Buccaneers and Privateers

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Buccaneers and Privateers

Although the term "buccaneer" is sometimes used to refer generally to maritime freebooters, in Latin American history it refers specifically to a group that arose in the Caribbean between about 1630 and 1670 to attack Spanish commerce and settlements. The buccaneers of the seventeenth century were in many ways the debased successors of the French corsairs, English sea dogs, and Dutch sea beggars. Unlike these earlier privateers, however, they had New World bases from which to operate. They also differ from later pirates in two important respects: They generally were allowed to use the ports of Spain's rivals in the region, and they often operated with the approval, either overt or tacit, of government authorities. The buccaneers ventured all over the world, but the Caribbean remained their favorite haunt until 1674, when the British enlisted the Welsh Henry Morgan to help curtail their activities.

Buccaneering communities emerged in Jamaica and western Hispaniola, especially at Old Providence, Tortuga Island, and the Bay Islands of the Gulf of Honduras, as well as the islands of the eastern Caribbean. Many of the early buccaneers were struggling French, British, and Dutch colonists who were increasingly squeezed out as sugar production replaced tobacco in the non-Spanish islands. By 1640 tobacco production exceeded demand, causing a tobacco depression that contributed to a bifurcation in land and labor to large-scale sugar plantations. This manifested itself in the Caribbean with the transition to fewer but larger landholdings and the replacement of European farm labor with African slaves.

Some of the displaced turned to a life outside the law or moved into regions abandoned by the Spanish, especially the north coast of Hispaniola, where they lived by hunting and killing wild cattle the Spaniards left behind. The term buccaneer originated with Frenchmen in the area who roasted meat in smoke shacks called boucans and thus were called boucaniers. They often sold their meat and hides to passing ships.


The idea of employing desperadoes, most of whom were English or French, as commercial raiders in time of war probably occurred first to the French governor of Saint Christopher, L. de Poincy, in the 1630s. To legitimize and direct the actions of these groups the French, as well as the British, issued letters of marque, essentially authorizing raids against the ships of the wartime enemy. Privateers, who held such letters of marque, were provided sovereign sanction for their raids; in exchange, the French and British governments enlisted cheap naval muscle that was effective in interrupting commerce and, according to the letters of marque, received a portion of the bounty recovered. In the ensuing decades the legitimacy of the buccaneers', or privateers', activities depended on the state of relations and policies between the governments of England, France, and Spain.

The practice of privateering took place during the era of the buccaneers, and parsing the difference between a privateer raid and a buccaneer raid is often a point of historical interpretation (especially with regard to William Kidd) given the dubious legality of many expeditions and the fact that the privateer ranks were almost exclusively filled by buccaneers; moreover, the gray area created by enlisting privateers was, at least at first, of benefit to the French and English governments. Most famous among those issued letters of marque were Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, and William Kidd.

In practice, the role of privateers ventured far beyond that of interrupting commerce. The French and English governments could not always control or stop the buccaneers once peace was restored. Furthermore, even when they did not openly encourage the buccaneers, the marauders found friendly ports in the non-Spanish Caribbean and along the North American coast as far north as Boston. Their tactics were violent; calculated terror became one of their most important weapons as they created a climate of fear among the Spanish colonists. Promising to spare the lives of those who did not resist, they typically fulfilled their promises to torture and murder those who did.


The English buccaneers operating from Port Royal, Jamaica, flourished between 1650 and 1680. Between 1655 and 1661 alone, Henry Morgan's privateers instigated a reign of terror by pillaging eighteen cities, four towns, and nearly forty villages. Following major raids on Cuba in 1665–1666, the leadership of the Port Royal privateers fell to Morgan, a brilliant tactician who launched several successful but brutal enterprises against strategic transit routes in Panama and Nicaragua. His reputation climaxed when he led an expedition in 1668 to Portobelo, Panama, surprising the garrison there by entering from a swampy, forested area at night. He pillaged the town and killed most of its inhabitants. After going to Maracaibo, Venezuela, but discovering little booty there, Morgan still managed to take three Spanish ships loaded with silver. His final and largest expedition, in 1670, was an assault on Santa Marta, Rio Hacha, Portobelo, and Panama City, which he burned to the ground.

When the Treaty of Madrid (1670) established peace between Spain and England, England no longer needed privateers. Governor Sir Thomas Lynch of Jamaica attempted to stifle the buccaneering enterprise altogether. When his lack of sufficient armed forces made this difficult, two of his successors, Lord John Vaughan and the earl of Carlisle, employed Henry Morgan as lieutenant governor of Jamaica and specifically instructed him to suppress buccaneering. Although his efforts were at first only somewhat successful, as demonstrated by major buccaneer raids on Santa Marta in 1677 and on the Honduran coast in 1678, after 1685 the rise of public opposition and arrival of a new frigate squadron led to the decline of buccaneering. Many buccaneers spread outside the Caribbean, and their activities degenerated into piracy.


Throughout this period the French island of Tortuga remained an unmolested harbor for buccaneers. The French, not having signed a treaty with Spain, continued to allow buccaneers to use their Caribbean ports. With the encouragement of Governor d'Ogeron of Tortuga, beginning in 1665 the great buccaneers Francois L'Ollonai (Jean-David Nau) and Michel le Basque carried out extensive plundering of the Caribbean even as d'Ogeron attempted to establish a more respectable colony on the coast of Haiti.

The Tortuga buccaneers played a large part in the Caribbean theater of the third Anglo-Dutch War (1672–1678). Still, like the English, the French buccaneers preferred to attack Spanish ships and settlements, which was a more lucrative activity than participating in war. The Tortuga buccaneers achieved great success between 1678 and 1685, gaining a reputation for savagery. The names of Van Horn, de Graaf, de Grammont, and the Marquis de Maintenor stand out among the raiders of Venezuela, Trinidad, San Juan de Ulua (Veracruz), and the Yucatan coast. Eventually, however, the French government also felt compelled to combat the atrocities of the buccaneers.

As had the Dutch in the Treaty of the Hague (1673) and the English in the treaties of Windsor and Madrid, France promised Spain in the Truce of Ratison (1684) to stop supporting privateers and buccaneers. The actual end to buccaneering took longer to achieve, of course. Some buccaneers were bribed into royal service, as in the case of Governor du Casse of Saint Domingue (now the Dominican Republic), who was eventually able to pay off and disband most of the buccaneers. His forces helped halt further raids, and after Saint Domingue was ceded to France in 1697 by the Treaty of Ryswyck, du Casse persuaded the remaining buccaneers on Tortuga to abandon their activities and settle on the newly recognized French territory to the south. The era of buccaneering thus concluded at the turn of the seventeenth century; in 1697 France agreed to end its buccaneer raids in exchange for recognition of its authority over Saint Domingue, although some continued their activities as pirates. Perhaps more symbolically, in 1701 William Kidd was tried for piracy in England and hanged.

See alsoMorgan, Henry; Piracy.


Burney, James. History of the Buccaneers of America. London, Unit Library, 1902. Reprint of 1816 edition.

Exquemelin, Alexander D. The Buccaneers of America. London: Folio Society, 1972 (originally published in 1864).

Haring, C. H. The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the XVII Century. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1910.

Newton, Arthur Percival. Colonising Activities of the English Puritans. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1914.

Parry, J. H. A Short History of the West Indies, 4th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Père P-F-X. Charlevoix, Histoire de l'Isle Espagnole ou de S. Domingue, 2 vols. Paris, 1731; repr. New York, 1943.

                                          Blake D. Pattridge

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