Tuesday, June 22, 2010

4 Kinds of Caribbean Cutthroats

Welcome back mates. In this lesson we are going to explore the differences between four types of seafaring scoundrels. They are pirates, privateers, buccaneers, and marooners. When we are done, you'll know what each of these names mean, you'll understand why the old adage 'once a thief, always a thief' also applies to pirates, and you'll also learn what pirates called themselves. So freshen your drinks, pull up your chairs, and let's begin.

A pirate is a person who practices piracy. Piracy is any robbery or other violent crime, for private ends and without authorization by any country, committed on the seas. Basically, pirates attacked any vessel they chose without regard to nationality in order to make a profit. Typically pirates would attack a ship to force it to stop, then board that ship. After taking the ship, or securing the surrender of the crew, pirates would plunder the ship of its valuables and take any prisoners worth a ransom. After that, the pirates might try to recruit crew members from the plundered vessel to replace their losses or fill out their own crew. Finally, the pirates would return to their own ship and sail away. Contrary to popular belief, pirates were not always bloodthirsty killers. Many pirates considered piracy their occupation. These men simply wanted to do their job and get away with their plunder as quickly and easily as possible. If the captain and crew of the captured ship were not a hindrance, then they could often escape brutalization altogether. Some pirates, however, were in the business of torturing and killing. These pirates left a trail of plundered ships and murdered men where ever they went. It is this second sort of pirate that has colored the meaning of the word. There were pirates of every nationality and a few ships were even mixed in nationality, but that was rare. Typically ship's crews were of the same nationality and not diverse. Pirates and privateers were very much alike and sometimes the same.

Am I a Pirate or a Privateer?
A privateer was differentiated from a pirate by only one thing: a letter of marque. A letter of marque, which is sometimes called a letter of reprisal, was an official government sanction to harass enemy shipping granted most often during times of war. Sometimes these letters came directly from a king, but royal governors in the Caribbean could write them as well. A ship that carried a letter of marque was recognized as unofficial part of their country's navy. They were given the permission to attack ships of the nations defined in their letter without sanction from their own navy, provided that they gave the crown its share (usually 20%) in the spoils. In most things, however, pirates and privateers were exactly the same. It was not uncommon for privateers to attack vessels of countries not defined in their letter of marque and thus become pirates hiding behind a letter of marque. Another common practice was for privateers to continue their business after the letter of marque had been revoked because the war had ended. Thus, the distinction between privateer and pirate was always a very fine one. There is another factor to consider in this. Governments attempted to keep themselves informed of the actions of their privateers by means of the prize court.

80% is a good deal, right?

Privateers had to register their plunder with the prize court when they returned to port. The prize court inventoried the spoils of war taken by all privateers, deducted the kings share, and heard claims to the spoils by outside sources. For example, an English privateer engages a French privateer and wins the day. The English privateer captain decides to take the entire French vessel and their cargo as a prize. He selects a prize crew from his own crew to help man the French ship and keep its crew in line. Both ships sail back to the home port of the English privateer and the English captain turns the French ship and its cargo over to the prize court. The prize court, which was usually run by the royal governor, decides that the King will take the French ship as His share and publicly posts an inventory of the rest of the spoils for people to make claim against. Representatives of two English merchant companies look over the inventory and make claims against some of the French ship's cargo. The prize court hears their claims and decides that the first has no true claim to the goods as they can produce no proof that the goods are theirs. The second company presents a better case. They demonstrate that a little over half of the cargo of the French ship carries their company symbol. Furthermore, they present the cargo manifest of one of their missing merchant ships that is presumed lost. The cargo manifest seems to match the same cargo bearing their logo from the inventory of the French prize ship, so the court awards that cargo to the merchant company. This procedure takes a little over a month. When the English privateer returns to port, the captain finds that what he thought would be a great fortune for he and his crew is now just some petty trade goods that a representative from the first merchant company is willing to purchase from him at one quarter of its value. This is the life of a legitimate privateer. To duck the prize court or to hide spoils from it was an act of piracy.

There is another factor to consider concerning privateers. To illustrate it I will pirate a sentiment that was expressed by Benjamin Franklin when he was asked about the legality of the American revolution. (Understand that Simon doesn't often pirate the words of others, but Ben's phrasing is exceptional.) Privateers are completely legal in the first person, such as our privateers, it is only in the third person, their privateers, that they become illegal. When you are the victim of a privateer, they are a pirate and nothing more. Spain never recognized or sanctioned privateering as legitimate. All privateers were pirates in the eyes of the Spanish. Spanish dominance and cruelty in the Caribbean is legendary. The buccaneers were a creation of that cruelty.

From 1492, when Columbus claimed the new world for Spain, until 1588, when Admiral Lord Howard defeated the Spanish Armada, Spain completely dominated the Caribbean. Shortly after the defeat of her armada, Spain began to lose her colonies in the Caribbean to other countries. For the most part, the Spanish did not fight hard to keep these island colonies because they were busy plundering the natives of Mexico and South America of their riches. One of the colonies that was often contested was the French colony of Haiti on island of Hispanola. When the French settlers arrived they found wild oxen and pigs roaming the land. These animals came from the original Spanish settlers who had long ago moved further west. The early French settlers made a trade out of hunting these animals, cooking their meat in long strips, and selling the meat to passing Spanish ships. The rack that these meat sellers used to cook the long strips of meat were called "boucans", thus the Spanish sailors named these merchants "boucaniers". The Spanish government quickly decided that these "boucaniers" posed a threat to the security of their colony of Santo Domingo on Hispanola and began to move against them.

The buccaneers proved impossible for the Spanish to drive off. They began to retaliate against their Spanish oppressors using the tools at their disposal. Remember last week when I told you that it was hard to be a pirate without a ship. The buccaneers are why I did not say that it was impossible. The earliest buccaneer raids were conducted by canoes against Spanish ships moored off the shore of Haiti. The buccaneers, who prided themselves on their ability to hunt the wild pigs of Haiti with nothing but two long daggers, poured over the sides of the Spanish ships in the dark of night and silently killed all aboard. These tactics provided them with ships and from that point they differed only from Pirates in that their targets were almost exclusively Spanish. The marooners had a similar development.

The word marooner comes from the Spanish word, "cimarron", meaning wild or untamed. Cimarron was the name applied by the Spanish to runaway slaves, as well as Spanish deserters, in the Caribbean. It basically came to mean anyone of Spanish origin who lived in the wild away from Spanish civilization. The Spanish government made halfhearted attempts to destroy cimarron settlements, but the cimarron fought back using much the same tactics as the buccaneers. Just as the buccaneers, the cimarron, or marooners as they came to be called, targeted Spanish shipping and towns for their raids. A marooner came to be the name given to any pirate of African heritage. Maroon, the word for the act of leaving someone in a wild and untamed place has the same root, but does not otherwise relate to a marooner. We will discuss the punishment of marooning in a future lesson.

Boarding from a Small Boat

What did pirates call themselves? Well that depended upon their education and status when they went to sea. Pirates often called themselves pirates among themselves and merchant crewmen when among those who might take offense to their occupation. Privateers usually prided themselves upon the fact that they were privateers. Privateers took to using the term "Gentleman of Fortune" to describe themselves. This term was quickly picked up by the pirates. This became the general term that polite society used to favorably describe pirates, as well as the term that many pirates adopted to describe themselves.

A Gentleman of Fortune
Well mates, that's it for this week. Next week we'll discuss pirate articles and see why the Caribbean pirates were among the first corporations in the western hemisphere. Until then, may all be well with you.

Copyright 2001, Mark S. Cookman

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