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Commerce raiders called privateers, pirates, buccaneers, and other such names roamed the Caribbean Sea, as well as the Atlantic and Indian oceans, in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries as the detritus of the first Western colonies. During the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries, French, English, and Dutch raiders of Spanish and Portuguese shipping and ports generally acted under the authorization of their governments. The English Crown, for example, granted merchants and captains "letters of marque and reprisal," which authorized attacks on Spanish shipping and ports. This legal document required that the privateer captains deliver to an admiralty court their captured ships, whereupon everyone would legally carve up a share of the spoils.

These privateers became invaluable military forces in times of war in an age when permanent navies did not exist. Until the late seventeenth century, the powers of Europe generally did not recognize truces and peace agreements outside of Europe. Privateers, therefore, were tolerated and often encouraged, even in peacetime. In the second half of the seventeenth century, there was often little meaningful difference between a privateer and an independent sea raider, that is, a pirate. Letters of marque and reprisal were widely granted.

When the French, English, and Dutch were becoming established in the Caribbean in the early to mid-seventeenth century, privateers were important naval forces in their own right. Perhaps the first commerce-raiding outpost to appear in the Caribbean arose around French Tortuga, lying just northwest of Hispaniola. These raiders became widely known as boucaniers or buccaneers, after a Tupi Indian word for a smoking frame (boucan) used to roast wild cattle. These raiders were also called freebooters in the sense they that soldiered without pay for booty. To the Dutch, a commerce raider was a vrijbuiter, which the French translated to flibustier. The English and French word pirate derived from centuries-old Latin and Greek words.

In 1630, the same year the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay was founded, a second Puritan colony was founded on Providence Island off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. The colony had little success as an agricultural settlement, but a change in foreign policy and the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal to the Providence Island Company in 1626 turned the island into a privateering base and a new source of profit. In 1641 the Spanish retook the island. Thereafter, however, the Spanish and the buccaneers fought over the island and its harbors and inlets for decades.

After the English seized Jamaica in 1655, that island, in the center of the Spanish Caribbean, became the center of privateering and privacy. To maintain possession of the island, England issued letters of marque to French, Dutch, Danish, Italian, Swedish, Portuguese, and English captains. One of Jamaica's first historians, Bryan Edwards (1743–1800), noted that "nothing contributed so much to the settlement and opulence of this island in early times, as the resort to it of those men called Bucaniers; the wealth which they acquired having been speedily transferred to people whose industry was employed in cultivation or commerce." But, he continued, these men were not "piratical plunderers and public robbers which they are commonly represented." Because of the Spanish War, he noted, these buccaneers "were furnished with regular letters of marque and reprisal" (Edwards 1793, vol. 1, p. 160).

The first royal governors of Jamaica established the seaport of Port Royal, which attracted privateers and pirates, as well as merchants, tavern-keepers, runaway servants, prostitutes, and others. This town, encouraged by the governor, sent fleets of privateers under Henry Morgan (1635–1688) between 1665 and 1671 to plunder Spanish seaports on the coasts of Cuba, Panama, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Despite England's promise to Spain to end privateering and suppress piracy in the Treaty of Madrid in 1670 and the Jamaica Act of 1683, buccaneers continued to freely operate from Port Royal until the end of the century. Over time, however, the "scum of the Indies drifted away from Jamaica," writes Violet Barbour, "to Hispaniola and Tortuga where aliens of any nation or reputation were received with obliging catholicity" (1911, p. 567). Port Royal was hit by a great earthquake in 1692 that utterly destroyed the port. The government of Jamaica rebuilt a new port, Kingston, on firmer ground across the harbor, and the buccaneers moved to new haunts in the Bahamas, North America, and West Africa.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, buccaneers not only attacked Spanish and Portuguese shipping and ports but also English, French, and Dutch shipping and American and African ports and posts. When wars erupted between the northern European powers, governments and their colonial authorities began issuing letters of marque to captains of just about any nationality, so long as the holder was clear who the "enemy" was.

During the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Franco-Dutch Wars of the second half of the seventeenth century, the English in Jamaica and the French in Tortuga enlisted buccaneers to cruise against the Dutch. In 1666 when France entered the war on the side of the Netherlands, the Dutch in Curacçao and the French in Tortuga directed buccaneers against English islands and trade. In 1673 the Dutch launched a serious effort to seize the French West Indies, and Dutch privateers, assisting the effort, brought more than twenty-five French prizes into Curaçao that year.

During the next several years of the war, aggressive Dutch privateers eliminated a few hundred French buccaneers and brought about the decline of commercial traffic from France. The buccaneers themselves, while no friend of any government, generally preferred in the seventeenth century to enrich themselves from the Spanish and stay away from English, French, and Dutch prizes. The Spanish had more hard money, and the buccaneers had more reasons to take vengeance on them. The French buccaneer Sieur de Grammont in 1683 mounted a raid on Vera Cruz, the principal port of New Spain, which yielded four days of uninterrupted looting. The Dutch buccaneers Nicholas van Hoorn and Laurens de Graaf two years later attacked the city of Campeche on the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, and left the city in ashes after looting the government treasury, churches, and private houses.

A Dutch buccaneer known as Roche Brasiliano provides an example of the buccaneer's basic animosity to the Spanish. A fellow buccaneer described Brasiliano's particularly infamous modus operandi: "Unto the Spaniards he always showed himself very barbarous and cruel, only out of an inveterate hatred he had against that nation. Of these he commanded several to be roasted alive upon wooden spits, for no other crime than that they would not show him the places, or hog-yards, where he might steal swine" (Exquemelin 1678/2000, p. 73).

French buccaneers in Tortuga were also active during the last three decades of the seventeenth century. One buccaneer captain was so successful in his looting as to invest his wealth in Martinique and become the owner of the largest sugar plantation in the French West Indies. Buccaneers who found a hostile reception in their nation's different entrepôts in the Caribbean, or were welcome nowhere else, eventually made their way to Tortuga.

It was from Tortuga in the seventeenth century that the French and other buccaneers began to colonize the western end of Hispaniola. In 1669 the governor of French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) claimed there were 1,600 freebooters, hunters, settlers, and indentured servants on Tortuga and the coast of Saint-Domingue. Two years later, a navy captain estimated that about 500 or 600 freebooters and about 100 boucaniers lived in the Cul-de-Sac or western district of Saint-Domingue alone. The successful privateers and petty noblemen established tobacco and later sugar plantations. The Spanish officially recognized French possession of its new colony in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. During the next fifty years, Saint-Domingue would become the most valuable European colony in the Atlantic.

By the late seventeenth century, the English, French, and Dutch had achieved the recognition they had long sought from the Spanish of their New World colonies. The buccaneers that they themselves had commissioned were increasingly not only interfering with but also seriously ravaging Atlantic commerce. The early eighteenth century would see the golden age of piracy and its brutal suppression.

The most famous buccaneers of the period were Anglo-Americans based largely in New Providence in the Bahamas. Men like Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Bartolomew "Black Bart" Roberts, William Kidd, and John "Calico Jack" Rackman operated on a much smaller scale than Henry Morgan. They led only one or two heavily-armed ships and sought prizes isolated from convoys. The governor of Bermuda in 1718 reported the deeds of "Tatch [Blackbeard] with whom is Major Bonnett of Barbados in a ship of 36 guns and 300 men, also in company with them a sloop of 12 guns and 115 men and two other ships" (Cordingly 1996, p. 111). Some, like Black Bart, were extraordinarily successful. In the 1710s and 1720s he captured some four hundred ships of all nationalities. Some buccaneers, such as William Kidd, found the Caribbean too confining when the English and French navies were fighting piracy, and employed their skills in the Indian Ocean.

Some buccaneers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw themselves as social bandits, agents of the poor and oppressed against rich and powerful merchants and tyrannical captains. One pirate captain named Bellamy described the enemies of piracy among the ruling class thus: "They vilify us, the Scoundrels do, when there is only this Difference, they rob the Poor under the Cover of Law, forsooth, and we plunder the Rich under the protection of our own Courage" (Bolster 1997, p. 14). Captain Thomas Checkley in 1718 told of the capture of his ship by pirates who "pretended to be Robbin Hoods Men" (Rediker 1993, pp. 267-269).

English suppression of piracy became serious at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century. The British Parliament's 1699 Act of Piracy established vice-admiralty courts in the American colonies that permitted local authorities to hang pirates. From 1716 to 1726, some four hundred to five hundred pirates were executed in Anglo-American ports. The British Crown also began to replace governors and other officials who were accomplices of buccaneers. The new governors seized buccaneer ships docked in their ports, as well as their cargos.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) brought many pirates into official service and their decommission led to a last flurry of piracy in the Atlantic. After the war the British and French governments deployed more and more naval power in the Caribbean to protect their own commerce from each other and from the buccaneers. Authorities and colonial governors offered bounties for captured pirates, and in 1717 and 1718 King George I (1660–1727) granted general pardons for piracy—about 450 pirates turned themselves in. Any and all contact with pirates thereafter was criminalized.

The Bahamas was brought under control by a special expedition led by Woodes Rogers (ca. 1679–1732) with four Royal Navy men-of-war. Examples were made of pirates who fell into the hands of authorities: corpses were hung in British ports all around the Atlantic. By 1730 pirate attacks were becoming isolated and rare events and only a handful of buccaneers remained in business. Many of these pirates, still free and unreformed, moved on to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

see also War and Empires.


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Barbour, Violet. "Privateers and Pirates of the West Indies." The American Historical Review 16 (3) (1911).

Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Burney, James. History of the Buccaneers of America (1816). New York: Norton, 1950.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. New York: Random House, 1996.

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724). New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

Edwards, Bryan. The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. Dublin: Luke White, 1793. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1978.

Exquemelin, Alexander O. The Buccaneers of America (1678). Translated by Alexis Brown. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000.

Gage, Thomas. The English-American, His Travail by Sea and Land, or, A New Survey of the West-Indies. London: Cates, 1648.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Providence Island, 1630–1641: The Other Puritan Colony Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500–1750. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1998.

Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Swanson, Carl E. Predators and Prizes: American Privateering and Imperial Warfare, 1739–1748. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Williams, Eric. From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492–1969. London: Deutsch, 1970.

Williams, Neville. The Sea Dogs: Privateers, Plunder, and Piracy in the Elizabethan Age. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.