WITH THE END of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, tens of thousands of sailors suddenly found themselves out of a job. The Royal Navy, bankrupted by the twelve-year-long world war, rapidly demobilized, mothballing ships and dumping nearly three-quarters of its manpower, over 36,000 men, in the first twenty-four months following the signing of the Peace of Utrecht. Privateering commissions ceased to have any value, their owners compelled to tie their warships up and turn the crews out onto the wharves of England and the Americas. With thousands of sailors begging for work in every port, merchant captains slashed wages by 50 percent; those lucky enough to find work had to survive on twenty-two to twenty-eight shillings (£1.1 to £1.4) a month.
Peace did not bring safety to those English sailors who found work in the West Indies. Spanish coast guard vessels, the guardas costas, continued to seize English vessels passing to and from Jamaica, declaring them smugglers if so much as a single Spanish coin were found aboard. They always found the “illicit” coins because they were the de facto currency of all of England’s Caribbean colonies. Thirty-eight Jamaican vessels were so seized in the first two years of peace, costing the vessel owners nearly £76,000. When the crews resisted, the guardas costas often killed a few in retribution; the rest spent months or years in Cuban prisons. “The seas,” the governor of Jamaica would later recall, had become “more dangerous than in time of war.”
As the months passed, the streets, taverns and boarding houses of Port Royal grew crowded with angry, destitute mariners. Merchants, stung by their losses, sent out fewer vessels, further reducing the number of jobs for sailors. Those sailors who had been captured—some more than once—were physically abused by the Spanish and financially pinched by their employers, who reduced their losses by not paying them for the time they were serving in prison. “Resentment and the want of employ,” one resident later recalled, “were certainly the motives to a course of life which I am of [the] opinion that most or many of them would not have taken up had they been redressed or could by any lawful mean have supported themselves.”
10 April 2016
European Peace Dividends, 1713
The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 1212-1228: