Talk Like a Pirate Day has returned to port and you can bet your boots that a few celebrants will be using the terms “pirate” and “buccaneer” interchangeably. Most people do. Nevertheless, these two words aren’t actually synonymous.  

Four hundred years ago, if you were a seafaring thief, the label that you received said a great deal—mainly about whoever it was doing the labeling. Anyone who called you a "pirate" probably hated your guts. But those who cited you as a “buccaneer” might have had a very different attitude. Within certain contexts, the latter group may have even embraced you as a national hero.

Time for a swashbuckling semantics lesson. In article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy is defined as "any illegal acts of violence or detention ... committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship." UNCLOS also states that, to be considered piracy, a crime must occur within international waters. If the event in question takes place within a particular country’s territorial waters, the aggressors will be deemed armed robbers rather than pirates.

Historical definitions tended to be a lot broader. During the 17th and 18th centuries, England regarded piracy as any criminal act committed on the high seas or below the low tide mark around shores, rivers, and estuaries. Hundreds of years earlier, in the year 100 CE, Plutarch—a noteworthy Greek scholar— talked about pirates as anybody who attacked a ship or maritime city without legal authority.

Just what did he mean by “legal authority?” Plutarch was probably alluding to warships. Nowadays, these are generally owned by national governments, but this wasn’t always the case. From medieval times through the early 20th century, it was common practice for a nation at war to recruit private vessels to assault its enemy’s ships, steal their goods, and plunder their ports. Mariners who engaged in such state-approved mischief were called “privateers.”

Usually, a privateer vessel was allowed to operate under a license that was granted by the country it served. Dubbed the Letter of Marque, this document laid out a code of conduct and payment policy for the crew. (Privateers almost always got to keep a percentage of whatever they took.)

Essentially, privateers were independent contractors, acting as hostile, government-commissioned, seafaring mercenaries. Therefore, they technically weren’t pirates because real pirates didn’t behave in accordance with any national laws or regulations. But the dividing line here was pretty blurry. Many privateers eventually became pirates and vice versa. Also, a captured privateer would sometimes be tried as a pirate by the country he or she was victimizing.

This brings us back to buccaneers: Throughout the 16th through 18th centuries, Spain more or less controlled the Caribbean. However, in the 1600s, she started to get some not-so-friendly competition. By the middle of that century, settlers from various other European countries—including England, France, and the Netherlands—had colonized parts of the Leeward Islands and Hispaniola. Among these newcomers, transplanted Frenchmen were especially common. The Gallic colonists would frequently smoke their meat over a wooden platform that they called a boucan. Thanks to this cooking technique, the frontiersmen were given the nickname “buccaneers.”

Before long, many turned to piracy. Because of Spain’s huge colonial presence in the Caribbean, buccaneers more or less exclusively targeted Spanish ports and ships. This turned plenty of heads across the Atlantic. In an attempt to cripple Spain’s empire, the English, French, and Dutch began issuing Letters of Marque to buccaneer vessels.

Eventually, the word buccaneer came to possess its current—and very specific—definition, which is: “any of the piratical adventurers who raided Spanish colonies and ships along the American coast in the second half of the 17th century.” (Told you it was specific.)

The most famous buccaneer of them all was undoubtedly Sir Henry Morgan. Little is known about his early life, although most historians believe that he was born in Wales at some point in 1635. Nearly 20 years later, he set sail for Barbados as a member of an expedition that saw England seize Jamaica from the Spanish.

Morgan quickly emerged as a leading buccaneer, and as England’s most ruthlessly effective privateer. In 1668, he seized the heavily guarded city of Porto Bello, Panama, holding it for ransom until the Spanish coughed up an amazing 250,000 pesos. Three years later, Morgan raided and sacked Panama City, which promptly burned to the ground. Such exploits did not endear him to the Spanish, but in England, Morgan was a widely beloved figure. Knighted by King Charles II, he was made Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in 1674. Following his death on August 25, 1688, Morgan received a grandiose state funeral, complete with a 22-gun salute.

And, yes, that rum was named after him. Clearly, buccaneering had its perks. 

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