a Privateer, Pirate, Buccaneer, and/or Marooner?
There are several terms that one hears when discussing piracy.
They are called, marooners, buccaneers, privateers and pirates.
Depending on the source they can all mean the same. Typically however
they are categorized as such.
A Merchant is a ship commissioned
by a government or company to perform specific noncombatant tasks,
such as shipping cargo, transporting slaves, or perhaps obtaining
bread fruit. They would sail under letters from companies or countries
giving them permission to complete the tasks. The men aboard were
called merchants, merchant sailors, or merchant marines. Merchant
ships were often armed and sometimes escorted. The crew received
their pay from the company or nation that outfitted the ship.
A Privateer was an armed
ship under papers to a government or a company to
perform specific tasks. The men who sailed on a privateer were also
called privateers. The papers were usually referred to as a Marque
of Letters. Some times these letters would give the captain
rights to act in the behalf of a certain company or government to
commit acts of reprisal, escort merchants, or protect coastal areas
or property. Often the limits of the Marque were vague, leaving
it up to the captain and crew to determine what they could take
or attack. Sometimes the privateers ignored the Marque and just
did what they bloody well pleased. Most of the time, Privateers
were engaged of act of reprisals against other nations, that is
engaged in acts of war. A key distinction between a Merchant and
Privateer, is the privateer was not paid by the nation or company
but paid by taking spoils from ships or properties they attacked
or fought off.
Depending on the attitude of the government, this was sometimes
actually appreciated, especially when the privateers' actions were
against a foreign nation that was not on good terms with the hosting
nation. During times of war, some governments would commission privateers
to seek out and attack the ships of hostile nations. This was especially
true of England. In this case, the Privateers would sail "on the
account". That is they would loot, pillage, and plunder England's
enemies for King and Country. For their efforts the Captain and
crew would receive a portion of the plunder, between 1/5 and 1/2
with the rest going to the Crown. In return the Captain and crew
had safe harbor and was protected by England. Henry Morgan was a
Privateers often worked beyond the limits as detailed by their
letter of Marque, often attacking neutral countries as well as hostile
nations. Rarely would privateers attack their own country's ships.
This would have been an act of high treason.
Countries would often complain about the actions of privateers
but most of the time England would ignore the complaints unless
they were in the middle of delicate negotiations, in which case
the head of a privateer would be offered up as a small payment for
what could be a large and generous reward.
Most importantly, the famous "Articles
of Piracy" often did not apply to a ship of privateers. Often
the ship belonged to a company, government or private owner. The
owner of the ship would be the captain or the government or company
would commission a captain by Letter of Marque. The Captain would
then raise a crew of volunteer and the crew would be arranged along
the lines similar to the navy of the nation served by the Captain.
Typically a privateer would sign up for a mission and was free to
go or stay after that mission was over.
Often privateers were simple merchant marines who were engaged
in acts of war for profit. Other time they were hired mercenaries.
Privateers, unlike pirates were quite open about what they did and
were typically considered heroes by their host nations. The movie
Sea Hawks portrays privateers. Captain John Paul Jones, father
of the U.S. Navy and revolutionary war hero was a privateer. Privateering
was abolished by most European nations in 1856 Declaration of Paris.
Spain and the United States did not sign the declaration and continued
to use privateers to augment their navies. By 1908, Spain and the
United State would also recognize the declaration. At that point
all "armed" merchant vessels would be listed as warships.
Of course, no two nations have decided just exactly what an "armed"
Buccaneers were French settlers
in the Caribbean who used to barbecue or "smoke" wild boar and oxen.
A boucan or buccan is the native South American
name for a wooden framework or hurdle on which meat was roasted
or smoked over a fire. Boucanier literally means "someone who
makes smoke". The word boucane was adopted in to the
French language from the Native American and means smoke. Boucane
is still used in the popular language in Quebec, Canada. As the
Europeans arrived in the Caribbean, domesticated livestock escaped
or were left behind. These animals became wild and their numbers
exploded on the predator free islands. The buccaneers hunted the
wild pigs and goats and used to smoke their meat, hence the term
in the fashion of the indigenous islanders. Because many of the
"boucaniers" turned to privateering for reason described
below, the anglicized term "buccaneer" became synonymous
with the privateers and later pirates in the region
The buccaneers were used to the climate and the hardships of the
area and were thus more acclimated to life in the Caribbean. They
were also geographically closer to the spanish Main and therefore
more reliable for the defense of British colonies than Navy more
inclined to the defense of Britain and warfare along the coast of
europe. Many of the Buccaneers found more profitable life styles
hunting Spanish Doubloons instead of wild pigs. Of course you usually
didn't run the risk of being hanged in irons when you hunted four
Buccaneers were known as the "Brothers of the Coast" Many were
French sailors who had jumped ship to avoid the harsh discipline
of life at sea. They settled in the numerous small islands in the
Caribbean and for the most part wanted nothing to do with the world
outside their little hunting parties.
They became expert marksmen with their long barrel muskets but
rarely used their guns while hunting the wild boar and oxen. Instead
they would band together and run down their prey and kill it with
their long sharp knives. Typically each buccaneer would carry at
least two large knives. The knives were larger than today's butcher
knives but shorter than a cutlass.
With these knives, they would expertly cut the ligaments in the
pigs hindquarters, which would immobilize the animal. Once the pig
was on the ground, they would then jump it from behind and slit
its throat. One source claims that the Buccaneers were so expert
in this method of hunting, that they only had to use their muskets
for one out of every hundred kills.
When their numbers were small, Spain ignored the Buccaneers but
as their numbers began to increase, Spain realized that they could
become a threat to their New World Colonies. (Spain laid claim to
the islands that most of the Buccaneers were living on) Because
of this perceived threat, Spain began an active program to rid its
colonies of these vagrants, and the preferred method was to kill
them. It was because of Spain's oppressive nature toward the Buccaneers
that England was able to easily recruit them into Privateering forces
against a common enemy.
Corsaire is the the term used by
the French for what in English is a privateer. (Not to be confused
with Corsair, a North African pirate/privateer). Th Spanish called
Filibuster were the French pirates
(or privateers) in the Caribbean who attacked mainly Spanish ships,
towns or property. Filibuseters ofent worked hand in hand with the
buccaneers in the last half of the 17th century. The French refered
to pirates as forban, and privateers as filibusters.
Marooners were yet another special
breed of pirate harassing the Spanish Main. Marooner is a corruption
of the Spanish word "cimarrona" which loosely translates to "deserter"
The Spanish Navy was probably more ruthless than that of England
and many Spaniards deserted the Navy at the first opportunity. Imagine,
if you will, the prospect of protecting the gold on a galleon from
pirates while being poorly fed and treated and you can see why Spain
suffered from a high desertion rate. It is one thing to die trying
to get rich, it is another thing to die poor while protecting a
rich man's money.
A second group of marooners were the Cimmaron Negroes. These were
the run away of slaves that had been brought to the Americas by
Spain to haul the gold. The cimarronas quickly fell in with the
other Brethren of the coast and became known as Marooners.
Eventually the term became a common word (but not as common as
Buccaneer) for any pirate in the Caribbean. As time passed the pirate
punishment of leaving shipmates on small spits of land entered the
language as "Marooning". The most famous of these Marooned men was
the privateer Alexsander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.
Spain considered what Privateers did as piracy so as far as they
were concerned there was no difference between a pirate and a privateer.
A pirate was a sea robber that for one reason or another looted
under no jack (flag) other than Captain Death (the Jolly Roger).
For the most part they organized their ship just as a privateering
crew but with some exception. Many a privateer became pirates when
they continued to stay on the account during a time when
England decided to be at peace with Spain.
Many pirates, particularly English pirates would not attack ship
belonging to England. Their stated reasons were that they would
never attack a British ship out of respect for the King or Queen
or because they were not at war with England,or they were pirates
but not traitors. Their main reason, of course, was that they hoped
that by not attack British ships they would be given safe harbor
or passage from the British. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it
That Leaves Pirates
In the loosest terms, any of the above can be a pirate. If a privateer
is fighting for another country, you would probably consider him
a pirate. The British considered John Paul Jones a traitor and a
pirate! The term is very loose. Anyone who robs at sea is and was
a pirate. When privateers exceeded the bounds of their commission,
they became pirates. There is a thin line between smugglers and
pirates. The thin line was smugglers didn't rob per-se, they just
brought in goods that had been stolen or were not properly taxed
by the authorities. Depending on the circumstance, pirates did their
share of smuggling as well as robbing.
There are numerous terms used to describe the life of piracy. some
of the more common are Brethren of the Coast or Brotherhood
of the Coast, On the Account, Gentleman of Fortune,
Sea Dog, Sailing with the Devil, Sailing Under
Articles. Often Pirates would claim they sailed under no flag,
meaning they belonged to no nation.
Pirates only remained successful so long as nations allowed them
to roam. Often, a corrupt governor would allow a persons or persons
perform piratical acts for a set fee, similar to the arrangements
for privateering. Of course the acts committed were not against
enemy vessels, it was just purely for financial gain. In return
the pirate received safe harbor. Once nations and colonial authorities
eliminated safe harbors, organized piracy began to dry up quickly.
By definition, a pirate is any person committing a criminal acts
against public authority, on the high seas outside the normal jurisdiction
and laws of any state (country). By law, they can be arrested, prosecuted,
and sentenced by any state that captures them. Also, by definition,
the criminal act is of a private nature, that is personal gain,
and not for political reasons. Of course that is very narrow definition
that all nations agree on. Needless to say, even today, most nations
have a broader interpretation of what a pirate is.