Steve G.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PIRACY: PART FOUR

In Crime, History, War on May 17, 2009 at 7:36 pm

PART FOUR: THE BUCCANEERS

The 1600s witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, the buccaneers. These men were a frontier subculture, akin to the Gauchos, Trekboers, or Cossacks. The buccaneers were West Indian frontiersmen, drawn from runaway servants (white slaves, after a fashion), outlaws, deserting sailors, adventurers, and assorted drifters. They lived by hunting, logging, and smuggling. Their favorite dish was barbecue, called in the local patois boucan, thus boucaniers or buccaneers.

The principal base of these “Brethren of the Coast” was the island of Tortuga off Haiti. The lumberjack groups called the “Baymen” favored the mainland around the Gulf of Honduras and others associated with a short-lived Puritan colony on Providence Island.

French and English colonial governors found these well-armed hoodlums to be just the thing to confront Spanish might. The barbecue-men became privateering mercenaries and looted ships and cities across the Spanish Main. With their canoes and hunting muskets the Brethren of the Coast were a formidable, if rag-tag, force. Armed with actual warships and generously supplied with cannon, they were a major threat capable of seizing Spanish cities. In 1678 A Dutchman named Alexander Exquemelin penned a memoir of life among the buccaneers. He immortalized buccaneer leaders such as L’Olonnais, Rock the Brazilian, Bartholomew the Portuguese, and Henry Morgan. Exquemelin paid tribute to their cunning and courage without understating their treachery and cruelty.

The wild and woolly frontier days waned as English and French colonies became more established. The Baymen in the Gulf of Honduras began settling down as planters and formed the basis for the English colony of Belize. The buccaneer hang-out of Port Royal in Jamaica suffered a devastating earthquake in 1692 which sunk it to the bottom of the harbor. Successful raiders such as Henry Morgan, Laurens de Graaf, and Jean Ducasse found comfortable berths in the planter elite.

By the 1690s what was left of the buccaneers were almost entirely associated with the French colonial establishment. When Tortuga was incorporated into France’s empire, the buccaneers went with it. In 1697 buccaneers spearheaded a French naval task force that seized the colonial city of Cartagena. It was the last great buccaneer raid. Dynastic politics made France and Spain allies in the 1700s. But by then Spain was no longer the dominant colonial power. The buccaneers had worked themselves out of a job.

-Dave Hardy

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