Violent Encounters: Franco-Spanish Aggression in the Early Eighteenth-Century Caribbean

By Cindy Ermus

The following is largely an excerpt from Chapter 5 of my new book, The Great Plague Scare of 1720: Disaster and Diplomacy in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Cambridge University Press, February 2023). which explores how the Plague of Provence (1720-22) unfolded in the European overseas colonies, paying special attention to the port city of Fort Royal, Martinique – at this time, the richest French colony, and an important administrative center for the French Antilles – and to interactions between the French and Spanish in the Americas. The following excerpt focuses on anti-French violence by Spaniards in the Caribbean.

Few regions in the eighteenth-century world were as interconnected as the European colonies, where colonial governors, intendants, merchants, and others networked, interacted, and struggled to balance the demands and expectations of the metropoles with broader colonial realities. And in the colonial world of the early eighteenth century, perhaps no relationship was more intertwined, or more contentious, than that between France and Spain. During the Plague of Provence of 1720-1722 (also known as the Plague of Marseille), Franco-Spanish encounters in the Caribbean stood in stark contrast to what officials in France hoped to achieve in the Atlantic.

Numerous confrontations, some of them extremely violent, took place between the French and Spanish in the colonies, prompting French colonial officials to file complaints against the numerous “violences” committed against the French. Although their letters cited excessive leniency from the metropole in these matters and sought punishment for the wrongdoers, officials in Paris, including the regent and the Marine Council, repeatedly responded not with calls or plans for justice but with warnings against responding too harshly to the Spaniards of the Americas, lest they be deterred from visiting the French colonies.

Two incidents that unfolded in the summer of 1720 – one off the coast of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti), and the other off the coast of Venezuela – provide an instructive look at the kinds of confrontations that took place, and how both local and metropolitan officials responded.[1] On September 16, 1720, two of the men involved, both from the port town of Saint-Pierre, Martinique, sat down before Governor-GeneralFrançois de Pas de Mazencourt, marquis de Feuquières (c. 1660–1731) in Fort Royal (known today as Fort-de-France) to give an official account of the terrible ordeal they had suffered at the hands of Spaniards two months earlier. The first, Artus Le Baube, captain of a schooner (goélette) named La Forbanne, recounted that on January 28, 1720, he departed Saint-Pierre with his crew and headed for the coasts of Pointe de Spade (Punta Cana) in Spanish Santo Domingo to fish for carret, or hawksbill sea turtle (Testudo imbricata). They sojourned off the coasts of Hispaniola for months, fishing in several different spots without incident, that is, until July 27 when the crew spotted some Spaniards on land who appeared to have been hunting (for “boeufs marons”) armed only with spears and accompanied by their dogs. It is unclear how, but one of the Spaniards soon came on board and asked the captain for wine under the pretext that their parish priest needed it to celebrate the mass. Although Le Baube had only one bottle, he handed it over, asking in return for the Spaniard to bring him and his crew some tobacco the next day.

On the afternoon of July 28, the same Spaniard, now accompanied by another man, appeared on the coast and signaled from land, at which point Le Baube sent a canoe carrying four of his sailors armed with two rifles. As the men approached land, one of the Spaniards stepped into the canoe, quickly spun around, and “with a kind of cutlass without guard which they call a manchette” (a machete), fired a blow to the head of the first sailor and slit it open, then attacked a second seaman with a blow to the stomach. The remaining two sailors quickly threw themselves to the sea in an effort to swim back to the vessel, but at that moment a number of other Spaniards appeared, perhaps as many as thirty. Armed with spears, they ran to the shore and attacked the fleeing men, who made it only halfway back to La Forbanne before succumbing to multiple spear wounds.

Le Baube now found himself alone on board the schooner and seeing that nine of the Spaniards were headed toward him in his own canoe with intent to seize his vessel, he took his rifle loaded with three bullets and shot in the direction of the men, possibly killing at least two of them. This made the men return to land, at which point Le Baube, having cut the lines to his anchor and grapple, raised his sail as best he could and in very bad weather made it to “La Monne” (Mona Island, Puerto Rico, just southeast of Punta Cana) in three days.[2] At La Monne, Le Baube encountered three sailors “to whom he recounted his sad adventures,” and who accompanied him back to Martinique where he arrived earlier on the day that he provided this testimony.[3]

Herman Molls, Map of the West Indies, circa 1732.

In July 1720, around the same time as the episode near Hispaniola, Gervais Pertuson, boatswain of a small vessel named La Marie, departed Saint-Pierre to fish for turtles in the Testiguesoff the coast of Venezuela.[4] On August 3, he encountered a Spanish corsair from Margarita Island. The captain, named Palarme, invited Pertuson on board along with three other men who were fishing on the islands at the same time: a man named Creuzet, master of the boat l’Hirondelle of Martinique; and two others named Charles and Perdurand, masters and co-owners of l’Henriette of Guadeloupe. They were initially received well on board, but the next day, August 4, the Spanish captain seized the ships La Marie and l’Henriette, left the shipmasters and crew at the Testigues, and headed back to Margarita Island with their vessels (l’Hirondelle was left unharmed because of its small size). At this time, Pertuson and Charles, masters of the two seized vessels, urged Creuzet to take them and their crew to Margarita on l’Hirondelle to see what could be done. Upon their arrival on August 6, however, the men were promptly imprisoned where they remained nineteen days. In this time, the two masters, along with two sailors of each crew, were questioned. The interpreter, a Frenchman named Ollivier François, informed the men that they might have already been released were it not for the fact that the governor and contador of Margarita themselves owned the corsaire responsible for this unlawful seizure. François added that the governor of Margarita “had often mocked the docility of the French for not retaliating against the Spaniards who captured so many vessels from them, which led him to believe that [the French] were very weak.”[5]

On September 18, 1720, Feuquières submitted the official accounts of both Le Baube and Pertuson to the Conseil de Marine in France with complaints about the “pillages et assassinats” that the Spaniards were inflicting upon the French and their vessels in the Americas. Hoping that something could be done to prevent further assaults, he requested that the formal declarations from Le Baube and Pertuson be transmitted to his Catholic Majesty in Madrid. From Feuquières’ perspective, it was entirely possible that orders for the string of attacks against the French were coming from the Spanish king himself. Yet nearly three months later, Feuquières was disappointed by a response from Philippe d’Orléans in which he stressed that any reprisals must not risk jeopardizing trade with the Spanish colonies.[6] Officials in Paris insisted that Spanish governors in the colonies had no such orders from his Catholic Majesty to attack and seize French vessels. Ultimately, the regent gave Feuquières permission to retaliate against the Spaniards “as he deemed necessary,” but there were some significant provisos. First, he must “use this permission moderately” in order to protect trade relations with the Spanish in the colonies. Nor should any reprisals be taken against Spanish vessels that seek to enter the ports of the French Antilles. On the contrary, “it is necessary to seek to attract them, because they can bring gold, silver, and prime merchandise [to the islands].”[7]

This placed French colonial officials in a predicament. On the one hand, they were given permission to punish Spanish aggressors, but on the other, they were severely limited in their ability to effectively do anything. In other words, they could not act as they “deemed necessary,” since doing so would mean potentially discouraging Spanish ships from going to the French islands. Feuquières’ frustration is palpable in his letters to Paris at this time. “I do not see that I can make any use of the order that the Council sent me to use reprisals against [the Spaniards] given the restriction that is inserted therein for Spanish ships that may come to trade in these islands.”[8] In his view, the Spaniards, “who commit the same kind of violence every day,” would only be emboldened by France’s failure to retaliate. As he wrote to the Council, “I cannot dispense with representing to the Council that it is in the interest of the King and of the nation in general not to leave unpunished all the cruelties exercised against the French on the coasts of Spain [including the colonies], both by the governments and by the subjects of his Catholic Majesty.”[9] But the reprisals would not come. Instead, officials in Paris only doubled down on orders to appease the Spaniards in the Americas. The pursuit of Spanish silver and gold seemed to outweigh all other considerations.[10]

It is important to note that the desire on the part of officials in France to trade with the Spaniards did not extend to those of the mainland but was restricted specifically to the Spaniards of the Americas whose trade was deemed more valuable for its bullion. Numerous communications from Paris persistently reiterated the importance of restricting trade with all foreigners – including those in the Americas such as the British or Dutch – except the Spaniards of the Americas, whose trade must be preserved and expanded.[11] Essentially, under the terms of the 1717 Lettres patentes – intended to exclude foreign merchants, and constantly referenced in these documents[12] – only vessels arriving from authorized port cities in France could trade in the French Antilles.[13] French-owned ships would handle all imports and exports, and these could only arrive in the colonies from a French port, even if the goods on board originated abroad.[14] Any vessels arriving from a foreign port, including those originating in France, but especially those of foreigners, were to be “confiscated upon arrival” – except those of Spaniards in the Americas.[15] Officials in Paris maintained that this trade “can only be advantageous to the nation, and it is in the interest of the colony to [take part] and to increase it as much as possible. [Charles] Bénard [intendant of Martinique] must work as much to increase this commerce, as to annihilate trade with other foreigners.”[16]

Nevertheless, the threat of confiscation deterred neither French nor foreign merchants arriving from unauthorized ports to trade in the French islands. Given the needs of the colonies, local officials often permitted the trade to take place, which drew frequent disapproval from Paris. Merchant vessels arriving in Martinique from Cádiz, for example – which was among the most recurrent points of origin – were a regular source of consternation for the Marine Council. In numerous letters, the Council reminded colonial officials that they “must not permit vessels from Martinique to travel to Cádiz in order to return to Martinique.”[17] Such communications also went to Pierre-Nicolas Partyet, French consul in Cádiz, who was charged with informing the captains of all vessels from Martinique in Cádiz that “it is in their best interest to come to France before returning to the colony, otherwise the vessels will be confiscated.”[18]

Frequent letters to the intendant of Martinique in particular reveal metropolitan officials’ displeasure at the unauthorized trade and emphasize the importance of observing the 1717 regulations. Their denunciation of commerce with the Spaniards of the mainland, however, was matched only by their eagerness for trade with those of the Americas. In September 1721, for example, they wrote:

You have extended the trade with the Spaniards too much, having led yourself to believe that it is permitted for the colonies to [trade] with the Spaniards of Europe. His Majesty [approves] of the trade with the Spaniards of America, and even recommends that you motivate the inhabitants [of the island to this end] since this trade is advantageous both to the kingdom and to the colonies. In exchange for our merchandise, these people give us gold [and] silver … But you are forbidden from tolerating trade in any form with the Spaniards of Europe, because they only bring goods that the islands must receive from France, and not from Spain.[19]

A year later, in 1722, they wrote:

The commerce permitted to the Spanish is limited to those of the Americas only … The Council believes it is again necessary to repeat that all commerce with foreigners is absolument interdit, including that with the Spanish, with the sole exception in all cases of those of the Americas … Only French ships coming from France or other French colonies and those of the Spanish Americas are permitted.[20]

Communications like these went out to the colonies regularly during the plague years, as vessels from unauthorized ports continued to make their way into the French colonies, often with approval from local officials, and the French remained keen on obtaining Spanish silver.

Although illicit trade and violent assaults like these took place throughout the history of the colonial Atlantic, they occurred with especially high frequency in both times of war and of disease. In war times, the increased insecurity of the Atlantic meant that crimes and piracy took place more frequently because of related hostilities. It also became more challenging for the metropoles to furnish their colonies with adequate stores and supplies, which meant that colonial administrators were compelled to authorize the entrance of foreign ships.[21] But why would disease drive up illicit trade and maritime violence? By the eighteenth century, the centralization of disaster management – what I call “disaster centralism” in my book – meant that public health measures imposed by the capitals of Europe’s emerging nation states extended, at least in theory, across their vast empires. Beginning most notably with the Plague of Provence, plague-time regulations from the metropoles of Europe were dispatched to port cities throughout the colonies in the Americas and Asia. And the prescribed practices – such as trade embargoes, extensive quarantining, and vessel searches and fondeos (a controversial practice that involved the full unloading of a ship’s cargo for inspection) – were inherently aggressive. In the colonies, all these regulations essentially took the form of hostility against foreigners in the ports, especially the French – which helps us better understand the string of assaults described here.

Cindy Ermus is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She specializes in the history of science, medicine, and the environment, especially catastrophe and crisis management, in eighteenth-century France and the Atlantic World. She is the author of the book The Great Plague Scare of 1720: Disaster and Diplomacy in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Cambridge University Press, 2023). On Twitter: @CindyErmus. Website:

Title Image: Jean Meissonnier, Voiliers de l’Époque romantique, Edita Lausanne, 1991.


[1] Venezuela at this time was part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (Virreinato de Nueva Granada) in the Spanish Empire.

[2] To this day, the Mona Passage strait between the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico is considered among the most difficult to navigate in the Caribbean.

[3] Declaration of Captain Artus Le Baube to Feuquières, Fort Royal, September 16, 1720, Col. C8A 27, f. 206–206v, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM).

[4] The small islands of the Testigues, known as Islas Los Testigos, are near Margarita Island of Venezuela.

[5] This last line is of particular interest, because one of Feuquières’ primary complaints in his letters to Paris about the assaults of the Spaniards against the French in the Americas was that the latter were not properly defending themselves. One wonders if this final anecdote was thus added for effect. Declaration of Gervais Pertuzon to Feuquières, Fort Royal, September 16, 1720, Col. C8A 27, f. 207–207v, ANOM.

[6] “Projet de mémoire du roi à M. de Feuquières,” Paris, December 10, 1720, Col. C8A 27, f. 148, ANOM.

[7] “Décision du Régent au sujet des avanies faites par les Espagnols aux navires français depuis la suspension d’armes,” Paris, July 15, 1721, Col. C8B 7, No. 72, ANOM.

[8] Feuquières to the Conseil de Marine, Fort Royal, April 17, 1721, Col. C8A 28, f. 206–206v, ANOM.

[9] Ibid., 207.

[10] And these efforts did pay off. France maintained the advantage even over Britain in the quest for Spanish precious metals. See : François Crouzet, “La rivalité commerciale franco-anglaise dans l’empire espagnol, 1713–1789,” Histoire: Economie et Société 31 (2012/13): 19–29.

[11] “Memoire du Roy au Bénard, Intendant des Isles du Vent,” Paris, October 5, 1721, B 44, ff. 360v–361, ANOM.

[12] Countless contemporary documents express this concern for excluding foreign trade, for example, “[The Council] advises you to adhere exactly to the Regulation of 1717 … and to reanimate your attention to the prevention of foreign trade.” Conseil de Marine to Bénard, Paris, October 5, 1721, B 44, f. 361v, ANOM.

[13] Bertie Mandelblatt, “How Feeding Slaves Shaped the French Atlantic: Mercantilism and the Crisis of Food Provisioning in the Franco-Caribbean During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in The Political Economy of Empire in the Early Modern World, edited by Sophus A. Reinert and Pernille Røge (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 202.

[14] Silvia Marzagalli, “The French Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850, edited by Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 243.

[15] Conseil de Marine to Bénard, Paris, September 17, 1721, B 44, f. 340, ANOM.

[16] Emphasis added. “Memoire du Roy au Bénard, Intendant des Isles du Vent,” Paris, October 5, 1721, B 44, f. 361, ANOM. Many other documents make the same point, for example: Feuquières and Bénard to Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, Regent of France, Saint-Pierre, February 7, 1722, Col. C8A 30, f. 20–20v, ANOM.

[17] Conseil de Marine to Feuquières and Bénard, Paris, October 5, 1721, B 44, f. 359v, ANOM.

[18] Conseil de Marine to Pierre-Nicolas Partyet, consul of France in Cádiz, Paris, December 10, 1721, B 44, ANOM.

[19] Ibid.,340–1v.

[20] Conseil de Marine to Feuquières and Bénard, Paris, June 5, 1722, B 45, ff. 520v–521, ANOM.

[21] Silvia Marzagalli, “The French Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850, edited by Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 243.

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