Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
is a Pirate not a Pirate?
By Cindy Vallar
When we hear the word pirate, an image forms in our minds. Whether that picture comes from movies like Peter Pan and Pirates of Tortuga or books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate, we think of cruel and bloodthirsty cutthroats. Although we call men like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd pirates, some also call them corsairs and buccaneers. Are these words interchangeable? To most of us, the answer is yes, but to aficionados and researchers, the answer is no. So what differentiates one from another?
Buccaneers acquired their name from the French word boucanier. Based on the island of Hispaniola, these rugged men hunted oxen and boar, then smoked the strips of meat over a barbecue or boucan. In time runaway slaves and deserters joined them. When the Spanish government tried to get rid of them, they took to the sea and raided Spanish ships and towns. By the 17th century pirates who preyed on ships in the Caribbean were called buccaneers and operated out of Tortuga and Port Royal. A well-known buccaneer was Henry Morgan, but the cruelest one was L’Olonnais. In 1678, Alexandre Oliver Esquemelin, wrote a book, The Buccaneers of America, about his own adventures with these Brethren of the Coast.
Corsairs roamed the Mediterranean Sea in oared galleys for nearly three centuries. Instead of gold or spices, they sought people whom they either held for ransom or sold into slavery. The Barbary corsairs attacked Christian ships and operated out of Muslim ports along the northern coast of Africa. Their Christian counterparts were based on Malta and sponsored by the Knights of the Order of St. John. Perhaps the most famous of the Barbary corsairs were the Barbarossa (Red Beard) Brothers and Dragut Reis.
The Spaniards referred to runaway slaves as cimarrónes, which the English and French shortened to maroons. During the 17th and 18th centuries, marooners became synonymous with pirates of the Caribbean, perhaps because they would maroon one of their own on a desert island with little or no food. The intent was to have the pirate die a slow death, but Alexander Selkirk survived his marooning. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is based on Selkirk.
During the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates attacked and plundered ships of all countries for their own profit. Before setting sail, they drew up a set of rules that spelled out conduct, division of prizes, compensation for maiming, and punishments for disobedience. Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts was one of many notorious pirates from days long past, but he was not the last pirate to roam the high seas. Pirates continue to plague merchant shipping today.
What set a privateer apart from a pirate was a piece of paper called a Letter of Marque. Governments bestowed these commissions on privately owned ships during times of war as an inexpensive way to weaken the enemy. Privateers—a term that refers to a ship, a captain, or a crew—preyed on the merchant ships of a specific country’s enemy. In exchange for providing the privateer with a safe haven and license to attack, the issuer shared in the profits. Sometimes, privateers turned to piracy during times of peace. While Henry III of England was the first to employ privateers, they fought in European and North American wars into the 19th century. Since the United States Navy owned few ships, privateers played a key role in the War of 1812. What happened to privateers captured by the enemy? Perez Drinkwater, a lieutenant who served aboard the privateer Lucy, was captured by the British. His letters home described his imprisonment.
Some words for pirates come from literature. In the 1800s, authors translated the Dutch word vrijbuiter into freebooter, a person who searched for ill-gotten gains. The word originally referred to French buccaneers who attacked their prey in small fast boats. French authors called Caribbean pirates flibustiers. When swashbuckler first appeared in writings of the 16th century, it referred to someone who made a loud noise by striking his sword against his shield. Today the word often refers to pirates or movies about them.
No matter the name or the century, the image of a pirate remains constant - men and women who ply the seas in search of treasure.
© 2000 Cindy Vallar
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