"A Delicate Question of a Political Nature:" The Corso Insurgente and British Commercial Policy during the Spanish-American Wars of Independence, 1810-1824

June 2011
International Journal of Maritime History;Jun2011, Vol. 23 Issue 1, p277
Academic Journal
During the Spanish-American Wars of Independence, the revolutionary governments flexed their maritime muscles primarily by privateering. Independent authorities in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, México, Uruguay and Venezuela all granted letters of marque to shipowners entitling them to deploy their vessels to seize Spanish trade and shipping. Collectively, these privateers became known as los corsarios insurgentes (the insurgent privateers). By the early nineteenth century, privateering was a legitimate tool of war that was distinct from piracy. Nevertheless, the legitimacy of Spanish-American privateering was challenged in the early 1800s by merchants, newspaper editors and various other observers who argued that insurgent privateers were nothing more than common pirates. This “popular perception” continues to dominate discourse on the subject. Historical analyses tend to argue that the corso insurgente was “more closely related to the days of Henry Morgan and Blackbeard than the nineteenth century” and allowed piracy to enjoy “una nueva edad dorada” (a new Golden Age). But a recent study by David Head has undermined these claims and suggested that Spanish-American commerce raiding was neither privateering nor piracy but “a different kind of maritime predation.” This article aims to shed further light on the legitimacy of the corso insurgente by analyzing the British government’s attitude towards Spanish-American predation in the period 1810-1824. European security concerns and transatlantic economic interests compelled the British government to remain neutral during the Spanish-American Wars of Independence. Because of this policy, the capture and plunder of British vessels by insurgent privateers presented British statesmen with “a delicate question of a political nature” which threatened to compromise Britain’s neutrality. Treating Spanish-American predators as regular privateers would be tantamount to recognising the sovereignty claims of the revolutionaries, while regarding them as pirates would equate to a rejection of those claims. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, sought to reduce the potential political fallout of responding to Spanish-American predation by delegating the task to the Royal Navy. Naval commanders organized convoys for British vessels, dispatched cruizers to search for rogue privateersmen and corresponded with Spanish-American authorities in an effort to protect British merchants. The naval strategy yielded mixed results, but Castlereagh successfully defended his line of policy when it was challenged in the House of Commons. The British government’s attitude towards Spanish-American prizetaking differed significantly from popular perceptions of the activity. While the interpretations of merchants and newspaper editors were heavily influenced by economic anxieties and social concerns, the British government’s attitude towards the corso insurgente was shaped by political priorities. Spanish-American commerce raiding was thus regarded neither as regular privateering nor piracy but as a different kind of maritime predation. This study exposes the subjectivity of interpretations of the legitimacy of the corso insurgente and suggests that historians have been too quick to tar Spanish-American privateers with the black brush of piracy. The delicacy with which Spanish-American predation was treated by British statesmen between 1810 and 1824 is thus revived, and just as the corso insurgente presented them with a delicate political question, it continues to present historians with questions that require equally delicate investigation.


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