BRITTSH colonial schemes were not confined to the continent of North America. As the seventeenth century opened, it seemed as though the eyes of western Europe were fixed on the West Indies. Through the Caribbean Sea passed the silver galleons of Spain and no one knew what wealth might be concealed in the ring of islands that fringed it. The Spanish stronghold was at Española, although the power of Spain had waned since the defeat of the Armada. English, Dutch and French slipped in under the lee of the Spanish base and buccaneering grew enormously.
Piracy had long made perilous the route of the Spanish treasure fleet through the sheltered Bahama channel. As English, Dutch and French strengthened their grip on the continental seaboard, opening ports where ships could be built and overhauled and where markets were provided, piracy increased. Where formerly a sea captain would have good hunting if he cut out a straggling galleon, now a doughty pirate might have a fleet of ten or twenty stout fighting ships under his command. His need, therefore, was for neighborly harbors and convenient supply stations. Logically, the Indies provided them.
In the middle of the seventeenth century, the heyday of piracy, the buccaneers numbered several thousand. They came from all ranks of life. Some of the hauls they made were staggering; one of the greatest was that of the Dutchman, Piet Heyn, who descended at Matanzas harbor with thirty-one sails and captured the Vera Cruz fleet with its cargo worth fifteen million dollars. In such an atmosphere the tiny colonies on some of the islands were founded.
But the British had a way of testing out the soil of the islands they visited. Jamestown was still young when British plantations appeared on Barbados and St. Kitts. Tobacco and sub-tropical products were raised at first but when, about 1640, sugar was introduced, the prosperity of buccaneering took second place to that of agriculture. Barbados rapidly became the colony in which, of all her brood, the mother country was most interested. Rich Barbados with its great plantations, its large population of whites and its larger population of slaves became a center of interest for commercial England.
As the seventeenth century grew old buccaneering waned, but sugar planting grew in importance. Her colonies in the West Indies became a corner-stone of Britain's growing commercial empire. If necessary, how much better could she afford to lose any one of the continental colonies than her sugar plantations which were found on islands from Jamaica around the arc of the Antilles almost to South America.