Pirates, Privateers, Corsairs, Buccaneers: What’s the Difference?


The British Library (Public Domain)

Pirates, Privateers, Corsairs, Buccaneers: What’s the Difference?

In casual conversation theِ words pirate, buccaneer, andِ corsair tend toِ beِ used moreِ or lessِ interchangeably.
Some people, possibly toِ prove theyِ paid attention inِ history class, alsoِ throw aroundِ privateer.
But doِ these words actuallyِ mean theِ sameِ thing, matey?

Not really.

Pirate isِ the mostِ general ofِ the fourِ terms.
Robbery, kidnapping, andِ murder allِ qualify asِ piratical activities, providedِ there’s someِ water andِ a boat involved.
If there’s noِ water andِ no boat, you’re justِ a regular bandit.

For manyِ people, theِ term pirate conjures upِ images ofِ the so-called “golden age” ofِ piracy, inِ the 17th andِ 18th centuries, alongِ with legendary pirates suchِ asِ Blackbeard orِ Captain Kidd orِ their fictional equivalents suchِ asِ Long John Silver orِ Captain Jack Sparrow.
But piracy isِ a muchِ moreِ universal phenomenon.
Any time people haveِ used theِ sea forِ military andِ commercial purposes, thereِ presumablyِ hasِ beenِ some form ofِ piracy.

A privateer wasِ a pirate withِ papers.
As theِ nameِ suggests, privateers wereِ private individuals commissioned byِ governments toِ carry outِ quasi-military activities.
They wouldِ sail inِ privately owned armed ships, robbing merchant vessels andِ pillaging settlements belonging toِ a rival country.
The mostِ famous ofِ allِ privateers isِ probably English admiral Francis Drake, whoِ madeِ a fortune plundering Spanish settlements inِ the Americas afterِ being granted a privateering commission byِ Elizabeth I inِ 1572.

The useِ ofِ privateers allowed states toِ project maritime power beyondِ the capabilities ofِ their regular navies, butِ there wereِ trade-offs.
Because privateering wasِ generally a moreِ lucrative occupation thanِ military service, itِ tended toِ divert manpower andِ resources awayِ from regular navies.

Privateering couldِ beِ shady business, andِ this accounts forِ some ofِ the lexical overlap withِ theِ word pirate.
Privateers sometimesِ went beyondِ their commissions, attacking vessels thatِ didn’t belong toِ theِ targeted country.
At otherِ times, outlaw pirates wouldِ operate withِ theِ tacit encouragement ofِ a government butِ without theِ written legal authorization givenِ to privateers.