BP Spain Shield

Spain! Land of romance and Inquisition! New Spain, New Granada, and Peru, along with the adjacent islands, make up Spain in the New World, what we today know collectively as the Spanish Main of fact and fiction, of romance and reality. It is a grand empire, more diverse and colorful than any of the other European nations in the Americas. In fact, most of European-settled Americas are controlled by Spain, giving the Iberian kingdom great wealth from the silver, gold, and goods found here. But the Spanish crown has squandered its American wealth, and the Spanish empire is in decline. It cannot afford to defend its New World colonies as well as it must. Ashore it relies on fortifications, Spanish regulars in the larger towns and some small outposts, and local militias often augmented by Native Americans. At sea, it relies on a small fleet known as the Armada de Barlovento, but it cannot be everywhere at once. Guardas Costas (privately commissioned coast guards) provide local sea patrols, and armadillos—locally armed vessels—are sent out on specific occasions, but both are often as piratical as the buccaneers they defend against. Spanish defenses are typically weak: only the great treasure fleets remain well-protected.

Spanish Factions

Spanish Militia

Spanish militia augment Spanish regulars—and typically outnumber them. The militia is composed primarily of three sorts: infantry and cavalry milicianos modeled on Spanish regulars; lanceros made up of hunters and workers; and Native American auxiliaries. The infantry is armed primarily with mosquetes, which are heavy matchlock muskets used with a rest; arcabuses, which are light matchlock muskets used without a stand; and often with escopetas, which are flintlock muskets used for hunting. Many carry cup-hilted rapiers or broadswords as well. Conventional cavalry are armed with flintlock carbines, pistols, and cup-hilted broadswords. Lanceros are armed with lances and machetes; mounted lanceros often use a “hocksing iron” (a lance with a crescent-shaped blade for hamstringing wild cattle) instead. Milicianos Indios are armed with bow and arrow. The milicianos’ greatest shortcoming is often too few veterans and firearms. Milicianos of all types is ethnically diverse, although often commanded by Spanish peninsulares and criollos. Milicianos include blooded veterans, merchant amateurs, and haughty hidalgos as well as bold workers, slaves, and Native Americans. All have one thing in common: they are fiercely proud.

Guarda Costas
(1621 – 1713)

Guarda Costas are Spanish privateers commissioned for local coastal defense against smugglers and pirates—but often enough, they are considered as outright pirates by the English, French, and Dutch. Guarda Costas seize the hulls and arrest the crews of any foreign vessel found with frutas de las Indias—anything that might have been produced on the Spanish Main—aboard. They are a mixed lot of Spanish and Portuguese peninsulares, Spanish criollos, Levanters, Italians, Corsicans, Native Americans, Africans, and mixed races, and are known to be as brutal as any buccaneer or flibustier. Likewise, their captains are as swashbuckling as any buccaneer or flibustier. Too often, though, the hidalgo pride and valor of Guarda Costa captains and crews fail to defeat the fury and tactics of their greedy enemies.

Spanish Corsairs

Spanish Caribbean corsarios, or Corsairs, are far outnumbered by their English and French buccaneering nemeses. They have, however, produced a handful of captains who are almost as notorious as those of their enemies. And like those of their foes, their privateering commissions were sometimes legitimate, sometimes mere pretense, and sometimes nonexistent. In this last case, the corsairs are nothing more than pirates. They prefer to prey on “enemy” shipping, primarily small merchantmen, smugglers, turtle sloops, and fishermen, rather than on pirates who would put up a fight. On occasion, they attacked enemy plantations and even towns. The most famous raid is that on Petit Goave in 1687. Initially successful, the Spanish attackers were routed in a counter-attack after extending themselves too far afield. The surviving crew was hanged; the two captains were broken on the wheel. Like the Guarda Costas, the Corsairs commissioned in the Caribbean had highly interracial crews. This was unlike the Spanish Corsairs commissioned in Spain, who were mostly “Biscayers”—Basques from Vizcaínos in Spain, that is—or Flemings from Spanish-held Ostend. Of the Basque Corsairs, the best-known were those of the Armada de Vizcaínos sent in 1685 to cruise for pirates. It was one of this Armada’s officers, Blas Miguel, who attacked Petit Goave in revenge for the death of his brother at the hands of Laurens de Graff. Spanish Caribbean corsairs, if less well-known, are easy as cruel as their buccaneer and flibustier counterparts, with their Biscayan brethren not far behind.

Armada De Barlovento
(1642-1647 & 1665 -1713)

Established in 1642, the Armada de Barlovento lasts but a few years until reestablished in 1665. Based at Veracruz, Mexico, it serves as the Spanish naval squadron in the Caribbean. It escorted treasure fleets from Veracruz and Havana through the Straits of Florida followed by a grand tour and show of force through the Caribbean. When able, it also chased pirates and smugglers. All too often the small fleet of half a dozen or so ships, whose two flagships ranged from 500 to 700 tons and 40 to 56 guns, was mired in Spanish colonial red tape, pride, and arrogance. This sometimes left the ships in poor repair and only marginally effective. A fair number of the Armada ships are Dutch-built (in fact, a third of Spanish ships were Dutch-built), and the Armada is known to use “hired ships” for lesser tasks, such as the transport of various “situados,” or payrolls. This is arguably a mistake, given that buccaneers and flibustiers captured these vessels and their many thousands of pieces-of-eight on several occasions. The Armada’s heyday is the late seventeenth century into the very early eighteenth, but its effectiveness is mixed at best. Henry Morgan largely destroyed it at Maracaibo in 1669; it failed to stop the flibustier sack of Veracruz in 1683; Laurens de Graff defeats its two flagships in single combat in 1685 after the sack of Campeche. It does have a few minor successes, the most significant of them being the capture of more than one hundred smugglers and pirates during a retaliatory cruise after the sack of Veracruz. Crews of Armada de Barlovento ships consist of roughly half marineros (seamen) and half infantería (soldiers). The seamen, if not also the soldiers, often include men of many nations. The aforementioned, and quite famous, Laurens de Graff serves for three years as a gunner in the Armada, for example.


In theory, Spanish regulars of the tercios were the backbone of Spanish New World defenses. In reality, they were largely outnumbered by the various Spanish militia. Recruits were often hard to come by, for most Spanish soldiers preferred to serve in Europe—but Spanish red tape required that the tercios be manned by Penisulares. That is, by Spaniards born in Spain, not the New World. Even so, empty spaces in the ranks were often filled by locals. Worse, recruits shipped to one Spanish post, especially if veterans, might be unlawfully hijacked by local authorities prior to their final destination and sent to a different post. Such was the case at times with Saint Augustine, Florida, for example. And when a far-flung outpost might finally receive Spanish regulars, many might be untrained and physically unfit for duty. In most cases though, the infantry tercios were well-armed with mosquetes and cup-hilt rapiers or broadswords, and were well-disciplined, assuming the recruits were up to the task. Due to the nature of warfare in the Americas, the tercios seldom—if ever—formed in line of battle with piqueros (pikemen) protecting infantry as they would in Europe. They instead adopted tactics appropriate to the environment. Their major weakness was in numbers: there were simply too few of them to adequately defend Spanish New World colonies. Had their numbers been far greater, it is unlikely that buccaneer attacks would have prevailed so often.

Ostend Privateers

Fearing large-scale misbehavior, it was not until 1674, and only after years of lobbying, that the Spanish Crown finally authorized European privateers to sail to the Caribbean. Many are “Biscayers” from Vizcaínos. The rest are Ostend privateers—“Ostenders”—whose crews are primarily “Flanderkins”—Flemings—from Flanders (the Spanish-held Low Countries), and surely include some Spaniards aboard as well. Ostend captains are largely Flemish and, like their Vizcaínos counterparts, they usually prove the fears of the Spanish Crown to be valid. Sent to attack smugglers, interloping traders, and pirates, they attack legitimate shipping as well, regarding this as nothing more than moral—if not entirely lawful—reprisal against buccaneer and flibustier depredations. They typically sail Dutch or Flemish-built frigates flying the Spanish Cross of Burgundy as an ensign and jack, and sometimes at the main or foremast head along with small tricolor vanes of yellow, white, and red horizontal stripes at the other masts. They are far more interested in profit than patriotism or true purpose, a practical confusion most privateer captains of the era understand well. English and French authorities complain of them often but to little avail, given the behavior of buccaneers and flibustiers. For any privateer, revenge is as good an excuse for profit as any other.


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