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Pirates vs. Buccaneers vs. Privateers

Glen is a professional writer and illustrator from Cape Cod who writes on an array of subjects including science, history, music, and more.

What Is Piracy?

For nearly as long as ships have been on the ocean, there have been pirates. Strictly speaking, a pirate is anyone who plunders a ship at sea or who uses a sea vessel to attack coastal ports and towns. There are reports of pirate activity in the Mediterranean as far back as 1400 BC, and even today, well into the 21st century, pirates are known to be operating in the waters off of Somalia, West Africa and other regions.

Piracy is, according to international law, a crime against all nations, any one of which may apprehend and try a pirate, whether or not ships of that particular nation have been attacked.

The Golden Age of Piracy

For most people, the word pirate conjures up images of high seas adventurers from the Golden Age of Piracy, a period from roughly 1690-1730 when pirates such as Blackbeard, "Black Bart" Roberts and "Black Sam" Bellamy sailed the seas.

This highly romanticized image is the result of decades of Hollywood movies. In reality, pirates of the Golden Age were ruthless, engaging in savage and often sadistic violence and torture. Like all pirates, these men (and sometimes women) belonged to no nation and answered to no law other than their own code of conduct.

The following video, while somewhat lighthearted, provides some idea of what life as a pirate was like:

Five Pirate Myths That Are Actually True

Is a Buccaneer the Same Thing as a Pirate?

Pirates are often referred to as buccaneers, but this is not entirely accurate. Buccaneers were a specific group operating in the Caribbean in the 1600s—and not all of them were actually pirates! To understand the difference between pirates and buccaneers, we first need to look at a group of high seas raiders known as privateers.


Privateers were essentially "legal pirates", engaging in activities that could only be described as piracy but which had the express support and authority of a sovereign nation. Privateers were usually used during times of war to attack ships and coastal areas belonging to enemy nations. The legal authority for these acts was stated in a "Letter of Marque". As long as the privateer restricted his activities to what was covered by that document, his actions were considered legal.

If a privateer were captured, the Letters of Marque would, theoretically, guarantee that he be treated as a prisoner or war, rather than as an international criminal to be tried and executed. In reality, privateers were often seen as pirates by those they were attacking and were treated as such.

Statue of Sir Francis Drake, near Plymouth, England. Drake, a hero in England, was considered a pirate by the Spanish.

Statue of Sir Francis Drake, near Plymouth, England. Drake, a hero in England, was considered a pirate by the Spanish.

Privateering provided a way for nations to engage in naval warfare without the cost of maintaining or expanding a navy. Investors often provided the costs involved in operating privateer vessels in return for a portion of plundered profits. The remaining profits were divided between the privateers, their crew and their sponsoring government.

Famous privateers include Sir Francis Drake, who fought for England against the Spanish Armada in the 1580s, and Captain Kidd, who began his career as an privateer for England in the late 1600s, but who conducted raids outside of the authority granted him by his Letters of Marque, and was ultimately hanged in England for piracy. Possibly the most famous privateer, Captain Henry Morgan, is discussed below in the section on buccaneers.

Captain Kidd, originally an English privateer, was later hung in England for piracy.

Captain Kidd, originally an English privateer, was later hung in England for piracy.

American Privateers

The United States used privateers during wartime, specifically in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Privateers have not been used by the US since the War of 1812, although the Confederate States used privateers during the American Civil War to attack Union vessels and ports.

In 1856, the Declaration of Paris abolished privateering, although the US and some other nations were not parties to the agreement. Technically, the US Constitution still grants Congress the power to issue Letters of Marque, and the idea of using them has been discussed as recently as 2009.


The term buccaneer originally referred to a group of French settlers living in the Caribbean in the early 1600s who were known for smoking their meat on frames known as boucans. Driven from their island homes by the Spanish, many of these men formed a brotherhood, the Brethren of the Coast, and began attacking Spanish vessels at sea and plundering Spanish towns. Buccaneers had a reputation for being particularly brutal and ruthless.

Buccaneers originally settled on the island of Hispaniola, which now contains the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic:

Later in that century, France and England began hiring some of these buccaneers to protect their colonies in that part of the world from attacks by Spanish forces. When even more might was needed, these nations sent additional privateers to the Caribbean to fight alongside the buccaneers.

The term buccaneer usually refers to all who were operating against the Spanish in the Caribbean during that time, whether part of the original group or not. One of the best-known buccaneers, Captain Henry Morgan, was a privateer working for England, whose raids on Portobello and Panama City made him a legend. Francois L'Olonnais, another well-known buccaneer, was a full-fledged pirate.

Because not all buccaneers were operating legally, nor did those with Letters of Marque always restrict their attacks to authorized targets, the term buccaneer became synonymous with pirate to many people.

Henry Morgan, a buccaneer who was not a pirate, but a privateer in the employ of England, divides plundered treasure among his crew.

Henry Morgan, a buccaneer who was not a pirate, but a privateer in the employ of England, divides plundered treasure among his crew.

By the late 1600s, France and England stopped using buccaneers. Not only were they hard to control, but many buccaneers had actually begun attacking French and English ships by that time. With all semblance of legality gone, these buccaneers, like many privateers of the era, merely continued their activities as full-fledged pirates.


John R Edmonds on July 24, 2020:

Thanks for a great article.

It caused me to sign up for Owlcation

which turned out to be Hub.

Where is more Owlcation? on December 04, 2019:

So what was Jean Lafitte then? Buccaneer or Privateer?

Lee Cloak on March 09, 2015:

Fantastic hub, i really enjoyed reading it, lots of interesting detail, thanks!

Glen Nunes (author) from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on September 12, 2012:

Teresa - the answer to one of the questions is actually in the video, not the text of the hub. I wonder if that's the one you missed.

nanderson500 - that's exactly right, some were buccaneers and pirates, and some were buccaneers and privateers. Thanks for the votes.

GoodLady - you're welcome! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

PWalker281 - Thank you for the comments and votes. I appreciate your support of my writing. I notice you haven't published any hubs in a little while - I've been looking, I really enjoy your hubs.

suzettenaples - I'm glad you enjoyed the hub, and thanks for the vote up.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 10, 2012:

Very interesting and informative article. I enjoyed reading this and finally learned the difference between pirate, privateer and buccaneer. Voted up!

PWalker281 on September 10, 2012:

Thanks for clearing up the differences among the terms pirate, privateer, and buccaneer. Fascinating hub; great video. Voted up, interesting, and shared.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on September 10, 2012:

Really interested to know what a buccaneer is; thanks for that!

nanderson500 from Seattle, WA on September 09, 2012:

Very interesting. I didn't know the difference between pirates and buccaneers (although in some cases people could be both, apparently). Voted up and interesting.

Teresa Coppens from Ontario, Canada on September 09, 2012:

Fantastic hub Glen. The video was very interesting and the quiz fun and relevant. I scored 90%. Great job and shared!