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Pirates & galleons

Privateers and buccaneers

A romantic 1905 illustration of a buccaneerA romantic 1905 illustration of a buccaneerPirates were murderous outlaws who attacked ships purely for their own gain. Many pirates had once been ordinary sailors who found that they could make much more money as pirates. But in the 16th and 17th centuries there were other ships engaged in similar acts of piracy. These were crewed by privateers, who were permitted—and encouraged—to act as pirates by the king or queen of their own country. One of the most famous privateers was Sir Francis Drake, who was given written permission by Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Battle rages between buccaneers and a Spanish crewBattle rages between buccaneers and a Spanish crew
Dutch privateer Piet Hein (1577–1629)Dutch privateer Piet Hein (1577–1629)


Privateers (short for “private men-of-war”) were seamen who captured other vessels for their cargo or to hold them to ransom. They were given written permission to do so by their king or queen. The Golden Age of privateering began when Spain started shipping large amounts of gold and silver back from its colonies in America. Countries hostile to Spain—such as Britain, France and the Netherlands—sent out their privateers to steal some of the loot. The privateer captain and the king or queen would share the spoils.

The English sailor Christopher Newport (1561–1617) raided more Spanish ships and settlements than any other privateer. In August 1592, he captured the Portuguese ship Madre de Deus and took home the largest English loot of the century: 500 tonnes of spices, silks and jewels.

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