Attacks By French Privateers - Cause Of The War With France - Charles V - Ruin Of The Island


The depredations committed by the privateers, which about this time

began to infest the Antilles and prey upon the Spanish possessions,

were a result of the wars with almost every nation in Europe, in which

Spain became involved after the accession of Charles, the son of

Juana, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and Philip I, Archduke of


The young prince had b
en educated amid all the pomp and splendor of

the imperial court. He was a perfect type of the medieval cavalier,

who could break a lance with the proudest knight in the empire, and

was worthy in every respect of the high destiny that awaited him. At

the age of twenty he became the heir to eight kingdoms, the

recognized ruler of the Netherlands, lord of vast territories in

Africa, and absolute arbiter of the destinies of the Spanish division

of the New World.

Scarcely had this powerful young prince been accepted and crowned by

the last and most recalcitrant of his kingdoms (Cataluna), and while

still in Barcelona, the news arrived of the death of his grandfather,

Maximilian, King of the Romans and Emperor elect of Germany.

Intrigues for the possession of the coveted crown were set on foot at

once by the prince, now Charles I of Spain and by Francis I, King of

France. The powers ranged themselves on either side as their interests

dictated. Henry VIII of England declared himself neutral; Pope Leon X,

who distrusted both claimants, was waiting to see which of them would

buy his support by the largest concessions to the temporal power of

the Vatican; the Swiss Cantons hated France and sided with Charles;

Venice favored Francis I.

The German Diet assembled at Frankfort June 17, 1519, and unanimously

elected Frederick of Saxony, surnamed the Prudent. He showed his

prudence by declining the honor, and in an address to the assembly

dwelt at some length on the respective merits of the two pretenders,

and ended by declaring himself in favor of the Spanish prince, one

reason for his preference being that Charles was more directly

interested in checking the advance of the Turks, who, under Soleiman

the Magnificent, threatened, at the time, to overrun the whole of

eastern Europe.

Charles I of Spain was elected, and thus became Charles V, King of the

Romans and Emperor of Germany - that is, the most powerful monarch of

his time, before he had reached the age of manhood. His success, added

to other political differences and ambitions, was not long in

provoking a war with France, which, with short intervals, lasted the

lifetime of the two princes.

* * * * *

Spain was most vulnerable in her ultramarine possessions. They offered

tempting prizes to the unscrupulous, adventurous spirits of the

period, and the merchants on the coast of Normandy asked and obtained

permission to equip privateers to harass Spanish commerce and attack

the unprotected settlements.

San Juan was one of the first to suffer. An official report dated

September 26, 1528, informs us that "on the day of the Apostle Saint

John a French caravel and a tender bore down on the port of Cubagua

and attempted to land artillery from the ship with the help of Indians

brought from Margarita, five leagues distant. On the 12th of August

they took the town of San German, plundered and burned it; they also

destroyed two caravels that were there...."

French privateers were sighted off the coast continually, but it would

seem that the island, with its reputation for poverty, its two

settlements 40 leagues apart, and scanty population, offered too

little chance for booty, so that no other landing is recorded till

1538, when a privateer was seen chasing a caravel on her way to San

German. The caravel ran ashore at a point two leagues from the capital

and the crew escaped into the woods. The Frenchmen looted the vessel

and then proceeded to Guadianilla, where they landed 80 men, 50 of

them arquebusiers. They burned the town, robbed the church and

Dominican convent; but the people, after placing their families in

security, returned, and under favor of a shower of rain, which made

the arquebuses useless, fell upon them, killed 15 and took 3

prisoners, in exchange for whom the stolen church property was

restored. The people had only 1 killed.

The attack was duly reported to the sovereign, who ordered the

construction of a fort, and appointed Juan de Castellanos, the

treasurer, its commander (October 7, 1540). The treasurer's reply is

characteristic: "The fort which I have been ordered to make in the

town of San German, of which I am to be the commander, shall be made

as well as we may, though there is great want of money ... and of

carts, negroes, etc. It will be necessary to send masons from Sevilla,

as there is only 1 here, also tools and 20 negroes....

"Forts for this island are well enough, but it would be better to

favor the population, lending money or ceding the revenues for a few

years, to construct sugar-mills...."

On June 12th of the same year the treasurer wrote again announcing

that work on the San German fort had commenced, for which purpose he

had bought some negroes and hired others at two and a half pesos per


But on February 12, 1542, the crown officers, including Castellanos,

reported that the emperor's order to suspend work on the fort of San

German had been obeyed.

In February, 1543, the bishop wrote to the emperor: "The people of San

German, for fear of the French privateers, have taken their families

and property into the woods. If there were a fort they would not be

so timid nor would the place be so depopulated."

As late as September, 1548, he reported: "I came here from la Espanola

in the beginning of the year to visit my diocese. I disembarked in San

German with an order from the Audiencia to convoke the inhabitants,

and found that there were a few over 30, who lived half a league from

the port for fear of the privateers. They don't abandon the important

place, but there ought to be a fort."

But the prelate pleaded in vain.

Charles V, occupied in opposing the French king's five armies, could

not be expected to give much attention to the affairs of an

insignificant island in a remote corner of his vast dominions. Puerto

Rico was left to take care of itself, and San German's last hour

struck on Palm Sunday, 1554, when 3 French ships entered the port of

Guadianilla, landed a detachment of men who penetrated a league

inland, plundering and destroying whatever they could. From that day

San German, the settlement founded by Miguel del Toro in 1512,

disappeared from the face of the land.

The capital remained. No doubt it owed its preservation from French

attacks to the presence of a battery and some pieces of artillery

which, as a result of reiterated petitions, had been provided. The

population also was more numerous. In 1529 there were 120 houses, some

of them of stone. The cathedral was completed, and a Dominican convent

was in course of construction with 25 friars waiting to occupy it.

Thus, one by one, all the original settlements disappeared. Guanica,

Sotomayor, Daguao, Loiza, had been swept away by the Indians. San

German fell the victim of the Spanish monarch's war with his neighbor.

The only remaining settlement, the capital, was soon to be on the

point of being sacrificed in the same way. The existence of the island

seemed to be half-forgotten, its connection with the metropolis

half-severed, for the crown officers wrote in 1536 that no ship from

the Peninsula had entered its ports for two years.

"Negroes and Indians," says Abbad, "seeing the small number of

Spaniards and their misery, escaped to the mountains of Luquillo and

Anasco, whence they descended only to rob their masters."