipping route from America to Europe and made up of nearly seven hundred islands and cays which offered ample hiding places for pirates to careen their ships, gather supplies and divide loot. A loose confederation of pirates known as ‘The Flying Gang’ had settled there with Benjamin Hornigold as their leader.

With hundreds of uninhabited cays and islands, the Bahamas offered pirates plenty of hiding places. - Chris Thorndycroft
With hundreds of uninhabited cays and islands, the Bahamas offered pirates plenty of hiding places. - Chris Thorndycroft

Jennings and Hornigold did not get on. A dispute between them erupted that April when Jennings took a French ship in the Bay of Hounds (Bahia Honda), forcing its captain to write a letter to Governor Hamilton absolving him of wrongdoing (seemingly, legitimacy was still important for Jennings). During the taking of this ship, Jennings learned of a larger French vessel and set out to capture that too but arrived to find that it had already been taken by Benjamin Hornigiold.

Enraged, Jennings pursued Hornigold to Nassau and then robbed him of the treasure he had just taken, much in the same way he had robbed the Spanish salvage camp. The situation in Nassau must have been tense with two powerful crews at each other’s throats. Later depositions by men who sailed under Jennings refer to Hornigold and his ilk as ‘common pirates’, suggesting that, even when attacking ships in peacetime, there was a perceived difference between sanctioned privateers from Jamaica and desperate pirates from the lawless Bahamas. But the line between these two professions was set to become even more blurry as Jennings returned to Jamaica with his ill-gotten loot.

How much Governor Hamilton knew of Jennings’s actions and how involved he was in plundering the Spanish camp is a matter of debate. He would later claim that he had explicitly forbidden Jennings from attacking anybody but pirates, but arguments to the contrary would be levelled against him. Hamilton had a vested interest in several ships including the Bersheba and had made some powerful enemies in Jamaica’s ruling assembly who were keen for any ammunition they could use to ensure his removal. A case was built against him including sworn affidavits and outright slander claiming that Hamilton even supported Jacobitism. His days were numbered and one of his last acts as governor was to declare Henry Jennings a pirate and refuse him entry into Jamaica. This was most likely an attempt to distance himself from Jennings but it was too little too late. In October Hamilton was removed from his office and taken back to England to stand trial.

As Hamilton had previously predicted, being barred from Jamaica only pushed Jennings further into a career of piracy. With no safe port open to him, Nassau became his only option and he was forced to return and make peace with Hornigold and his Flying Gang. Jennings no longer cared for letters of marque or affidavits written by captains under duress. The freedom of piracy beckoned, and Jennings wasn’t the only one. The number of pirates in Nassau reportedly exploded after the 1715 wrecks with the Governor of Bermuda stating in 1716 that there were over a thousand pirates living there, far outnumbering the hundred regular inhabitants of the town.

Piracy in the Caribbean was nothing new and indeed it is arguable that it had already entered its Golden Age before 1715. But there is no denying the effect the wrecking of the Spanish plate fleet had on that part of the world. Pirates may have been a problem previously, but the events of 1715 served as a catalyst, uniting privateers and pirates, enriching them both to the point where they became a force to be reckoned with.

The most famous pirate of all, Blackbeard, may have got his start by plundering the Spanish wrecks - Chris Thorndycroft
The most famous pirate of all, Blackbeard, may have got his start by plundering the Spanish wrecks - Chris Thorndycroft

By 1718, the British government was forced to do something and they dispatched explorer, privateer and slave trader, Woodes Rogers, to take control of New Providence and its troublesome pirates. Many of these men had been transformed from lowly crewmembers aboard privateering vessels to formidable pirate captains by the events of 1715. We know for a fact that one of the cruellest and most villainous pirates of all time, Charles Vane, was once part of Jennings’s crew and research suggests that one Edward Thache had also been a privateer before he decided to ‘fish the wrecks’ and then join Hornigold’s gang to become history’s most famous pirate of all; Blackbeard.

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