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Privateer or Buccaneer?


What's 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 privateer.

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" vessel is.


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 legged pigs.

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). The Spanish called the Corsario.


Filibusters 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" or runaway.

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 didn't.

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.

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The only author and editor of all pages on the site. Most of what I write about is based on years of book reading on the topic. My first web page was published back in 1994.

Updated: 04 September 2022