- Privateering, Piracy, and British Policy in Spanish America 1810–1830 by Matthew McCarthy
The wars of Spanish American Independence led to an upsurge in attacks on neutral merchant shipping. These posed peculiarly difficult problems for the dominant maritime [End Page 372] and naval power of the age, Great Britain, which had to manage complex diplomatic and economic agendas in separate spheres of activity along with its basic responsibility to protect British shipping and commerce from illegal seizure. In this exceptional study Matthew McCarthy emphasizes the wider context, building on Lauren Benton’s important work on the legal definitions of piracy, privateering, and sovereignty, and the concept of British informal empire in the region.
The British faced privateers licensed by the insurgent states, the remaining Spanish governments in the New World (notably Cuba and Puerto Rico), and pirates based on the coast of Cuba. McCarthy’s pioneering research highlights the relatively limited number of incidents, and spikes of activity at specific periods. British trade with the former Spanish colonies was far more extensive than it had been under Spanish rule, when Madrid kept colonial markets closed to direct British trade. The revenue helped fund the Napoleonic conflict.
Because Britain would not recognize the new states, it could not support merchants through diplomatic channels. Merchants were left to fight their own cases, but British warships, convoys, and the dependence of the insurgents on British capital, trade, manpower, and other support restrained their predation. The Foreign Office left much to the good sense and discretion of naval officers, and made sure they sent suitably diplomatic men. The position with regard to Spanish privateers was similar: Spanish prize courts were respected, but Britain protested violations of maritime law, backed by the threat of recognizing the independent states. Prize cases remained private affairs, to avoid complicating Anglo-Spanish relations, which were dominated by European concerns. When Spain assembled an expedition to recover the colonies, the British warned Madrid to respect British rights and publicly assembled a naval squadron. The objective was to remove any risk of European conflict.
When Spanish authorities began seizing British ships trading with the independent states under eighteenth-century laws, critical comment in newspapers and speeches in the House of Commons obliged the government to act. The overt threat of naval action satisfied British merchants and countered successful American recaptures from Spanish privateers. This mattered because the British Government was anxious to prevent an American occupation of Cuba, which could annihilate Jamaican trade in a future Anglo-American war. Spain backed down and the naval force was recalled, just as Britain switched focus to the impending French invasion of Spain, a far more serious threat to international order. An Anglo-Spanish commission set up to address prize claims was concluded by 1830.
Pirates based in Cuba were dealt with by pressing local authorities to send troops and convoys, and patrolling in concert with the U.S. Navy. Spanish sovereignty was respected throughout. Piracy was effectively over by 1824, and Cuba remained in Spanish hands, which was of the utmost importance for British strategy. Similarly the single most important issue for Britain was the maintenance of British maritime belligerent rights: the right to stop and search on the high seas, and to seize enemy goods [End Page 373] from neutral ships. The bedrock of strategy against France, and the United States between 1793 and 1815, these rights were retained at the Treaty of Ghent and Congress of Vienna, despite the opposition of France, the United States, and Russia.
The Foreign Office sought allies among the new nations of South America by upholding their right to privateer. The issue was far more important than any commercial losses suffered by British merchants. Britain maintained good relations with Spain and the new states, kept America out of Cuba, and defeated French, Russian, and U.S. attacks on her maritime belligerent rights. This, as McCarthy demonstrates, was a striking success for careful diplomacy and the subtle use of naval force. His book is a...