War is a nasty business and a lot of questionable activity can occur. One such practice during the 1500 and 1600’s was the use of privateers who did all the dirty work for the royal crown by stealing, killing, and terrorizing the enemy.
Navies at this time were not what they are today. They were young and small. There was no way to afford a large navy, but with war imminent many a leader resorted to hiring thugs of the sea. Queen Elizabeth needed those thugs to help give her an advantage over the Spanish. This is where the privateers came into play.
Though in a technical sense they were pirates, they were not the stereotypical ones that you hear about. They were given legal authority to steal and plunder. Random death and rape were not part of the code. Stealing for the Crown and hurting the enemy was the only goal.
Of all the privateers, there was a group that would be considered the best of the best. They were called “Sea Dogs.” These sea dogs were the most experienced of all the privateers and the closest to the crown. Their success rates were phenomenal. They were feared by all, especially the Spanish. Their flags sent terror in the hearts of many.
John Hawkins was the main leader of the English sea dogs who helped direct others such as Sir Francis Drake to attack the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and the trading ships leaving the New World with treasures. They usually got to keep some of the bounty in payment for their unofficial services to the crown.
Having an elite group of privateers was an ace in the crown’s pocket. Their experience on the high seas meant certain success. This in turn led to a limping Spain which was an overall good thing for the British crown. It was the help of this group that led the English to victory over the Spanish Armada and helped to propel Britain to be the world’s most powerful European country of that time, and with a lady at the helm.
With all things that work out good, there comes along some skeletons in the closet. Looking back at today’s eyes many would condemn the Sea Dogs for their actions. Not the robbing and looting for the crown, but the side business that they found to be very lucrative – slave trading.
During the time, this only made sense to make a little money while cruising the ocean looking for Spanish trading ships laden with gold and other riches from the Americas. This became a very profitable enterprise of the Sea Dogs who decided once the Spanish had been defeated and the English crown no longer needed them, that piracy was not such a bad thing.
Like with many political decisions, it came back to embarrass the crown as the piracy increased and so did the slave trade business. While slavery was an accepted practice, it began to fall out of favor and the wheels began to roll to end the importation of new slaves. The Sea Dogs served their purpose for a spell, yet when all was said and done they made out like bandits.