Bonaire, History, The Caribbean Salt Battle, Facing a Major Economical Crisis, 1590-1633

The combined impact of the Spanish embargo, Almirantazgo and Dunkirkers engineered the second major restructuring of the Dutch trading system since 1590. Dutch trade with Spain was all but eliminated; Dutch trade with Portugal drastically reduced and Dutch competitiveness in shipping seriously damaged by the steep rise in freight and insurance costs.

Initially, the salt dealers were confident that the gap could be filled, as in the years between 1598 and 1607 with Caribbean salt. The expectation was that the newly set up West India Company would now become the chief supplier of high-grade salt to the Dutch Entrepôt.

But Philip IV’s ministers were also aware of the now crucial significance of the great salt-lagune at Punta de Araya and determined to prevent a recurrence of what had happened after the imposition of the 1598 embargoes.

The Dutch salt-fleet, consisting mainly of ships from the West Frisian ports, especially Hoorn, did fetch salt from Punta de Araya in 1621 but, on returning the following year, found that the Spaniards had built a large fort at the entrance of the lagune. Part of the fleet, fitted out by pacifist Mennonites, had sailed unarmed and determined to avoid any combat. The rest attacked several times but were driven off.

The fleet then partially dispersed in search of salt in other parts of the Caribbean. But a core of seventy ships was forced to return to Hoorn in the spring of 1623, their holds totally empty. The dismay caused by this spectacle long lingered in the local collective memory.

Punta Araya had to be given up. Worse still, the exploitation of alternative salt-pans at Tortuga and St Martin succeeded only to a limited extent owing to Spanish raids. In 1633, directed by an Italian military engineer, the Spaniards succeded in flooding the salt-pan at Tortuga rendering it permanently useless. The same year, the Spaniards drove the Dutch from St martin and established a strong garrison there.

The Dutch lost the battle for Caribbean salt and this, in turn, inevitably had major adverse consequences for both the Baltic carrying trade and the herring fishery.

SRC: Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585-1740. By Jonathan I. Israel

©2012 Olivier Douvry/GlobeDivers

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