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The buccaneers were freelance commerce raiders who preyed on the Spanish Caribbean and along the Spanish Pacific coast, mainly during the second half of the 17th century. Whilst they did attack ships at sea, most of their attacks were on settlements and ports – what you might call amphibious assaults – and many, if not most, buccaneers were not professional seamen but “gentlemen adventurers” and others hoping to make their fortunes at the expense of the common enemy of most European maritime nations of the time – Spain.
The term “buccaneer” refers to their habit of slow-roasting their meat on grills and comes directly from the French “boucaner” , to cure or smoke flesh. They called themselves “brethren of the coast” and considered themselves privateers; although rarely did they sail with the official approval (“letter of marque”) of a government. Nearly all were English, French, Dutch or Portuguese. What set them apart from pirates – common criminals of the sea – was their refusal to prey on the ships and ports of their own countries.
There had been interlopers in the Spanish Main since the first rush of American silver began being brought to the coast for transfer to ships in the first half of the 16th century. The Spanish crown’s insistence that all products of the New World must be sent back to Spain and that all manufactured items in the colonies must be supplied by Spanish ships soon caused a brisk clandestine trade between Spanish colonists and various entrepreneurial adventurers from ,mainly, France and England. By the 1550s the Englishman, John Hawkins had begun trading African slaves in the West Indies and it is he and other Elizabethan raiders/traders that inspired them.
In 1655 the British captured the island of Jamaica giving the buccaneers a safe haven from Spanish reprisal. Indeed, Jamaica’s lieutenant-governor after 1774, Sir Henry Morgan, was a buccaneer himself and under his leadership the buccaneers had become a fighting force capable of sacking cities. They crossed the isthmus twice to raid Panama. After the second raid, in 1680, some of them used captured Spanish ships to maraud along the Pacific coast as Drake had done 100 years before.
The first Englishman to round Cape Horn sailing from west to east was a buccaneer, one Captain Bartholomew Sharpe. His published descriptions of the voyage and the narratives of members of his crew were much read and were of interest to the Royal Society. One of Sharpe’s crew, William Dampier would sail several times around the world. – his descriptions of the natives of New Holland (the Australian Aborigines are the first by an Englishman and are still in print. It was Dampier who both left and rescued Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, on his “desert island.”
In 1685 England joined Spain in a war against France. This brought the English government down on the buccaneers and their heyday was over. Some joined their countries’ navies. Others settled down with their riches to develop farms and plantations in the Caribbean or the American colonies; or went back to their estates in their home countries. Some wrote books. Many became out-and-out pirates. (Indeed, the next 50 years are considered to be the classic age of Caribbean and Atlantic piracy.)