Piet Heyn (1577-1629), privateer of the Spanish treasure fleet, ranks as one of the great 17th-century Dutch naval heroes who fought for the might of the Dutch Republic at sea.
He became a seaman at a young age and was taken prisoner by the Spanish in 1600. He served two years as a galley slave on a Spanish ship. After being released, he made a career in the merchant marine and in the Dutch West India Company (WIC). The WIC issued him a ‘letter of marque’, authorizing him to attack enemy ships. Piet Heyn’s greatest battle took place in 1628, when he captured the Spanish treasure fleet (known as the ‘Silver Fleet’) in the Bay of Matanzas on the Cuban coast. This was an annual convoy of silver and other costly goods from Central America to Spain. The value of the spoils came close to an astonishing 12 million guilders. Because Heyn received a mere 7000 guilders for his efforts, he resigned. Stadholder Frederick Henry then appointed him lieutenant-admiral of Holland, the most important rank in the naval forces. Heyn held this post only briefly, however, for he was killed in a skirmish with privateers near Dunkirk.