When looking at the difference between a privateer vs pirate, the main difference is that pirates operated as outlaws, while privateers operated legally on behalf of a government. Essentially, privateers were legal pirates. Both made their living on the high seas by capturing other ships and selling their contents.
But, for those sailors who had their ships attacked, the difference between a pirate and privateer probably seemed pretty minimal.
The Life of a Privateer
To become a privateer, a ship’s owner was issued documentation called letters of marque by their government. Letters of marque authorized a ship to capture merchant vessels from a hostile nation.
Governments often used privateers to augment their own naval power. Navis were expensive as hell. Building ships, manning crews, and forging cannons did not come cheap. But privateers were free. The owner of the privateer’s ship would pay for all of this at their own expense, giving the government they worked for, essentially, free naval ships.
During the Golden Age of Piracy, privateers were mostly used by England, France, and the Netherlands to interrupt Spanish shipping. These privateers were tasked with capturing Spanish galleons carrying natural resources like gold, silver, and gems from the Americas back to Europe. In so doing, they dealt a small, but sorely felt, blow to the burgeoning Spanish imperial economy, while also making themselves wealthy men.
Once a ship (or “prize”) had been captured, privateers would take the ship and its goods to the closest friendly port, though preferably they could make it back to their home port. Once ashore, the privateer notified the proper authorities and filed requests to have their prize condemned by the government. The government would get its cut by charging legal fees for this process. Then, once a prize was condemned, the owners of the privateering vessel would split up the profits from the prize as they saw fit.1
But life as a privateer wasn’t exactly fun and games. In fact, it was quite dangerous. The career of privateer John McPherson offers a great example. In 1758, McPherson’s ship entered into battle with a French frigate. It didn’t exactly go his way. Outgunned by the opposing ship, McPherson lost a quarter of his crew and his own arm.2
The Pirate’s Life
Now that we know that made you a privateer, what exactly made you a pirate? Whether you’re talking about Blackbeard or the modern day pirates of Somalia, there’s a simple definition: a pirate is anyone who steals from another and travels by water.3
In the case of the Golden Age of Piracy, which lasted from roughly 1680-1720, the popular imagination typically stirs up images of swashbuckling ne’er-do-wells cruising around the Caribbean, trying to get rich. And while there may be some truth to that, it isn’t the whole picture.
Pirates certainly sought personal gain through their adventures. It was not uncommon for pirate ships to seize precious metals and gems from captured vessels. But that wasn’t all they were after. Since pirates operated as outlaws, they couldn’t stroll into the nearest port and buy food, medicine, spirits, or anything else. So pirates would often seize ships to obtain the necessities to keep them alive at sea.4
Apart from the pillaging, life aboard a pirate ship was far more democratic than life in Europe or the colonies. Each pirate crew adopted ship’s articles which laid out the rules and conditions that this crew followed on their voyages. And while each ship did have a captain, the captain’s powers were fairly limited. When it came to making big decisions that affected the whole crew, everyone got a say.
Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most famous pirates of his time, said that in piracy there is “plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power. . . . No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto.’’5
And Who Were Buccaneers?
The term “buccaneer” often gets used interchangeably with “pirate.” But they were actually quite different.
Buccaneers first appeared in the sixteenth-century Caribbean. Back then, the French government controlled a small island named Tortuga off the coast of the Spanish controlled Hispaniola. Some of the French colonists made their way from Tortuga to the sparsely populated area of western Hispaniola. These men largely lived outside the bounds of the colonial governments and made their living as hunters. They became known for their method of smoking the meat they harvested from their prey, viande bouccanée – a term which may have been derived from the Arawok word bukan.6
When French, Dutch, and English governments wanted to interrupt Spain’s ability to ship precious metals and gems from their New World colonies back to Europe, they approached the bouccanée. With men lured by the ability to get rich quick, buccaneering quickly spread throughout the Caribbean.
Unlike later pirates, buccaneers largely attacked land-based targets, like Spanish port towns. The most daring of buccaneer raids took place on the Panamanian coast. Spain exported the silver and other resources they extracted from Peru to Europe from the Atlantic coast of Panama. This made colonial towns like Portobelo rich. In 1688, buccaneers led by Henry Morgan took the city.7
An inspiration for later pirates, buccaneers lived a fairly egalitarian lifestyle. Captured booty was divided up amongst the entire crew and the men formed close relationships. In fact, crew members often formed partnerships in which the two men took meals together, slept at the same time, and even fought together during raids.8
There’s a good reason buccaneers inspired future writers like Robert Louis Stevenson!
Privateer or Pirate: You Decide
One man’s privateer is another man’s pirate. Some of the most successful privateers came from England as a result of the kingdom’s war with Spain. To the English, these men became national heroes. But, to the Spanish, they were criminals.
So, were these men who plied the West Indies pirates or privateers?
Sir Francis Drake was born around 1540. As a boy, his family lived aboard a ship, which became the inspiration for his life at sea. When he was 20, the man he apprenticed with gave him a trading ship – and Drake never looked back.9
By 1572, somewhere in his early 30s, Drake had become one of Queen Elizabeth’s most used privateers. Though they were technically at peace with Spain, Elizabeth wanted to deal her European neighbors a blow. But, rather than result to out-and-out war, she hired privateers to raid Spanish settlements and ships in the New World.
Under these orders, Drake sailed for Panama. In 1582, he attacked the town Nombre de Dios, taking quite the plunder for queen and country (and, of course, himself). He then crossed the Isthmus of Panama and became the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean.10
Over the next several years, Drake roamed the Atlantic Ocean with fleets of varying sizes. At one point, he sailed with 30 ships and 2,000 men! In that time, he weakened Spanish maritime power by attacking Cuba, Cartagena, Hispanolia, Florida, and even the far flung Cape Verde islands.11
In 1587, Drake pulled off his most daring feat. Remembered as “singeing Philip of Spain’s beard,” Drake was one of the lead naval officers in an attack on a sizable portion of the Spanish Armada. Anchored at Cadiz, the Spanish ships were set to sail to Europe to join with the rest of the Armada. In an move devised by Drake, now known as broadside positioning, the English ships positioned themselves farther away from the Spanish vessels than would normally have been advised. They then bombarded the Spanish fleet, winning the day.
The victory at Cadiz was a triumph of the underdogs and made Drake famous back home.
Though Henry Morgan is perhaps best known now as the namesake for Captain Morgan rum, in his day he was one of the most feared/celebrated privateers in the world.
Born in Wales in 1635, Morgan most likely began his privateering career at 20 years old, when, in 1655, he took place in the English conquest of Jamaica from the Spanish. Then, seven years later, he was part of an English expedition against Cuba.12
This early start to a life of privateering paid off. By 1665, at just 30 years old, Morgan was made second in command of the English buccaneers operating in the Caribbean during the Anglo-Dutch War.13
It was against the Spanish, however, the Morgan would make a name (and fortune) for himself. In 1668, Morgan became the leader of the buccaneers. And, just like Tom Brady, he led them to glory. Here’s a quick resume: 14
- 1668 – Morgan captured Puerto Principe in Cuba.
- 1668 – Following up the raid in the Cuba, Morgan seized and sacked the walled city of Portobelo on the Atlantic coast of Panama.
- 1669 – Morgan raided coastal towns around Lake Maracaibo in Venezuala.
- 1670 – Morgan set out to capture the city of Panama, one of the riches cities in the Americas at the time. With 36 ships and around 2,000 buccaneers, Morgan crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Finding the city deserted, he sacked it and his crew took all the wealth they could carry.
Unfortunately for Morgan, his raid on Panama took place after the English and Spanish had made peace and he was arrested for piracy. Soon, though, England and Spain were warring again, and in 1674, King Charles II knighted Morgan and made him one fo the most important men in the Caribbean.
Sir Henry Morgan died in Jamaica, a wealthy man.
William Kidd may have been one of the unluckiest of all the privateer/pirate captains in history.
Born in Scotland around 1654, he immigrated to New York City in his twenties and quickly set up a respectable life for himself. Kidd married the wealthy widow Sarah Oort and set up a decently profitable merchant business in the city.15
In the 1690s, Kidd’s skills as a sailor landed him a job as a privateer for the English. At war with France at the time, England hoped Kidd and his fellow privateers would interrupt French shipping between Europe and their Caribbean holdings, thus damaging their economy. Kidd proved adept enough at the job of privateer and soon sought an even bigger voyage.
Sailing for London in 1695, Kidd and two other investors (Robert Livingston and Richard Coote) petitioned the English government to grant them letters of marque to hunt pirates in the Indian Ocean. At the time, East India Company ships were constantly harassed in the Indian Ocean, so the petition was readily accepted.
By July 1696, Kidd had his ship and crew ready to set sail from New York. They made straight for the Indian Ocean and by February 1697 had reached Comoro Islands off the east coast of southeast Africa, near modern day Mozambique.16
It was here that Kidd turned to piracy, though accounts vary as to why. Some say it was because he had yet to take a legit prize. Some say his men threatened mutiny if they did not catch another ship soon. Still others claim a slighted English shipman convinced the right people back home in England that Kidd had become a pirate and, when Kidd caught wind of this, figured he may as well make his investors some money.
However it happened, in January 1698, Kidd captured the Quedagh Merchant. His own ship, the Adventure Galley, was so damaged in the battle that he was forced to sink it. Now captaining the Quedagh Merchant, Kidd headed back to the Caribbean.
Once he reached Anguilla, he learned that he had officially been charged with piracy. He went to New York to contest the charges, but was summarily sent to London for trial. Unfortunately for Kidd, it was a famously rigged trial.
In May 1701, Kidd was found guilty of murder and piracy and hanged next to the Thames River.
Sources on Privateer vs Pirate vs Buccaneer
- Matthew J. Wayman, “Privateering,” philadelphiaencyclopedia.org
- “The Life and Times of a Pirate,” rmg.co.uk
- “Life Aboard Ship in the Golden Age of Piracy,” snsstudents.weebly.com
- Mark Cartwright, “Buccaneer,” worldhistory.org
- “Buccaneer,” britannica.com
- Cartwright, “Buccaneer,” worldhistory.org
- “Ben Johnson, “Sir Francis Drake,” historic-uk.com
- Mark Cartwright, “Francis Drake,” worldhistory.org
- “Sir Henry Morgan,” britannica.com
- Ben Johnson, “Captain William Kidd,” historic-uk.com
- “William Kidd,” britannica.com