What’s the Difference? Terminology
Peers: Buccaneers, Corsairs, and Privateers
Welcome back to the eighth installment of me talking about the age of sail. In this column I’ll be talking about some of the terms used to describe pirates and their close kin, as well as what each means.
What’s in a name? Plenty. Kind of like how all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, a “pirate” isn’t always a pirate. Let’s get into the important differences in terminology from the Age of Sail!
First, we’ll start with the term “pirate” itself. Legally speaking, being a pirate means you are a private individual who owns a boat, and you are using that boat to either attack and steal from other boats or to carry out amphibious raids on shore targets from which you then steal [ 1 ].
Pirates have been around for thousands of years. Ramses the Second complained of pirates operating on the Nile River [ 2 ]. Julius Caesar, at one point in his career, was captured by pirates in the Mediterranean Sea at the age of 14 [ 3 ]. While captive, he told his captors he would one day return and kill them all; the pirates just laughed. Six years later, he returned and murdered them all, one at a time.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, a privateer is different from a pirate. Privateers are, ostensibly, in the employ of a legitimate government.
A privateer is given a specific type of document by the government employing them, which is called a “Letter of Marque and Reprisal” [ 4 ]. That document allows the ship’s owner to become a subcontractor for the navy of the issuing government, hired to attack the nation’s enemies’ ships.
For example, in colonial America, you could get a Letter of Marque and Reprisal from the governor of Rhode Island allowing you to attack the French, the Spanish, or the Dutch, depending on who we were at war with at the time. If you had such a letter, you were legally empowered to attack both the shipping and the naval vessels flying the flag of the enemy country.
You could take anything of value you found on the ships you attacked, and you could share those spoils with your crew; but a certain percentage, defined by the Letter of Marque, had to go back to the government that gave you the Letter of Marque.
Buccaneers, Corsairs, and Barbary Pirates are three other terms which have been used to describe swashbuckling ne’er-do-wells from the age of sail, and each of these were regional terms based on particular local trends or reputations.
The word buccaneer was generally a French word based on the term “buccan” or “boucan,” a process used in the Caribbean and South and Central America to smoke meat [ 5 ].
Some of those groups were also sea rovers, and eventually joined with the crews of French privateers and pirates alike in that area and helped them attack English vessels.
The word “buccaneer” is an English bastardization of the term the French used for their aboriginal allies, which the English used eventually for any French crew attacking them in that area.
Corsairs are from the Mediterranean. It’s another word used for a robbing sea rover, making it the closest term to the others to the legal definition of “pirate.” “Barbary pirate” comes from the Barbary Coast, an area known to the European nations during the golden age of sail as a haven for pirates of all kinds.
Getting back to privateers, there’s a long tradition of boat captains working as contractors in that capacity for governments, either their own or one at war with the nation whose ships the captain wanted to attack.
Many notable pirates got their start this way. Henry Morgan got his start this way [ 6 ]. Benjamin Hornigold, who took on a protege by the name of Edward Thatch, more commonly known as Blackbeard, began as a privateer, as did Blackbeard himself, both during the French and Indian War.
William Kidd himself was a privateer, although most people think of him as an out-and-out pirate [ 7 ]. Although he got a Letter of Marque and a commission to hunt pirates, his crew wasn’t getting paid, so they threatened to mutiny. He promised to take another vessel and take just what they needed to survive.
As luck would have it, the next vessel his ship came across was flying a French flag, and the French were the nation his Letter of Marque allowed him to attack. They got on board and started taking the loot on the ship, which placated his crew. Meanwhile, Kidd went belowdecks looking for anything of note in the ship’s papers.
What he found was that the ship, while it flew French colors, was owned by the Lords of Trade in London, and those were the same people who had given him his pirate hunting commission. He’d been within his legal rights to attack given the flag they were flying, but he’d functionally attacked his own employers, and they didn’t much care that he’d been legally in the right, so he was convicted of piracy and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead.
An interesting fact about his execution—at the time, if the rope snapped, it was a sign from God on high that you were to go free. William Kidd’s first rope snapped, and the Lords of Trade insisted it meant it was a sign from God that they needed a better rope, because they insisted on making an example of him.
Crew Demographics and Economic Impacts
While the popular imagery depicts pirates as grizzled old veterans and daring young swashbucklers, the youngest pirate on record was John King, a boy of about eight years old, who signed on with the pirate ship Whydah [ 8 ].
The Whydah was captained by Black Sam Bellamy, and eventually sank off the coast of Cape Cod. The wreck was eventually found by a treasure hunter by the name of Barry Clifford, who found over 200,000 artifacts on that ship, subsequently opening two museums of American Piracy in Cape Cod itself, as well as a traveling exhibit on the same subject [ 9 ]. One of the museum’s exhibits is the remains of John King himself, which includes a small leather shoe with what’s left of a leg bone sticking out of it [ 8 ].
Aboard pirate ships and some privateering vessels was a melting pot of ages, nationalities, religions, and even genders. They were the first true democratic, egalitarian societies, giving no thought to origin or rank as long as a sailor pulled his weight. If you could fight, do your job, and help everyone make a profit, you were a valued member of the crew.
This was true for just about all the golden age of piracy, although it wasn’t always true before or after that. Every issue aboard a pirate ship was up for vote, including the rules of the ship itself, the ship’s articles. The articles would often be revisited every time new pirates came aboard.
Piracy was a game-changer in the economy during the age of sail, especially in the American colonies. At the time, the Navigation Acts had been passed as a way for England to recoup the money it had spent on various wars [ 10 ]. The English saw the colonies as a cash cow, a way to replenish their stores quickly and easily.
The Navigation Acts stated that the colonists could not trade with anyone but England. They could not trade with the Dutch, they could not trade with the Spanish, and they especially couldn’t trade with French [ 10 ]. The colonists, who had been engaging in commerce with whomever could make it to them, suddenly could only trade with England.
They figured they could make do by trading with other colonies. However, if you were a tradesman in one colony, let’s say a furniture maker from Connecticut, and wanted to sell a desk to a colonist in another colony, for example someone in Massachusetts, you had to pay taxes as if the desk had been shipped to England and then back to the colonies to be sold to another colony, which meant you were paying taxes on it twice.
Worse, you actually had to ship it that way; first over to England, then back to the other colony. That did horrible things to local economies, especially those local economies which happened to cross colony borders, as many did in what is now New England.
Pirates got their goods free of cost from the ships they attacked. They came back to the colonies and sold them, tax-free and customs-free, at bargain-basement prices. They sold them—no questions asked—and the goods they were selling were often sorely needed.
Therefore, piracy, despite all of its problems, was tolerated for so long in the colonies. It was seen as less of a problem than the government’s own actions.
Once pirates sold all their goods, they divvied up the money amongst the crew, who often put that money straight back into the local economy. They usually put it into the public houses, gambling parlors, and whorehouses, but it still went right back to the colony, mostly in exchange for services instead of goods. From the economic standpoint of the colonists, a pirate ship sailing into dock loaded with loot was an unmitigated boon.
To give an equivalent in modern terms, most people are familiar with the American Rust Belt. What pirates did in a colony they docked at would be equivalent to a bunch of cash-rich folks driving into the Rust Belt with tractor trailers loaded with goods, selling those goods on the cheap, then spending the money they made at the businesses of the same people who bought the goods.
We might not like that if the goods were stolen, but the folks in the Rust Belt might not look very closely at it as their economies suddenly boosted back into high gear.
A wonderful book, which details the formation of an autonomous society formed by pirates as well as showcasing their culture, is Republic of Pirates. It tells the history of New Providence, and how pirates turned it into their own society outside of English rule. That book was the inspiration for the television show Black Sails.
While Black Sails got some of the details right and others wrong, it was indeed based on a book based on historical fact. That’s the only example of a local society formed entirely by pirates that I’ve come across in my research, but the fact that it happened once means it may indeed have happened elsewhere.
In it For the Money
Now, as we’ve noted before, pirates were in the game for the paycheck. Every pirate got at least one full share of any loot the ship took. Depending on your rank and what jobs you had, you might get an additional part of a share to another full share. A captain, for example, commonly got two to two-and-a-half shares, with some getting as many as three shares. They didn’t get more than that, because on merchant vessels captains were getting upwards of 30 shares, which meant they could make decisions that made a single share a piddling amount and still survive. Like the wealth inequality in our economy today, this pushed people outside that economy toward egalitarianism.
Other things would get you more shares, like having special skills such as being a carpenter or surgeon. During boarding actions, grenadiers would get an extra share. Grenadiers would take up to half a dozen clay pots filled with gunpowder and shot, stick a lit quick match in it, and toss it into a hold of the enemy ship to get rid of defenders.
The problem, of course, is that a fuse burning too fast would potentially leave them without a hand, and a fuse burning too slow would let the defenders pick it up and throw it back at them. Grenadiers got an extra share if they survived because of that risk.
Pirate ships had people on fighting platforms and up on the mast as spotters. The spotter who spotted a prize ship would be given the best pistol or musket taken from the enemy vessel. While that wasn’t a share, weapons were worth money, possibly as much—or more—than a share.
Everyone in the boarding action could take items from any defender they killed, and it wasn’t considered part of the loot. Everything from pocket watches to clothing to weapons were fair game. Beyond that, anything else found on the boat was to be equally shared.
If you tried to claim something not on a person as your personal prize, and it got reported, you would have your nostrils and ears slit and be dropped off at the most populated place the ship could find as an example. Those slits marked you not only as a pirate, but an untrustworthy pirate.
Pirates had interesting punishments, at least in part because after months and years at sea it got boring, and there are always those sorts who would spend that boring time coming up with new and interesting ways to hurt people.
The Privateer Position
Privateers operated slightly different from pirates in a financial respect. While pirates often acted on an honor system, trusting their fellows as they were in turn trusted to be above board about loot and shares, privateers would have ledgers of loot and values. Some even carried accountants to keep those ledgers, to prove to the crown who employed them that the crown was getting their fair share.
In cases where the ship didn’t have its own accountant, which was most of them, record keeping was the duty of the quartermaster. This led to some interesting things. For example, in one war, the Queen of England forwent her share of the prizes. She told her privateers they had earned the loot, and she wasn’t going to take it. The sailors were thrilled to get that extra unexpected loot, which could have been one quarter to one third of the total prizes they’d taken.
If you took another vessel as a privateer, officially you were to take that vessel to the admiralty, who would condemn it before you could sell it. Once you sold it, the proceeds would be divvied up among the crew.
Something to keep in mind about privateers: while the country you were working for usually honored your Letter of Marque, and some neutral countries might as well, assuming you didn’t attack their ships, the nations whose ships you attacked didn’t care if you had a Letter of Marque or not. They still considered you just another pirate and would hang you if they caught you.
Henry Morgan is another example of how terminology has been misused when identifying individuals from the age of piracy. While he’s often called a pirate, he was indeed a privateer of Welsh descent, who eventually became governor of an island in the West Indies.
He famously sacked Panama, with disastrous results [ 11 ]. The sack is a prime example of the rule “sack first, then burn.” His crew tried it the other way around: they lit Panama City on fire, then tried looting while the city was in flames.
While he was indeed a privateer and a famously successful one, people think of him as a pirate mainly because of his mode of dress, which they know about because they see it on rum bottles around the world. Another victim of marketing, sadly.
One point which often brings confusion is that idea that one country’s privateer is another country’s pirate. If a ship had a legitimate Letter of Marque, and they followed it, they might be punished as pirates if they got caught, but they were indeed privateers. They still couldn’t expect quarter from their targets, but they would be safe in the ports of their commissioning nation.
Some pirates tried to pass themselves off as privateers with fake Letters of Marque, and others had legitimate Letters of Marque, but then didn’t adhere to the conditions in their letter. For example, Thomas Tew had a Letter of Marque from the governor of Bermuda allowing him to attack French shipping [ 12 ]. Instead of limiting his attacks to French shipping, Tew looted a treasure ship belonging to Aurangzeb, an Indian Emperor. Not French by any stretch of the imagination, wrong part of the world entirely.
One of the most successful pirate ventures of all times was, in fact, a privateer who was attacking the wrong people. Henry Avery, also known as Long Ben Avery, gathered a fleet of pirates he met in the Indian Ocean, who were all from Rhode Island. These included Captain Tew, Captain Want and Captain Wake, Captain John Hore, and Captain John Mayes, Jr.
They attacked Aurangzeb’s flagship, and it took three full days just to pull all the loot off the ship. All those captains had Letters of Marque, but they weren’t following those Letters of Marque, which made them legitimately pirates.
Just a Fraction
Another interesting note about pirates is that what we know about the golden age of piracy comes from approximately 10 to 20 percent of the pirates who existed.
Most privateers and even pirates weren’t dedicated to a life of plunder. They had economic reasons for doing a very dangerous job, but once they’d earned enough loot, they often tried to slide unnoticed back into society, and the vast majority were successful. In order for us to know about a pirate, some evidence had to exist; court documents, broadsides, firsthand accounts, and so on.
With that in mind, aboard the ships we know of, some female pirates hid their gender to get a spot on a boat, then revealed themselves once their reputations were established. Given that, there are maybe two handfuls of famous pirates who were women: Anne Bonney, Jeanne de Clisson, Mary Read, Gráinne (Grace) O’Malley, Rachel Wall, and Cheng I Sao top the list [ 13 ].
The oldest known pirate was Thomas Paine, an 83-year-old privateer with a pirate hunting Letter of Marque from the governor of Rhode Island to hunt French pirates off the coast of Long Island. He was connected to William Kidd. Kidd left some of his treasure with Paine, which was eventually found by sanitation workers digging the sewer system in Jamestown.
It’s uncertain whether that treasure was the very one given by Kidd to Paine, Paine’s own money, money given to him by his wife for safekeeping, or some combination of all three. Those two sanitation workers quickly left their jobs, then wound up disappearing into history.
Piracy begets more piracy, it seems.
There was a church in Newport called Trinity Church, which was funded by a pirate who bought his way into the gentry. Piracy was one of the only ways someone could have that kind of upward mobility, and Robert Monday wound up boosting the local economy of Newport and making it the summer resort spot it is today.
England and Spain both were affected by piracy, although Spain more so than England. The Spaniards were stealing their gold and silver from the Indigenous Americans in South and Central America, intending to transport it back to Spain to boost their economy. The English wrote many Letters of Marque for ships to attack those Spanish treasure galleons, which meant that gold and silver wound up going to England instead.
Of course, that meant Spain had to hire pirate hunters and give them their own Letters of Marque, which dipped into their coffers even further. While those pirate hunters did affect the English to some degree, there was no parallel to the “floating ATMs” of the treasure galleons sailing from the West Indies. Of course, the English were affected by pirates attacking their trade with their colonies.
Another interesting point is that many pirates were originally from the societies they ended up preying upon. With no upward mobility and beastly conditions on the naval and merchant vessels of the time, sailors had plenty of reason to hate their native lands. That gave them reason to go pirate, and when they did, should they try to turn to “legitimate” piracy by getting a Letter of Marque, that hatred often pushed them to ally with their own native land’s enemies.
So, there you have a quick primer on terminology, as well as the economic and social impact of piracy. Be sure to sail by next time when we get into the fairer sex: women and how they participated in and affected piracy in the Age of Sail!
- “The American Privateer vessel, the General Armstrong , Capt. Sam C. Reid, fending off British forces in the Battle of Fayal. 1814.” Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_American_Privateer_General_Armstrong_Capt._Sam._C._Reid.jpg
- “The term Buccaneer is steeped in Caribbean context. Original usage was for hunters and poachers in Tortuga and Hispaniola, to make jerky in huts the French dubbed boucanes. Depicted here is an illustration from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates.” Source:https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/db/Pyle_pirate_handsome.jpg
Jeromy Foberg has staffed conventions as a historian and panelist for the better part of a decade. His work in historical reenactment and experimental archaeology is voluminous, leading historical walking tours and serving as a tall ship sailor. In addition to his series, Jeromy’s worked with SFS as a model, performer, and a writer for The Living Multiverse. Having spent the past few years “living the dream”, he’s rarely settled down in one place to recount his accumulated lore … until now.
- Merriam-Webster editors. “Piracy.” Merriam-Webster, merriam-webster.com/dictionary/piracy Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
- “Battles During Ramses II’s Dynasty.” KingTutOne.com, kingtutone.com/pharaohs/ramses2/battles Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “The Time Julius Caesar Was Captured by Pirates.” Britannica, www.britannica.com/story/the-time-julius-caesar-was-captured-by-pirates Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
- “Nautical Glossary.” Caribbean-Pirates.com, caribbean-pirates.com/nautical_glossary.php Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
- “Buccaneer (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/word/buccaneer Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
- Minister, Christopher. “Biography of Captain Henry Morgan, Welsh Privateer.” ThoughtCo., 5 June 2019, thoughtco.com/captain-morgan-greatest-of-the-privateers-2136378
- “Famous Pirate: William Kidd.” The Way of the Pirates, thewayofthepirates.com/famous-pirates/william-kidd Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
- Nelson, Laura. “Pirates & Privateers: John King—the Boy Pirate.” Cindyvallar.com, 2015, cindyvallar.com/JohnKing.html
- “History of the Whydah Pirate Museum | Whydah Pirate Shipwreck.” Whydah Pirate Museum, discoverpirates.com/about-us/ Accessed 26 June 2022.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Navigation Acts United Kingdom.” Britannica, britannica.com/event/Navigation-Acts
- Minister, Christopher. “Biography of Captain Henry Morgan, Welsh Privateer.” ThoughtCo., 5 June 2019, thoughtco.com/captain-morgan-greatest-of-the-privateers-2136378
- Ossian, Robert. “Thomas New.” ThePirateKing.com, thepirateking.com/bios/tew_thomas.htm
- Guimbellot, Lindsay Kay. “Top 10 Women Pirates.” Odyssey, 12 Dec. 2016, theodysseyonline.com/top-ten-women-pirates