Captain Kidd

What being a privateer, pirate, or buccaneer really means!

There are several terms that one hears when discussing piracy. They are called buccaneers, privateers and pirates. Depending on the source they can all mean the same. Typically however they are categorized as such.

A privateer was a 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 to act in the behalf of a certain company or government to obtain slaves or perhaps bread fruit trees. Often the limits of the Marque were vague, leaving it up to the captain and crew to determine what they could take. Sometimes the privateers ignored the Marque and just did what they bloody well pleased.

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 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 privateer may have proven a small payment for what could be a large and generous reward.

Buccaneers were French settlers in the Caribbean who used to barbecue or "smoke" wild boar and oxen. Boucanier literally means one who hunts wild pork. It is a term used to describe the pirates and privateers who had their roots in the Caribbean. 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. 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, or some other line of BS. 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.


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