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Corsairs and Piracy in La Havana

Today, La Havana is well known in the world due to the fact that it is the capital city of Cuba – led politically by the Castro family for many years. However, what would be your reaction if we tell you that La Havana had long stories related to Piracy? This is a very interesting topic that we are going to be talking about – how La Havana saved the country, defending it from many assaults of pirates.

First of all, we must know that La Havana was known in the past for being the most important Spanish port of the Caribbean and at the same time, it was the largest city of Cuba. One of the most important activities in the country was that it was the best city for trading valuable items in the New World.

La Havana had several aspects that made it a perfect place for several reasons. And it is undeniable that its location was one of the main advantages that this city had: this city was founded in 1510 by Spain, and although it was difficult to colonize the country it was completely worth it, because it had a large natural bay with proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. This made it an ideal station between Mexico and the trade’s routes home to Europe. 

The Spanish Silver fleet would start collecting goods and minerals of value in countries like Peru and Venezuela, making stops in Panama and along the coast of Mexico. Once they had everything they needed, they used to sail to La Havana, place in which they formed a great Float before heading back to Europe.

The bad side of the coin was that with so much resources and wealth at their hands, leaked information about what the ships carried reached to every pirate and smuggler in the city.

The problems with the cargos of the fleet in La Havana were that the Florida Keys were a staggering area full of pirates, lying in wait for the silver fleet in order to assault it. In many whore houses in La Habana, finding information about the sailings of the ships was very easy – as pirates would listen carefully about any gossips about when the fleets would be arriving.

In the port, corsairs knew that Spain typically would send two fleets back to their homeland, that the fleets came to America in the late summer, that they would winter around Cartagena, Veracruz and Acapulco and finally, in the spring the ships would go to La Havana. They knew that they had to travel before the hurricanes would make their journey a terrible one. It was amazing to believe how pirates and Spaniards alike were able to control so much information about the silver fleet’s cargos. 

For the many years to come, La Havana suffered brutal attacks of French Pirates. In one opportunity, those corsairs demanded to give them 700 ducats. If not, they would burn the city to ashes. Angrily, people of the city agreed to pay that amount of money. Spaniards would confront the pirates in other opportunities, but they underestimated the experience of the French corsairs in the sea.  In retribution, once the French pirates could handle the counterattack of the Spaniards, they came back to La Havana and destroyed the entire city.

One very brutal attack to the island would happen in 1555 when the pirate Jacques de Sore invaded the city with a small fleet. The citizens of la Havana counterattacked the pirates, but it was futile. De Sore stayed in the city approximately for a month, looting everything they could. Once they realized there was nothing more to take, they massacred a great amount of people in the city and they fled.

In 1560, the Spanish crown decided to put an end to those attacks in Cuba. They realized that the English and French pirates would continue their assaults in the island, so they assigned Phillip II to make a series of choices in order to protect the sails and the port of La Havana.

The first step of Phillip was that from that moment, every fleet would travel according to a plan that he named the “treasure fleet” system: all ships would travel in a single fleet together, under the scout of heavily armed galleons. And in order to protect the harbor of the city, they started the construction of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and then, The Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta on the western bank; and El Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro on the eastern bank.

It took almost 40 years in order to complete such structures, but once finished it made the city of the safest places in the sea. Pirates continued to harass the port of La Havana, but they were completely stopped, until The British invaded it in 1762. The city was again returned to Spain under the Treaty of Paris of 1763.

During all those years, La Havana became the most important city in the Caribbean, being an unstoppable fortress that stood against piracy for many years. Although they were constantly attacked, this city became in time the capital of the country, and made part of the history of Cuba.