“The sun shines on me just the same as on the other; and I should like to see the clause in Adam’s will that cuts me out of my share in the New World!”
Francis I of France, 1494
Christopher Columbus may have been the discoverer of the New World in 1492, yet his previous employment was that of a pirate under the French flag, looting Venetian galleys that sailed from Lisbon to England. His jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean opened the window to the riches of a freshly discovered continent. In 1519, Hernán Cortés laid claim to the gold belonging to the Aztec Empire and packed it into three ships to take back to his king, Charles V of Spain. His grandiose gesture was foiled near the Azores when his ships were attacked by French privateers under Jean Fleury of Honfleur. It was Jean Ango of Dieppe, Fleury’s patron, not the court of Madrid, that was the first to share in the wealth of the New World. To Spain’s chagrin, France said that since they were at war, the seizure was legitimate. After all, the licensing of armed private vessels, also known as privateers, was an internationally recognized and accepted practice.
With a letter of marque from their government, privateers were given permission to attack the ships of any other country. It was a profitable partnership, in a high stakes game. France, Spain and England participated with enthusiastic expectation. In reality, the privateer system worked only for a few, and was nothing more than a state-sanctioned form of piracy. We all know their names from our school days, but behind their titles of “sir” were men who sought fame and fortune. In the end, privateers were only pawns in the great chess game of a global power struggle. Perhaps we should leave the last word to Sir Francis Bacon, a famous critic of the privateer system.
“Money is a great servant but a bad master.”