Following the execution of King Charles for treason, the king’s nephew Prince Rupert became Lord High Admiral even though he was a soldier. He led a poorly equipped fleet crewed by English cavaliers and Irish adventurers but he had no safe port, so took to piracy.
He sent Sir Arnold Delisle to the king of Portugal, asking for access to his ports and rivers for as long as he liked, and to be able to sell any prize ships he captured. He also asked that if any ships from the commonwealth, under another soldier, Blake, were in port, they would be detained for 3 days to allow them to escape.
King John of Portugal warily agreed. He supported the royal cause of course, but for the time at least, the king killers were in charge in England, so in control of the trade with his country. He also did not wish to anger the French and Hollanders who were the victims of Rupert’s piracy. He also had to deal with the English merchants in Portugal who were against any disruption f their trade.
Rupert sailed from Kinsale and took some prizes on his way to Lisbon. Rupert and his brother Maurice arrived at Belem ‘where they were received by many of the nobles and treated in a very great state fro some days, until preparation was made for their reception at court, which being ready, the king sent his nobles with a great great kindness. ‘
The leading supporters of the parliamentary faction in the English expatriates were imprisoned to keep them out of the way. There was also a problem with the sale of ships owned by the Commonwealth, including one which had been brought into port as this would provoke the government.
The approach of General Blake with the parliamentary fleet made the situation more difficult for the Portugese, and the merchants became unwilling to trade with the Royalists.
Blake and the commonwealth Fleet arrived – 12 fine fighting ships arrived in Cascais Bay, with Charles Vane the new Commonwealth agent to Portugal. He was politely received but the king could not hand over the Royalist pirates, nor could he send them out to see to fight, due to lingering loyalty to royalty. The king would not allow Blake’s fleet to enter the river so it retreated to beyond Belem.
Rupert made himself popular with the locals, went hunting and spent generously, and charmed them, convincing them of the justice of his cause. The new agent was less charming, and could not get the commonwealth fleet in to port or the royalists out of it. Vane also failed to impress the local English merchants of his cause, nor could he get the imprisoned merchants released.
Rupert claimed ‘The insolent and horrid proceedings of the rebel party in England commonly known by the name of Parliamentary, whereas indeed they are nothing but tumultuous, factious, seditious soldiers, and other disorderly and refractory persons conspiring together, should awaken all Christian princes seriously to attend the designs of these conspirators, lest the fire now kindled in England should come to their own doors… As hey are sworn enemies to all settled governments both in church and commonwealth, what may they attempt in neighbouring countries when time and occasion serve?’.
He further claimed the enemy fleet was in league with Castille to attack and overthrow Portugal. ‘We hope, that the Portugese nation will not endure such insolence by rebels who are to be esteemed pirates and sea robbers, but will seriously join with the King of Great Britain’s fleet… for the prevention of the design of their and our implacable enemies, and to give demonstration to the whole world how little the insolvency of these people is to be endured. ‘
The Commonwealth fleet replied with a paper scattered about the city insulting the royalists ‘… neither do we take it for any disparagement to us our parliament and nation that we are vile in the esteem of this Vagabond German, a Prince of Fortune, whose highness is nothing but haughtiness, his Principality mere piracy, the plurality of his person an affectation so singular that no real prince can choose but smile at it, who, after he was cudgelled out of England for his trade of plundering, did in a short tie set up at sea, and was even now ready to set forth of this harbour and to take pastime with Leviathan in the great waters, had not the audacious fleet of rebels come in the very nick of time to put an embargo upon his highness. And it’s no marvel if he hath ever since been so exceedingly transported with choler, and from so beastly at the mouth, calling us rebels, thieves, professed enemies to all government, thereby endeavouring to render us (as much as in him lies) odious to all nations and princes. ‘
The paper continued with a refutation of the claim they were in league with the Spanish, and that Portugal would be safer trusting the commonwealth instead of those who lived by piracy and plunder. It continued ‘that fleet whose strength doth most consist of Irish, who have ever been and are most passionately and most superstitiously devoted to the Spanish nation and party.’ the document continued to expound on the vileness of the Irish.
The two groups of English took to sniping at each other and the level of violence became intolerable to the Portugese. The Secretary of state tried to get rid of Rupert, the king of Blake, but the only person they go rid of was Vane. He was recalled as it was believed his presence was of no advantage. Blake continued to seize ships at sea, and Rupert to sell his in Lisbon.
The Portugese king urged Rupert to attack, offering his own navy to help. This angered the Commonwealth, so they set out another fleet, under General Popham. Yet again, the council was against this, so the situation stagnated. The council refused to become involved, but urged that Rupert be driven out.
When Blake seized the Brazil fleet setting out from the Tagus, the king put his fleet at the service of Rupert and urged an attack. But this failed, the fleet returned, and Blake continued raiding the Brazil ships.
Rupert’s mother, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia wrote to the Duchess of Richmond: ‘Rupert has been out to have fought with the rebel’s fleet, but they would not stay him, and sailed from him. He followed hem 3 days; but not being able to overtake them he returned to Lisbon, which they did within 2 days after, to the same place they were before, and Rupert was to go out again, with more ships, to fight with them if they will stay him. the King of Portugal gives him all kinds of assistance, and is extreme kind to him and Maurice. ‘
But the port of Lisbon was turning against Rupert, so he was forced to sail. He wrote to his cousin Charles he thought his prize ships would sell for £40,000, so he left at Michaelmas. They were again stateless pirates, as his Captain Pyne wrote:
‘misfortunes being no novelty to us, we plough the seas for our subsistence, and, being destitute of a port, we take the confines of the Mediterranean for our harbour: poverty and despair being companions, and revenge our guide.’
Their pirating along the Spanish coast was unsuccessful. The enemy fleet pursued them, and threats to Spain if she aided them and eventually they were banned from Spanish ports. They fled to Barbados in search of better weather and pickings. Rupert grew rich, but lost his brother, and his cousin Charles never regained the English throne.
These were the original pirates of the Caribbean.