Had the laws of the Indies been differently framed, there is no doubt that the hardy sailors and reckless buccaneers who plundered these coasts would have had no existence, and that South America would have remained unprovided with much of its grim romance. As it was, Spain, by her imperious policy of "hands off," had flung a challenge to every adventurer of the other nations throughout Europe.
During the earliest periods of its colonization the reports from the New World were naturally somewhat nebulous in character, and the Spanish authorities themselves saw to it that as little authentic news as possible should be allowed to filter beyond their own frontiers.
This policy succeeded for a while in restraining the undesired enterprise of the rival peoples who were, so far as South America was concerned, groping in the dark.
This phase was naturally only fleeting.
At the first evidence of a desire on the part of the other nations to participate in the benefits accruing from South America, the Spanish Court thundered forth threats and edicts.
Thus on December 15, 1558, King Philip II. decreed that any foreign person who should traffic with Spanish America should be punished by death and confiscation of property.
The edict was emphatic and stern, and contained a clause which deprived the Royal Audiences in Spanish America of any powers of dispensation in the execution of these penalties:
"If anyone shall disobey this law, whatever his state or condition, his life is forfeit, and his goods shall be divided in three parts, of which one shall go to our Royal Treasure, one to the judge, and one to the informer."
It is, of course, notorious that the distance which separated the colonies from the motherland prevented the enforcing of many laws, whether good or bad, and that the Spanish-American local expression - "The law is obeyed but not carried out" - was common to nearly every district.
At the same time, the mischief caused by decrees such as these may readily be imagined.
A rich bribe to an informer was in itself an incentive to the stirring up of mischief where frequently none was intended.
Such official bribes as these, however, were wont to be more than counteracted by the private inducements held out by many of the foreign adventurers and traders themselves, and after a while a great number of the officials found it very much to their profit not only to wink at the wholesale commerce and smuggling that was being carried on, but even actively to promote it and to participate in its benefits.
This method of keeping Spanish America as the close property of the Crown was one which grew more and more difficult to preserve as time went on.
In the first place the authorities had merely to cope with the foreign seamen and the fleets of adventurous traders who were determined, at all costs, to win their share of financial profit from these golden shores.
After a while, with the growing population of the Continent, a new situation asserted itself, and the influence of the colonists themselves had to be considered.
In order that the full financial profit, as it was then understood, of the colonies should continue to be passed on to Spain, it was essential that the colonists should continue a negligible factor.
The permanence of this state of affairs could only be affected in one way: it was necessary that no equipment such as would provide independence of thought or action should be allowed to be at their service.
Books, of course, were considered as one of the most mischievous potential engines of the kind.
The Spaniards determined that none of the learning of their country should pass into the colonies.
A certain number of volumes were permitted to cross the sea, it is true, but these were of the species that might be readily understood by a child of a few summers, and were ridiculously inadequate to the most ordinary intellect of adults in civilized regions.
These themselves were subjected first of all to a close inspection on the part of the Inquisition in Spain.
After this they had to pass the Board of Censors appointed by the Council of the Indies.
Even here the precautions did not end, for on their arrival in the colony they were once again inspected as a safeguard, lest any secular matter or work of fiction should by any chance be overlooked and suffered to remain.
In short, the policy by which the motherland endeavoured to retain for her own benefit the riches of her colonies was undoubtedly one of the most benighted ever conceived by a European nation.
It amounted to nothing less than a consistent checking and deadening of the intelligence of her sons oversea in order that their atrophied senses should fail to detect the true manner in which they were being shorn of their property and privileges.
On the other hand, in conformity with the same theory, superstition was encouraged to an extraordinary degree.
The Royal Seal, when it arrived from Spain, was greeted as though it were a symbol of Deity, and the royal audience would chant an oath to obey it as implicitly as though it were a command of God.
Every conceivable care was taken to foster this frame of mind throughout the colonies, and, since the intellectual occupations were religiously kept to themselves by the officials, it is not astonishing to find how far this method succeeded, and for how long it continued.
Thus, even as late as 1809, when a portrait of King Ferdinand arrived at Coquimbo, the oil-painting was received with the honours accorded to a symbol of Deity.
A special road was made for it from Coquimbo to La Serena, the capital of the province.
This task occupied many days.
Volunteer citizens filled up the holes, made wooden culverts, and, in fact, acted as enthusiastic road repairers, in order that the portrait might suffer no discomfort.
When it was judged that the highway was sufficiently repaired, the portrait set out upon its astonishing journey.
It was surrounded by cushions and placed in a flower-filled carriage.
The inhabitants kneeled as the picture passed, and when it had been placed in the cathedral, salvos of artillery sounded, and the people shouted in delirious joy.
The occasion, moreover, was marked by a fête which lasted three days.
All this, however, is anticipating by some centuries the period under review.
In the first instance, largely owing to the ignorance concerning the New World which prevailed in other parts of Europe - which ignorance had been greatly fostered by Spain - the Spaniards succeeded in retaining the undisputed possession of their portion of the Continent for nearly three-quarters of a century.
Then came the first of the maritime swallows, which made many dismal summers for the Court of Spain. In 1565 Drake voyaged to the Guianas on the Spanish Main.
He was followed by Hawkins, Raleigh, and a host of others, including the Dutch navigators.
These hardy seamen, it must be said, had in the first instance proceeded to the Continent with the idea of engaging in legitimate trade.
In justice to the many desperate acts which the majority subsequently committed, it must be remembered that in the case of the early collisions, they only let loose their guns when they found themselves attacked by the Spanish authorities in the distant ports, or intercepted on the high seas by the guardian fleets of Spain.
An experience or two of the kind sufficed to rouse the hot blood of the seamen.
Knowing now that they were braving the anger of the King of Spain, they determined to continue in this undaunted, even, if necessary, "to synge his bearde," as, indeed, was accomplished on one notable occasion.
So they continued their voyages to these ostensibly closed coasts of South America and the general run of the territories known at the time as the West Indies.
Frequently they found riches in the venture, sometimes disaster and death.
The former proved an incentive to these breathless voyages, with which no dread of the latter fate could interfere.
It would be as well to refer briefly to the careers in South America of a certain number of the most notable of these early adventurers.
One of the first was Sir John Hawkins, who set out in 1562 with three ships: the Salomon, the Swallow, and the Jonas.
Having touched at Teneriffe, he then landed at Sierra Leone, "where by the sworde and other means" he obtained some 300 negroes.
He shaped his course to the west, and sailed with his cargo to the Spanish Indies.
Notwithstanding the stern official prohibitions, Hawkins succeeded in trading with the residents at Port Isabella, in Hispaniola, and the tall sides of his vessels, empty now of their dark human freight, soon held an important cargo of hides, ginger, sugar, and pearls.
So successful was he, indeed, that he added two more ships to his flotilla and sent them to Spain.
This daring procedure was intended as something in the light of a challenge and of a proof of his good faith in his right to barter in Spanish South America - a right, he claimed, which was ratified by an old treaty between Henry VII. and the Archduke Philip of Spain.
The Spanish officials, doubtless open-mouthed at this somewhat subtle and startling confidence of Hawkins, promptly confiscated the vessels by way of definitely proving it ill-founded.
Notwithstanding this, Hawkins was more than satisfied with the cargo brought home by his three original ships, and two years later he set out again, accompanied by the Earl of Pembroke and the Earl of Leicester, with a larger fleet than before.
On this occasion he again visited Africa, collected a cargo of slaves, and endeavoured to trade with the Spaniards, more especially in Venezuela.
This time the expedition found the authorities, warned by threatening prohibitions from Europe, in a less enterprising mood.
Hawkins, persisting in the attempt, succeeded in bartering a certain number of slaves for hides, gold, silver, pearls, and other commodities.
After a while the Spanish officers attempted to interfere and to put a stop altogether to the traffic, on which Hawkins, ever a friend to free trade, gathered his men together and marched down to the market-place, incidentally firing off guns, which procedure destroyed the last scruples of the inhabitants, and an important exchange and barter now took place.
Thus the triumphant Hawkins returned with a second valuable cargo to England.
In 1567 Hawkins was accompanied on his next voyage by his young cousin, Francis Drake.
The incidents of this voyage strongly resemble those of the previous ones.
Negroes were collected in West Africa, and were disposed of in Spanish America, notwithstanding the protest, whether genuine or simulated, of the officials.
The ending of the voyage, however, was destined to introduce a tragic note.
On the way home the small English expedition fell in at the Port San Juan de Ulloa with a great Spanish fleet.
In the first instance the mutual overtures were friendly, and hostages were exchanged on both sides.
In the end, however, the English force was, without warning, attacked by the Spaniards as they lay at anchor.
The majority of the men who had gone on shore were slain, and those who remained on the ships were assailed by overwhelming numbers.
After a strenuous tussle with the Spaniards, Drake in the Judith, followed some time afterwards by Hawkins in the Minion, got away.
The condition of Hawkins's crew, unprepared as was this ship for the voyage, was pitiful.
A lengthy spell of contrary winds served to accentuate the terrible dearth of provisions which prevailed.
The following is a contemporary account of some of the incidents. The vessel had wandered about the ocean
"tyll hunger inforced us to seek the lands for birdes were thought very good meate, rattes, cattes, mise and dogges, none escaped that might be gotten, parrates and monkayes that we had in great prise were thought then very profitable if they served the tourne one dinner."
The return home in this instance was truly a sorry one, for the survivors had left not only gold behind them, but the corpses of so many brave comrades.
On the whole, the exploits of Hawkins were considerably overshadowed by those of his young relative, Sir Francis Drake, who had begun to adventure on his own account in 1570, and who haunted the Spanish Indies, determined to avenge the treatment he and his comrades had received at San Juan de Ulloa.
He ransacked Nombre de Dios and Cartagena, explored the Gulf of Darien, made friends with the Indians who inhabited the place, and captured many Spanish merchantmen, repulsing the attacks of the Spanish men-of-war.
Drake now crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and - the first foreigner to accomplish the feat - set eyes on the Pacific Ocean, in which he swore to cruise before he had finished his career.
Here, moreover, having failed to capture one royal treasure convoy, his good fortune led him to meet with a second, and the gold and silver borne by the laden mules became the property of himself and his men.
Drake started out on his next voyage in 1577, and fulfilled his purpose of breasting the waters of the Pacific; for, after various adventures on the east coast of the Continent, he sailed through the Straits of Magellan, and found himself in the ocean that, until then, had been traversed by Spanish vessels alone.
His arrival came as a bolt from the blue to the Spaniards, who had not dreamed of the possibility of the invasion of the Pacific, the waters of which they had grown to consider as sacred to themselves.
The alarm spread like wild-fire along the whole length of that great coast.
All the while Drake cruised up and down, capturing and destroying wherever he might.
Indeed, of all the adventurers of this period, Drake was the one whose name conveyed the greatest terror to the Spanish colonists.
This was evident in all parts of the Continent.
Thus the impetuosity of his attacks and incursions in the neighbourhood of the Guianas and Venezuela was sufficient utterly to startle and dismay the unfortunate Spaniards.
The taking of Caracas in 1595 showed him as not only an able leader, but as an extraordinarily gifted tactician.
It was in the course of this attack, by the way, that the fine old hidalgo, Alonso Andrea de Ledesma, mounted his horse, and, shield on arm, lance in rest, charged full tilt single handed against the English force, who would have spared him had he permitted it.
But his onslaught was too impetuous for that.
All the invaders could do for the gallant old knight was to give him an honourable and reverent burial.
After a while, Queen Elizabeth herself now lending open support to the adventurers, Drake's expeditions became more and more daring, and, until he died of fever at Porto Bello, his personality was one which gave sleepless nights from time to time to responsible persons on the coasts of the great Continent.
The name of Raleigh, "poet, statesman, courtier, schemer, patriot, soldier, freebooter, discoverer, colonist, castle-builder, historian, philosopher, chemist, prisoner, and visionary," is, of course, from the romantic point of view, principally associated with El Dorado, and his quest of the magic and imaginary land of gold.
It was for this reason that Raleigh's dealings with the Spaniards in South America were more circumscribed than those of many of his colleagues.
Led to the belief, both by his own fanciful convictions and by the legends brought him by the Indians, he had conceived El Dorado as situated somewhere in the Guianas, and thus his operations were chiefly confined to this part of the world and to the neighbourhood of the Orinoco River.
Raleigh's quest, on paper, certainly sounds one of the most fascinating and entrancing of those undertaken in the great Continent.
That which the average reader hears of less are the fevers, noxious insects, heat, and the general climatic hardships and perils involved in one of the most tropical of all countries, to say nothing of the brushes with the Spaniards; for Raleigh, courtier, poet, and philosopher though he was, was no more gentle in his dealing with his enemies than any other freebooter of his period.
In the end Raleigh returned from the Orinoco laden with no gold, but with heavy tales of the countless booty which he had failed to obtain, and in the existence of which he implicitly believed, as his spirited defence against the charges of his disappointed critics and would-be profit-sharers proves.
Once again, after many years, and after he had endured many wrongs, hardships, and imprisonment in England, Raleigh succeeded in 1617 in making his way to Guiana.
His health had now become shattered, and he found himself unable to explore the Orinoco River in person, with the result that the absence of his powerful and charming personality, which had effected so much in these regions in the past, was much felt, to the disadvantage of the expedition.
A portion of his forces made its way inland; but it was attacked by the Spaniards, and young Walter Raleigh, the only son of the explorer, was slain.
On this occasion the party actually discovered four gold refineries. Spain, however, had increased the strength of her position in this neighbourhood enormously, and the expedition failed.
Raleigh, broken-hearted at the death of his son, returned to England.
He had procured no gold; all that he had won for himself was the enmity of Spain, which, in the end, through the instrumentality of King James I., cost him his head.
So much for some of the most important of the early English adventurers in the seas which the Spaniards claimed as their own.
To refer to the whole company of notable buccaneers in detail is impossible, although so many others, from Cavendish to Sharpe, Davis, Knight, and the rest, are worthy of note.
There were, moreover, the Dutch freebooters, such as Van Noorte, de Werte, Spilsbergen, and others, as Jaques l'Ermite, François l'Ollonais, and Bartolomew Portugues, who ransacked and burned every town which failed to resist their fierce onslaughts, from the Gulf of Darien in the north all round the coast to the Pacific Ocean on the west.