This is by no means required reading. It is offered partly as an introduction to the period, and partly as an introduction to what's going on in the game.
A Brief History Lesson*
In 1492, Columbus discovered America. Spain, the country that had sponsored his journey, immediately claimed all the newly discovered lands, and the legality of this claim was confirmed by the Pope, the only international authority then recognized. Over the next few centuries Spain proceeded to exploit it for all it was worth, importing fantastic wealth in the form of gold, silver, gems, rare dyes and foodstuffs, and quantities of mundane goods as well.
Once they became aware of the "river of gold" that was flooding Spain's coffers, England, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands each wanted their share. For decades, Spain kept a tight hold on its New World holdings, a region that stretched from the tip of South American up through the Florida peninsula., denying all other countries the right to settle or trade there. Even so, this empire was so vast that it proved impossible for Spain to protect her coastal colonies and treasure shipments from both the fortunes of war and the depredations of raiders and pirates in times of peace.
At first, such raids and attacks posed an interesting problem. Simply put, treaties signed in Europe could not--and, by tacit agreement, would not--be enforced past an imaginary line 100 leagues past the Azores islands. No government could guarantee its citizens' safety "Beyond the Line,"which essentially legalized piracy throughout the New World. Even today these conditions persist; after all, how can a government properly rule its people when all reports and orders received are several months old?
Wars between countries were common throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. During this time, most countries could not afford to build and maintain large fleets of warships. To bolster their forces, countries would issue Letters of Marque to private ship owners, stating that the bearer was licensed by the government to attack enemy shipping. These ships were known as privateers, but of course one nation's privateer is another one's pirate. Indeed, many a privateer stepped across the line and preyed indiscriminately upon whatever ships might cross their path.
Over the years, Spain's wealth and power slowly dwindled, through the combined effects of corruption, greed, war, and piracy. A lengthy period of open warfare began in 1688 and lasted through 1713, with the War of the Grand Alliance (1689-1698) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713). Although these European wars extended "Beyond the Line" to the New World, hostilities were limited to raids against coastal towns and small naval engagements. When peace (and lasting stability) were eventually achieved with the Peace of Utrecht, Spain's lucrative monopoly over trade in the Americas was broken once and for all.
With the conclusion of the war, all parties had good reason to keep the peace. England (and, to a lesser extent, the other great powers) now had the promise of increased wealth through trade, and Spain (whose treasure fleets had been unable to safely sail during wartime) needed to refill its coffers. In fact, a great fleet carrying much of the wealth stockpiled during the last war sailed in 1715, only to be wrecked along the Florida coast by a chance hurricane. This loss, combined with their forfeiture of control over trade, demonstrates how far Spain's control over its New World possessions had fallen.
An important consequence of the cessation of hostilities was that all countries cut back on their navies and cancelled all outstanding Letters of Marque. A generation of battle-hardened sailors found themselves out of work. Many turned pirate and continued to roam the seas, preying on poorly defended coastal communities and the flood of merchanters crossing over from Europe. (An interesting footnote: the Dutch, rather than releasing their sailors, moved them to the herring fleet, against the day when they would need their navy again.)
A precedent for the pirate's life had been set by the buccaneers, a loose society based in the region of Tortuga and Northern Hispaniola. The buccaneers had preyed upon ships of all nations throughout the late 1600s. Foremost among them was Henry Morgan, whose daring (and highly lucrative) raids on Maracaibo and Panama inspire pirates to this day.
The Great Powers eagerly recruited buccaneering ships upon the outbreak of war in 1689, and over the years of warfare the buccaneering community ceased to exist, but the traditions and legends they created spread across the fleets of all nations. With the outbreak of peace and the massive naval layoffs, piracy was poised for a swift and brutal resurgence.
The Political Climate of the Caribbean, circa 1720
Spain claims Central and Southern America, the Florida coastline, and many of the island of the Caribbean, most notably Cuba. Important cities include Havana on Cuba, and Porto Bello and Cartagena on the Northern coast of South America. Much of the wealth of the Spanish Main flows through these ports. The Spanish have always been wary of permanent foreign settlements near their trade routes, and the recent salvage raids have done nothing to mollify them, but with their crippled finances and recent loss of fleet strength, there is little they can do to change the situation.
England controls most of the Eastern Seaboard of North America, and a number of Caribbean islands, including Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Hidalgo in the Windward islands. Important cities include Port Royal in Jamaica and New Providence in the Bahamas. The promise of American trade profits has raised much interest in the halls of power.
The French have several territorial claims, including Tortuga and Haiti, and an interest in increasing their share of the region's trade, but have no large established settlements. The Dutch have a very few minor claims, but are active in the area as traders. Pirates, by and large, acknowledge no particular nationality. When asked where they hail from, a common reply is "from the sea."
Pirates require "safe havens", places where they can sell their illegitimate goods, squander their ill-gotten gains, arrange for repairs, and purchase supplies for their next venture. Back in the mid-1600's, Port Royal served that function admirably as a center of buccaneer activity. Despite the efforts of the Spanish, practically all the raiders of the Caribbean could freely frequent there without fear of reprisal or justice from the English governor. In 1692, an earthquake and ensuing tidal wave virtually wiped this "city of sin and depravity" from the map.
The city has since been rebuilt, and the territory is currently under the governorship of Archibald Hamilton. When the Spanish treasure fleet was wrecked off the (uninhabited) coast of Florida in 1715, the Spanish governor in Havana immediately sent salvagers to recover what they could. Shortly thereafter, a wave of pirates based out of Jamaica "went a' wrecking", raiding the defenseless salvagers. Initially, Hamilton supported such expeditions, but political pressure from back home forced him to reverse his stance on piracy, and he expelled the blackguards from Jamaica in 1716.
In due time, the exiled pirates settled on the poorly managed plantations of New Providence island in the Bahamas, where they set up a virtual pirate kingdom. In 1718, Woodes Rogers (an extremely capable naval commander, ex-privateer, and circumnavigator) was sent to return the rule of law to the island and to drive out the pirates. He arrived with an "Act of Grace," a free pardon from the English Crown for any pirate who turned himself in and renounced their crimes. Many, but not all, chose to accept the pardon, and of those most kept their word. Shortly after the pardon expired, troops and gunships arrived to deal with the unrepentant and the backsliders, but in a daring escapade the bulk of the "pirate fleet" managed to escape. New Providence under Woodes Rogers, while still loose and wild, is no longer a safe place to be a pirate.
While the loss of the most popular safe havens has had some effect, piracy is still rampant upon the open sea. There are any number of small ports and communities that are willing to barter in stolen goods. Indeed, the pirates are so effective that the promised increased in wealth through trade with the New World has yet to appear in Europe. In time, effective government may arrive in the New World, and military force may patrol the sea lanes, but until that time piracy thrives.
People, Society, and Customs
By and large, there are three classes of people inhabiting the Caribbean of today. The majority are natives, slaves, indentured servants, transported criminals, and other lower class immigrants. They form the underclass, the labor force that carves a living out of the wilderness. Most dream of freedom, wealth, and a good life; few will ever achieve it.
Just as it is back in Europe, the upper class runs the show. They own the vast estates, oversee the armies of workers, and pocket incredible wealth for their risks. Make no mistake, there are risks--the New World is a harsh and unforgiving climate, and the weak and the foolish who venture there rarely return home. The standard career path was set by the Spanish decades ago: an adventurous individual receives a commission to an important position in the New World, reaps what wealth they can, and then retires back home to civilization. More recently, some Europeans--in particular the English--have taken it in their heads to stay on, tying their family's wealth to the lands they claim. While still a minority, with the recent peace their numbers show every sign of growing, were it not for the power of our third class, the pirates.
The men (and no few women) who become pirates come from all walks of life. Their fortunes depend on the caprice of wind and wave, and the immense size and riches of the New World. A few dream that with enough wealth, they can scale the wall between the classes and cut out a place for themselves as landed folk in some small corner of the world (a not unheard of event, as demonstrated by SirHenry Morgan). Others care little for class, but instead squander every penny on women and rum. And let us not overlook the shore-side pirates, the ones in every port who turn a blind eye to the source of blood-stained goods, and who peddle to the pirates' bottomless thirst for debauchery.
The Caribbean is sparsely settled at best. Small farmsteads and tiny seaside villages are the norm, with large towns few and far between. These towns are small islands of civilization, and their inhabitants tend to do their best to make a warm welcome to the rare honest traveler who brings word (and wealth) from the outside. Similarly, they will often rise up as one to defend what they have as best they can against those who would plunder them of their livelihood. "As best they can" it is--good firearms are rare, cannon all but nonexistent, and the average man is untrained in the way of the sword.
Back in Europe, the issue of religion is an all important one, brought about by the deep fissures between Catholic and Protestant, and long-standing traditions have given the church much power over day to day life. However, here in the Caribbean, while people are raised in faith, the church rarely has any true political power. It's one thing to worship in the ancient church of your father's fathers, but it is another thing entirely to dwell next to lands yet unexplored, populated by unknown creatures and beings. And then there are the natives, those tribes whose members know the ancient secrets of the hidden places no civilized man has ever seen. Thus it should come as no surprise that superstition is imbued in the common man's daily life. Oh, certainly they will scoff in public at the superstitious nonsense believed by foolish simpletons, but it is a fact that things happen that beggar any possible rational explanation, and, well, it never really hurt anyone to carry a charm, or to mutter the odd protective oath, "just in case".
Geographical Locations of Note
English territory, generally well defended, generally thought of as poor lands.
The Spanish Main
General term for Spain's holdings in the Caribbean, Southern Mexico, and along the South American coastline. The source of Spain's incredible wealth for over 200 years, and popular stomping ground for pirates and privateers for most of that time. Points of note on the mainland include the "treasure ports" of Porto Bello and Cartagena (through which goods are shipped to Europe), as well as numerous small trading settlements.
Spanish territory, and the seat of their Caribbean power (in the city of Havana). Well defended, fairly rich, and contains numerous small settlements.
English territory, well defended, and a thorn in Spain's side since its occupation in 1655. Noted for the wealth of trade passing through its primary city, Port Royal. The current governor is Archibald Hamilton; once a covert supporter of piracy, he mended his ways and made Port Royal safe for legitimate commerce a few years ago.
A small and insignificant English territory, really only several plantations on Nassau Bay, until it was overrun by pirates shortly after they were made unwelcome in Jamaica. The noted circumnavigator Woodes Rogers was recently appointed governor, and in short order has made pirates unwelcome there as well.
English territory, ceded by Spain in 1698. Underdeveloped, with Port Hidalgo the only town of note, its economy is based upon its favorable location near several trade routes. The current governor is the retired privateer, Georges Havelock. [In some alternate realities, Hidalgo was claimed by the French and named Martinique--but such hypothetical situations need not concern us here.]
Tortuga, Trinidad, Hispaniola[Haiti], others
Most islands of the Caribbean are claimed by one or another of the European powers, but little effort is made to rule their inhabitants. Lawlessness and squalor are the general rule.
The Indian Ocean, and surrounding lands
European expansion and trade combined with wealthy (and powerful!) local kingdoms combine to make a rich but dangerous target. These sea lines have been targeted by pirates based both locally and from far away; it is not unknown for ships to "sail the round" from the Americas in search of fabled treasures when their local pickings are lean.
* This is a simplified outline of world history leading up to the events that take place during Port Hidalgo. While much of this is taken from historical fact, a fair amount has been changed, embellished, or outright fabricated for game purposes. Worse, we had to simplify or totally omit some interesting events and situations that just didn't fit into the game (such as Mt. Pelée, the active volcano on the North end of the island)