Visual and literary traditions tend to use the terms pirates, privateers, corsairs, buccaneers, more or less interchangeably. These words indeed have similar meanings, but there are significant differences. That’s why in this article we want to clarify any doubt by highlighting their principal characteristics and explaining their origins.
The Stereotype of Pirate in Popular Culture
Stories and legends of pirates exist since the man had the guts to venture into the sea. However, the archetypal characteristics of pirates in popular culture mainly derive from the Golden Age of Piracy. This term refers to the period that goes from the 1650s and to the 1730s when maritime piracy was a highly common phenomenon.
Since then, all fictional pirates fit a standard mould. Our traditions always depict them as adventurous characters, outlaws, with rogue personalities, hunting for buried treasures while sailing the seven seas and singing songs that praise their heroic endeavours. Furthermore, our visual tradition repeatedly illustrates them in shabby 17th or 18th-century clothing, with bandanas, eye patches and a parrot on their shoulder, as well as a hook or wooden stump where a hand or leg has been amputated. But this stereotype greatly differs from reality and might as well eliminate the difference of a complex reality.
First of all, we should outline the difference between pirates, privateers, buccaneers, and corsairs. All were outlaws engaged in high-seas thievery. All lived in fear of being caught and punished for their crimes and, very often, their punishment was death. But, even if all of these words can generally refer to the marauders of the sea, they have significant dissimilarities. Thus, today we decided to delineate their origins and clarify what is the difference between pirates, privateers, corsairs, and buccaneers.
The presence of pirates has been documented on almost every continent in the world. Especially in the Mediterranean Sea, piracy is a very ancient phenomenon. Phoenicians, Greeks, Illyrians, Ligurians, Etruscans already attacked ships to take over the cargo they wanted to prey. Even for the Roman Empire, piracy was a real scourge.
Usually, pirates operated illegally. After leaving the merchant ship where they worked, they dedicated themself to attacking and sinking vessels for personal economic advantage. The pirates (men and women) were cruel marauders who acted without rules or any legitimate, national support, for the sole purpose of enriching themselves through violence and intimidation.
The privateer was a private citizen or ship who, provided by a state government with specific formal authorization, the commission, attacked foreign vessels, taking them as prizes, in exchange for a part of the profits achieved. Governments authorized the privateer to assault and rob the merchant ships of the enemy nation; while behaving like a pirate, the privateer carried out a legitimate and non-criminal activity with official permission to kill people, but only in war.
Thus the fundamental difference between pirates and privateers was the commission. A privateer would never have attacked ships or ports belonging to another nation besides the one on his commission.
As we have seen, pirates could occasionally find themselves in the service of a state engaged in conflicts. However, sea battles were not waged by only employing official fleets. Since the 12th-13th century, belligerent nations commissioned private ships to participate in war actions against enemy vessels.
The term corsairs can refer to two types of pirates: the Barbary or Ottoman Corsairs or to the French corsairs. The former were Ottoman or Berber pirates and privateers. They used to terrorized and plunder all the Mediterranean but did not attack Muslim ships and often sold prisoners into slavery. The latter were privateers that conduct raids on shipping of a nation at war with France, on behalf of the French crown.
The buccaneers were a specific group of pirates operating in the Caribbean Sea. More precisely, they were privateers or individual sailors active in the 1600s that prayed on the shipping and settlements of the Caribbean, especially Spanish.
The term buccaneer derives from the French word boucan, the original name of an instrument used to smoke meat. Originally they were Europeans farmers which around 1630 came into collision with the Spaniards. They then took the initiative to set up a fleet to fight Spain in alliance with England.