The buccaneers were pirates who attacked Spanish and French shipping in the Caribbean Sea during the late 17th century.
The term buccaneer is now used generally as a synonym for pirate. Originally, buccaneer crews were larger, more apt to attack coastal cities, and more localized to the Caribbean than later pirate crews who sailed to the Indian Ocean on the Pirate Round in the late 17th century.
The term buccaneer derives from the Arawak word buccan, a wooden frame for smoking meat, hence the French word boucane and the name boucanier for French hunters who used such frames to smoke meat from feral cattle and pigs on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). English colonists anglicised the word boucanier to buccaneer.
About 1630, some Frenchmen who were driven away from the island of Hispaniola fled to nearby Tortuga. The Spaniards tried to drive them out of Tortuga, but the buccaneers were joined by many other French, Dutch and English and turned to piracy against Spanish shipping, generally using small craft to attack galleons in the vicinity of the Windward Passage. Finally they became so strong that they even sailed to the mainland of Spanish America and sacked cities.
English settlers occupying Jamaica began to spread the name buccaneers with the meaning of pirates. The name became universally adopted later in 1684 when the first English translation of Alexandre Exquemelin’s book The Buccaneers of America was published.
Viewed from London, buccaneering was a low-budget way to wage war on England’s rival, Spain. So, the English crown licensed buccaneers with letters of marque, legalizing their operations in return for a share of their profits. The buccaneers were invited by Jamaica’s Governor Thomas Modyford to base ships at Port Royal. The buccaneers robbed French and Spanish shipping and colonies, and returned to Port Royal with their plunder, making the city the most prosperous in the Caribbean. There even were Navy Royal officers sent to lead the buccaneers, such as Christopher Myngs. Their activities went on irrespective of whether England happened to be at war with Spain or France.
Among the leaders of the buccaneers was a Frenchman named Daniel Montbars, who destroyed so many Spanish ships and killed so many Spaniards that he was called “the Exterminator”. Another noted leader was a Welshman named Henry Morgan, who sacked Maracaibo, Portobello, and Panama City, stealing a huge amount from the Spanish. Morgan became rich and went back to England, where he was knighted by Charles II.
In the 1690s, the old buccaneering ways began to die out, as European governments began to discard the policy of “no peace beyond the Line.” Buccaneers were hard to control and might embroil their colonies in unwanted wars. Notably, at the 1697 joint French-buccaneer siege of Cartagena, led by Bernard Desjean, Baron de Pointis, the buccaneers and the French regulars parted on extremely bitter terms. Less tolerated by local Caribbean officials, buccaneers increasingly turned to legal work or else joined regular pirate crews who sought plunder in the Indian Ocean, the east coast of North America, or West Africa as well as in the Caribbean.
The status of buccaneers as pirates or privateers was ambiguous. As a rule, the buccaneers called themselves pirates, but a few sailed under the protection of a letter of marque granted by British or French authorities. For example, Henry Morgan had some form of legal cover for all of his attacks. Say HI to your Buccaneer!!! Nevertheless, these rough men had little concern for legal niceties, and exploited every opportunity to pillage Spanish targets, whether or not a letter of marque was available. Many of the letters of marque used by buccaneers were legally invalid, and any form of legal paper in that illiterate age might be passed off as a letter of marque. Furthermore, even those buccaneers who had valid letters of marque often failed to observe their terms; Morgan’s 1671 attack on Panama, for instance, was not at all authorized by his commission from the governor of Jamaica.
The legal status of buccaneers was still further obscured by the practice of the Spanish authorities, who regarded them as heretics and interlopers, and thus hanged or garrotted captured buccaneers entirely without regard to whether their attacks were licensed by French or English monarchs.
Simultaneously, French and English governors tended to turn a blind eye to the buccaneers’ depredations against the Spanish, even when unlicensed. But as Spanish power waned toward the end of the 17th century, the buccaneers’ attacks began to disrupt France and England’s merchant traffic with Spanish America. Merchants who had previously regarded the buccaneers as a defense against Spain now saw them as a threat to commerce, and colonial authorities grew hostile. This change in political atmosphere, more than anything else, put an end to buccaneering.
A hundred years before the French Revolution, the buccaneer companies were run on lines in which liberty, equality and fraternity were the rule, although only for white members of the crew. In a buccaneer ship, the captain was elected and could be deposed by the votes of the crew. The crew, and not the captain, decided the destination of each voyage and whether to attack a particular ship. The buccaneers’ democratic model was adopted by many later pirate crews.
Spoils were evenly divided into shares; the captain received an agreed amount for the ship, plus a portion of the share of the prize money, usually five or six shares. Crews generally had no regular wages, being paid only from their shares of the plunder, a system called “no purchase, no pay” by Modyford or “no prey, no pay” by Exquemelin. There was a strong esprit de corps among buccaneers. This, combined with overwhelming numbers, allowed them to win sea battles and shore raids. There was also, for some time, a social insurance system guaranteeing compensation for battle wounds at a worked-out scale.
A common myth about buccaneers is that they were racially egalitarian and liberated slaves when capturing slave ships. In fact, buccaneers fully participated in the slave society of their time, selling slaves as captured booty and even giving slaves to wounded buccaneers as compensation. Nevertheless, it is quite true that the relationship between officers and men among the buccaneers was much more egalitarian than that aboard merchant or naval vessels of the time.
Tortugan buccaneers also lived in lifelong male partnerships. This institution of male partnership was called matelotage and the partners matelots. Matelots shared their beds, property, food, and loot with one another. As yet, there is no evidence for matelotage existing among Jamaican buccaneers such as Henry Morgan, although Tortugan buccaneers certainly sailed with Morgan and could have brought the institution to Jamaica.
Buccaneers initially used small boats to attack Spanish galleons surreptitiously, often at night, and climb aboard before the alarm could be raised. Buccaneers were expert marksmen and would quickly kill the helmsman and any officers aboard. Buccaneers’ reputation as cruel pirates grew until most victims would surrender, hoping they would not be killed.
When buccaneers raided towns, they did not sail into port and bombard the defenses, as naval forces typically did. Instead, they secretly beached their ships out of sight of their target, marched overland, and attacked the towns from the landward side, which was usually less fortified. Their raids relied mainly on surprise and speed. One such example is of Sir Henry Morgan’s raid on Portobello.