My Blog

May 7, 2018


The descendants said it best themselves. The English at Jamestown were the first Illegal Immigrants.

Recently, a friend with whom I share membership in the proud Granaderos de Gálvez asked me to speak to her Jamestown Society. As a topic I suggested the impact of the Spanish on Jamestown, a rarely mentioned topic.  The speech could honor both Cinco de Mayo and our joint membership in the organization that credits Bernardo de Gálvez’ with helping win the American Revolution.

So, here is the story.

Spain and England have long been at odds. It goes back to the quarrel over religion in the 1500s. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain were determined to protect the Catholic religion. Henry VIII of England was equally determined to have his own new Protestant religion in 1533. He wanted a divorce from their daughter, Catherine of Aragon. After 24 years of marriage, and the birth of their daughter Mary (1516), that seems a little unfair, don’t you think?

Catherine, and the Spanish, refused to accept the divorce. Stubbornly, the Queen remained in England until her death in 1536. Catherine was to be only the first of 6 wives.

Meanwhile, thanks to Columbus, the Conquistadors and the Pope, Spain had acquired all of the Americas and the Philippines. In 1494, by the Treaty of Tordesillas, the Pope had divided the world between the two ruling powers of the time, the Spanish and the Portuguese. England was not included.

For the next hundred or so years, the Americas belonged exclusively to Spain. No English, no French, no Dutch, no nobody could settle there. And none did. But all of Europe stared longingly at the rich Spanish treasure fleets coming back from the Americas.

In order to protect the twice-a-year fleets sailing along the coast, the Spanish settled missions and forts all along the eastern seaboard. They fought off attempts by the French to settle in Florida and established missions as far north as Paris, South Carolina.

The antagonism between Spain and England grew. Philip II very briefly married Henry and Catherine’s daughter Mary in 1554, thereby uniting the two countries. The couple did their best to return England to Catholicism but failed when Mary died four years later.

Elizabeth, a Protestant, and Mary’s half-sister, came to the throne in 1558. Philip (her half-brother-in-law) offered his hand in marriage hoping to hang on to England. She refused and began to actively send out privateers like Francis Drake to harass and steal gold and silver from the Spanish treasure fleets. In 1573, Sir Frances Drake raided Panama and captured an entire mule train of gold. He also accidentally circumnavigated the globe.

Elizabeth also supported plans to establish illegal colonies in what was undoubtedly Spanish territory. The first was to be at Roanoke, Virginia. Her intent, as she clearly stated in letters to Sir Walter Raleigh, was to create a base from which her privateers could attack the Spanish gold fleets sailing back to Spain along the American coast.

While the Spanish objected furiously, the colony at Roanoke was settled and resettled various times over the years from 1584 to 1588. Its eventual failure resulted from a lack of resupplies, becoming the “Lost Colony” in 1588 because Elizabeth’s fleets were embroiled in battles against the Spanish Armada.

The death of Philip II in 1598 and Elizabeth’s own death in 1603 changed the European dynamic. The Spanish, now in decline under Philip III, were facing bankruptcies and economic problems. England, fueled by Spanish gold (the Spanish bought from the Dutch, and the Dutch bought from the English), was enjoying the Industrial Revolution.

James VI of Scotland as James I of England had the power and the money to take a new interest in settlement. Their choice? A colony at Jamestown in the province of Virginia, named for the Virgin queen. Their hope? Finding gold as the Spanish had.

Don Pedro de Zúñiga, the Spanish ambassador to England, heard of the colony. Desperate to prevent this intrusion into Spanish territory, the Spanish reconnaissance ship La Asunción de Cristo scouted the coast and located the settlement.

Some of the German colonists at Jamestown, hearing of an imminent Spanish attack, offered to join the Powhatan natives to help destroy the English. The Spanish attack, however, never materialized and the Spanish never learned of the weakness of the colony.

Should Philip crush the Jamestown colony? Or use his limited resources to fight for his Italian possessions? Without enough money to pay for an army and a navy, Philip chose to focus on Europe.

The increasing power of France also threatened the Spanish dominions. By the 1620s, the Spanish could do little but watch in horror as English and French settlements proliferated in their once private world.

Their gold fleets continued to pass by Virginia and tempt the English with their riches. Privateers and pirates continued to attack the Spanish fleets, driving Spain further into bankruptcy.

And the Jamestown settlement, after years of struggle, and not finding any gold, eventually found an even better product. It was almost as lucrative and certainly more addictive. Tobacco.

The success of the Protestant English colony was assured. But Spain continued to hang on to her Catholic dominions for another four hundred years. And have you ever been to a town in all of Latin America that doesn’t have a Catholic church? In the battle over religion, is it possible to say there was any victor?

On a side note, it is interesting that both San Antonio (Spanish) and New Orleans (French) celebrated their 300th anniversary this year, both founded in 1718.


About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!
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