Thieves with a boat or patriots?

buccaneers_lo-res placeholder copy from blog 072410_0

One of the made-to-order stories I gave away last month needed a bit of research. The winner asked for a buccaneer. So what, I wondered, was the difference between a pirate, a buccaneer, a corsair, a privateer, or any other ship-going bandit?

Thieves with ships

Pirates, I found, were fundamentally outlaws. ‘Thieves with ships’ one website I found called them. They ransack towns and capture ships looking for loot and people to sell or hold for ransom. They answer to no-one except their own appointed leaders, and recognise no law outside of themselves. Leaving aside the romantic image from books and movies, they were and are a ruthless lot of men and women, loyal only to one another and a danger to everyone else.

Not that I don’t find something to admire in the way that the pirates of the Caribbean ran a democratic society based on ability, where every man and woman of the crew had a say in how it ran and who should be captain, and a share of the loot. But I’d find it a challenge to make a hero of any of them. It could be fun, mind you, but I’d need a novel, not a short story.

Buccaneers, it turns out, were privateers and pirates in the West Indies in the 17th Century. The word comes from the French boucan, meaning smoked meat. The buccaneers started by selling meat gained from hunting, then found there was more money to be made by attacking towns on behalf of the French and the English, who were at war with Spain at the time.

And corsair is a word the English applied to foreign pirates, particularly Muslim pirates operating out of North Africa. They also applied it to the French and even the Spanish when at war with them, which was most of the time. They intended that as an insult, and it was certainly taken that way. Corsairs were also keen to find loot, but they were particularly interested in capturing slaves. Muslims being forbidden to enslave (or even rob) other Muslims, the corsairs attacked any underprotected European or American ship that strayed into their path, thus combining the religious duty of harrying the infidel with the economic pleasure of making a profit.

Thieves with a licence

Which brings us to privateers. In times of war, governments would issue letters of marque and reprisal — commissions to entrepreneurs with boats. The licence or commission would give the ship the right to attack ships belonging to whoever the country was at war with. In the 1812 war between the United Kingdom and the United States, which is in the background of my short story Kidnapped to Freedom, both countries commissioned privateers. The US had a very small navy but a large merchant fleet, and the UK navy was heavily committed to the war against Napoleon.

The commission specified what they were allowed to do, and any prisoners were treated as prisoners-of-war. But the prize — the ship and the cargo — paid for the enterprise.

All-out privateers often sailed with multiple teams headed by ship masters, who could take over a prize ship and bring it back to port. They were essentially pirates, but with a single focus on their nation’s enemy. They would never dream of attacking a neutral or allied nation’s ships or ports.

Many cargo ships also carried letters of marque authorising them to seize enemy ships. This also made them privateers, but part-time privateers rather than full-time.

When the war was over, those cargo ships would carry on with their usual business. The problem with privateers, though, was that the end of the war destroyed their livelihood, and history records many pirates who began their lives as privateers but branched out at the end of the war they were commissioned for.

I made my short-story’s hero a merchant captain from the Maritime States of Canada, with letters of marque from the United Kingdom. I hope my winner thinks I’ve got close enough to a buccaneer.



12 thoughts on “Thieves with a boat or patriots?

    • Yes, at least while the war gave them rich pickings. As I’ve just commented elsewhere, governments today should note that licensing privateers to fight pirates can be a risky business. What do the privateers do when the pirates are gone?

    • The Raven’s Lady has been ordered. Kidnapped to Freedom should be ready for ordering later today. I’m so looking forward to hearing what you ladies think!

  1. Another fascinating background piece, Jude. Thief or patriot? Sometimes a matter of which side you were on and sometime semantics. War can be extremely profitable. We have privateers in suits now.

  2. Great post, Jude. I love writing about pirates and privateers…the real ones as well as the fictional ones!


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