Pirates in Anglo-American Culture

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A Jolly Roger flag flown by the USS Ranger. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

Hello again, readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. A quick look at modern popular culture will make it clear even to the most casual of observers that the Caribbean Pirates of the 17th and 18th century are icons in family entertainment. Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” series has been immensely successful, and the 20th century is full of films about swashbuckling heroes and adventures at sea. And yet, a sampling of our news headlines paints a very different picture of piracy: container ships are ransacked, crews held for ransoms, and tourists are kidnapped or killed. Indeed, the world recognizes this problem and has deployed dozens of warships to counter the pirate threat to commerce and personal safety. Why is there such a dichotomy on the subject of piracy?

As a historian, it seems to me that the issue of piracy meets its natural response in the modern headlines: piracy has been reviled and combated since time immemorial, as it should be. The catch is that people also like stories of adventure, romance and rooting for the underdog. English (and by extension, American) culture especially has always had a bit of a rebellious streak, with heroes like Robin Hood robbing the superfluously rich and thumbing their noses at a corruption. For the Anglo-American world, pirates served as an excellent source of rebellious fun once they had faded into the past a bit, and books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island capitalized on this fun in the late 1800s. About two centuries had passed since the buccaneers had last prowled the Caribbean, and it seemed safe to feature pirates as a source of adventure.   Read more

The Difference Between Pirates, Privateers and Buccaneers Pt. 2

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Sir Henry Morgan, viewed as a Pirate by the Spanish and a Privateer by the English. Either way, he also qualifies as a Buccaneer. From The Mariners’ Museum Library collection.

Welcome back, and let’s finish our exploration of pirate terminology with the term “Buccaneer.” Buccaneer is used synonymously with the idea of the 17th-18th century Caribbean pirates, but it actually means something quite specific. When Spain started colonizing the Caribbean in the 16th century, it was initially the only nation to do so. Around the beginning of the 17th century, people from other nations like France, England and the Netherlands started trying to settle in the Caribbean too. The problem was they weren’t welcome in Spanish ports because the Spanish didn’t recognize their right to settle. As a result, the only people willing to trade with these settlers and adventurers were social outcasts like mulattos, Native Americans and shipwreck survivors who largely lived in the wild.

These people sold supplies like water and meat to the non-Spaniards, who started calling them “Boucaniers.” Boucaniers is a French term of some ambiguity, but according to Cotgrave’s 1611 French/English Dictionary, the closely related word Boucane’ translates as a wooden gridiron that these outcasts used to cook meat. In addition, the French already had a verb called “boucaner” which meant “to hang around with lowlives” or “to imitate a foul tempered billy goat.” These words got meshed together, and the French ended up calling the local outcasts boucaniers. From 1620 on, these “boucaniers” started developing reputations as navigators and sharpshooters, so anyone who wanted to move against the Spanish would want some Boucaniers, or Buccaneers, with them for their combat prowess. By 1680, the term Buccaneer was being used to describe not just the locals but any Pirate of Privateer in general. As a result, the Buccaneer was a Pirate or Privateer operating in the Caribbean during the late 17th century and early 18th century. I hope these two posts have been informative, and encourage anyone who wants to know more to come on down to The Mariners’ Museum Library and explore our dozens and dozens of books on the matter. Until next time, have a good day!   Read more

The Difference Between Pirates, Privateers and Buccaneers Pt. 1

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Greetings readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. As we delve deeper into the realm of piracy, a lot of potentially confusing terms are used to make sense of the men and women who struggled over wealth in the late 17th and early 18th century Caribbean. Terms like Pirate, Buccaneer, and Privateer crop up with noticeable frequency, and are often used as synonyms. However, each of these terms has a separate and distinct meaning, even if the people these terms are applied to are too complex for any one title. Therefore, I would be happy to tell you the difference between a Buccaneer, a Pirate, and a Privateer.

Greetings readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. As we delve deeper into the realm of piracy, a lot of potentially confusing terms are used to make sense of the men and women who struggled over wealth in the late 17th and early 18th century Caribbean. Terms like Pirate, Buccaneer, and Privateer crop up with noticeable frequency, and are often used as synonyms. However, each of these terms has a separate and distinct meaning, even if the people these terms are applied to are too complex for any one title. Therefore, I would be happy to tell you the difference between a Buccaneer, a Pirate, and a Privateer.