Buccaneers, Rovers, and the Semi-authorized Privateering in Jamaica

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Pirates

By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

In the 17th century, colonial Jamaica had little direct reinforcement from England but found that encouraging unauthorized raids against rival, mostly Spanish, holdings was politically useful. Buccaneers and Rovers were an important facet of colonial culture from its inception. The original buccaneers were a part of the Jamaican sea rovers.

Painting of some angry buccaneers and rovers heading for an attack
Somehow, the buccaneers and rovers are originally connected to each other. (Image: Frank E. Schoonover/Public domain)

Semi-authorized Privateering in Jamaica

William Penn, the Quaker, who became the founding proprietor of the province of Pennsylvania in 1681, had a rather piratical father. William Penn Sr. had found a Jamaica station in Port Royal to harass Spanish shipping using whatever plunder the fleet could gather from their semi-privateering gambits to support the local army and navy, as well as line their own pockets.

Later on came the important arrival of Sir Thomas Modyford, who became governor of Jamaica in 1664, after having grown wealthy from his participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He introduced to Jamaica an agrarian economic system based on the stolen labor of African captives, and then increased the number of enslaved captives by waging a semi-authorized war against the Dutch and Spanish populations of the Americas. 

With Modyford’s encouragement, dozens of Spanish coastal settlements were attacked, sometimes repeatedly. But, of course, guerilla anti-Spanish resistance and profiteering had begun much earlier than the 17th century.

Origin of the Buccaneers

The first sea raiders were mostly Huguenots, French Protestants, who were sometimes joined and sometimes opposed by English freebooters like Francis Drake. The original buccaneers, the hardy defiant hunters on Espanola, who eluded Spanish control, were initially a separate population from the Jamaican sea rovers. 

Painting of a Spanish ship
Buccaneers and rovers had the hatred of the Spanish in common. (Image: Cornelis Verbeeck/Public domain)

While the term Buccaneer would come to include buccaneers and rovers, they may not have entertained much mutual respect, so much as a common hatred of the Spanish and a common lust for booty. Indeed, according to Peter Earl, privateers may not have liked being lumped in with the “evil smelling men in crudely tanned skins” who augmented their crews.

There was also occasional friction between Franco Catholic buccaneers, who were hesitant to attack Catholic churches and Protestant ones who were enthusiastic about it. But buccaneers were tough, motivated, and crack shot difficult recruits to turn down when one needed a large armed force to storm a Spanish garrison.

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Cruel to Slaves, Civil to Themselves

Exquemelin, in his Buccaneers of America, records much of evil, writing, “These men are cruel and merciless to their bondsmen, there is more comfort in three years on a galley than one in the service of a boucanier.” According to virtually all the documentation we have, though, planters were just as bad, just as merciless to their indentures and captives.

However, among buccaneers and rovers out of the state of indenture or enslavement, things were different. Reportedly, men like the Brethren of the Coast, a loose confederacy of buccaneers based on Tortuga, and later Port Royal, were “civil and charitable” with each other. They practiced an interesting form of business partnership, which Exquemelin described as buccaneers holding three sorts of employment: hunting, planting, and privateering. 

When a man has finished his three years of indentured service, he seeks out a partner, and they pool all they possess. They drop a document, in some cases saying that the partner who lives longer shall have everything, in others that the survivor is bound to give part to the dead man’s friends or to his wife if he was married.

Relationships and Life within Buccaneers and Rover Communities

Some historians interpret this form of contractual partnership as a form of same sex marriage, particularly given that the buccaneer and rover communities tended to be single sex, both at sea and for long periods of time on land as well. It’s certainly true that rovers and buccaneers were capable of effective bonds for one another. 

Probably some of these partnerships were meaningful and loving ones, and some men in single-sex environments will inevitably engage in single sex. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that when it was possible, most buccaneers were enthusiastically interested in heterosexual relationships.

Whenever they got a little money, Exquemelin wrote, they hurried to dice, whoring, and drinking until they were broke again. Caribbean sex workers seldom had any difficulty separating these men from their money. 

When passionate disputes arose among the buccaneers, they had their own form of management as well. It was pretty straightforward, murder was punished by being tied to a tree and shot dead, the murderer got to pick the marksman who would end his life.

Common Questions about Buccaneers, Rovers, and the Semi-authorized Privateering in Jamaica

Q: What is the origin of the buccaneers and rovers?

The original buccaneers were the fierce predators of Espanola, who scaped out of Spanish control. They were originally a separate population from the Jamaican rovers. But although the term buccaneer includes both buccaneers and rovers, they didn’t have mutual respect for each other, and their only common denominator was their hatred of the Spaniards and their desire for booty.

Q: What are the traits of buccaneers and rovers, according to Exquemelin?

Exquemelin recorded how the buccaneers and rovers behaved toward the bondsman and of their cruelty. However, the situation would be different among themselves.

Q: What did the buccaneers and rovers do in times of disputation?

Buccaneers and rovers had their manner of management when fierce disputes arose among them. The murderer was punished by being tied to a tree and shot dead. The murderer, meanwhile, was allowed to choose the shooter who was going to end his life.

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