Dampier has variously been described as an English buccaneer, ships captain, author and scientific observer. Some have described him as one of the greatest nautical explorers behind the likes of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.
It is the descriptor of buccaneer that is worth clarifying, as there are three terms that are often used interchangeably, that of Pirate, buccaneer and privateer.
Let’s first turn to a privateer…
Basically a privateer is someone who is authorised by the government to attack enemy vessels at sea. During the 1600’s and beyond a Letter of Marque and Reprisal was often provided as a government license that authorized a private vessel to attack and capture enemy ships. A privateer could quite legally plunder a ship of another designated country, and even bring the vessel before courts for condemnation and sale.
Sailing the high seas for prizes under the authority of a Letter of Marque was considered an honorable pastime, as opposed to wanton acts of indiscriminate piracy. But be warned, things did not always turn out famously for privateers. For anyone interested in the fate of one famous privateer (not pirate) see the book about Captain William Kidd, The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks. This book tells the tale of how William Kidd started out as a legitimate English privateer, but was later hanged for alleged acts of piracy (basically to protect his aristocratic sponsors who authorized him to hunt down pirates and capture their plunder).
A privateer was often used as a tool used to bolster a smaller navy, or to distract opposing forces by requiring them to protect their trade routes from attack. You may also hear of the term Corsair, which is French version of the privateer.
Now comes the term buccaneer.
Today the term is often used interchangeably with that of a pirate, but the term had a different meaning originally. The term buccaneer was applied to privateers who specifically attacked Spanish shipping in the Caribbean Sea during the mid to late 17th century. The term actually comes from the Arawak term buccan, a wooden frame for smoking meat.
So a buccaneer is a specific type of privateer. For example the English viewed buccaneering as a cheap way to wage war on the Spanish. There was an additional benefit of a return on investment as the English crown took a cut of the plunder as payment in exchange for providing a Letter of Marque.
Piracy is the unauthorised plunder of both shipping and coastal towns. The history of piracy stretches back thousands of years, and the one universal rule was, where there was an ocean and trade, there was piracy. From the Mediterranean Sea to the seas off China.
The so-called “classic era” of piracy was in and around the Caribbean from the late 1500’s to the 1720’s. One interesting side note is that pirate ships were one of the first democratic institutions of this era. This was in great contrast to the current modus operandi of Western society at the time. In general the captain and quartermaster were elected by the crew. They in turn appointed the ships officers. There was logic in this approach, as it provided checks and balances and ensured that only a successful captain who delivered “results”, (or plunder) remained leading the ship.
For a pirate getting caught during these times often meant meeting a gruesome end. Often it was punishment meted out by “dancing the hempen jig”, or hanging. In England many pirate executions’ took place at Execution Dock on the River Thames. At that time they were very much public executions, drawing great crowds, with some then locked into iron cages where their bodies would rot over several years, visible to all those who sailed by. It was a clear reminder of the fate of those caught and prosecuted for piracy.
So, in our next byte we meet a man who will greatly add to the knowledge of this Great Southern Land. A man who would, amongst other achievements, be the first man to circumnavigate the world three times….