Mercenaries: Private Military Force in the Atlantic World

This was a paper I wrote for an Atlantic History seminar in my graduate history program. In retrospect, I wish I would have worked on finding additional sources. The paper is informative but not insightful. I have a fascination with private military force–this stems from reading too much libertarian science fiction and letting my mind wander when I read Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Still, David Parrott’s book is awesome and was the best discovery in the process of writing this paper (now post).


Prior to nation-states claiming the “monopoly on violence” in the 19th century, there was an active market for professional mercenary soldiers in Europe. Further demand for mercenaries was stimulated by the opening of an Atlantic system of trade in Africa and the Americas, spreading the European practice of private soldiering overseas. Mercenaries were employed in the Atlantic World on behalf of European powers to further efforts of conquest, colonization, and state building. This essay will explore the importance of mercenaries in those European efforts to build an Atlantic system—a system that would ultimately serve various economic, cultural, and political ends of those European monarchial states active in the Atlantic World (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands).

The essay will show that the history of the mercenaries in the Atlantic World reflects aspects of the evolution and development of European militaries. As the nineteenth century began Europe moved to standing, large scale armies of citizen soldiers. While state building offers a framework for understanding the transition away from mercenaries and toward a state-sponsored army, the concept of the fiscal-military state understood through the lens of constant strategic innovation may offer a better understanding of why this transition took place. Mercenaries offered an economically sensible solution to security needs in the Atlantic world given the limitations on European state war-making abilities, but as time went on they were supplanted by state-sponsored armies.

What Mercenaries Tell Us About The Atlantic World

As a more recent genre of history, Atlantic History’s scope and mandate have been subjects of debate among scholars. What is the “Atlantic World”? Prior to examining the subject of mercenaries, addressing theoretic conception of an “Atlantic World” seems necessary as a starting point. This essay takes the position that the focus of Atlantic History centers upon a definitive economic process (albeit tied to a broader, global process) to create a holistic Atlantic trade system among regions of Europe, Africa, South America, and North America. This history is characterized by encounters and cultural transitions among Europeans, Africans and indigenous Americans. While the temporal duration of the era is also subject to debate, this essay treats Atlantic History as the period between European exploration of the Atlantic in the late 15th century to the mid-19th century. For further discussion on this framework, see the Addendum at the end of this essay.

Mercenaries were among the military forces that expanded and protected European interests during the establishment of the Atlantic system. War was a constant element in building the Atlantic World. Military efforts were critical in efforts to establish and protect the European presence in those indigenous American and African societies that resisted compliance with the Atlantic system. As time went on, conflicts between European rivals in the Atlantic became the predominate form of warfare. As this essay will describe, mercenaries appeared to offer a sufficient military solution early in the Atlantic World, but were eventually supplanted by large, standing, state-sponsored armies. While the phasing out of mercenaries mirrors broader European fiscal-military state development, it could also be argued that the Atlantic World reached a level of development where the scale of military conflicts and security demands could no longer be addressed with private military. In other words, the European project to build an Atlantic system of trade was a success from a European standpoint: There were emerging nation states in America tied to Europe through commerce, settled colonial possessions, and new opportunities for European imperialistic expansion in Africa.

Finally, the word “mercenary” may be defined very broadly, but this essay uses a more restrictive definition in order to focus upon the ground forces that fought and occupied regions of the Atlantic World. First and foremost, this essay does not address private naval forces (privateers and ship-based military) that were highly active in the Atlantic World and perhaps more critical to its development. Second, for the purposes of this essay, the contemporary understanding of a mercenary as a member of a private military force (versus state-sponsored military) is more useful in analyzing mercenaries in Atlantic History and as instruments of state and empire building. Third, it was common for foreign-born nationals to enlist and hold rank in another state’s military, but those individuals are not considered to be mercenaries for the purposes of this essay. Rather, mercenaries are soldiers hired for deployment in the Atlantic World by either (i) non-state actors (e.g., a state-sanctioned conquest given to a private citizen, mercantile companies, revolutionary forces) or (ii) states looking to “outsource” military demands to private operators of soldiers.[1]

Mercenaries, European Militaries, and Atlantic World Warfare

As the period of Atlantic History began in 1492, European monarchies were in a process of state building that would eventually result in nation states by the 19th century (this subject is discussed in more detail below). European monarchs faced strategic challenges from both continental rivals and external threats, while also attempting to capitalize on commercial opportunities in Africa and the Americas.

Feudalism had made launching offensive military campaigns highly challenging for European monarchs. Under feudal systems, military capabilities were oriented toward defense (i.e., to repel invasion) as vassal lords had the rights to place limits on military service demands made by monarchs. In fact, monarchies were not only constrained in raising armies, but also faced limits in the duration an army would serve as well as restrictions against fighting abroad.[2] In addition, limitations on a monarch’s ability to raise taxes and fund a central government meant that standing armies were militarily insignificant. “With rare exceptions, these forces remained comparatively small—from a few hundred men, scarcely more than a bodyguard, to a few thousand.”[3] However, nobles would often buy themselves out of the requirement of military service, providing monarchs with a source of revenue to finance military activities. To raise an army, nascent European military administrative structures worked with private and royal subcontractors.[4] These subcontractors looked to raise armies among the mercenaries and mercenary companies and would serve as the beginning of a state-controlled military establishment.

The limitations on monarchs in raising and maintaining standing armies within their kingdoms were mitigated by those states participating in the international market to purchase the services of mercenaries and mercenary companies in Europe. While mercenaries have existed throughout history, during the Middle Ages certain mercenary organizations developed strong reputations for being highly effective in fighting wars, e.g., Italian condottieri, the Swiss infantry, and the Landsknechte.[5] Mercenary activity expanded in the period between 1560 to 1620, as Europe saw dramatic increases in the number of wars (Habsburg monarchs countering the Ottoman incursion into Europe, plus rivalry between the Habsburgs and French Valois monarchs), the scale at which those wars were fought, and the duration for which the wars lasted. European warfare was no longer limited to what happened on a battlefield. One of the goals of warfare was to bankrupt the enemy state so it could no longer pay its soldiers and sailors, giving “rise of the attritional war, in which sustainability and robust military effectiveness” outweighed the goal of achieving a single decisive victory. Given this change in warfare, mercenary companies and monarchs entered into long-term contracts that offered far more financial upside to mercenary leaders.

Mercenary companies reached their height in Europe during the Thirty Years War, best exemplified by the mercenary Albrecht Wallenstein who raised and maintained an army of 100,000 soldiers. The Thirty Years War saw innovations that transformed the private military model toward more state political alignment, closer administration, and more intensive oversight–creating something akin to what we would term “public-private partnerships” today. The Thirty Years War proved that the mercenary forces that connected “private enterprise and a particular state were much stronger” than the independent private military companies. While states still lacked the financial means and organizational structures to operate armies and navies, the Thirty Years War brought states closer to state-sponsored militaries, while also demonstrating the limitations of private military when it came to organizing and operating forces to fight in politically complex and long-running wars.[6]

From the end of the Thirty Years War and into the eighteenth century, European monarchs took more direct control over armed forces, established larger and more sophisticated standing armies, with mercenary leaders becoming part of state-sponsored military structures. This also coincides with the height of European presence in the Americas. While there were still mercenaries and private military forces (some of which are discussed below relative to the Atlantic World), the state-sponsored standing army was becoming the norm (the reasons for this will be discussed in the conclusion of this essay). Private military enterprisers began to move away from running military operations in order to focus on contracting with central governments to support their armies (arms manufacturing, supply, and transport).[7] The hiring of soldiers shifted away from mercenary companies and towards agents of the state recruiting for that state’s military force. As a consequence, European standing armies in the eighteenth century were multinational forces: for the armies of Britain, France, Spain and Prussia, “[f]oreigners constituted at least one-quarter and as much as 60 percent” of those standing armies. With the exception of Switzerland, all European countries had foreign nationals serving in their standing armies, but certain countries were larger net suppliers of troops. The German states led in supplying soldiers to other European states, but many of those soldiers were actually recruited from other European countries.[8] German princes had replaced private military enterprisers, maintaining sizable standing armies for their own defense while offering soldiers to other states as a means of raising revenue.[9]

At the same time European military organizations were becoming state-sponsored, warfare in the Atlantic World presented Europeans with the new challenge of waging war overseas against non-Westerners. Aside from the Crusades and the Ottoman invasion of Europe, Europeans had mostly been waging war on each other up to the beginning of the Atlantic system (and contemporaneous European efforts to enter Asia and Australia). The Ottoman wars offered the Europeans an important lesson in projecting military power far from the political centers of home countries, whether on the fringes of Europe to rebel invasion or across the Mediterranean in Africa. Furthermore, the depth and breadth military conflict brought about a “strategic culture” in Europe that enabled constant military adaptation (changing training, tactics, strategies, equipment, supply lines, and organization) to respond successfully to strategic imperatives and adapting to the facts on the ground. As European maritime powers reached across the globe, power projection generally followed two modes: the establishment of military bases, and the establishment and expansion of colonies that could provide for their own defense. Of course, in addition to warfare with non-Westerners, the Europeans regularly fought each other in the Atlantic World. In North America, to counter the advantages the British had in colonial development on the east coast (growing population and proximity to coastal naval power), the French and Spanish established inland bases and often went to war with Native American tribes, but never truly consolidated control over territory. Warfare was primarily a contest between the British, French, and Spanish along with Native American allies and proxies and colonists. The conquest of New France in 1758-60 eliminated the potential threat of French aligning and supplying Native Americans to check British expansion. In South America, the early Spanish conquistadors had only taken a small portion of territory, and 250 years of conflict between the Spanish and Portuguese and native people followed the initial conquests of the Aztecs and Incas. In addition, the British, French, and Dutch often saw success in gaining possessions in the Caribbean and South America. In Western and Southwestern Africa, the Europeans were unable to penetrate the “frontier” and were confined to trading posts and forts on the coasts, learning from failures such as the Portuguese incursion into the kingdom of Mutapa in 1693-5, where both disease and successful counterattacks defeated the well-armed Portuguese. European bases were also vulnerable given the superior numbers of Africans, making the European powers dependent upon alliances with local African rulers.[10] The military history of the Atlantic World suggests European strategic culture provided a competitive advantage in making conquests; while certainly not as large a factor as smallpox and other Old World diseases destroying native populations, it can be argued that a strategic culture of military innovation was more important than the technological advantages the Europeans started with.

It is also important to consider the cultural dynamics of European and non-European conflict, and how cultural differences were used to justify not only war, but the degree of violence exhibited in warfare. In the Atlantic World these collisions of cultures “determined who suffered, how they suffered, and who occupied positions of power in which they could inflict suffering.”[11] A dehumanized enemy justified total warfare (i.e., noncombatants killed, prisoners of war executed), adding an additional level of volatility to Atlantic World conflicts.

Mercenaries in the Atlantic World

There appears to be a limited number of historical accounts of mercenaries in the Atlantic World. At this point in time, there are no comprehensive historical studies of mercenaries in the Atlantic World; however, we know mercenaries are often mentioned as being participants in armed conflicts so we can be certain that professional soldiers were very active in the Atlantic World. This essay argues that the use of mercenaries was far more important to Europeans in developing the Atlantic system at the beginning of the period of Atlantic History. As David Parrott has argued, “[private military] made available a level of resources and robustness of organization that would otherwise have been unattainable by government authorities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” especially in projecting military power beyond the European continent.[12] As this essay has shown, at the beginning of the Atlantic system the European states did not have large standing armies that could be deployed overseas,[13] although those capabilities would be developed by the end of the period of Atlantic History. The essay discusses a number of historical accounts of individual mercenaries and mercenary armies that are illustrative and informative as to the importance of mercenaries in European efforts to build an Atlantic system.

Hans Staden in Brazil. At the beginning of the Atlantic World individual mercenaries were employed to bolster the military capabilities for European commercial efforts overseas. While traders, famers, settlers, and other European migrants would be expected to serve in local militias for common defense, their lack of military training and expertise had to be supplemented with trained professional soldiers. While certainly not the atypical mercenary, the case of Hans Staden provides some insights in how mercenaries were utilized in early European efforts to found and organize an Atlantic system.

In 1547, Staden, a native of Hesse and educated urbanite, was hired as a gunner on a Portuguese carrack sailing from Lisbon and going to Brazil. Possibly acquiring skills as a soldier during the Schmalkaldic War, Staden’s reasons for embarking on a career as a mercenary in South America remain unknown–perhaps a lack of opportunity in Hesse, perhaps a personal desire to explore the exotic places that Europeans were hearing more about, or perhaps he was a deserter or a criminal.[14] Staden’s skills were certainly in demand: “As the Portuguese began to extend their overseas expeditions, they began to depend ever more on the service of foreign soldiers, especially artillerists, known as bombardeiros, or gunners, and men such as Staden, who were called espingardeiros (musketeers) in Portuguese.”[15] Shortly after arriving in Pernambuco in January 1548 and unloading the carrack’s cargo, a rebellion erupted among the Tupi and Guarani-speaking Indians who had been forced into slavery in the local sugar plantations. Staden and other professional soldiers were called into service along with local militia, armed North African slaves, and Native American slave warriors to suppress the rebellion. Staden returned with the ship to Lisbon in October 1548.[16] After two years in Spain, Staden agreed to join a Spanish expedition to conquer Rio de la Plata (present day Paraguay) led by conquistador Juan de Salazar y Espinoza. Departing Seville in 1550, the Salazar expedition had over 300 persons and three ships but was beset with misfortune: delays due to navigational problems, one ship lost at sea, the sinking of the flagship, and finally the sinking of the last caravel and marooning of Salazar, Staden, and 120 remaining expedition members at Inbiassapé, an unpopulated region of Brazil. The expedition fractured, and Salazar, Staden, and 12 other soldiers made their way to the Portuguese colony at São Vicente where Staden was offered a position to work as a soldier for the colony: “Defense of the coastal Portuguese settlement at São Vicente was an ongoing concern, making Staden, with his expertise with guns and war, a desirable new resident.”[17] The Portuguese were in conflict with the French-aligned Tupinambá, and Staden was assigned to a forward operating position, a fort built in an disputed area where the Portuguese and their Tupinikin allies regularly fought with the Tupinambá.[18]

After four months Staden was captured by the Tupinambá. While the details of his captivity and eventual freedom and return to Europe are beyond the scope of this essay, Staden published his story in a book entitled True History:

[A] book filled with observations about the natural world of a land far across the sea, a book inflected by the tones of Protestantism, a book that soon became known popularly throughout Germany and the Low Countries as “The Men- Eater Book” (Menschenfresserbuch). Appearing quickly in a second printing in Marburg that same year (1557) and then again in Frankfurt, True History was followed by translations into Dutch and Latin. Its message of personal strength and salvation spoke, it seems, to mostly Protestant audiences.[19]

We do not know the influence Staden’s adventurous account on other men who opted to become mercenaries in the Atlantic World. However, Staden’s case demonstrates that skilled soldiers were in demand among the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th century.

Mercantile Companies. Mercantile companies were new creations in 16th century Europe and were heavy utilizers of private soldiers. Privately capitalized, mercantile companies enjoyed state-granted monopolies over commercial activities in newly penetrated regions in Africa and the Americas. Beyond the modern conception of legal entities organized for business purposes, mercantile companies also “possessed military, judicial, and diplomatic power”[20] and thus behaved as quasi-state entities. Mercantile companies could be granted rights to trade over a certain geography or a certain commodity, or the mercantile company could be granted exclusive license to own and operate plantations and other enterprises. All European powers had joint stock and other forms of mercantile companies; however, the British and Dutch companies were far closer to private enterprises (in contrast with French and Portuguese companies that were far closer to state enterprises). Among the British and Dutch mercantile companies, there was wide array of practices when it came to using mercenaries. Outside of the Atlantic World, the Dutch East Indiana Company and English East India Company used privateers and mercenaries to establish possessions in the Indiana Ocean region, engaging in large scale armed conflicts with both rival Europeans and Non-Europeans. In contrast, mercantile companies in the Atlantic focused more on privateering and less on land-based military action. [21]

One notable and fascinating exception to this was the Dutch West India Company (or “WIC”) which was organized in 1621 with the explicit purpose of disrupting Spain’s American empire. Starting with a successful privateering effort that ended up destroying or capturing 600 Spanish vessels over 20 years, the WIC moved to place settlements in North America and establish New Amsterdam but was primarily interested in establishing a Dutch presence in the South Atlantic. The WIC captured Portuguese forts in on the western coast of Africa in order to participate in the lucrative transatlantic slave trade. In 1624, the WIC launched a successful invasion and capture of Salvador, Bahia, Portugal’s colonial capital of Brazil, but was only able to hold the city for less than a year after being retaken by a considerable Spanish force. In 1630, the WIC was successful in capturing the province of Pernambuco from the Portuguese, establishing New Holland and allowing the Dutch to build on that foothold to take additional territories away from the Portuguese and Spanish.[22]

While successful at disrupting Spain and Portugal holdings and providing the Dutch an opportunity for a colonial presence in South America, there are individual accounts from German mercenaries fighting for the WIC in Brazil (Johannes Gregorius Aldenburgk, Ambrosius Richshoffer, and Michael Hemmersam) that strongly suggest major problems within the WIC’s military forces. Of the WIC’s ground forces, well over one-third came from Germany, and most German troops were confined to lower ranks. Given the ready supply of mercenaries in the 17th century (discussed above), compensation for these soldiers was poor and the demands of service were high, with overarching tensions between officers and enlisted men being exacerbated by religious differences (Dutch officers were largely Calvinist; Germans were mostly Lutheran or Catholic). Aldenburgk served in the invasion and occupation of Bahia and offers an account of the misery of most rank and file soldiers from the brutality of war and battling both disease and hunger. He characterizes the native Brazilians, Portuguese moradores, and Africans waging the war of resistance as outright savages but, at the same time, Aldenburgk is highly critical of Dutch military leadership that was both neglectful of the needs of rank and file soldiers and strategically incompetent. The accounts of Richshoffer and Hemmersam from other theaters in the WIC’s Brazil campaign are similar and emphasize not only the violence of war, but the numbers of soldiers who died of disease during the campaigns.[23]

Ultimately, the financial cost of the WIC’s military campaigns brought about the collapse of the value of its shares and near bankruptcy in 1640, forcing the WIC to abandon its military arm and to focus on commercial activities.[24]

As for the British joint stock companies, the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa (the “CRA”) was founded in 1663 to further British access to the transatlantic slave trade on the coast of West Africa. The CRA quickly found itself fighting the WIC in the Gold Coast, leading to open warfare between the British and the Dutch Republic in 1665, during which the CRA’s trade suffered. The CRA was replaced with the Royal African Company (the “RAC”) that had broad license to control British trade in Africa, working closely with the Royal Navy to enforce the charter (rather than having its own privateers). In the 1670s and 1680s the RAC fought with the WIC for better forts and trading posts on the African coast, including engaging in proxy wars between African kingdoms as well as internal power struggles within those kingdoms. Succumbing to other domestic groups wanting to engage in Africa, the RAC lost its monopoly status in 1712. At nearly the same time, the South Sea Company (“SSC”) and Hudson Bay Company were founded. The SSC supplied slaves to Spanish America while Hudson Bay Company was established to develop trade between the Great Lakes Region and Britain. [25] The extent these companies used mercenaries is unclear and, in some cases, may not have been necessary given the location of their commercial endeavors. For example, the Hudson Bay Company used its employees as militia and entered alliances for Native American tribes for most of its history, at least until it came into conflict with another mercantile company that necessitated the hiring of a small mercenary force.[26]

In conclusion, using mercenary forces appeared to be effective in the WIC’s efforts to disrupt Spanish and Portuguese commerce, however it does not appear that the WIC’s mercenary armies could hold territory as effectively as the regulars from a state’s standing army coupled with local militias (e.g., the British colonies in North America, and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America). In contrast, the British joint stock companies appeared to require mercenary forces as they forced themselves into Africa, with far less utilization of private military in the Americas.

Steadman and Dutch Surinam. Similar to Staden, John Gabriel Stedman, a Dutch mercenary, wrote a popular account of his experiences in Surinam in 1790. Stedman’s Narrative has been critiqued in many ways, certainly self-aggrandizing and often incredulous, there are parts of his book that offer a rich travel log of the fauna and flora of Surinam. At the same time, there is a sensationalist quality to Stedman’s book that seems to play on the shock value of sexually explicit and interracial romance, brutal accounts of slavery (some considered to be proto abolitionist), and the barbarity of war. Underlying Stedman’s story was a Dutch military effort utilizing mercenaries to quell an insurgency by organized bands of maroons.

Marronage from earlier in Surinam’s history helped to build and establish independent groups of maroons. Past conflicts resulted in peace treaties with the colony that granted independence to those groups of maroons. Perhaps based on that success, there were new, smaller groups of maroons who escaped slavery and lived in the surrounding rainforests on the eastern edge of the colony. In 1768 those new groups began to agitate against the Dutch and raid sugar plantations. By 1772, the maroon insurgents’ successes led to more slaves deserting plantations to join the maroon groups, causing even more disruption in Surinam’s plantation economy. Plantations and military outposts were soon falling to attacks. Finally, at the request of the colony’s governor, the Dutch States-General raised a mercenary force to assist the overwhelmed local troops in fighting off the maroons.

Stedman was a retired veteran of the Scots Brigade under the Dutch Stadthouder, and found himself in debt with a need to raise cash. He joined the Dutch mercenary force of 800 professional soldiers at the rank of captain. The mercenary force arrived in Surinam in February 1773. Colonial forces had seen some recent successes against one of the maroon bands known as a Boni, but the mobility of the small insurgent groups made it a challenge for the Dutch to successfully engage the maroons in decisive battles. Upon the arrival of the mercenary force, the Dutch began to deploy three to four-month excursions hunting for the maroons, patrolling swamps and rain forests, and destroying any villages or fields kept by the groups. Stedman participated in seven such campaigns but only saw one significant battle, seizing and burning a village called Gabo Sabi in 1774. The maroons countered the Dutch with guerrilla tactics, using ambushes and hit and run attacks. In 1775, the Dutch mercenaries were reinforced with another 830 troops from the Holland. Ultimately, after five years the Dutch were successful in driving away the Boni and other maroon insurgents to French Guiana. However, of the original force of 1,630 mercenaries, only 200 made the return to Europe (including Stedman).[27]

The Dutch achieved the desired strategic outcome in Surinam using mercenary forces, albeit over a long time period and at a high cost in human lives.

The Hessians. In the American Revolutionary War, the British opted to hire 30,000 German soldiers to fight in North America because the military endeavor of suppressing the colonial revolt was too large for the British army to manage, and in hiring a mercenary force the British obtained “trained troops [that] could be ready much more quickly than Britain could recruit and train men.” The British had used continental mercenaries and auxiliaries in most of its wars in the 18th century (including the Seven Years War), so the decision to bring a mercenary force to North America was only unusual in that this was the first time “the Hessians” would fight in the New World. In addition to the Hessians, the British also attempted to purchase the services of 20,000 Russian soldiers from Empress Catherine as well as the services of the Dutch Scots Brigade. While the German forces are referred to as “Hessians” this is a bit of a misnomer; arranged by the Landgraf of Hessen-Kassel, Fredrich II, the British signed treaties with the principalities of Hessen-Kassel, Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, and Hesse-Hanau—though roughly two-thirds of the soldiers were from Hessen-Kassel.[28]

Much has been made of decision by the British to hire the Hessians. However, it is doubtful the Hessians hastened the Americans to find foreign allies (the Americans were in discussions with the French prior to the Hessian recruitment) nor did it further alienate Royalists. Furthermore, while there were tensions between the British army command the Hessian leadership, none of those issues rose to a level that would undermine the war effort. In the seven years of service in the war, the Hessians lost two major engagements to the Americans (the Battle of Trenton in 1776 and the Battle of Red Bank in 1777) but otherwise were an effective force that significantly assisted the British war effort to hold the colonies. However, desertion was high, and deaths of soldiers were considerable: 25% of the Hessian force died in America, but the majority of deaths were from disease with only 10% of the Hessians being killed in action. Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the Hessian officers and soldiers serving in America only received meager financial benefits for their services, the Landgraf of Hessen-Kassel, Fredrich II, profited handsomely from the treaties signed with the British.[29]

Gran Columbia’s War of Independence. Simón Bolívar led a fight for independence in the Spanish colonies that brought about the founding of the short-lived state of Gran Columbia.[30] Bolívar was supported by Haiti and had raised mercenary force to invade Orinoco. From 1816 to 1825, Bolívar led revolutionary forces against royalists and Spanish imperial forces. His army was mostly comprised of castas (blacks, mestizos and mulattos) and pardos (mixed-race Europeans, Indians and/or Africans), and freed slaves and Indians were also recruited into the ranks.[31]

In contrast to the Hessians in the Revolutionary War, European mercenaries were sought by the Creole elites of the Spanish colonies who thought experienced soldiers were needed to supplement the ranks of militia and irregulars comprising the revolutionary army.[32] In the wars leading to the formation of Gran Columbia, over 7,000 European mercenaries (predominantly from England and Ireland) served in Bolívar’s military forces. However, in mustering these forces, the vast majority of these soldiers actually had no prior military experience and were looking for an immigration opportunity in addition to payment for services as soldiers.[33]

As to the impact these mercenaries had on wars against the Spanish to establish Gran Columbia, the military significance of these foreign mercenaries appears to be unclear at best. Of the first wave of 700 troops brought to Venezuela in 1817, most died in a shipwreck. Of the survivors, 100 were thought to fight in the Battle of Boyacá while 80 or so others served in the campaign that culminated in the decisive Battle of Carabobo in 1821. The 2,100 man “British Legion” recruited in 1819, nearly half of those soldiers died of disease while stationed in Margarita, while the other 1,000 or so saw action in attacking Barcelona and fighting in the Battle of Carabobo. The “Irish Legion” of 1,700 soldiers—the most problematic of all of the mercenary forces (discussed below)—lost 750 of its members to disease, 550 were deported for insurrection, and the remaining 400 seeing action in La Ciénaga and Cartagena, with any survivors later absorbed into the ranks of the British and Albion Legions. The “MacGregor Legions” of 900 soldiers lost 300 soldiers to desertion, and of the remaining 600 troops, 300 soldiers fought at Riohacha and 300 fought at Portobello.[34]

In summary, of the nearly 7,000 mercenaries recruited, 1,000 died in transit, deserted, returned home, or were deported prior to seeing action, while approximately 1,500 died of disease. Around 4,300 soldiers saw action in Gran Columbia, and of those soldiers 1,800 were estimated killed in action, with 2,500 surviving the wars and either settling in Gran Columbia or returning to Europe.[35] While the mercenaries made contributions in certain battlefield victories, it seems questionable that with such low numbers of troops the British Legion could have had a decisive impact on the overall war effort.

In fact, the Irish Legion served an example of the potential folly in using foreign mercenaries. The 1,700-man force was initially stationed on Margarita, an island off the Venezuelan coast. On Margarita the combination of disease and lack of clean water took a heavy toll on the Irish Legion, killing nearly half the soldiers and also causing rampant desertions. In March 1820, 600 troops from the Irish Legion took part in the assault on the Spanish-controlled port of Riohacha in New Granada. Prior to making an attack, local Spanish forces fled the port and retreated to forested hills. The Irish Legion took Riohacha with no resistance; however, the troops refused to pursue the Spanish, and ongoing disciplinary problems culminated in rioting, looting, and burning parts of Riohacha. The Irish Legion soldiers were eventually subdued and then deported to Jamaica.[36]

Conclusion: European State Building, the Monopoly on Violence, and the Fiscal-Military State

Violence, which for three or four centuries was an international market commodity, was by 1900 taken off the market. States could no longer buy an army or navy from the international system. Individuals could no longer join the armed forces of the state offering the highest wage, nor could they use violence to pursue their own interests in the international system.[37]

As European monarchies transformed to nation states, among the consequences were a decreased demand for mercenaries as well as a decreased supply of private soldiers. During the nineteenth century, private military ceased being a major consideration in both Europe and the Atlantic World.

A full discussion of European state building is beyond the scope of this essay. Theoretically and in very basic terms, state building brought about more centralized authority (whether to a monarch or to a constitutional republican government) at the cost of the rights and freedoms of competing domestic interests (landed gentry, religious organizations, capitalists, bourgeoisie/middle class). There was a greater exhibition of government power over private interests, including the power to tax any activities that occurred within a nation’s boundaries as a means of raising revenue for the state. There was greater control over citizens achieved through more complex but uniform codes of laws, bodies of enforcement, and judicial bodies. Governmental structures and societal institutions were built to serve the nation state’s central authority. In the Weberian sense, this meant a robust bureaucratic state that could include means of indoctrination through public systems of education. Finally, there were cultural efforts to define what it meant to be a citizen in a nation state (i.e., nationalism), including definitions of language, religion, and ethnicity.

Consistent with the concept of state building, nation states began to outlaw their citizens’ involvement in the wars and militaries of other nation states. Facing British pressure to prevent Americans from working as mercenaries for the French, the first of these laws was the Neutrality Act of 1794 wherein the United States placed legal restrictions on its citizens assisting in another state’s war efforts, as well as prohibited residents from enlisting in foreign armies. Certain European countries were quick to institute similar laws (France in 1804 and Britain in 1819). By 1938, 49 nation states had laws in place that limited their citizens from serving in foreign armies or in assisting war efforts that were contrary to the nation state’s interest.[38]

However, the transition to nation states was not an easy one. Certain states saw more success at centralizing authority than others. Political and economic elites influenced the powers of central governments, sometimes building them up and sometimes holding them at bay. “The scale, competence and resources of early modern governments has been greatly overestimated, and their capacity to achieve objectives correspondingly exaggerated.”[39] Specifically related to the subject of mercenaries and private military, nation states “delegitimated and eliminated” nonstate violence and claimed monopolies over the use of violence not only with their national borders, but also extraterritorially. While this would appear to be a fundamental element of a powerful nation state, it took until the twentieth century to achieve international consensus. Given the time taken for European and other states to finally assert this claim of monopoly, it appears that state authority and control over violence was largely an inadvertent consequence. After all, it is important to remember that Europeans saw success with private military in its recent past. However, once nation states started to involve themselves in regulating nonstate violence, diplomatic considerations led to a consensus among nation states that they–through their central governments—hold the monopoly on violence.[40]

When it comes to warfare, the concept of state building assumes that the goal of the central government is the absolute power to tax and spend in order to achieve its military objectives. However, this is may be overly simplistic. Rather than considering Europe’s military evolution through the lens of state building, the more streamlined concept of a “fiscal-military state” may be a more useful rubric. This concept focuses on maximizing limited fiscal resources in order to achieve a state’s military objectives. Limited fiscal resources meant states faced funding gaps in waging wars, and private military offered a means of funding those gaps. This system matured and changed over time, and states expanded their abilities to raise funds (expanded powers of taxation as well as accessing credit in capital markets) as wars became more costly and financially demanding, yet the need for military effectiveness (i.e., not squandering limited resources) created more pressure for strategic innovation in war making. The fiscal-military state is complimentary to the concept of strategic innovation, including the drive for further technological developments to improve battlefield weaponry. By the eighteenth century there had been “a gradual but inexorable increase in the killing-power of battlefield technology.” Massive losses of highly trained professional soldiers in the Seven Years War of put huge strains on European fiscal-military states, and with the realization that future wars would involve massive casualties, armies had to increase in size. Thus, the alternative model of citizen-soldiers came into being by the nineteenth century. Although not nearly as well-trained nor as effective as professional soldiers, the state’s ability to muster an army from its citizenry represented the best usage of finite fiscal resources and marked the end of the military enterprise as a source of combat troops.[41]

However, prior to the wide-scale implementation of standing armies of citizen-soldiers, we can see the importance of mercenaries through the Atlantic World examples discussed in this essay. Mercenaries like Staden and Stedman played vital security roles in state colonization efforts as state-sponsored military was unavailable. The mercenaries employed by the mercantile companies served a similar purpose in furthering state interests via the joint stock companies. The Hessians provided a financial benefit to their German principalities while helping the British leverage the finite resources of the British army. Only when we get to the non-state sponsored adventurers involving themselves in Gran Columbia do we see a questionable usefulness of mercenaries.

As the nineteenth century began and the Atlantic period came to an end, Europe had moved to standing, large scale armies of citizen soldiers, while mercenary activity largely comes to an end. Thus, the history of the mercenaries in the Atlantic World reflects the evolution and development of European militaries. While state building offers a framework for understanding the transition away from mercenaries and toward a state-sponsored army, the concept of the fiscal-military state understood through the lens of constant strategic innovation may offer us with a better understanding. Mercenaries offered an economically sensible solution to security needs in the Atlantic world given the limitations on European state war-making abilities, but as time went on they were supplanted by state-sponsored armies.

Of course, private military continued to exist in the 20th century and grew in the early 21st century–innovations that can be understood through the rubric of the fiscal-military state, as these forces may be privately-owned and managed, they serve the nation state they are domiciled in or, at least, they do not stray from the penumbras of foreign policy set by that state.


Addendum: Theoretic Conception of the “Atlantic World”

In order to avoid conflation and overlap with other schools of history, Atlantic History should be calibrated in a way that makes it neither overly broad nor overly prescriptive. The starting point to understanding the Atlantic World has to be recognition of European efforts to build an Atlantic system that would ultimately serve various economic, strategic, and political objectives of those European monarchies active in the Atlantic World (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands–soon to be proto-empires). Seeking natural resources as vital inputs to developing domestic economies, the Europeans were committed to building a dominant presence in the Americas and Africa through either trade or invasion, and ultimately built the Atlantic World to suit European economic ends: “The European achievement was to link these subzones together into a single Atlantic system.”[42] As such, the “circum-Atlantic history” approach described by David Armitage provides the clearest and most defensible form of Atlantic History: transnational, chronologically tracking the rise of the nation state in Europe, and focusing on processes of “interchange, circulation and transmission” within not only the Atlantic Ocean geography, but also within the entire zone of the European-invented Atlantic system.[43] Circum-Atlantic history offers clear temporal, geographic, and substantive considerations to identify the content of a holistic “Atlantic World” and thus provides a theoretical coherence similar to that of Mediterranean History.[44] However, according to Alison Games, circum-Atlantic history is also the most challenging as it needs to “[explain] transformations, experiences, and events in one place in terms of conditions deriving from that place’s location in a large, multifaceted, interconnected world.”[45]

In that spirit, Peter Coclanis offers a compelling intervention to open Atlantic History to broader connections and ties to the rest of the world,[46] following a more Globalist approach. Coclanis’ application of the “articulation of production modes” employed by Neo-Marxists is useful for understanding a theory for the Atlantic World.[47] European encounters with Africans and Native Americans happened alongside other encounters throughout the globe, creating pathways and circuits of commerce—efforts wholly or at least partially motivated by economic incentives and ultimately creating, in Wallerstein’s analysis, a Capitalist World Economy.[48] However, while this creates a useful economic framework for Atlantic History and acknowledges the interconnectedness of rest of global history, there is a danger that a strict lens of economic history leads us to Eurocentrism (ignoring the points of view of Native Americans and Africans participating in the “system’s periphery”) as well as potentially ignoring critical and transformative cultural processes in the Atlantic World.[49]

One cannot ignore the consequences of instituting the Atlantic system of commerce: highly complex and often violent cultural processes were direct and indirect consequences of dramatic economic transformation. Understanding the Atlantic World as a location for complex cultural processes adds further clarity to the definition of Atlantic History. While the overall project may have been European-driven and furthered a capitalist world system emanating from Western Europe, the resulting cultural processes were often more historically significant. Aaron Fogleman provides a cultural definition for the theoretical focus, as the Atlantic World is “[M]ade by encounters among Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans wherever of the Atlantic World…on all four continents and at sea. Atlantic history is most revealing when some form of contact, encounter, or integration of African, Native American, and European experiences is studied.”[50] Not only were certain cultures destroyed, but New and Old World cultures were transformed while entirely new cultures came into being in Africa and the Americas.

Regarding the temporal boundaries for the subject, the starting point of the Atlantic World appears relatively clear in that we can simply look to the first encounters between Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans as explorers “discovered” Africa and the Americas (from a European point of view) in 1492. However, the endpoint of Atlantic History is less easily defined. Arguably, one could look to the maturity of both economic and cultural processes of the Atlantic World as a signifier of a historical ending point. Therefore, one could argue Atlantic History ends by 1840 after (i) the independence movements in the Americans resulted in minimal European political control (ending with Bolivian independence in 1825), (ii) the start of Buxton Plan of 1837 in Africa (escalating European colonial efforts in Western and West Central Africa), and (iii) the beginning of the era of “Manifest Destiny” in the United States (intensified efforts to seize remaining Native American lands from tribes that had long since lost the contest against the invading Europeans).



Armitage, David. “Three Concepts of Atlantic History.” In The British Atlantic World,1500-1800, edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick. 11-27. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2002.

Atwood, Rodney. The Hessians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Beeler, David. “Neptune’s Trident: An Interpretation of German Mercenaries in the Service of the Dutch West-India Company, 1623-1645.” Traversea, Vol 4, 2014. 72-86.

Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Black, Jeremy M. European Warfare in a Global Context, 1660-1815. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Brown, Matthew. Adventuring through the Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006.

Brown, Matthew. “Crusaders for Liberty or Vile Mercenaries? The Irish Legion in Colombia.” Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Vol. 4, No. 2, March 2006. 37-44.

Coclanis, Peter. “Atlantic World or Atlantic/World?” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Oct., 2006). 725-742.

Duffy, Eve M., and Alida C. Metcalf. The Return of Hans Staden: A Go-between in the Atlantic World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Eltis, David. “Atlantic History in Global Perspective.” Itinerario 23, no. 2 (1999). 141-161.

Fogleman, Aaron S. “The Transformation of the Atlantic World, 1776-1867.” Atlantic Studies: Literary, Cultural and Historical Perspectives, 6:1 (April 2009). 5-28.

Games, Alison. “Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities.” American Historical Review, 111:3 (June 2006). 741-757.

Mitchell, Matthew David. “British Joint-Stock Companies and Atlantic Trading.” In The Atlantic World, edited by D’Maris Coffman, Adrian Leonard, and William O’Reilly, 441-456. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Parrott, David. The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Smolenski, John. “Violence in the Atlantic World.” In The Atlantic World, edited by D’Maris Coffman, Adrian Leonard, and William O’Reilly, 245-263. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Stedman, John Gabriel, Richard Price, and Sally Price. Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam: Transcribed for the First Time From the Original 1790 Manuscript. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Thomson, Janice. Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16, no. 4 (1974). 387-415.

Wilson, Peter H. “The German ‘Soldier Trade’ of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Reassessment.” The International History Review, Vol. 18, No. 4 November 1996. 757-792.



[1] Although state-sponsored, the Hessian forces fighting in the American Revolutionary War are studied in this essay. The Hessians represent a liminal period where minor German states took the place of the private military companies in order to operate a state-sponsored business enterprise. In addition, the Hessian forces maintained a character similar to the mercenary companies in that there were substantial numbers of non-German professional soldiers serving in the ranks.

[2] Janice Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994) 27.

[3] David Parrott, The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 30.

[4] Thomson, 27.

[5] Parrott, 40-70.

[6] Parrott, 71-80, 101-105, 134-136

[7] Parrott, 309-310.

[8] Thomson, 26-31.

[9] Atwood, 8. Note that the motivations of German princes have been subject to revisionist analyses suggesting that the financial benefits of supplying soldiers were meager, and political motivations and the desire for internationally relevancy were the true drivers of the German soldier trade. See Peter H. Wilson, “The German ‘Soldier Trade’ of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Reassessment,” The International History Review, Vol. 18, No. 4 November 1996, 757-792.

[10] Jeremy M. Black, European Warfare in a Global Context, 1660-1815, (New York: Routledge, 2007) 14-29, 196-203.

[11] John Smolenski, “Violence in the Atlantic World,” in The Atlantic World, ed. D’Maris Coffman, Adrian Leonard, and William O’Reilly, (New York: Routledge, 2015), 249, 256.

[12] Parrott, 320.

[13] Spain was a first mover in conquest efforts in the Americas, and also happened to be the first to have the state to become more involved in operating a military force. By the end of the Thirty Years War, the Spanish monarchy had “brought together a core of troops—the tercios viejos—which were directly organized and funded by the state, surrounded by a much larger military establishment made up of military contractors.” The Spanish faced “uniquely intense and large scale” wars that necessitated further military innovation (Parrot, 135). Arguably, the demands of fighting wars in the Americas could have helped to hasten a state-sponsored military in Spain–however, more research would be needed to verify this.

[14] Eve M. Duffy and Alida C. Metcalf, The Return of Hans Staden: A Go-between in the Atlantic World, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) 1-30.

[15] Duffy, 30.

[16] Duffy, 35-37.

[17] Duffy, 45.

[18] Duffy, 38-47.

[19] Duffy, 89.

[20] Thomson, 10.

[21] Thomson, 31-54.

[22] Thomas Benjamin, The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400–1900, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009) 248-253.

[23] David Beeler, “Neptune’s Trident: An Interpretation of German Mercenaries in the Service of the Dutch West-India Company, 1623-1645,” Traversea, Vol 4, (2014), 72-86.

[24] Parrott, 323.

[25] Matthew David Mitchell, “British Joint-Stock Companies and Atlantic Trading,” in The Atlantic World, ed. D’Maris Coffman, Adrian Leonard, and William O’Reilly, (New York: Routledge, 2015), 446-453.

[26] Thomson, 38-39.

[27] John Gabriel Stedman, Richard Price, and Sally Price, Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam: Transcribed for the First Time From the Original 1790 Manuscript, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) 10-22.

[28] Rodney Atwood, The Hessians, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) 1, 15, 23-24, 27-28, 157.

[29] Atwood, 31-32, 120-129, 153, 157, 238, 249-251.

[30] Dissolved in 1831, Gran Columbia was primarily comprised of the territories of present day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. In addition, Gran Columbia also held small portions of Peru, Guyana, and Brazil.

[31] Benjamin, 603-605.

[32] Matthew Brown, Adventuring through the Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) 13.

[33] Brown, 22-29.

[34] Brown, 40-41.

[35] Brown, 42.

[36] Matthew Brown, “Crusaders for Liberty or Vile Mercenaries? The Irish Legion in Colombia,” Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Vol. 4, No. 2, (March 2006), 37-40.

[37] Thomson, 19.

[38] Thomson, 77-97.

[39] Parrott, 311.

[40] Thomson, 143-152.

[41] Parrott, 307-327.

[42] David Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History,” In The British Atlantic World,1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2002), 16.

[43] Armitage, 16-18.

[44] Armitage imagines an expansive array of Atlantic historical analyses. However, this framework implies an overly broad definition of Atlantic History and a loosely defined concept of an Atlantic World. Starting with cis-Atlantic history, an “Atlantic approach” of a particular place’s history could not be substantively different from that place’s local history, social history, cultural history, etc. In other words, an “Atlantic approach” may not provide enough difference to merit distinction. Regarding trans-Atlantic history, this approach seems the most open to Coclanis’ critique of being too limiting when engaging in intra-Atlantic comparisons.

[45] Alison Games, “Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities,” American Historical Review, 111:3 (June 2006), 747.

[46] Peter Coclanis, “Atlantic World or Atlantic/World?” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), 725-742.

[47] Coclanis, 737-739.

[48] Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16, no. 4 (1974), 387-415.

[49] David Eltis, “Atlantic History in Global Perspective,” Itinerario 23, no. 2 (1999), 143-144.

[50] Aaron S. Fogleman, “The Transformation of the Atlantic World, 1776-1867,”  Atlantic Studies: Literary, Cultural and Historical Perspectives, 6:1 (April 2009), 5-28.

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