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Nomenclature

The term “Pirate” is nowadays used for all criminals at sea. There used to be some fine but important distinctions, however:

The Buccaneers were pirates cruising from Caribbean havens, including Port Royal, Tortuga Island, and Saint Domingue (Haiti). They primarily raided Spanish shipping and cities in the Caribbean and along the Mexican coast. From 1680 to 1688, many crossed the Panama isthmus and marauded along South America’s Pacific coast.

The French word “boucanier” (barbecuer) originally referred to hunters who illegally camped in western Hispaniola (Haiti). Some say the name is derived from the “boucan” on which these hunters smoked their meat. The name was common after 1684.

Buccaneer captains were mainly English, French, and Dutch. Their crews contained adventurers of all sorts, including Spanish renegades, African slaves and American Indians. With this diverse group, Sir Henry Morgan captured Panama in 1671. Most buccaneers did not attack shipping of their own nation. When possible, they operated with privateering commissions.

 

The Corsairs were licensed sea raiders in the Mediterranean from 1300-1830. The corsairs were essentially privateers, a person or a ship marauding with government approval. Privateering was called “corsa” in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese and “la course” in French - all derived from the Latin word “cursus” meaning a race, march or voyage. A person involved in privateering was known as a “corsaro” (Italy), “corsario” (Spain), “corsari” (Portugal), or “corsaire” (France). The word was used in English from the 16th century to refer to barbary raiders. The worst offenders were the corsairs of Malta, who regularly sacked Christian vessels and towns.

 

Filibustiers - French writers used the term “buccaneer” only when referring to the cow hunters of Hispaniola. They called those turning pirate “Filibustiers””, derived from either (or both) Dutch vrijbuiter (privateer) or Dutch “vliebot” (flyboat).

 

Freebooters - someone who goes about in search of plunder (from Dutch “vrijbuiter”). The word was popular among 19th century writers of pirate fiction.

 

Privateers - until the 19th century most governments issued licenses allowing private vessels to plunder enemy merchantmen. The word “privateer” is first recorded in 1664 and became common a few years later. 16th century English raiders were known as “volunteers” or “voluntaries”.

Privateering grew out of the ancient right of reprisal. From the 13th century, mariners seeking revenge needed a licence, called a letter of marque. English law continued to link reprisals and privateering, even after privateers no longer had to prove personal damages. The French government rarely issued letters of reprisal after 1485. French law instead justified privateering under the king’s absolute right to plunder and kill enemies, whether soldiers or civilians.

Privateers and pirates are easily distinguished, according to legal theory. A pirate plundered ships of all nations and kept all his booty. A privateer attacked only enemy vessels during wartime. his actions were limited by the terms of his commission. Above all, he could not touch any plunder until a government court said that the captured vessel was a “good prize” (legally seized).

Like the Barbary rulers, Queen Elisabeth I (1558-1603) promoted piracy disguised as privateering. Most of the privateers legally were pirates because they didn’t even bother to get a license before sailing. Sir Francis Drake raided Panama and took Cacafuego without commission, for example.

During their wars between 1688 and 1713, France and Britain freely licensed privateers. The development of specialized naval warships doomed privateering and most European countries (not the USA) gave up the practice under the 1856 Declaration of Paris.

 

Zee-rovers” (sea rovers) is how the Dutch call the Caribbean pirates.

The German word “Seeräuber” (sea robbers) is used for all kinds of pirate.