A painting by Howard Pyle showing buccaneers
in a small sailboat attacking a galleon.
In the early 1600’s, French settlers who had been driven from their settlements in the Caribbean by the Spanish, lived as frontiersmen on the island of Hispaniola. These men were excellent hunters and used long muskets and knives. They were known as the best marksmen in the world with muskets. Many of these hunting men turned to piracy and began attacking Spanish ships in the Caribbean. They took over a small island called ‘Tortuga’ and turned it into a haven for pirates and fugitives from all nations. These men were known as ‘buccaneers.’
By the 1640’s, the buccaneers had turned from hunters to seamen. They wore coarse shirts, wool pants and hats. They used small row boats to sneak up astern of larger Spanish ships, usually under cover of darkness. Marksmen in the small row boats would shoot up at the Spanish helmsmen and soldiers while the other buccaneers swarmed up the side of the ship. They got a reputation for being cruel and were feared by all Spanish sailors.
In 1655, when England drove the Spaniards from Jamaica, many buccaneers moved to Port Royal. Many attacks were launched from this port and the governor of Jamaica encouraged the buccaneers’ activities. Soon, the buccaneers were attacking entire Spanish towns on the Spanish Main.
The most famous buccaneer was Henry Morgan. He raided Spanish towns in the 1660’s and 1670’s, capturing Puerto Bello on the island of Cuba and later capturing Panama in an epic battle between 500 buccaneers and over 2,000 Spanish soldiers. After a long and successful career as a buccaneer, Henry Morgan retired in Jamaica and was considered the most successful of all buccaneers. His raids did much to ensure the survival of English interests in the Caribbean.