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Pirate or privateer, buccaneer or corsair?

The Intricate World of Pirates, Privateers, Buccaneers, and Corsairs

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Piracy can be defined as “the act of attacking ships in order to steal from them”, and one who participates in this act is known simply as a pirate. As simple as this may sound in theory, there were in reality different ‘types’ of pirates, as is evident in the various names in the English language given to those engaged in piracy – privateers, buccaneers, and corsairs.   

What is a Pirate?

The word ‘pirate’ has its origins in the Greek word peira, meaning ‘an attempt, a trial, or an attack’. Indeed, piracy had already existed in the ancient world as evidenced, for instance, in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives: Pompey. In this work, Plutarch wrote about the pirates who caused much trouble to Rome in the Mediterranean Sea and how Pompey subdued them. The so-called Golden Age of Piracy, however, only occurred much later, between the 1650s and late 1720s, and it was around this time that the semantics of piracy became more complicated.

Ripped pirate flag. (adimas / Adobe)

Ripped pirate flag. (adimas / Adobe)

How Is a Privateer Different From a Pirate?

Perhaps the best known ‘type’ of pirate was the privateer. In a way, these were mercenaries commissioned by a state to attack enemy ships. In other words, a privateer was a pirate with papers. Privateers had existed long before the Golden Age of Piracy. For instance, during the Anglo-Spanish War that lasted from 1585 to 1604, English privateers like Sir Francis Drake targeted the Spanish treasure fleets that were carrying the riches of the New World back to Spain.

Although the war between Spain and England ended privateering continued, due to the constant conflicts between the European powers. For instance, towards the end of the 17 th century, French privateers from Dunkirk and Saint-Malo actively disrupted English maritime commerce, while English privateers such as Sir Henry Morgan operated against England’s enemies in the West Indies.

British sailors boarding an Algerine pirate ship and battling the pirates. (Royal Museums Greenwich / Public Domain)

British sailors boarding an Algerine pirate ship and battling the pirates. (Royal Museums Greenwich / Public Domain)

Privateer vs Buccaneer

While the term ‘privateer’ was applied to anyone involved in privateering, regardless of the geographical region, the term ‘buccaneer’ was applied specifically to those pirates who operated in the Caribbean. This term is derived from the French boucan, which is the grill used for smoking the dried meat that was eaten on ships at that time, and initially referred to the French wild game hunters who lived in western Hispaniola during the early 17 th century. Although the buccaneers sustained themselves by hunting wild game, they also partook in piracy when they had the opportunity to do so.

The buccaneers fought primarily against the Spanish, which made them valuable allies to the English and French. During the 17 th century the French established a colony on Tortuga, an island off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, and allowed the buccaneers to use it as a base of operations against the Spanish.

Additionally, after Jamaica was captured by the English from Spain in 1655, the buccaneers were given permission to use the island as a base. The Spanish reacted by exterminating the wild game on the islands of the buccaneers hoping that this would drive them out of the region. The plan backfired, however, as the buccaneers relied even more on raiding the Spanish in order to survive.

Main trade routes prey to 16th century piracy: Spanish treasure fleets linking the Caribbean to Seville, Manila galleons after 1568 in white and Portuguese India Armadas after 1498 in blue. (xbona / Public Domain)

Main trade routes prey to 16th century piracy: Spanish treasure fleets linking the Caribbean to Seville, Manila galleons after 1568 in white and Portuguese India Armadas after 1498 in blue. (xbona / Public Domain)

What Are the Two Types of Corsairs?

The term ‘corsair’ is derived directly from the French corsaire, and has its roots in the Latin word cursus, meaning ‘a journey or expedition’. Alternatively, it is plausible that the term is a mispronunciation of the Arabic corsanni, meaning ‘pirate’. Historically, there were two types of corsairs, the first being the privateers who were in the service of the French crown, and the second being those serving the Ottoman Empire and known also as the Barbary corsairs. It may be said that the English term ‘corsair’ is more commonly associated with the latter and therefore will be dealt with in more detail.

French corsairs with booty and British prisoners in 1806. (Maurice Orange / Public Domain)

French corsairs with booty and British prisoners in 1806. (Maurice Orange / Public Domain)

The Barbary Corsairs

Like the buccaneers, the Barbary corsairs had a specific sphere of operation, i.e. the Mediterranean. The Barbary corsairs established their bases in the large port cities of the Barbary Coast, most notably Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Rabat, and Sale. These cities were initially part of the Ottoman Empire, but eventually became its vassals when the corsairs came to power. Furthermore, these states were able to act independently and were often beyond the control of the Ottoman Empire.

Pirate Ship. (neillockhart / Adobe)

Pirate Ship. (neillockhart / Adobe)

During the early 16 th century, the corsairs began to raid western European coastal cities and disrupted European trade in the Mediterranean. Apart from raiding the goods of European merchants, the raids conducted by the Barbary corsairs were also meant to capture Christian slaves who could then be sold throughout the Ottoman Empire. The Barbary corsairs reached their peak of power between the early and middle of the 17 th century, after which the European powers began to organize the navies to combat the corsairs openly. Nevertheless, the Barbary corsairs remained a force in the Mediterranean until the 19 th century. The conquest of Algiers by the French in 1830 marked the end of the Barbary corsairs.

Top image: Pirate or privateer, buccaneer or corsair?                       Source: Warpedgalerie / Adobe

By Wu Mingren

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And the story of my ancestor Jan Janszoon , another Dutchman of Heyn's era, who turned barbary pirate, who became king of Sale, and raided Ireland and Iceland for white slaves. Was he a pirate, a corsair, a vrijbuiter? Yes! Call them what you want, these were the freest men in the world at that time. Alas they were criminals, killers, thieves, perhaps jihadis too; Hostis Humani Generis, the enemy of all mankind.

You missed the story of my ancestoe, the Dutch ivateer Piet Heyn, who captured a Spanish Silver Fleet in the Caribbean in the 1600s.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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