Buccaneer - Legal Status

Legal Status

The status of buccaneers as pirates or privateers was ambiguous. As a rule, the buccaneers called themselves privateers, and many sailed under the protection of a letter of marque granted by British, French or Dutch authorities. For example, Henry Morgan had some form of legal cover for all of his attacks, and expressed great indignation at being called a "corsair" by the governor of Panama. Nevertheless, these rough men had little concern for legal niceties, and exploited every opportunity to pillage Spanish targets, whether or not a letter of marque was available. Many of the letters of marque used by buccaneers were legally invalid, and any form of legal paper in that illiterate age might be passed off as a letter of marque. Furthermore, even those buccaneers who had valid letters of marque often failed to observe their terms; Morgan's 1671 attack on Panama, for instance, was not at all authorized by his commission from the governor of Jamaica. The legal status of buccaneers was still further obscured by the practice of the Spanish authorities, who regarded them as heretics and interlopers, and thus hanged or garrotted captured buccaneers entirely without regard to whether their attacks were licensed by French or English monarchs.

Simultaneously, French and English governors tended to turn a blind eye to the buccaneers' depredations against the Spanish, even when unlicensed. But as Spanish power waned toward the end of the 17th century, the buccaneers' attacks began to disrupt France and England's merchant traffic with Spanish America. Merchants who had previously regarded the buccaneers as a defense against Spain now saw them as a threat to commerce, and colonial authorities grew hostile. This change in political atmosphere, more than anything else, put an end to buccaneering.

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