The life and laws of buccaneers

Course #3 / Buccaneers

A duel of two buccaneers

Buccaneers were a historically interesting group of contrasting characters and personalities. They had a fierce nature, but there still were certain laws that they strictly followed and respected. Here is a short guide of what it took to become a buccaneer in the 17th century and the main do’s & don’ts of their adventurous life.

How to become a buccaneer?

It is fair to say that it was relatively easy to become a buccaneer. The most challenging part was to survive the dangerous environment and lifestyle. Otherwise, nobody really cared much about the past of the newcomers. Most of them were former hunters, either deserters or outlaws. Initially, most of them were French, but eventually, there were Dutch, English, Swedish, Curonians and former black slaves in the fellowship of buccaneers conquering the Spanish ships. It was all about being a fearless and useful member of this semi-democratic, semi-despotic brotherhood.

Buccaneers shared all their possessions and they had strong ties between themselves. However, their leader was always the most respected and fiercest warrior – a tyrant with great nautical and leadership abilities. His commands were a rule and anyone rarely dared to stand up against their leader, because to become such, the authority had to be earned in a hard way and in a period of several years. Imagine a bunch of brutal daredevils – weak links removed themselves by dying in the battles and sea storms, while the strongest ones were always hungry for new adventures. To lead these sea wolves, buccaneer leader had to be the cruelest one, lead them by example.

Laws of buccaneers

– It was forbidden to steal from the comrades. Those who broke this law were given a musket, gunpowder, and water, and left alone on the uninhabited island.

– Every deserter was punished with a death sentence by the captain. No tolerance against cowards.

– All the private disputes were resolved on land. Duels were forbidden on the ship because it was important for the crew to be ready for a battle with an enemy ship at any time.

– When a duel was held, first duelists each had a shot from a musket, then from a pistol and if there still was no winner, they fought with swords until one of them will not be able to fight anymore.

– Buccaneer had to pay his debts. They often lived on debt because of the respect of their comrades. However, when there were a new journey and loot – debts were paid. It was a matter of honor to repay them.

Gains and benefits of buccaneers

There was a strict system when it came to sharing the looted wealth. First, a part of it that was taken out before splitting everything to the crew and paid to the shipbuilder or its supplier (150 reals) and doctor (200 reals). They had kind of a benefits system for the injured comrades. If buccaneer lost his right arm, he got 600 reals or 6 slaves. Loss of a left hand was compensated with 500 reals or 5 slaves, right leg 500 reals or 5 slaves, left leg 400 reals or 4 slaves. Lost eye or finger was equal to 100 reals or 1 slave. The gunshot wound was worth 500 reals or 5 slaves. All the remaining loot was equally shared between all the buccaneers, except the captain, who got 6 times more than a single crewmember and his officers got twice-bigger share than a simple sailor. Ship boys got the half amount of the sailors share.

Enemy number one – Spanish Empire

For numerous reasons, buccaneers were united in hate against the Spanish Crown. For other European powerhouses, this was a good way to get rid of the Spanish domination in the Caribbean and some buccaneers used the letters of marque. However, they still were freedom-seeking rebels by nature and most of them did not care too much about the laws or jurisdiction.

Spanish economy suffered considerable losses from the buccaneer activities and those daredevils, who were captured in battles – they were left in the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. It saw them not only as criminals but also mainly as a Protestant heretics. You can easily guess that fate of these buccaneers was as cruel as they themselves were ruthless against captures Spaniards. Inquisitors tortured buccaneers, sentenced them to serve on the royal galleys or work at silver and gold mines. Those, who showed the most resistance, were burned at the stake. No side showed mercy against each other.

Eventually, Spanish presence in the Caribbean was less significant and buccaneers started to attack the ships of other nations. This led to more hostility towards them and other fleets became aware of the danger of the pirate attacks. Merchant ships got better protection and it was harder to capture them. Add to this the 1692 Earthquake in Jamaica that destroyed the prosperous trade center of looted goods – Port Royal. Buccaneers now had more challenges to cope with and this led to their decline. The most adventurous ones continued their journeys near the African coasts, while others settled down and quietly retired from piracy.

Sources | Cruz Apestegui Cardenal. Pirates in the Caribbean: Buccaneers, Privateers, Freebooters and Filibusters 1493-1720 (2002) | Colin Woodard. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (2007) | Alexandre Exquemelin. The Buccaneers of America: In the Original English Translation of 1684 | Edgars Andersons. Senie kurzemnieki Amerikā un Tobāgo kolonizācija (1970)

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