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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

Buccaneers

The word buccaneer derives from boucan, the Arawak word for a frame on which meat was dried. It was first applied to French hunters on Hispaniola who prepared their meat on such frames and many of whom turned to attacking Spanish shipping in the Caribbean. Later the term was applied to those privateers employed by the French and English against Spanish shipping and settlements in the Caribbean and along the Pacific coast of South America.

Engraved portrait of Henry MorganPortrait of Henry Morgan, from: Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin. Bucaniers of America ... London: printed for William Crooke, at the Green Dragon without Temple Bar, 1684-5 [FCO Historical Collection F2161 EXQ]Privateering flourished during the Anglo-Spanish War (1654-60) and even after peace was declared it continued under the doctrine of ‘no peace beyond the line’. This stated that as the Spanish treated all foreign shipping in the Caribbean as pirates and refused to open up their ports to trade, the English were justified in retaliating against Spanish shipping.

The main base of operations for the English buccaneers was the island of Jamaica. However, when Thomas Modyford (d 1679) was appointed governor of Jamaica in 1664 he was charged with ending privateering operations. Yet Modyford came to realise that the island’s security was dependant on the privateers and so he continued to issue letters of marque to them.

The buccaneers were also important to the island’s economy. Not only did they use Port Royal to buy supplies and to fit out their ships but a large part of the island’s trade consisted of the purchase and export of the plunder from privateering raids.

The sums of money involved could be substantial - when the notorious Henry Morgan (d 1688) led a raid on Portobello, Panama in 1668 his party came back with at least £70,000 worth of plunder. This sum was greater than the entire annual agricultural output of the island at the time.The profits made by trading with the privateers were often invested in plantations.

Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin, the author this work, served as a barber-surgeon with Henry Morgan’s band of buccaneers. A portrait of Morgan is shown here.

 

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