Any of the British, French, or Dutch sea adventurers who chiefly haunted the Caribbean and the Pacific seaboard of South America during the latter part of the 17th century, preying on Spanish settlements and shipping. Though inspired by such privateers as Englishman Francis Drake, the buccaneers were not legitimate privateers (the commissions they held were seldom valid), but neither were they the outlawed pirates who flourished in the 18th century. Usually escaped servants, former soldiers, or loggers, they ran their ships democratically, divided plunder equitably, and even provided a form of accident insurance. They influenced the founding of the South Sea Co., and stories of their adventures inspired more serious voyages of exploration as well as the tales of writers Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
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The term buccaneer is now used generally as a synonym for pirate. Originally, buccaneer crews were larger, more apt to attack coastal cities, and more localized to the Caribbean than later pirate crews who sailed to the Indian Ocean on the Pirate Round in the late 17th century.
About 1630, some Frenchmen who were driven away from the island of Hispaniola fled to nearby Tortuga. The Spaniards tried to drive them out of Tortuga, but the buccaneers were joined by many other French, Dutch and English and turned to piracy against Spanish shipping, generally using small craft to attack galleons in the vicinity of the Windward Passage. Finally they became so strong that they even sailed to the mainland of Spanish America and sacked cities.
English settlers occupying Jamaica began to spread the name buccaneers with the meaning of pirates. The name became universally adopted later in 1684 when the first English translation of Alexandre Exquemelin's book The Buccaneers of America was published.
Viewed from London, buccaneering was a low-budget way to wage war on Britain's rival, Spain. So, the English crown licensed buccaneers, legalizing their operations in return for a share of their profits. The buccaneers were invited by Jamaica's Governor Thomas Modyford to base ships at Port Royal. The buccaneers robbed French, Dutch and Spanish shipping and colonies, and returned to Port Royal with their plunder, making the city the most prosperous in the West Indies. There even were navy officers sent to lead the buccaneers, such as Christopher Myngs. Their activities went on irrespective of whether England happened to be at war with Spain, the United Provinces or France.
Among the leaders of the buccaneers was a Frenchman named Daniel Montbars, who destroyed so many Spanish ships and killed so many Spaniards that he was called "the Exterminator". Another noted leader was a Welshman named Henry Morgan, who sacked Maracaibo, Portobello, and Panama City, stealing a huge amount from the Spanish. Morgan became rich and went back to England, where he was knighted by Charles II.
In the 1690s, the old buccaneering ways began to die out, as European governments began to discard the policy of "no peace beyond the Line." Buccaneers were hard to control and might embroil their colonies in unwanted wars. Notably, at the 1697 joint French-buccaneer siege of Cartagena, led by Bernard Desjean, Baron de Pointis, the buccaneers and the French regulars parted on extremely bitter terms. Less tolerated by local Caribbean officials, buccaneers increasingly turned to legal work or else joined regular pirate crews who sought plunder in the Indian Ocean, the east coast of North America, or West Africa as well as in the Caribbean.
Nevertheless, these rough men had little concern for legal niceties, and exploited every opportunity to pillage Spanish targets, whether or not a letter of marque was available. Many of the letters of marque used by buccaneers were legally invalid, and any form of legal paper in that illiterate age might be passed off as a letter of marque. Furthermore, even those buccaneers that had valid letters of marque often failed to observe their terms; Morgan's 1671 attack on Panama, for instance, was not at all authorized by his commission from the governor of Jamaica.
The legal status of buccaneers was still further obscured by the practice of the Spanish authorities, who regarded them as heretics and interlopers, and thus hanged or garrotted captured buccaneers entirely without regard to whether their attacks were licensed by French or English monarchs.
Simultaneously, French and English governors tended to turn a blind eye to the buccaneers' depredations against the Spanish, even when unlicensed. But as Spanish power waned toward the end of the 17th century, the buccaneers' attacks began to disrupt France and England's merchant traffic with Spanish America. Merchants who had previously regarded the buccaneers as a defense against Spain now saw them as a threat to commerce, and colonial authorities grew hostile. This change in political atmosphere, more than anything else, put an end to buccaneering.
Spoils were evenly divided into shares; the captain received an agreed amount for the ship, plus a portion of the share of the prize money, usually five or six shares. Crews generally had no regular wages, being paid only from their shares of the plunder, a system called "no purchase, no pay" by Modyford or "no prey, no pay" by Exquemelin. There was a strong esprit de corps among buccaneers. This, combined with overwhelming numbers, allowed them to win sea battles and shore raids. There was also, for some time, a social insurance system guaranteeing compensation for battle wounds at a worked-out scale.
A common myth about buccaneers is that they were racially egalitarian and liberated slaves when capturing slave ships. In fact, buccaneers fully participated in the slave society of their time, selling slaves as captured booty and even giving slaves to wounded buccaneers as compensation. Nevertheless, it is quite true that the relationship between officers and men among the buccaneers was much more egalitarian than that aboard merchant or naval vessels of the time.
Tortugan buccaneers also lived in lifelong male couples. This institution of male partnership was called matelotage and the partners matelots. Matelots shared their beds, property, food, and loot with one another. It is unknown how often such partnerships were homosexual in nature, although it is clear that heterosexual males also chose male matelots. As yet, there is no evidence for matelotage existing among Jamaican buccaneers such as Henry Morgan, although Tortugan buccaneers certainly sailed with Morgan and could have brought the institution to Jamaica.