The Buccaneer in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean

by Hunter Hellwig

image of pirate ship

In the seventeenth century, the colonies of the Spanish Main became the envy and target of rival European powers such as the English, the French, and the Dutch. The rise of the buccaneer, often in the form of displaced male European settlers, was a product of this animosity. Men like Henry Morgan, Nicholas van Hoorn, and Alexandre Esquemeling each exemplify this type of “transfrontiersman” and together, through their different motivations and lifestyles, provide a composite view of the seventeenth-century buccaneer. While they all operated during the same moment—the height of Caribbean buccaneering between 1650 to1680—they inhabited different sides of this period. While the 1671 buccaneer raid of the Spanish city of Panama, which Morgan led and Esquemeling took part in, received praise from the English Crown, the 1683 raid of the Spanish city of Veracruz, Mexico, which was led in part by Van Hoorn, received condemnation from English authorities. These events and their fallout evidence the quickly changing political atmosphere of the seventeenth-century Caribbean as Spain’s European rivals became steadily more interested in developing and protecting their own Caribbean colonies. As a result of this dynamic atmosphere the status of the buccaneer in the late seventeenth century devolved from state-sponsored hero to that of wanted criminal over the course of a decade.

In popular culture, the pirate is a swashbuckling, courageous fighter who takes on the role of protagonist or antagonist, depending on the source. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, for instance, details the tough and eccentric Long John Silver, who is perhaps the classic portrayal of a pirate with his peg leg and shoulder-parrot. More recently, the Disney franchise Pirates of the Caribbean presents Jack Sparrow as the witty, treacherous, but always loveable protagonist.

But how do these stereotypes compare to the buccaneers of the seventeenth century? Men like Henry Morgan, Nicholas van Hoorn and Alexandre Esquemeling are examples of real-world buccaneers who played the role differently and with varying success. Accounts of their activities at pivotal battles, like the sacks of Panama in 1671 and Veracruz in 1683, detail how gritty and violent life was for the buccaneers of the Caribbean transfrontier. More broadly, their stories take place at the end of the buccaneering era, at a moment when political attitudes were changing towards an intolerance of state-sponsored piracy. This dynamic illustrates how seventeenth- century European rivals moved from openly preying on the Spanish through men like Morgan in 1671 to denouncing buccaneers like Van Hoorn in 1683, subsequently protecting the Caribbean from piracy as they began to establish their own colonial empires in the fading shadow of the Spanish Main.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the Spanish Empire was spiraling into economic and political decline. Spain was plagued by monetary instability, primarily caused by the influx of wealth from the New World, and the Spanish were forced to halve the value of their currency twice, in 1628 and 1680, in an attempt to alleviate inflation.[1] Spain was also heavily involved in the Thirty Years’ War and other inter-European conflicts, and they lost significant territories around midcentury which further contributed to their decline. Notable among these losses were the revolt of Portugal in 1640, the French victory over the Spanish tercio at Rocroi in 1643, as well as the Peace of Münster in 1648 which, as a part of the larger Peace of Westphalia, recognized Dutch independence from Spain.[2] This decline in Spanish power made their operations abroad prime targets for banditry, and, along with the notorious inefficiency of communications throughout the Spanish Main, this larger dynamic helped produce what is often called the “golden age” of piracy, the period from about 1650 to 1680 which saw the rise of the buccaneer.[3]

England in the middle of the seventeenth century was able to prosper economically, but politically Britain was plagued by turbulent power struggles between Parliament and the Crown which had been growing throughout the first half of the century.[4] This culminated in a series of political upheavals beginning with the English Civil War of the 1640s, which saw the execution of Charles I in 1649, and led to the Protectorate rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s and finally to the Glorious Revolution and William of Orange’s ascent to the English throne in 1689.[5] After the civil war, England reinvigorated its outward military efforts, increasing its navy from thirty-nine ships-of-the-line to eighty between 1649 and 1651, which would then be used with success in the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-1654 and against Spanish fleets in 1656 and 1657.[6] This established a growing upward trend in English naval power abroad, and one manifestation of this quest for success over the Spanish could be seen in the commission of Caribbean privateers in the latter half of the 1600s.

The Dutch spent the first forty-eight years of the seventeenth century in sporadic rebellion against Spain, and as part of this they engaged in open piracy against Spanish shipping, primarily through the power of the Dutch East and West India Trading companies.[7] These Dutch “sea- rovers,” as they were called, tormented the Spanish, with notable victories such as the capture of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628 by Piet Heyn and the capture of northeast Brazil in 1630.[8]

Historian Kris Lane argues that Dutch seamen during this time developed a unique “sea culture” based around “thrift[,]… discipline, and Dutch Calvinism” which created a stronger, religiously fueled animosity towards Catholic Spain than was perhaps present in countries like England or France.[9] Following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 the Dutch West India Company lost its ability to openly pillage Spanish shipping, yet the transfrontiersmen themselves often ignored the greater political implications of their actions, and Dutch piracy, already well-established in the New World, would continue on into the late 1600s.[10]

France during the first half of the seventeenth century was embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War as Cardinal Richelieu, Louis III’s acclaimed minister, set about maintaining domestic security, such as undermining the Huguenots’ rebellion in 1629, while trying to protect France’s interests in the Thirty Years’ War, such as pushing for Swedish engagement against the Spanish.[11] His political maneuvering during the 1620s and ’30s helped lay the groundwork for the absolute power that Louis XIV would seek after gaining the thrown as a child in 1643. France’s war with Spain was the notable exception from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and would only end in 1659 after the Treaty of Pyrenees.[12] The middle of the 1600s saw France push to expand into the New World and as part of this the French began to move into the Caribbean, establishing plantation settlements at places like Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe and encouraging further settlement in the New World.[13]

The seventeenth-century Caribbean was a tumultuous arena filled with these various European powers seeking to exploit people and resources in an attempt to gain position over their rivals. The buccaneers were a manifestation of this greater power play, and they became a feature unique to the mid-seventeenth century. The first buccaneers were a motley group of displaced Europeans who survived off of the feral cattle that roamed Hispaniola; indeed, the French called the meat they cooked viande boucanée and so the men who hunted and cooked it became the boucaniers.[14] Generally, the buccaneers were European men—often English, French, and Dutch—who were usually poor ex-indentured servants seeking a better way of life.[15] From their beginnings as coastal raiders of Spanish ships at Tortuga, the buccaneers became a naval power in their own right. They pillaged the Spanish Main and maintained vague allegiances and state commissions in accordance with the doctrine of “no peace beyond the lines.” This policy essentially allowed for unchecked force as long as such action took place outside of the “lines of amity,” which surrounded Europe but stopped in the mid-Atlantic, and had come into effect in the early years of the seventeenth-century.[16] In this way, the buccaneers exemplify the role of the transfrontiersman in that they lived and functioned in the frontier of the New World, independent from traditional government and societal restrictions, yet at the same time their existence was wholly dependent on this traditional society.

In many ways, the stories of Henry Morgan, Alexandre Esquemeling, and Nicholas van Hoorn fit this larger buccaneer narrative. All three of these men found great success buccaneering, but they also faced harsh realities, violence, and even death. Nicholas van Hoorn was a Dutchman purported to have served with French privateers in the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-1680. In October of 1681 he led two ships from London to the Caribbean by way of the West African coast, with several dozen of his 150 strong crew deserting along the way due to Van Hoorn’s maltreatment, including flogging one man to death.[17] In March 1682, near the Dutch fort of El Mina on the Ghanaian coast, Van Hoorn attacked a Dutch slave ship and other slavers on land, making away with some 700 slaves and escaping across the Atlantic. He sailed to Santo Domingo to sell the surviving slaves; however, the Spanish governor imprisoned Van Hoorn instead, as revenge for recent attacks by fellow Dutch pirate Laurens de Graaf.[18] Van Hoorn’s tactics during this voyage illustrate not only the ruthless strategy of piracy, but also the broader political intrigue that was often involved in such efforts. Van Hoorn, himself a Dutchman, robbed a Dutch slave ship and proceeded to attempt to sell the slaves at a Spanish colony. It seems the only reason he wasn’t successful was that another pirate, de Graaf, had recently raided the island, taking valuable situadospayrolls—and therefore setting the current political atmosphere against Van Hoorn.[19] Furthermore, this event shows how loyalties became distorted along the transfrontier, with greed often being the true motivation. These themes, which were seen later in Van Hoorn’s attack on Veracruz in 1683, were also behind the actions of other buccaneers, such as Welshman Henry Morgan.

image of ships on beach

Sir Henry Morgan was born in Wales around 1635 to a military family, with two uncles who served in the Thirty Years’ War. Although Morgan would later dispute this version as libel, Esquemeling states Morgan was sold into indentured servitude in Barbados as a young man, eventually being set free and serving under another prominent buccaneer, Edward Mansvelt.[20] A different version states that, instead of being indentured, Morgan sailed to the Caribbean as part of Oliver Cromwell’s Western Design around 1655 in a failed attempt to gain hold of Spanish colonies in the Caribbean.[21] Accepting either narrative, regardless of the implications for Morgan’s reputation, gives the same general theme that Morgan came to the New World seeking adventure and that his talent at sea brought him success as a privateer. Morgan eventually became one of the most famous buccaneers of this era as well as a fearsome enemy of the Spanish and a powerful asset to the English.[22] Although he rose through the ranks to eventually command his own fleet, Morgan’s rough and lowly beginnings exemplify the types of incentive that drove many young men to piracy, thus feeding the growth of buccaneering in the mid-1600s. Morgan’s relationship with Esquemeling began in the late 1660s when a young Esquemeling joined Morgan’s retinue as a barber-surgeon.[23]

Esquemeling was born in France around 1645 and came to the New World as a member of the French West India Company, landing at Tortuga in 1666.[24] Esquemeling is particularly important to buccaneering history, not for his direct actions of piracy, but for his detailed accounts and contemporary history of buccaneering. Historian Philip Gosse calls Esquemeling’s book the “chief source of information about the life of the buccaneers.”[25]

However, Esquemeling’s account undoubtedly contains exaggerations as it was written with a public audience in mind, a characteristic that makes his accounts, in the words of historian Percy Adams, “consistently more attractive reading” than that of his companion, and fellow pirate, Basil Ringrose, for instance.[26] Indeed, when describing battles he directly took part in, Esquemeling omits any of his actual actions, focusing rather on the broader narrative and the actions of pirates in the lead like Henry Morgan and Francois L’olonnais. Indeed, at one point Esquemeling was captured by Spanish soldiers but, upon learning that Alexandre saved several of their comrades from vengeful natives, the captain “embraced” Esquemeling, stating generally that the English were “very friendly enemies, and good people.”[27] Nevertheless, Buccaneers gives excellent primary source information, and its account of the sack of Panama specifically will be examined in conjunction with the account sponsored by Henry Morgan.

Morgan’s attack on Panama would prove to be the pinnacle of his career as a privateer, and in many ways it is exemplary of state-sponsored buccaneering in this era. Morgan, who was free to choose his own targets, was, however, commissioned by the English governor of Jamaica, Thomas Modyford, to make sure his targets were Spanish. Indeed, in December 1670, while waiting at Isla Vaca, an island off the coast of Haiti, for more men to join him, Morgan received messages from Modyford in Jamaica, warning him to “hurry up with what he was planning since he had heard that there was peace between Spain [and] England.”[28] This collusion to continue attacking the Spanish despite evidence of a greater peace in Europe is a hallmark of this era and of the doctrine of “no peace beyond the lines” that dominated the Caribbean. When describing Morgan’s invasion of Panama, Esquemeling notes in detail the pirate crews’ march through the jungle. He focuses on the “misfortune” they suffered as the Spanish retreated ahead of them, taking with them all their food and supplies.[29] This is the general atmosphere of Esquemeling’s narrative; he details the events and the strategy but also focuses on the suffering of both the pirates as well as the apparent cruelties ordered by Henry Morgan. For instance, as the battle outside Panama city came to an end, “some religious [Spanish men]” were taken in front of Captain Morgan, who ignored their pleas for mercy and had them immediately shot.[30] This narrative, when published, was noticed by Henry Morgan, who, understandably, took issue with his representation. An alternative account was released by an author named Philip Ayers in 1684, wherein Ayers admits that his intent was to “rescue the Honour of that incomparable Soldier and Seaman Henry Morgan from those that would “load him with the blackest infamy.”[31] Perhaps the most interesting discrepancy between the two accounts is on the outcome of the invasion and the division of the spoils.

Esquemeling claims Henry Morgan’s greed caused him to abandon his men, saying “Captain Morgan left us all in such a miserable condition.”[32] Furthermore, it is alleged that Morgan “set sail…not bidding anybody adieu” and took for himself “the greatest and best part of the spoil, which had been concealed from them in the dividend.”[33] Morgan’s account makes no mention of such treachery, saying instead that “we divided the Plunder amongst the Soldiers and Seamen, which amounted to about thirty thousand Pound Sterling.”[34] Regardless of whether or not Morgan actually cheated his men, it seems there wasn’t as much plunder as had been originally hoped. Apparently the Spanish, no doubt having heard of the pirate fleet, loaded most of the city’s valuables onto three treasure ships which left Panama in the days leading up to the battle on January 18, 1671.[35] Despite this lack of treasure, the sack of Panama became the major turning point in Henry Morgan’s career. By the time the Panama campaign was over on March 16, 1671, over two months after it had begun, official news had arrived from Jamaica of the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, which instituted peace between England and Spain. When Morgan returned to Jamaica in mid-April, Governor Thomas Modyford greeted him with congratulations, and the two spent the next two months waiting for instructions from England. On July 1, 1671, Sir Thomas Lynch arrived from England as the new acting Governor of Jamaica, with an arrest warrant for Modyford that had been issued long before news of the sack of Panama could have been known in England.[36]

Even though this reversal of favor was the official English response to the obligations of the Treaty of Madrid, Modyford was treated very well on his trip to the Tower of London.[37] Initially Morgan was left alone, but amid building pressure for justice from the Spanish, along with talks of a possible Spanish invasion of Jamaica, the English Crown had Morgan formally arrested at Port Royal in April 1672 and escorted back to England. Yet this arrest was even more ceremonial than that of Modyford, and in 1675 Morgan would return to Jamaica as Sir Henry Morgan to become the new deputy governor.[38] Morgan’s raid of Panama would be the last great Caribbean raid commissioned by the English government. In the decade following 1671, England began to take steps to discourage and eventually outlaw piracy altogether with the Jamaica Act of 1683.[39] When King William’s War broke out in 1689, buccaneers from England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands joined with the greater colonial naval forces of France and England, providing an outlet that helped end the buccaneering era in the Caribbean. Although piracy in the New World was by no means extinguished, it was displaced from the Caribbean to the Pacific and the East Indies, with the 1697 French raid on Spanish Cartagena marking the last great Caribbean raid.[40] To a large extent the end of condoned piracy in the Caribbean was a result of the growth of other European settlements and interests there, as well as leaders in Europe who began to slowly move past the doctrine of “no peace beyond the line.” These changing attitudes can be seen in Van Hoorn’s attack on Veracruz in 1683, which would prove to be one of the last great buccaneering raids in the Caribbean.

Although the previous account shows evidence of his missteps in the Caribbean, Nicholas van Hoorn generally found great success in piracy, and his exploits, particularly his violence and apparent cruelty, won him infamy from authorities in the Caribbean at this time.[41] Van Hoorn’s attack on Veracruz in May 1683, along with pirates like Laurens de Graaf and Michel de Grammont, was a resounding victory that resulted in several days’ plunder and the capture of many hostages. However, Van Hoorn became impatient with the Spanish payment for the hostages, and fell into a dispute with Laurens de Graaf after attempting to kill several of the hostages. De Graaf, an apparently much larger man, fought a duel with Van Hoorn, stabbing him through the wrist, an injury that would see Van Hoorn die of gangrene about a month later.[42] Van Hoorn’s attack on Veracruz offers an alternative narrative to that of Morgan and Esquemeling. The Dutchman, unlike Morgan, was not commissioned by a state and rather attacked Veracruz of his own design. He also exhibited a stronger level of greed and seems separate from national loyalties, especially when attacking de Graaf, a fellow Dutchman. Indeed, an August 18th, 1683, a letter from the English governor of Jamaica, Thomas Lynch, to the Spanish governor of Havana addresses the attack on Veracruz, and Lynch states a desire to “[chase] out from these Indies all pirates that prey on us or on your nation.”[43] Although perhaps mere political pandering, this letter illustrates the change in political attitudes and in law that had occurred in the Caribbean and in Jamaica by 1683, with an attack on a Spanish city being condemned by an English governor just a decade after the Sack of Panama.

image of net over water

The stories of Van Hoorn, Esquemeling, and Morgan exhibit three different models of the seventeenth-century buccaneer. Van Hoorn was largely a model of the ruthless freebooter who attacked without commission and was driven instead by monetary incentive and a love for war. Morgan, although certainly motivated by plunder, also took part in the larger political arena, communicating and aligning himself with English administrators in the Caribbean and therefore reaping rewards such as the Deputy governorship and knighthood. Esquemeling gives the perspective of the ground-level soldier, whose narrative is largely unconcerned with the politics and more so with the day-to-day violence and adventure. Together these men are representative of the Caribbean buccaneer and of the transfrontiersmen more broadly. Their stories witness the great successes that characterized the height of Caribbean piracy as well as the changing European climate and the subsequent decline of buccaneering into state condemnation.

Works Cited

Ayres, Philip. Voyages of Capt. Barth. Sharp and Others. London: Printed by B.W. for R.H. and S.T., 1684. Early English Books Online. (accessed 11/7/2015).

Curtin, Philip. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Earle, Peter. The Sack of Panama. New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1981.

Esquemeling, Alexandre. The Buccaneers of America. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1967.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York, NY: Random House Inc., 1987.

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

Marley, David. Pirates of the Americas. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2010. Pennington, D.H. Europe in the Seventeenth Century. New York, NY: Longman Inc., 1989.

Calendar of State Papers, Volume 11, 1681-1685. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1898


[1] Pennington, D.H., Europe in the Seventeenth Century (New York, NY: Longman, 1989), 399

[2] Pennington, Europe, 358, 393, 400

[3] Lane, Kris E., Pillaging the Empire (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 6

[4] Kennedy, Paul, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York, NY: Random House Inc., 1987), 62

[5] Pennington, Europe, 465, 533

[6] Kennedy, Rise and Fall, 63

[7] Lane, Pillaging, 62

[8] Ibid., 63

[9] Ibid., 63-4

[10] Ibid., 91

[11] Pennington, Europe, 316, 322

[12] Pennington, Europe, 321, 531-32

[13] Curtin, Philip, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 91

[14] Lane, Pillaging, 97

[15] Lane, Pillaging, 97

[16] Curtis, Rise and Fall, 89

[17] Marley, David F., Pirates and Privateers of America (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.), 403

[18] Ibid., 404

[19] Ibid.

[20] Equemeling, Alexandre, The Buccaneers of America (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1967 orig. 1678), 120

[21] Marley, Pirates, 261

[22] Ibid.

[23] Esquemeling, Buccaneers, 15

[24] Esquemeling, Buccaneers, 1

[25] Gosse, Philip as quoted by Percy G. Adams, “Introduction” in The Buccaneers of America, V

[26] Adams, Percy G., xiii

[27] Esquemeling, Buccaneers, 298

[28] Quotations as they appear in Earle, Sacking of Panama, 176

[29] Esquemeling, Buccaneers, 208

[30] Esquemeling, Buccaneers, 221

[31] Ayers, “The Preface,” Voyages, 6

[32] Esquemeling, Buccaneers, 239

[33] Esquemeling, Buccaneers, 238

[34] Ayers, “The Expedition,” Voyages, 143

[35] Earle, Peter, The Sack of Panama, (New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1981), 239

[36] Ibid., 248

[37] Ibid., 249

[38] Lane, Pillaging, 124

[39] Lane, Pillaging, 127

[40] Lane, Pillaging, 129

[41] Calendar of State Papers, Volume 11, 1681-1685, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1898. (accessed, 11/3/2015).

[42] Ayres, Philip, “Captain Van Hoorn’s Taking of Vera Cruz,” Voyages of Capt. Barth. Sharp and Others, London: Printed by B.W. for R.H. and S.T., 1684. Early English Books Online, (accessed 11/7/2015).

[43] Lynch, Thomas, State Papers, 1198. (accessed 12/1/2015).


Citation style: Chicago

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