Caribbean Piracy

A fairly typical pirate ship that was known as a sloop that was used by pirates around 1700.  High mobility and quickness, coupled with 6 to 10 guns, made this vessel a formidable opponent.  Courtesy of


Buccaneer Beginnings                                                                      From

            The first buccaneers, or boucaniers, literally “smoker of meat” in French, came from the area that is now Haiti.  Pigs and cattle descended from animals brought by Spanish settlers roamed the land in large quantities.[1]  French hunters captured and killed the animals and then smoked the meat, creating a form of jerky.  The hunters bartered the jerky to merchants and other ships for guns, powder, liquor, tobacco, and other goods.  The inhabitants were savages who slept on the ground and in small shacks and dressed in clothing steeped in the blood of animals.  They lived in small groups that numbered six to eight men and were nomadic.  One Frenchman described them as  ‘“the butcher’s vilest servants, who have been eight days in the slaughter house without washing themselves.”’[2]

            Up until around 1630, buccaneers only seized ships during the rainy season in which hunting was difficult.  They would use small boats with oars to attack ships passing along the coasts at night.  But this changed once Spanish authorities in the southern portion of Haiti and in Santo Domingo launched a two-pronged campaign against them.  The Spanish resented having savages that poached animals in their territory.  Their first attempt to eradicate the buccaneers involved sending five hundred lancers to locate and kill them.  However, this plan did not succeed because the lancers were unable to cover the vast territory and the difficult terrain within it.  The authorities then ordered a mass slaughter of the cows and pigs that were the buccaneers’ livelihood.  Without a viable alternative, the buccaneers turned towards privateering year round.[3]


        The buccaneers first settled in Tortuga, which was a small island off the coast of Hispania. It was a small trading settlement established before the Spanish undertook their venture.  Tortuga’s proximity between Hispaniola and Cuba made it an ideal base for raiding ships.  Before long, most of the buccaneers affected by the Spanish campaign immigrated to Tortuga and commenced operations.  The marauders quickly turned the island into a fortress and in the process attracted English and French sailors to join them.[4]


A hand-drawn map of Tortuga from the late 1600's.  Courtesy of


Buccaneering Spreads

A map of Port Royal from the Port Royal Project.  Http://

        Buccaneering spread throughout the Caribbean from Tortuga.  A place similar to that of Tortuga was Port Royal, located in Jamaica. The English managed to wrest control of the island from the Spanish in 1655, but the governor found it necessary to agree to a security arrangement with the buccaneers to ensure the colony’s safety.  Like Tortuga, Port Royal’s large harbor and closeness to shipping lanes lent itself to privateering.  According to Jenifer Marx, Port Royal soon became the “focal point of the Caribbean’s contraband trade.”[5]  Marx also wrote that the town had “an international reputation for godlessness, profligacy and wantoness.”[6]  Brothels, gambling, and taverns were commonplace.  The governor collected compensation for allowing the buccaneers to privateer, which resulted in an extremely profitable arrangement for the English and the buccaneers.[7]       

The spread of buccaneering meant that the buccaneers had created their own identity.  By 1640, they were calling themselves the “Brethren of the Coast” as a reflection upon where they lived and who they were with.  They developed their own society where last names were not used in addressing each other.  Buccaneers did not see any use in remembering their former lives, but rather entered into privateering to create a new one.  They ended up in a completely new environment that fostered a sense of community.[8]                The Brethren observed their own set of expectations for each crew member when on a voyage.  For instance, a buccaneer's council would decide where a ship should go to plunder and would also decide the proper proportion of bounty each person would receive on board the ship.  Esquemelin observed that “In this council. . .they agree upon certain articles, which are put in writing, by way of bond or obligation, which every one is bound to observe, and all of them, or the chiefest, do set their hands unto.”[9]  Esquemelin continued later on by describing how buccaneers “make a solemn oath to each other not to abscond, or conceal the least thing they find amongst the prey.”[10]  Buccaneers formed their own system of oversight to ensure fairness amongst them.  They were no longer lawless within their own society, which demonstrates a tremendous shift from the hunters on Tortuga.[11]


Privateering and Rise of True Piracy



The letter of marque issued to Captain William Kidd.  Courtesy of

Countries granted letters of marque to legalize piracy and extend the protection of a sovereign power to the privateer.  Privateers were exempt from prosecution in their own country and neutral nations, and also had the right to sell captured goods in ports of those countries.  Commissions were in place of large, state-owned navies, and provided countries with the ability to engage in naval affairs without spending massive amounts of money.[12]  The British tried to limit the amount of piracy committed by privateers by requiring an escrow account that insured only legal acts would take place, but this system met with only limited success.  Buccaneers attacked only Spanish ships and ports and argued that this was just a specialized form of privateering.[13]

The Spanish argued that buccaneers and privateers were equivalent to pirates.  Spain saw her colonies and ships as victims of crime, not privateering.  The basis for their argument hinges on the fact that letters of marquee were distributed indiscriminately towards the end of the seventeenth century.  French and British colonial governors would issue letters of marquee in exchange for a fee, which basically invalidated the use of privateers as warriors of states.  Additionally, there was not a system in place to provide a check on buccaneers and privateers who crossed the boundaries outlined in their commissions. As a result, the Spanish treated buccaneers and pirates as one and the same. 


A Pirate’s Life for Me 

        A typical crew of a pirate ship primarily consisted of the captain, quartermaster, first mate, boatswain, carpenter, gunner, surgeon, powder monkeys (boys who made up gun crews), cabin boys, and the regular crew members.  They would live on a ship that was small, smelly, and disgusting.  Fresh water was at a premium.  Beer and rum were actually preferred because it helped sanitize the fresh water if they were mixed.  Food supplies were constantly being replenished, but they would rot and become full if vermin.  Rats, fleas, and spiders and scorpions were just some of the pests that pirates and sailors alike would have to do deal with. Other conditions that pirates and sailors had to contend with were the disposal of human waste and sleep.  The typical way in which a sailor would deposit human waste overboard was to use a piece of wood with holes cut into it as a toilet.  The openness of such actions contributed to disease on board ships.  At night, sailors would often find themselves vying for a potential spot to sleep, hanging a hammock below deck if they were lucky.  Pirates lived a hard life.

        Unlike privateers, pirates had to adhere to a strict, self-imposed code on board a vessel.  The crew would create a set of articles for each voyage determining such things as compensation for each type of crew member once they captured a prize.  Some of the articles included marooning any man for stealing and providing compensation for the loss of a limb in battle.  The articles became binding once the crew agreed to them.  Normally, a crew would then elect a captain for the voyage.  The following list is one example of what an entire set of articles might look like.


"Article 1
A man that shall strike another, whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive 40 spare 1 on the bare Back.

Article 2
Every man shall obey civil command of the Captain, the Master, Carpenter, Boatswain and other elected ship officers.

Article 3
If at any time you meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her, without her consent, shall suffer Death.

Article 4
That Man that shall play with sparks or flame, or smoke Tobacco in the Hold, without cap to his Pipe, or carry a candle lighted without a lantern, shall shall receive 40 spare 1 or be marooned.

Article 5
If anyone shall steal anything in the Company, or game to the value of a gold  he shall be marooned.

Article 6
If anyone shall offer to spy on his crewmates, or keep any secret from the Company, he shall be marooned with one bottle of water and a blade.

Article 7
That Man that shall not keep his blades clean and sharpened, fit for an engagement, or neglect his business, shall be cut off from his share, and suffer such other punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.

Article 8
If any man shall lose a joint or limb in time of engagement, he shall be justly compensated by Ship Law.

Article 9
The captain shall have one full share and a half in all prizes. The Master, Carpenter, Boatswain, and Gunner shall have one share and quarter.

Article 10
If at any time we should meet a Privateer, Buccaneer or Marooner that man shall sign these Articles right away, with the Consent of our Company or shall suffer such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit."

This list of articles is taken from        


Famous Pirates and Privateers 

Captain Henry Morgan                                                                            Sir Henry Morgan

One of the first of these sea raiders in the Caribbean to call himself a privateer was Captain Henry Morgan.  Born in 1635, Morgan led attacks against the Spanish on both land and sea with the support of England and France.  He managed to capture Puerto del Principe in 1668 and then took Purto Bello that same year.  After defeating the Spanish, Morgan resorted to torturing citizens to find out the location of anything of value.  Eventually, Morgan returned home to Jamaica to act as the deputy governor and then the acting governor of Jamaica.  He died on August 25, 1688.



                                                                                                                              Portrait of Morgan from

Captain Edward Teach, aka “Blackbeard”                                                                                  

       BlackbeardsCrew.jpg (19187 bytes)                                                                 

    Blackbeard was born in Bristol, England, and came to the Caribbean aboard a privateer during war-time.  Blackbeard’s first command came from his protégé Captain Benjamin Horningold, which was a French guineaman.  He re-named the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge and used to attack shipping and take over twenty ships in a stretch from Virginia to Honduras.  Blackbeard was a ruthless captain who once shot one of his own crew just to remind them that he was the captain.  His greatest feat came in 1718, when the fleet he created blockaded Charleston, SC, until his demands of money, supplies, and medicine.

 Image of Blackbeard and his crew from

Captain William Kidd                                                                                                        

            Captain Kidd, born around 1645, operated as a privateer for England in New York, the West Indies, and Madagascar.  His main mission was to destroy all French vessels he encountered and capture the pirates inhabiting Madagascar.  Kidd eventually took to plundering English ships as well, including one owned by the British East India Company and was captured when he put into port at New York and tried to pass off all of his treasure as captured French property.  Kidd was then hung to act as a warning for other pirates to adhere to.

Wood Planks

A picture from the excavation site of Queen Anne's Revenge.  From

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     A picture of William Kidd after he was executed for his crimes.  From


The Queen Anne's Revenge Excavation

            In 1997, North Carolina's Division of Archives and History began to investigate a shipwreck reported by Intersal, Inc., in the fall of 1996.  After a few visits to the underwater site, archaeologists were reasonably certain that the ship was the Queen Anne's Revenge.  The vessel and its contents are in an area of about 600 square feet.  Some of the items already recovered are a blunderbuss barrel, cannon balls, and other small artifacts.  The Underwater Archaeology Branch from North Carolina's Department of Cultural Resources has created a website to allow the public to track the progress being made on the ship's excavation.  Archaeological sites like this one significantly add to our understanding about life during the time in which the people who crewed the vessel lived.  Historians can gain insights into piracy, naval warfare, trade, and shipbuilding.  For more information on the Queen Anne's Revenge Excavation effort, please see

Tuesday morning down under  at the site.


[1]The Spanish abandoned the area in 1605.  David Cordingly, ed., Pirates: Terror on the High Seas, from the Caribbean to the South China Sea (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Inc., 1996) 38.

[2]Jenifer Marx, Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean (Malabar, [Florida]: Krieger Publishing Company, 1992), 129; Cordingly, Pirates: Terror on the High Seas, 38-39; Blotting, The Pirates, 24-25.


[4]Please see the map on the following page to provide a clear image of how Tortuga appeared.  Gavin, Patterns of Pillage, 109-112,122.

[5]Marx, Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean, 157.


[7]Ibid., 156-158; Marx, Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean, 102-106;Cordingly, Pirates: Terror on the High Seas, 49-51.

[8]B. R. Burg, “The Buccaneer Community,” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, edited by C. R. Pennell (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 211-212.

[9]Exquemelin, The Buccaneers of America, 59-60.

[10]Ibid., 61.

[11]Ibid., 59-61; Pirates: Terror on the High Seas, 49-51.

[12]The concept of maintaining large fleets for extended periods of time was not used until the Eighteenth century.

[13]Marx, Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean, 4-5; Galvin, Patterns of Pillage, 4-7.



© Andrew Douglas, Cheryl Neifert, Amy Sanderson & Kristen Toskes 2005