Types of Pirates

a buccaneer


Even though the words “buccaneer” and “pirate” are often used interchangeably, there was a very distinct difference between them in the past. The original buccaneers were French colonists in Hispaniola and on Tortuga, an island off its north coast, who made their living by hunting wild cattle and pigs. The flesh of these animals was cooked in a special manner to make buccan, thereby providing a local supply of preserved meat used both by the inhabitants of the West Indies and by ships replenishing their stores. Eventually the Spanish drove them from their hunting grounds and fomented a sense of revenge. The buccaneers formed a loose association called Brethren of the Coast and took to the seas to exact tribute from the Spanish. By 1630 they were seaman instead of hunters. The buccaneers took naturally to piracy, for they were adept shooters, skilled swordsmen, and cutthroats every one. Their original styles for preying upon other vessels were to sneak up the larger vessels under the cover of darkness in small craft. They would disable the vessel and then board her with a furious quality to invoke terror. Eventually they would organize raids against Spanish towns and bring terror to a new level. As the French and English began to establish colonies in the Caribbean, the buccaneers became more and more associated with the pirates that developed and to many the words are now synonymous.

The word buccaneer is derived from the term buccan, which in turn derived from a grill or spit that the Caribbean cannibals would use to cook other people.

Secret PvN Fact: Many of the original inhabitants of the West Indian islands were cannibals. The Spanish word for cannibal is caribal, hence Caribs to designate these original islanders. The term Caribbean descended from Carib.

corsair ships


Corsairs were Barbary pirates that began their thievery in the early 14th century at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. Spain had recently expelled the Moors, who had occupied it for 500 years, and many of the expelled men turned to piracy as a form of revenge. It turned out that piracy was a very lucrative business because at that time the world maritime trade was concentrated in the Mediterranean. The corsairs became highly organized and were able to menace trade for many centuries. It wasn’t until 1700, when English Admiral Sir Jon Narborough was able to curtail them. His success was only temporary though, and in 1730 the French, under Rear-Admiral Duguay Trouin, had to fight with the Beys of Tunis and Algeria to get them to restrain their pirates. Despite the best efforts of Northern Europe, the predations of the corsairs continued until the early 19th century, when the British Navy was finally free from the Napoleonic Wars.

Secret PvN Fact: By 1801 the corsairs and the Barbary Coast were such a menace to U.S. shipping and trading in the region that Thomas Jefferson created the Marine Corps. and sent them there on their first mission. Hence the stanza in the Marine Corps. Hymn: “to the shores of Tripoli.”

François l’Olonnais


Freebooter is a word almost synonymous with the word buccaneer, but much older than it. According to Captain Burney, writing in 1816, the word “freebooter” was used long before the days of Tortuga to describe men cruising about seeking unlawful gain. The word finally came to be used to describe the French filibusters from Hispaniola who became sea-rovers: men, originally buccaneers, who gave up hunting to go to sea for free play or free booty.

It has been suggested that freebooter was a corruption of the Dutch vribuiter because words from all the European languages were so thoroughly mixed up by seamen of those days as to comprise practically a language of its own.



Privateers were originally quite respectable, but gradually fell from grace. What happened was that wealthy men fitted out ships at their own expense to constitute privately-owned men-of-war, fighting on behalf of the their country of origin on the high seas and not in what now would be called territorial waters. The rewards for doing this were substantial, because, after one-fifth of the value of any enemy ship captured had been taken by the Crown, the balance went to the privateer owner and crew. Apart from the code of rules governing the division of spoils, the captain, like the captain of a naval ship, was permitted to flog any sailor for indiscipline or dangerous offences. Privateers were issued Letters of Marque, or privateering orders, which were contracts that outlined which extra-legal acts a privateer could legally commit. Most Letters of Marque detailed which enemies a privateer could target and were issued because there were hostilities between the issuing nation and at least one other. Unfortunately for privateers, hostilities would often cease without their being aware of it and their Letters of Marque would expire, thus making any acts they committed unlawful acts of piracy. The line between privateering and piracy was always a very fine line and was often too thin.

There is a classic tale of one out-and-out pirate operating in the Caribbean in the 17th century. He began sailing under a Letter of Marque that he purchased from a Danish Governor of an island in the West Indies. As it turned out, the Letter was nothing more than a document entitling the bearer to hunt for goats and pigs in Hispaniola.

Secret PvN Fact: Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French minister of finance from 1665 to 1683 under the rule of King Louis XIV, is given credit for having devised the Letter of Marque as a form of licensing system.

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