The origins of buccaneers

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Buccaneer brotherhood by Howard Pyle

The story of buccaneers leads us back to the early 17th century when European countries were intensely competing for the biggest slice of colonial success. Initially, they were the French hunters, who settled on Hispaniola Island. Buccaneers spent years of hunting and producing smoked meat and skins of bubalus and wild pigs. They mostly supplied the local French plantation owners, and in some cases, traveling ships, who stopped nearby the island.

The first image of buccaneer was slightly different from the later decades of the 17th century when they started to raid seas and colonial settlements of the Caribbean. While they were hunters, buccaneers were neutral and their lifestyle was simple. They lived and hunted together in small groups, consisting of five or six hunters. Most of them had several-trained hunting dogs that also brought extra profit as they occasionally were sold. Some buccaneers had a few personal servants as well.

While servants had a truly tough time in their service, buccaneers themselves evolved into true brotherhoods. They could share the same wallet, as well as the same woman. However, this should not surprise you. Buccaneers were greedy and always hungry for gaining some extra wealth, but their priorities were simple – earn as much as possible from hunting, then go to Tortuga to get new guns, bullets, gunpowder and other goods for hunting. After that, the ultimate goal was to spend all the money on women and alcohol. Some buccaneers spent all their hard-earned money within a few days and then returned to woods with empty pockets for another year or two until the next colorful journey.

Visually, these men were not the ones anyone would like to be around. They looked wild and nobody really cared about his look. Buccaneers were constantly covered with the blood of animals and since they spent a lot of time with carving and smoking big slices of meat, their smell was nasty. They usually wore shortened leather pants with wide belts, short rough boots, light shirt and a large red coat that sometimes was used as a tent. Every hunter had similar equipment – a musket, at least a few large knives, a horn with gunpowder and a sack of bullets.

In the course of time, buccaneers had to switch their location. Hispaniola was initially controlled by Spain and hunters sometimes were caught in fights versus Spanish patrols. Since Spain never liked the competition in the exploration and dominating of the New World, foreigners and mostly Protestants – buccaneers soon became a problem that needed a quick solution. Spanish forces from Cuba raided buccaneer camps and forced them out of Hispaniola. They soon settled in the nearby Island of Tortuga. It had a well-protected bay where it was possible to assemble a port and most of the island had high banks that secured it from surprise visits.

Buccaneers continued to visit Hispaniola and bring back to Tortuga boats full of meat. However, these ventures did not last long. Spanish forces did a massive hunting campaign on the island, killing most of the valuable animals, so the buccaneers had nothing to hunt and their income source was destroyed. Ironically, Spaniards created a lot more problems for themselves with this campaign. Now buccaneers had plenty of reasons to hate everything related to the Spanish Empire.

They were skilled fighters and marksmen with a great desire to find a new source of income. Hate towards Spaniards only fueled their desire and Tortuga soon turned into a pirate haven. It became even more significant and popular when French West India Company decided to appoint a former buccaneer Bertrand d’Ogeron as the governor of Tortuga Island. He was very enthusiastic about the development of the island and soon the number of adventurous sea raiders grew. Buccaneers mostly were French, but Tortuga welcomed also foreigners. Soon d’Ogeron decided to invite women to the island, as he hoped that it will help to settle down the hot-tempered men and they would stick to the life on the island. However, when a ship full of French women, who were willing to marry, arrived at the island, changes were not as encouraging as the governor initially thought they would be. Buccaneers were not too selective in regards to women and soon some of them were lost in a card game, some were shared between multiple men, but just the smallest part actually became a true family. Buccaneer bases more and more reminded a real-life Sodom and Gomorrah.

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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