By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
Who is and isn’t a pirate depends on one’s perspective. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pirate as ‘a person who plunders from ships, especially at sea’. However, this definition could also include any naval ship during a time of war and ships whose labor involved colonization. At the same time, it would exclude people like the Vikings or Caribbean buccaneers who use their ships to conduct quick land raids.
Defining Piracy Culturally and Legally
Mention the word pirate to almost anyone, and an image will probably pop into their head with a number of well-known features. Maybe a black flag, a skull and crossbones, a cutlass, a parrot, maybe some treasure, almost certainly a sailing ship. But this group of images is a result of the literary and cultural heritage we are raised with. It doesn’t really get at the legal or historical roots of piracy.
Both culturally and legally, defining piracy in the real world is not a simple matter at all. While defining pirates as people who rob at sea, we might add a caveat about nation: A pirate is someone who robs people at sea or from the sea and who does so without regard to nation. True pirates are not authorized by or affiliated with any government. Well, at least not out in the open.
Pirate hasn’t always been such a negative term. In ancient Greek usage, pirate (peirato) meant something more along the lines of a member of an independent seafaring community than a seafaring outlaw.
Over time, however, it often came to represent a guy who did something bad on a boat. Piracy came to be used broadly enough that it could refer to any crimes at sea.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Now there are a lot of synonyms for pirate, but they’re not entirely interchangeable. The term buccaneer is one of them. Since the 19th century, people have often used buccaneer as though it means the same thing as a regular pirate, but when the term originated in the 17th century Caribbean, it was more specific than that.
The word comes indirectly from the Arawak, native Americans of the Lesser Antilles in South America, whose word buccan referred to an apparatus used for smoking meat.
The buccaneers were escaped servants, former soldiers, and other men of French, Dutch and English extraction who lived in rough-hewn, largely single-sex communities on the islands of Hispaniola, Tortuga, and Jamaica. They survived by hunting and preserving the flesh of wild cows and sometimes pigs, which they could then eat and sell.
These folks lived in a Caribbean climate with no refrigerators. Uncooked meat would go bad pretty quickly, and so they adopted the practice, perfected by indigenous people, of cutting the meat, then sun drying it, and then scorching it or smoking it on a wooden frame.
So, in the late 17th century English language context, buccaneer is a Caribbean pirate who maintains a land base somewhere; he is probably an expert in local waterways, harbors, and inlets, or has a pilot who is; and he sometimes but not always acts semi-legally, as long as you’re not looking at it from the Spanish point of view.
The Buccaneer and the Spanish
The buccaneer groups were living on Spanish islands illegally, at least as far as the Spanish Colonizers were concerned. Spain demanded a virtual trade monopoly in the Americas. The Arawak Indians, and increasingly, the buccaneers thought the Spanish were the ones who shouldn’t be there.
So, the buccaneers hated the Spanish, and the Spanish hated the buccaneers for economical, national, and often religious reasons. And since the Spanish were rich and the buccaneers were poor, it started to seem like a good idea to the buccaneers to prey upon the Spaniard shipping and their coastal settlements. They were often aided by indigenous groups who had their own very good reasons for disliking the Spanish presence in the Americas.
The buccaneers grew powerful, raiding inland and sacking even large cities on the Spanish mainland, which is the term for the part of South America’s northern coast and nearby waters that were under Spanish control. And when they ran out of Spanish targets, well, the buccaneers got less choosy.
Eventually, even the groups that had approved of the buccaneer’s actions when they were primarily anti-Spanish had to admit they had a pirate problem on their hands.
Freebooters, Filibusters, and Maroons
There are some words that were originally synonyms for buccaneer, not for pirate, that eventually came to be used interchangeably with both those terms: ‘freebooter’ and ‘filibuster’.
‘Freebooter’ has a Dutch root, and ‘filibuster’ has a Spanish root, but they mean approximately buccaneer: Both are terms that indicate someone who’s waging an unofficial or Guerilla war against an enemy state, and in the Caribbean context in the 17th century, that means buccaneer.
Another set of communities that were independent of buccaneers and pirates but sometimes allied themselves with them were the maroons. Maroons were independent groups of refugees who had escaped slavery, typically black Africans, but often including Amerindians, who banded together to form self-governing communities.
Like the buccaneers, maroon communities were at odds with the colonists and planters whose appetite for land and the Caribbean grew ever more rapacious. While they could be preyed upon by European pirates, they also sometimes worked with them.
Common Questions about Who Is and Isn’t a Pirate
A pirate is someone who robs people at sea or from the sea and who does so without regard to nation. True pirates are not authorized by or affiliated with any government.
The buccaneers were escaped servants, former soldiers, and other men of French, Dutch and English extraction who lived on the islands of Hispaniola, Tortuga, and Jamaica. They were Caribbean pirates who maintained a land base somewhere. They were experts in local waterways, harbors, and inlets, or had pilots who were; and they sometimes but not always acts semi-legally.
Maroons were independent groups of refugees who had escaped slavery, typically black Africans, but often including Amerindians, who banded together to form self-governing communities. Like the buccaneers, maroon communities were at odds with the colonists and planters whose appetite for land and the Caribbean grew ever more rapacious.