The Jerky Makers of Hispaniola


The 16th century Caribbean – Spain has ruled the island of Hispaniola since the time of Columbus and permanently changed its ecology and population. The city of Santo Domingo crowns the mouth of the Ozama River and has served as the base for the conquest of the continental mainland. The city is home to Spaniards and to drifters from France, England and Holland, many of whom have been brought here by the endless naval warfare that preoccupies the powers of Europe. Of the native
Tainos people there is virtually no sign, for they have been exterminated by the smallpox that has crossed the Atlantic on the Spanish galleons. Any survivors have succumbed to enslavement, to murder and to the hundred other bugs that have caught the ride with the smallpox. The Spanish have shored up the forced labor pool by importing thousands of African slaves – and put them to work on their sugarcane plantations, which have replaced large swathes of the island’s native jungles. They’ve also brought in European farm animals, most of whom have gone feral and prospered in the islands’s lush tropical bounty and lack of major predators. Hispaniola is overrun by wild cattle and pigs. They are to play a key role in the island’s future.

But by 1586, less than a hundred years after its founding, Hispaniola is in decline. The empire and gold of the mainland has drawn away the colonists and the sugar plantations have started to go with them. Investment in the island’s economy has been in precipitous decline and new slave imports are starting to dry up. And when Sir Francis Drake takes and ransoms Santo Domingo, the Spanish begin to lose interest. The island becomes a haven for desperadoes, fortune seekers and former sailors from all over Europe.

One thing that does not decline is Hispaniola’s strategic location. It dominates the Caribbean and the city of Santo Domingo remains a crucial port of call, where ships put in to replenish their supplies. The sailors want rum, water, and meat, all of which are available aplenty. Meat dominates a sailor’s diet, but since the ships can carry only so much fresh meat, if any at all, most of it is carried dried. And in this, Hispaniola’s population of drifters see an opportunity. For raw material, they turn to the wild cattle and pigs that seem to be everywhere and whose numbers don’t seem to fall, no matter how many they shoot. And from the natives (those that remain) they appropriate an ingenious technique for drying the meat. They smoke the meat using a wooden rack called a boucan. And so the drifters and immigrants make a living selling beef and pork jerky to passing ships – and to neighboring islands, which are in easy reach of their small boats. These makers of jerky come to be known as boucaniers.

It does not take long for the enterprising boucaniers to start supplementing their incomes by robbing their customers. And who can blame them? For they have come to the tropics to make their fortunes and there is none to be had in beef jerky. The ships, many of them fabulously rich, are conveniently birthed in Santo Domingo’s harbor, and the sailors are cooperatively drunk. The boucaniers go on to discover that their profits become quite significant when they take the occasional ship outright. And so they begin to waylay unsuspecting Spanish coastal traders that frequent the Caribbean. Beef jerky remains their bread and butter but the temptation of getting rich by robbing the Spanish is difficult to resist.

Getting rich by robbing the Spanish is such a good idea that the English have made it their national economic policy. The Spanish have themselves become wealthy by robbing the Incas and their brethren for a century. Lead by Sir Francis Drake and the Golden Hind, the English launch an officially sanctioned wave of what is essentially piracy, though justified by the fact that Spain and England are at war and that attacking the enemy’s shipping is a sound military tactic. But the Atlantic is so vast, and the Spanish treasure ships so numerous that the English will need to fund an entirely new navy to put a dent in the inflow of treasure. And so the English turn to the free market and private enterprise. They issue licenses to privateersraiders – who have the official sanction of the English Crown to hunt Spanish shipping. Any warship, merchantman, sloop or boat that is game receives a license. The only condition imposed is that any spoils be shared with the Crown. Give England its share of the loot, and you are no pirate, but a sailor fighting for Queen and country.

The boucaniers of Hispaniola enlist as privateers en-masse – thus legitimizing their new profession. And over the next hundred years the boucaniers terrorize Spanish shipping and settlements. Some like Captain Henry Morgan acquire such fame that they are knighted, appointed Governor of Jamaica and used to name a brand of spiced rum. The boucaniers of Hispaniola give up making beef jerky as a business entirely and become professional buccaneers. The Jerky makers of Hispaniola became The Pirates of The Caribbean. The fecund wild cattle and hogs of Hispaniola who give them their start continue to feed them for years to come.

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