English law defines piracy as : ‘Taking a ship on the High Seas or within the jurisdiction of the Lord High Admiral from the possession or control of those who are lawfully entitled to it and carrying away the ship itself or any of its goods, tackle, apparel or furniture.’
There are, however, distinctions to be made between pirates, privateers and buccaneers.
Pirates take their name from the Latin ‘pirata’, a marine adventurer, and are sea raiders who operate without any authorisation except that of their own greed and need.
Privateers, however, having been known since the 13th century, operate with the consent of government, usually their own. They were privately owned ships that were licensed under a Letter of Marque to capture enemy ships in time of war and the captains could not be charged with piracy. Sir Francis Drake, one of the most famous English seafarers, was not strictly a privateer as he attacked Spanish ships before there was a declaration of war. Queen Elizabeth I did not consider him a criminal as he enriched her coffers with his spoils.
After the American Revolution French ‘privateers’ preyed upon American ships and caused an undeclared war which led to the creation of the U.S. Navy.
A licensed privateer often quickly became a pirate ship after an armistice had been signed and Cotton Mather, an infamous puritanical minister, famous for his part in the Salem witch trials in 1692, once preached that ‘the privateering stroke so easily degenerates into the piratical and the privateering trade is usually carried on with an un-Christian temper and proves an inlet into so much debauchery and iniquity.’ A century later, Lord Nelson thought that there was virtually no difference between the two so by his reasoning, many of the English heroes such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Drake, Frobisher and John Hawkins would have been pirates!
Buccaneer was a name that the pirates gave to themselves when raiding in the Caribbean claiming that they were privateers but often attacking any ship in war or peacetime. The word derives from the ‘boucanes’, dome shaped smoke houses on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where strips of beef and pork were smoked over a slow fire. Pirates in the area bought this meat from the ‘boucaniers’ (smokers of meat) – so often that they also became known as boucaniers, or buccaneers.
Freebooter is another word for buccaneer derived from the French ‘flibustier’ – as was ‘filibuster’, a word now used in Parliament to define a delaying tactic.
Corsair was a Spanish word for a pirate or privateer or something in between and ‘sea rover’ was a Germanic term for a pirate. Centuries ago the Roman Orator Cicero called all pirates ‘hostes humani generi’ ( enemies of the human race).
Many years ago, I was taking over from the Thames pilot as North Sea Pilot, when he told his control room that there was a North Sea Rover on board. It sounded quite good at the time but now I begin to wonder!
by Terry Took © 2014
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.