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More than just loot

European kingdoms supported attacks by privateers off the coast of Brazil as a way to challenge Spain and Portugal’s division of the New World

Duclerc’s fleet lined up in Guanabara Bay: no resistance from the local forces

Map of the bay, the city, fortresses and attacks on Rio de Janeiro... reproduced from the book entitled Imagens de vilas e cidades do brasil colonial (Images of villages and cities of colonial Brazil) Duclerc’s fleet lined up in Guanabara Bay: no resistance from the local forcesMap of the bay, the city, fortresses and attacks on Rio de Janeiro... reproduced from the book entitled Imagens de vilas e cidades do brasil colonial (Images of villages and cities of colonial Brazil)

Thomas Cavendish was the son of a noble English family. When he arrived with his fleet in the village of Santos in 1591, he was fortunate to find all the locals together attending Christmas mass. Already known as the “abominable thief of the seas,” Cavendish arrested everyone, moved into the sacristy at the Jesuit school and spent two months looting the village with his men. He burned the public archives and sugarcane mills. It was another attack by pirates on the Brazilian coast. More than a mere adventure, this type of invasion represented a challenge by the government of England to the division of the lands in the New World between Spain and Portugal, formalized through the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. After the English, the French, who had already attacked Rio de Janeiro, invaded the state of Maranhão. They were followed by the Dutch, who occupied the state of Pernambuco for almost 30 years, after a failed attempt in the state of Bahia.

“Not observing territorial boundaries was an effective way to  challenge the division of the New World imposed by Spain and Portugal,” says historian Jean Marcel Carvalho França, professor at São Paulo State University (Unesp) in Franca. “Diplomacy was another way of challenging the division. The invasions created a problem and made a bad situation even worse, and they forced the revision of territorial boundaries by means of diplomatic negotiations.” According to França, piracy flourished and the strategy of invading the Iberian colonies was in a way a success, because Spain and Portugal did not have the military capability to defend their possessions in the Americas. For the same reason, their fleets were attacked frequently, resulting in massive losses of gold, brazilwood and ivory from Africa that was headed for Europe. Although they were unable to colonize Brazil, the French and English did set up colonies in Central and North America.

The attacks on the colonies were not strong or sufficient justification for the governments of the invaded lands to sever diplomatic ties with the invaders. Spain and Portugal at the time were united in the Iberian Union, established in 1580 and dismantled in 1640. They knew that ownership of lands in the Americas was tenuous, the historian emphasizes. “It was an exercise in weighing options, and the incursions could not be escalated into an all-out war because in many cases there were larger commercial interests at stake,” he says. For this reason, Portugal preferred to quietly acquiesce to the role of victim as opposed to being the underdog at war with other kingdoms. To avoid more serious problems, it was actually better to pay compensation, as was done with Nicolas Villegagnon, for the losses caused by expelling the French from Rio de Janeiro in 1567. Another indication of the merit of keeping the peace and maintaining trade was that the Portuguese merchants continued to sell their goods to the Dutch, who occupied Recife from 1630 to 1654. “Knowing when to stop was not a question of morals,” França comments, “it was about making money.”

França and his colleague Sheila Hue, a researcher at the Royal Portuguese Reading Room in Rio de Janeiro, spent 20 years studying and translating accounts of European travelers who visited Brazil. They conducted their research with support from FAPESP and other funding agencies and then wrote Piratas no Brasil – As incríveis histórias dos ladrões dos mares que pilharam nosso país (Pirates in Brazil – The Incredible Stories of the Thieves of the Sea Who Pillaged Our Country), published in late 2014 (Ed. Globo). The book describes two attacks by the English: by Thomas Cavendish on Santos in 1591, and by James Lancaster on Pernambuco in 1595; and two by the French: Jean-François Duclerc in 1710 and René Duguay-Trouin in the following year, both on Rio de Janeiro.

Cavendish, Lancaster, Duclerc and Trouin, who led the four major attacks on the coast of Brazil, “did the same thing as Vasco da Gama, Cabral and other explorers, but they were much more professional,” França states. The only difference is that the Portuguese sailors were supposedly acting legally by discovering yet unclaimed lands or exploring Iberian possessions established by the Treaty of Tordesillas, while the pirates – or more accurately the privateers – were breaking the law imposed by other countries, even though they had the support of their Crowns. According to França, the famous English pirate James Cook, who visited Rio de Janeiro in 1768, “was anything but a pirate. He was a bureaucrat who could have worked at the Central Bank.” The source of this group’s bad reputation is largely the fault of the independent pirates concentrated in the Caribbean Sea, who attacked anyone they could, but preferred armed Spanish merchant ships carrying gold mined in the Americas. Moreover, the Catholic priests saw the English and French as an incarnation of evil because they were “heretics and Lutherans, ministers of the licentious darkness,” França and Hue note in Pirates.

“Privateering, as opposed to what the pirates and filibusters did, was a lawful undertaking and in many cases it was an official activity carried out by the powers of Europe in times of war,” notes Maria Fernanda Bicalho in A cidade e o império – O Rio de Janeiro no século XVIII (The City and the Empire – Rio de Janeiro in the 18th Century) (Civilização Brasileira, 2003), written on the basis of PhD research she conducted at the University of São Paulo (USP). “The captains of the privateers’ ships received letters of marque granted by the king, authorizing them to attack, take ships and plunder the possessions of enemy nations. The goal was not to destroy trade and the adversary’s riches, but to take them for themselves by sending in merchant ships, confiscating their merchandise, setting sieges and ransacking the villages and cities that belonged to the warring countries.”

The strongest ones did not always win, however. As França and Hue reported, Cavendish seized the gold and sugar by pilfering warehouses and ships anchored in the harbor (a poet and soldier from the crew stole the Jesuit manuscript used to teach the natives how to read and write and donated it to a university in Oxford). He set fire to the nearby village of São Vicente and sailed south. His plan was to cross the Strait of Magellan and continue his attack against the Iberian monopoly of riches in the Americas, but heavy storms derailed his plans and dispersed his fleet. The crew, starving and exhausted, rebelled, and Cavendish returned to Santos. This time, the locals were organized and succeeded in repelling the English. Of the 75 men who left England one year earlier, only 16 returned.

Four years later, Lancaster attacked the port of Recife with three ships and 275 crew members, and met a paltry defense. “The shots fired by Pernambucan soldiers, who were still poor marksmen, missed their targets and soldiers surrendered to enemy control in the face of an even more serious problem: the lack of ammunition,” according to França and Hue. “The defenders withdrew like cowards.” One month later, Lancaster returned with ships filled to the brim with sugar, brazilwood, cotton and expensive merchandise stolen from a Portuguese ship, such as pepper, cloves, cinnamon, apples, nutmeg, textiles and precious minerals. “It was the richest loot in the history of privateer sailing in Elizabethan England,” the authors of Pirates conclude.

Olinda, the wealthy city near Recife, Lancaster’s goal: a successful expedition for the English

Olinda, print by Frans Post. Reproduced from the book Imagens de vilas e cidades do Brasil Colonial Olinda, the wealthy city near Recife, Lancaster’s goal: a successful expedition for the EnglishOlinda, print by Frans Post. Reproduced from the book Imagens de vilas e cidades do Brasil Colonial

A disreputable governor
The invasions brought to light the lack of military and governmental preparedness on the part of the residents of the main cities of the colonies as well as the invaders. In 1710, Duclerc arrived with six ships and about 1,200 men, but it took him a long time to enter Guanabara Bay. The locals fired cannons from the forts and forced the French to flee. Duclerc did not give up. He headed southward, left the ship in a different bay and marched over land with his men to the city of Rio de Janeiro. The locals resisted again, and after intense fighting, the French were defeated. Duclerc was captured and arrested. He was eventually murdered in prison under mysterious circumstances.

Another expedition arrived the following year with more men (almost 6,000), better armed this time, and led by Trouin. Trouin had made three unsuccessful attempts, between 1706 and 1709, to take the Portuguese fleet that was returning from Brazil loaded with merchandise. “On September 12, 1711, in a scene that was right out of the movies, the French fleet, consisting of 18 ships, made the most spectacular entry into the strip of land in Rio de Janeiro that anyone had ever seen,” says Maria Fernanda Bicalho in The City and the Empire. “Never, not even the experienced Portuguese captains, had anyone broken thorough the narrow and fortified strip of land so easily and so expertly at that important colonial location. Blanketed in a thick morning fog, within a few hours all the vessels in the Duguay-Trouin fleet were at the bottom of the bay as the incredulous and perplexed authorities, soldiers and residents of the unfortunate city looked on.”

The governor of the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, Francisco de Castro Morais, had been warned that the French were coming, but took no defensive action because he did not believe the report. As he faced the invaders, he prohibited all counterattacks and ultimately ordered everyone to abandon the trenches and evacuate the city. The residents fled at night amidst much commotion and a soaking rain, all of which is described vividly in Pirates. The French found the city practically deserted and demanded payment of a high ransom to give it back: 610,000 cruzados in cash, 100 boxes of sugar and 200 oxen. The payment depleted the city’s savings and resulted in a wave of protests against Castro Morais, who was accused of sowing chaos, leaving the city unprotected and negotiating with the French to serve his own interests. His nickname, “the Cow,” reflected his deceitful reputation, and the circumstances only made it worse. “The governor was accused of killing Duclerc (who the French called the sordid assassin) or allowing him to be murdered,” França says.

According to França, Castro Morais and his nephew made a handsome sum of money doing business with the French. “Since the French couldn’t take everything with them, they sold the merchandise they had seized to its former owners, and the governor served as the go-between,” he comments. “His nephew referred to Chancel Lagrange, one of Trouin’s fleet officers, as ‘my dear,’ and lamented that he was unable to take with him a monkey that he was given as a gift.” The governor was tried and convicted of misconduct in public business affairs and was sent to India, where he was later pardoned.

The general public
França and Hue translated roughly 100 accounts of travelers about Brazil, published in a number of books since 1995. In preparing Pirates, they used original documents such as the letter from the governor’s nephew to Lagrange, and they prioritized narratives on conceptual analyses that focused on people. The result is an entertaining book written by academic historians. “The French have been doing this for a long time,” França says. One example is Guilherme marechal ou o melhor cavaleiro do mundo, (William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry), by historian Georges Duby, aimed at the general public (published in Brazil by Edições do Graal in 1988).

“Writing books that reach audiences beyond academia is a way of reinforcing the social function of historians, which is to construct and entrench perspectives from the past in order to understand and change the present,” França says. “Writing for audiences wider than those of articles in scientific journals can also help historians and other intellectuals from universities have their voices heard in Brazilian society and beyond their usual forums.”