How England’s government-licensed pirates stole the Newfoundland fishery from Europe’s largest feudal empire
In 1575, a moderately successful Bristol merchant named Anthony Parkhurst purchased a mid-sized ship and began organizing annual cod fishing expeditions to Newfoundland. Unlike most of his peers, he travelled with the fishworkers; while they were catching and drying cod, he explored “the harbors, creekes and havens and also the land, much more than ever any Englishman hath done.” In 1578, he estimated that about 350 European ships were active in the Newfoundland cod fishery — 150 French, 100 Spanish, 50 Portuguese, and 30 to 50 English — as well as 20 to 30 Basque whalers.
In fact, there were many more ships in the Newfoundland fisheries than that — sailing close to shore, Parkhurst apparently did not see the several hundred French ships that worked on the Grand Banks every year. Nevertheless, as historian Laurier Turgeon writes, his figures allow a comparison to the more famous treasure fleets that sailed from the Caribbean to Spain in the same period.
“Even if one accepts Parkhurst’s simplistic figures, the Newfoundland fleet — comprising between 350 and 380 vessels crewed by 8,000-10,000 men — could have more than matched Spain’s transatlantic commerce with the Americas, which relied on 100 ships at most and 4,000-5,000 men in the 1570s — its best years in the sixteenth century.…
“However approximate, these figures demonstrate that the Gulf of St. Lawrence was a pole of attraction for Europeans on a par with the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Far from being a fringe area worked by only a few fishermen, the northern part of the Americas was one of the great seafaring routes and one of the most profitable European business destinations in the New World.”
Despite the profits others made, Parkhurst found that “the English are not there in such numbers as other countries.” A decade earlier, he would have found far fewer. And yet, by 1600 the number of English ships that travelled annually to the Newfoundland fishery had more than tripled, while Spanish ships had all but disappeared. To understand how and why that happened, we must take a brief detour into European geopolitics.
England versus Spain
John Cabot had claimed the new land for England in 1497, but the government didn’t follow up, and few English merchants and fishers were interested. England’s internal market for fish was well served by cod from Iceland and herring from the North Sea, and the wealthy London merchants who dominated England’s foreign trade were conservative and resistant to change. As John Smith later wrote of English merchants’ reluctance to invest in American colonies where fishing was the major industry, they chose not to risk their wealth on “a mean and a base commoditie” and the “contemptible trade in fish.”
The few English expeditions to Newfoundland before 1570 were organized by smaller merchants and shipowners who were not part of the London merchant elite: they sailed not from London or even Bristol, but from smaller ports in the West Country, the southwestern “toe” of England.
As a result, English ships in Newfoundland were substantially outnumbered by ships from continental Europe for most of the 1500s. This reflected the imbalance of power in Europe, where England was a minor country on the periphery, while Spain controlled an immense empire. After Spain annexed Portugal in 1581, the total capacity of its merchant ships was close to 300,000 tons, compared to England’s 42,000. Spain claimed, and could enforce, exclusive access to “all the areas outside Europe which seemed at the time to offer any possibility of outside trading.”
But England’s economy was expanding, and a growing number of English entrepreneurs and adventurers sought to break Spain’s economic power, especially its domination of transatlantic trade. Between 1570 and 1577, for example, at least thirteen English expeditions challenged Spain’s monopoly by trading slaves and other commodities in the Caribbean. Throughout Elizabeth I’s reign (1558–1603) the organizers and supporters of such ventures lobbied hard for what Marxist historian A.L. Morton called “a constant if unformulated principle of English foreign policy — that the most dangerous commercial rival should also be the main political enemy.”
Economic rivalry was reinforced by religious conflict. England was officially Protestant, while Spain was not only Catholic, but home to the feared and hated Inquisition. When a Protestant-led rebellion against Spanish rule in the Netherlands broke out in 1566, Dutch refugees were welcomed in England, English supporters raised money to buy arms for the rebels, and wealthy English Calvinists organized companies of English soldiers to join the fight. Spanish officials, in return, actively supported efforts to overthrow Elizabeth and install a Catholic monarch. In 1570, Pope Pius V added to the conflict by excommunicating “the pretended Queen of England.” He ordered English Catholics not to obey Elizabeth, and declared that killing her would not be a sin.
As the Marxist historian Christopher Hill wrote of conflicts in England in the next century, “whether we should describe the issues as religious or political or economic is an unanswerable question.”
When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, Spain was the richest and most powerful country in Europe, and England was too weak to challenge it directly. Instead, Elizabeth surreptitiously supported a maritime guerilla war against Spain’s merchant ships and colonies, a freelance war for profit conducted by government-licensed raiders who paid their own expenses and kept most of what they stole. Such legal pirates were later dubbed privateers — I will use that term to distinguish them from traditional pirates, although in practice it was difficult to tell them apart.
Piracy had been endemic in England for centuries, especially on the southern coast; the pirates “were skilled sailors, organized in groups, and often protected by such influential landowning families as the Killigrews of Cornwall . … the risks of piracy were fairly low, the profits large.” Many of the mariners who signed on as privateers in Elizabeth’s time had been pirates before, and would return to piracy when their privateering licenses expired. The successful ones were feted at court, and the most successful received knighthoods. If they were captured by Spanish officials, they faced execution as common pirates, but in England privateering was a respectable profession, dominated by “west country families connected with the sea, for whom Protestantism, patriotism and plunder became virtually synonymous.”
In theory, privateers were licensed under an ancient law that permitted merchants to recover goods stolen by foreign vessels, but that was usually a legal fiction.
“The promoter of a venture had merely to perform a routine which amounted to buying a license from the Lord Admiral through his court. Many did not even bother with this formality, but obtained a private note from the Lord Admiral direct, or even sailed without license altogether, strong in the conviction that any objectors could be bought off in the unlikely event of a day of reckoning.”
Promoters, usually ship owners, financed privateering ventures by selling shares to investors, who ranged from rich merchants and government officials to local tradesmen and shopkeepers. Ten or fifteen percent of the loot went to the crown, and the remainder was split three ways, between investors, the promoter, and the captain and crew.
While men from all classes took part, most privateering voyages in Elizabeth’s time were organized and led by men who were outside of London’s merchant elite. Most came from the West Country, home territory not only for pirates but for most of the English fishing expeditions to Newfoundland. A common theme in contemporary discussions of fishing was its importance as a training ground for the navy, but it was also a training ground for piracy. Historian Kenneth Andrews has shown that English merchant ships often engaged in both trading and raiding on the same voyages so it would be surprising if some of the seafarers who carried fishers to Newfoundland didn’t also attack merchant ships, if only in the off-season.
Perhaps the most successful Elizabethan privateer was one-time slave trader Sir Francis Drake. He is best-remembered for circumnavigating the globe, but he did that not for the thrill of discovery, but to evade capture after he looted Spanish treasure ships on the coast of Peru. The booty he brought back earned his backers, including the Queen, an astonishing 4600% profit on their investment.
In Part Two, I quoted Perry Anderson’s description of Spain’s 16th Century plunder of gold and silver in Central and South America as “the most spectacular single act in the primitive accumulation of European capital during the Renaissance.” The English campaign of licensed piracy during Elizabeth’s reign can be called primitive accumulation once-removed — some great capitalist fortunes originated as pirate booty, stolen from the thieves who stole it from the Aztecs and Incas.
Open war between England and Spain broke out in 1585, when Elizabeth publicly declared support for the Dutch rebels and officially sent soldiers to aid them. When Spain’s King Philip II responded by prohibiting trade with England and seizing English merchant ships in Spanish ports, Elizabeth encouraged privateers to increase their attacks on Spanish shipping, and Philip began planning a direct attack on England.
On May 30 1588, a fleet of 130 ships carrying 19,000 soldiers set out from Lisbon to invade England and overthrow Elizabeth. Two months later, the Great Armada was in disarray, soundly defeated by a smaller English force. Only 67 Spanish ships and fewer than 10,000 men survived.
English propagandists attributed the victory to the grace of God and Francis Drake’s leadership, but it was mostly a result of incompetent Spanish leadership — if ever a naval venture deserved to be called a total screw-up from beginning to end, it was Spain’s 1588 Armada. And although patriotic textbooks often describe England’s victory as a turning point in the war, Spain’s navy actually recovered quickly and inflicted an equally devastating defeat on Drake’s fleet in 1589. The war continued until 1604, when two new kings, James I of England and Phillip III of Spain, finally signed a peace treaty.
Some historians of the Anglo-Spanish war view it as an unreasonably protracted waste of effort, since neither side gained territory, and the final treaty essentially restored the status quo. That’s true if the war is viewed as a military fight to protect or expand territory, which for Spain’s feudal rulers it was. But for the merchants who were the primary promoters, financiers and often warriors on the English side, it was an economic war — if they had read von Clausewitz, they might have said that their war was business conducted by other means. They aimed to profit by capturing the enemy’s merchant ships, and by doing that on a large scale for 18 years, they broke Spain’s monopoly on Atlantic commerce.
“Seemingly an inconclusive, even at times half-hearted struggle, this war in fact marked a turning-point in the fortunes of both nations and above all in their oceanic fortunes. …
“Commerce-raiding, it is true, could not win the war…. Yet the cumulative impact of continual shipping losses upon the Iberian marine was heavy. English sources suggest that the English captured well over a thousand Spanish and Portuguese prizes during the war, losses which must have contributed as much as any other factor to the catastrophic decline of Iberian shipping noted in 1608 by a Spanish shipbuilding expert. The system of the transatlantic flotas [treasure fleets] was of course maintained. … But the rest of Iberian trade was perforce abandoned very largely to foreign shipping.”
An important part of England’s economic war, disregarded by many historians, was a war for cod.
For a decade before the war began, English officials had been discussing expulsion of Spain from the Newfoundland fishery as a possible strategic objective. The argument was strongly made in November 1577 by one of the Queen’s advisors, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in A Discourse How Hir Majestie May Annoy the King of Spayne. (Obviously, “annoy” had a stronger meaning then!)
The second son of a wealthy West Country landowner, Gilbert was a strong advocate of expansionist, pro-Protestant and anti-Spanish policies. His leadership of the brutal suppression of the Desmond Rebellion in Ireland in 1569 won him a knighthood from the Queen and the fully deserved label “Elizabethan terrorist” from a 20th century historian of colonial conquest. In 1572, he led a force of 1,500 English volunteers against the Spanish army in the Netherlands.
His 1577 “Discourse” (today it would be called a memorandum or position paper) proposed a pre-emptive attack on Spanish and Portuguese (and possibly French) ships in Newfoundland — “eyther by open hostilytie, or by some colorable meanes; as by geving of lycence under lettres patentes to discover and inhabyte some strange place, with speciall proviso for their safetyes.” The latter course would allow the Queen to disavow attacks on foreign ships if necessary, and “pretend yt was done without your pryvitie.” [without your approval.]
Gilbert offered to personally finance, organize and lead a fleet to Newfoundland, to attack Spanish and Portuguese ships, seize their cargoes, and commandeer the best ships while burning others. This could be accomplished by a relatively small force, because the fishers worked from shore, leaving few if any men on the big ships, “so that there is as little doubt of the easye taking, and carrying of them away.” What’s more, the expedition would pay for itself, because Newfoundland fish “is a principal and rich and everie where vendible merchaundise.”
Such an attack would not only deprive Spanish merchants of ships and the “great revenues” they obtained from fishing, it would prevent Newfoundland cod from reaching Spain, causing “great famine.” Beyond that, Humphrey suggested that a permanent settlement in Newfoundland could be a base for attacking Spanish ports and shipping in the Caribbean.
There is no record of Elizabeth’s reaction to this plan, but six months later she issued Letters Patent to “our trustie and welbeloved servaunt Sir Humphrey Gilbert,” incorporating something very like the “colorable meanes” he had suggested. In exchange for 20% of any gold or silver he might find, the Queen gave Gilbert a six-year license “to discover, finde, search out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countreys and territories not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people.” He would personally own all land within 200 leagues of any permanent settlements he established by 1583 — an immense area — and could “take and surprise by all maner of meanes whatsoever … as of goode and lawful prize” any ship that entered that area without his permission. 
The Letters Patent included a pro forma instruction not to attack ships from friendly nations, but in practice Gilbert now had a license to establish Newfoundland as England’s first overseas colony, expel foreign fishers, and use the island for privateering attacks.
He certainly tried, but as the Queen said, he was “a man noted of not good happ [luck] by sea.”
His first voyage, in 1578, barely reached Ireland before desertions and storms forced him to turn back. That failure cost him most of his inheritance, and discouraged investors from supporting him again: it took four years to raise enough money for a second try.
In 1583, three of his five ships and most of his men were lost to sickness, mutiny, and shipwreck, but he did reach Newfoundland, where he held a formal ceremony attended by the merchants and masters of the 36 English, French, Spanish and Portuguese fishing ships then in St. John’s harbor. He declared the island an English possession, and announced that in future all fishers would have to pay rent to him and taxes to the Queen. All of which was moot, because he and his ship were lost in a storm on the way back to England.
Gilbert failed to execute his plan, but the fact that it existed and was to some extent approved in royal Letters Patent, shows that the Newfoundland fishery’s strategic importance was recognized in England’s ruling circles. So it isn’t surprising that when open war broke out two years later, one of Elizabeth’s first actions was to order two privateer fleets to attack Spanish shipping — one in the Caribbean, and the other in Newfoundland. Bernard Drake (no relation to Francis) received the latter commission, “to proceed to Newfoundland to warn the English engaged in the fisheries there of the seizure of English ships in Spain, and to seize all ships in Newfoundland belonging to the king of Spain or any of his subjects, and to bring them into some of the western ports of England.”
In July 1585, Drake left Plymouth with an investor-financed fleet of ten ships. After capturing a sugar-laden Portuguese ship on the way, the privateers travelled to St. John’s harbor, where they recruited several English fishing ships to join in attacking their Spanish competitors.
As Gilbert had predicted, the well-armed privateers received little resistance from merchants’ fishing ships. In less than two months, they seized 16 or 17 ships in Newfoundland and took them to England with their cargoes of dried cod and over 600 prisoners — fishworkers who probably weren’t even aware that open war had started. Many of the prisoners died when several ships sank during the crossing, and most of the rest died of hunger or typhus in English jails, because Drake didn’t pay for food or care.
Bernard Drake’s Newfoundland expedition returned a 600% profit to the investors. He kept four of the most valuable ships, and in January 1586 he was knighted by the Queen. He died three months later in the same typhus epidemic that killed his prisoners.
The tide turns
The 1585 attack in Newfoundland cost Spanish investors not only a significant number of ships and skilled fishworkers, but most of that year’s fishing revenue. Those losses were multiplied over the next two years, when Philip II ordered all merchant ships to remain in their home ports so he could conscript the best of them for his planned attack on England. Less than half of the vessels that sailed in the 1588 Armada were purpose-built warships — the rest were merchant ships, carrying soldiers. Few of those made it back to Spain, and many that did required major repairs.
The loss of so many ships and a three-year hiatus in fishing revenue was a major setback for Spanish participation in the Newfoundland fishery. The number of ships travelling from the Iberian peninsula to Newfoundland dropped off radically in the following decade, and those that took the risk were under constant threat of privateer attacks. The surviving records are poor and incomplete, but we know for sure that there were 27 fishing ships among the prizes brought to English ports in just three years, from 1589 to 1591, and undoubtedly there were more. It wasn’t gold or sugar, and no one was knighted for stealing fish, but the cargo of a single fishing boat sold for up to five hundred pounds — a respectable return for owners, investors and crew.
From the late 1590s on, ships from the Spanish empire were rarely seen in Newfoundland waters, while the number of English ships increased substantially. They were still outnumbered by French fishers, but there was little conflict, because the French mainly fished offshore, producing the wet pickled cod that was popular in Northern Europe, while the English mainly fished inshore and produced dried salt cod for southern Europe and Mediterranean markets.
After the 1604 treaty was signed, the English merchants took a few years to adjust, but by 1612 English ships were carrying salt cod directly from Newfoundland to Bilbao, formerly a major center for Spanish cod shipping.
“The tide had begun to turn. In the Newfoundland fisheries English and French interests had won out over Spanish and Portuguese ships by the early seventeenth century.”
Part Four of this article will discuss the role of intensive fishery in capitalist development, and the environmental impact of early capitalist fishing.
This article is part of my continuing project on metabolic rifts. Your constructive comments, and corrections will help me get it right. —IA
Notes Anthony Parkhurst to Richard Hakluyt, November 13, 1578, in E.G.R. Taylor, ed., The Original Writings and Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts (Routledge, 2017 ), 127-134.  Laurier Turgeon, “French Fishers, Fur Traders, and Amerindians during the Sixteenth Century: History and Archaeology,” The William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 4 (October 1998), 592-3  John Smith, “A Description of New England (1616): An Online Electronic Text Edition,” Digital Commons, August 30, 2006, 26.  Arthur L. Morton, A Peoples History of England, 2nd ed. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 195.  K. R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480-1630 (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 129.  A. L. Morton, A Peoples History of England, 2nd ed. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 191.  Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution — Revisited (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 297.  Penry Williams, The Tudor Regime (Oxford University Press, 1991), 244, 247.  K. R. Andrews, Elizabethan Privateering (Cambridge University Press, 1964), 4.  Andrews, Elizabethan Privateering, 16.  Andrews, Elizabethan Privateering, passim, especially chapter 7.  Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1979), 61.  The inside story is told in chapter 17 of Geoffrey Parker, Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II (Yale University Press, 2014).  Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 223, 248-9.  The full text is in David B. Quinn, ed., The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, vol. I (Kraus Reprint, 1967 ), 170-180.  Robert A. Williams, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: Discourses of Conquest (Oxford University Press, 1993), 150.  “Letters Patent to Sir Humfrey Gylberte June 11, 1578,” Avalon Project, Yale Law School. 200 leagues was roughly 600 miles, or 945 kilometers.  Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 193.  Calendar of State Papers, Queen Elizabeth — Volume 179: June 1585. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/edw-eliz/1581-90/pp244-249  It is likely that some the ships attacked carried Portuguese or Basque crews, but all were subjects of Spain’s king and thus enemies.  Andrews, English Privateering, 131. For comparison, skilled laborers earned about one pound a month.  This wasn’t just a matter of consumer tastes. Wet cod did not keep well in the warmer climate of southern Europe, while dried salt cod kept indefinitely, even when transported by mule to inland cities in hot weather.  Regina Grafe, Distant Tyranny: Markets, Power, and Backwardness in Spain, 1650-1800 (Princeton University Press, 2012), 59.
Teaser photo credit: The Spanish Armada in the English Channel, 1588. By Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen – www.rijksmuseum.nl : Home : Info, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5713800