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Pirates & galleons

Spanish treasure fleet

A galleon of the Spanish fleet is loaded with cargo.A galleon of the Spanish fleet is loaded with cargo. Christopher Columbus, in the service of Spain, first landed in the Americas in 1492. Soon Spanish seamen began to explore the “New World”, beginning with the Caribbean Sea and moving on to the mainland—a region that became known as the Spanish Main. Spain claimed much of Central and South America as its own. The empires of two great American peoples, the Aztecs and the Incas, were conquered and their vast stocks of gold and silver shipped back to Spain. Then in 1545, silver was found at Potosí in modern-day Bolivia. The ships the Spanish used to carry their treasure were called galleons. They formed a fleet known as the Spanish treasure fleet. The sea journey to Europe was threatened by pirates and privateers, who were men employed to steal Spain’s treasure by enemy governments.

A map of the Spanish main and its key portsA map of the Spanish main and its key ports

The Spanish Main

The Spanish Main was the name given to the mainland coast around the Caribbean Sea. This region became part of the Spanish Empire from the 16th century. From here, a fabulous amount of goods were shipped to Spain by the treasure fleet. Goods included gold, silver, gemstones, spices, hardwoods and animal hides. The Spanish Main was a magnet for pirates and privateers, so Spain guarded the fleet with war galleons. 

The Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés planned the routes of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1566. He also founded the settlement of St Augustine in Florida in 1565. Today it is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the United States.

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