We tend to think of pirates as the ultimate bad boys. We see them as ruthless adventurers with no regard whatsoever for the law, just a mad craving for gold and jewels that drove them to sail across the waves. That’s not wrong. While pirates often ran their ships in an orderly and egalitarian way, by definition they were murderer and thieves. But that didn’t prevent various European governments from employing pirates to attack their enemies at sea. Buccaneers were a subcategory of pirates who attacked ships at the request of a government.
Buccaneers were also known as privateers. The British crown was fond of hiring them to attack Spanish ships. It was more profitable than sending their own navy. When a government hired a pirate crew to attack its enemies, it issued them with an official letter putting them above the law. This was known as letter of marque. Given the low levels of literacy at the time, forgery was easy – and common. Furthermore, the nations of the ships being attacked really did not care if the attackers had a permission slip from their enemies. They fought the marauding pirates without checking their letters of marque. But a letter of marque did allow the pirates get away with plenty of plunder and avoid conflict with the navy of the government that hired them.
The term buccaneer generally refers to the mercenary pirates of the Caribbean and the Pacific. Those operating in the Mediterranean were known as corsairs. Buccaneer is derived from the French term for smoking meat, and it was originally used for the French in the Caribbean who occasionally went to sea to raid ships and also apparently ate a lot of smoked meat.
Top Three of the High Seas
Some of the most famous pirates were buccaneers. While many buccaneers were active at sea in the golden era of piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries, three are particularly famous.
- Captain Kidd – William Kidd was born in Scotland in 1645. After working his way up to leading his own buccaneer crew, Kidd relocated to the New World. He married a rich widow in New York. But he returned to buccaneering, and that was his downfall. His crew found few of the French ships the British wanted them to attack, and they instead plundered an Armenian ship full of treasure – treasure belonging to a minister in India with connections. Kidd was captured, tried and convicted. He was hung in 1701 and his body left to rot in view of the public.
- Sir Francis Drake – Drake’s career illustrates the moral mayhem of the age. He joined relatives of his in buccaneering and human trafficking, or slave trading as it was called at the time. His abduction and sale of African people was illegal as well as immoral, but that did not stop Queen Elizabeth I from commissioning him to attack Spanish ships. Drake was also an explorer and the first English man to circumvent the globe. He was made a vice admiral of the English Navy and saw action against the Spanish armada.
- Henry Morgan – Welshman Henry Morgan was one of the most ruthless and feared buccaneers on the water. The Spanish were his favorite target, and he plundered them in Panama and Venezuela. He raided Panama City with a massive fleet of 36 ships, and then abandoned his crew and took the treasure for himself. He was eventually arrested because his attack happened after a peace agreement between the British and the Spanish. Relations between the two nations were volatile, and a couple of years later when he was again useful to the crown, Charles II knighted Morgan. He was also lieutenant governor of Jamaica, which is where he died.