The word “pirate” means a “seagoing robber,” and the word covers a lot of ground, from our jolly friends in 1717 to the modern-day outlaws in Somalia. However, there have been many variations in the types of pirate. Below are some of the major variations.
In the days before governments kept massive standing armies and navies, a sudden outbreak of war brought unusual problems. Buying existing ships and arming them was prohibitively expensive, and building ships could take years. To get around these problems, governments authorized private ship-owners to attack enemy ships.
The paperwork involved was called a “letter or marque,” and the captain/ship that carried one was called a “privateer.” Privateers were authorized to attack and capture enemy shipping. The preferred targets were merchant vessels, because the reward for doing this work was that the privateer got to keep everything, from the cargo to the ship itself. The only requirement was that the government received its cut (usually ten percent).
Being a privateer could be a risky endeavor, but it was also extremely profitable. The famous Captain Kidd, acting as a privateer, made enough money from the capture of a single ship to set himself up as a gentleman, with a large house, carriage, and enough money to live very well for several years.
Some of the most famous “pirates,” including Sir Francis Drake and the famous Captain Morgan, were actually privateers. Successful privateers had it all, the adventure of the chase, enormous profits from capturing valuable ships and cargo, and a chance to become a national hero. To the French and Spanish, Drake and Morgan were pirates, but at home they were heroes, and had the knighthoods to prove it.
When privateers had trouble finding ships of other nations to attack, they often turned to piracy. Since privateers were authorized only to attack ships of certain nationalities, attacking other foreign ships made them pirates. Sometimes a privateer captain could cover up these activities, or buy off their government with cash. But after attacking the ships of friendly nations, taking a ship of one’s own nation was just a step away. The infamous Captain Kidd began this way, and other successful pirate captains, like Henry Jennings, also traveled this path.
Usually referred to pirates operating in the Mediterranean, especially those based along the Barbary Coast in northern Africa. These pirates were authorized by the local governments, and reached an impressive level of success. At their height, they extracted ransoms from European governments to spare their shipping.
Pirates had ships, but buccaneers were land-based. During the Golden Age of Piracy, plantations were operated by slave labor. While today we think of all slaves as being from Africa, in fact most European nations enslaved their own lower classes, and England enslaved so many Irish citizens that the population of that island was cut in half. Slavery on an 18th century plantation was a virtual death-sentence, with most enslaved Europeans living less than two years. The incentive to escape was high.
Escaped slaves, mostly single men, gathered in bands along unpopulated sections of the mainland coast and on deserted islands. They supported themselves by gathering wide fruit and killing wild pigs, whose meat they smoked, using what the natives called “buccon” or wooden smoking racks.