Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
PIRATES AND TREASURE FLEETS
"GOLD," said Columbus, "constitutes treasure, and he who possesses it has all he needs in this world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise." Raleigh remarked that: "Where there is store of gold, it is needless to remember other commodities for trade."
Gold — the evil spell overshadowing Peru, pouring out her immeasurable riches to impoverish Spain. Gold — the most incorruptible of all metals, itself the cause of most corruption!
Peru has always been cursed by wealth. The gold of the Incas was the cause of their destruction, the wealth of the Spanish conquerors, theirs; it brought about wars among themselves and ravages of foreign pirates upon the sea. When the era of precious metals seemed to wane, islands of guano were discovered, apparently an endless source of wealth. But it was greedily exhausted by foreigners. Then came the discovery of nitrate fields, where fortunes are merely scraped off the top of the ground. But that particular territory has been annexed by a prosperous neighbor.
One wonders what undiscovered wealth may still be threatening this lavish country.
The days when fleets of treasure sailed from the distant cordilleras of the Spanish Main had begun. The tall, enchanted galleons of Lima spread sail, with their
"Escutcheoned pavisades, emblazoned poops,
Banners and painted shields and close-fights hung
With scarlet broideries. Every polished gun
Grinned through the jaws of some heraldic beast,
Gilded and carven and gleaming with all hues."
At first the argosies bore off the ransom of Atahualpa, the golden ornaments belonging to the Sun.
Albrecht Dürer, in his Tagebuch, wrote of having seen a boatload of such booty from the Indies. "And, moreover, have I seen the things which were brought from the new golden land to the king — an entire sun of gold, a full fathom wide, likewise a silver moon of the same size, also two rooms full of armor, all manner of weapons, harness, war-trappings, and strange accoutrements, curious raiment, bed-draperies and many kinds of wondrous things for divers uses, fairer to behold than marvels. They are all so precious that they are held to be worth a hundred thousand gulden.
"Nor have I in all the days of my life seen aught that did so fill me with delight. For I saw there fine-wrought things of cunning design, and marveled at the subtle skill of men in far countries. Nor know I how to tell of all the things which I saw there."
Loot of golden treasure gave way to mountains of silver, which poured forth their wealth in such profusion that it staggers even oriental imagination. Loading at Arica, ships brought silver direct from the mines of Potosi. Then there was plunder of Peruvian churches, jeweled chalices, and gold shrines. There were emeralds from the north — a land where they were sacred, small emeralds being sacrificed to larger ones.
These glittering cargoes were carried home to Seville, the "Queen of the Ocean." Its wonderful Casa de Contratación dealt with the wealth of the Indies and, to quote Alonzo Morgado, "the riches which flowed into its offices would have been sufficient to pave the streets of Seville with gold and silver slabs."
Like most stories of Peru, the gold and silver it exported seem mere extravaganza. Contemporary accounts, mostly in cipher, may be quoted.
In 1538, G. Loveday wrote to Lord Lisle: "Spanish ships have returned from Peru so laden that the emperor's part amounts to two million ducats.... The emperor has borrowed the whole from the owners." Being "occasionally pinched for money," he found it most convenient to seize the ships laden with private treasure from his "Indyac of Perrow."
In July, 1555, the Venetian ambassador in England wrote to the Doge and Senate of a fleet of caravels, "all very richly freighted according to the usual parlance of these Spaniards, who invariably reckon by millions."
Federico Badoer Venetian ambassador with the emperor, wrote (1556) that the king would obtain so considerable a sum of money that he would be able to defend himself not only against the Pope but also against France and any other power, if necessary. By this time Peru was raining gold and silver.
Father Acosta returned to Spain with the fleet of 1587. In his boat were twelve chests of gold, each weighing a hundred pounds; eleven million pieces of silver, and two chests of emeralds, each weighing one hundred pounds. "The reason why there is so great an abundance of metals at the Indies," he wrote, "is the will of the Creator, who hath imparted His gifts as it pleased Him."
Von Tschudi says that in the first twenty-five years the Spaniards got four hundred millions of ducats of gold and silver, which was, however, only a small part of the vast amount buried or thrown into the mountain lakes whose deep waters concealed it in underground caves. "The Indians, taking a handful of grain from a whole measure, said: 'Thus much the Christians have gained and the remainder is lodged where neither we nor any one else is able to assign.' "
Humboldt says that from the discovery of Peru until 1800, the Old World received £516,471,344 worth of treasure from the New World. No wonder Europe felt that gold lay about in this land of gold, and that it was only necessary to go and pick it up. No wonder Europe still has an idea of America little changed through four hundred years. And yet only one fifth of the treasure of mines and grave-mounds was supposed to be sent to Spain, whose galleons came to the far-away West Indies to receive it.
It was not long before pirates descended upon Peru. Brittany was the first to fit out fleets for the Indies "on pretense of carrying merchandise thither," in fact, to molest vessels coming from Peru.
Next, English buccaneers intercepted the Spanish vessels, slow-sailing under weight of gold.
"With the fruit of Aladdin's garden clustering thick in her hold,
With rubies a-wash in her scuppers, and her bilge a-blaze with gold,
A world in arms behind her to sever her heart from home,
The Golden Hynde drove onward, over the glittering foam."
Sir Francis Drake, with sixty armed ships, looted the Pacific in the Golden Hynde. His ballast was silver, his cargo gold and emeralds. He dined alone with music.
In 1578 he took from the Spanish galleon Cacafuego "twenty tons of silver bullion, thirteen chests of silver coins, a hundred-weight of gold, gold nuggets in indefinite quantity, a great store of pearls, emeralds, and diamonds,... and many, many other things." Only Queen Elizabeth and Drake knew the exact amount that was taken.
For three centuries pirates and freebooters harried the treasure-fleets of Spain. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, the English Calendar of State Papers compassionately remarks that foreign gluttony "keeps the poor Spaniards in arms all along the coast of Peru and puts them into strange apprehension, all mankind seeming to conspire the murdering and destroying them as common enemies, not because they do worse, but have more than ordinary."
A View of Paita from the Miroir Oost Er West Indical, 1621
Much of the twice-looted treasure never reached Europe, for, following the example of the Indians, the sea-rovers buried large amounts of gorgeous plunder in the mysterious islands of the Pacific. Even to this day, syndicates with steam-dredges and suction-pumps are following up the faded charts on which are indicated the spots where piles of doubloons and ducats and pieces-of-eight are stowed away.