Pirate flag of Jack Rackham
Pirate flag of Jack Rackham

A Pirate by Any Other Name

Pirate flag of Jack Rackham
Pirate flag of Jack Rackham

Many legendary pirates used the Caribbean for their greatest exploits, attracted by the riches and easy pickings that the New World had to offer. More often than not they attacked ships for food, rum, medical stores or for sought-after crew like doctors and carpenters. Today pirates of the golden era are glorified and romanticized thanks to Disney films like Pirates of the Caribbean, however, these swashbuckling characters were anything but. The great days of piracy began during the 1600s but had petered out by the 1830s when European and North American colonies began their fight against them. Pirates were a brutal bunch living in harsh, squalid conditions. Many did not live to see old age.

A pirate in simple terms is anyone who robs and attacks at sea outside the laws and jurisdictions of a country. There are many terms used to describe pirates. Privateer was the name given to men who sailed on an armed ship under papers, known as a letter of marque, from a government or person. These papers often only gave a vague outline of duties so that captain and crew were left to their own devices to raid and plunder as they wished. Their pay came from the spoils they collected and they gave some to the crown in return for safe harbor. Unauthorized attacks were often overlooked and even welcomed if they were upon enemy ships. Corsaire is the French name for privateer. A privateer fighting for the opposing side would invariably be considered a pirate.

Buccaneers (most likely came from the French word boucanier – which means to smoke) were European settlers in the Caribbean, mostly French, who had jumped ship trying to avoid the harsh naval life at sea where conditions could be pretty grim. They adapted to island life hunting wild animals and smoking the meat. The Spanish became afraid of their growing numbers and decided it best these men were killed. This ruthless treatment by the Spanish made it easy for the British to recruit them as privateers who were more accustomed to life in the tropics then their crews from home.

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Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre

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