When I was a boy I strongly desired to be a pirate, and the reason for this was the absolute independence of that sort of life. Restrictions of all sorts had become onerous to me, and in my reading of the adventures of the bold sea-rovers of the main, I had unconsciously selected those portions of a pirate's life which were attractive to me, and had totally disregarded all the rest.
In fact, I had a great desire to become what might be called a marine Robin Hood. I would take from the rich and give to the poor; I would run my long, low, black craft by the side of the merchantman, and when I had loaded my vessel with the rich stuffs and golden ingots which composed her cargo, I would sail away to some poor village, and make its inhabitants prosperous and happy for the rest of their lives by a judicious distribution of my booty.
I would always be as free as a sea-bird. My men would be devoted to me, and my word would be their law. I would decide for myself whether this or that proceeding would be proper, generous, and worthy of my unlimited power; when tired of sailing, I would retire to my island,—the position of which, in a beautiful semi-tropic ocean, would be known only to myself and to my crew,—and there I would pass happy days in the company of my books, my works of art, and all the various treasures I had taken from the mercenary vessels which I had overhauled.
Such was my notion of a pirate's life. I would kill nobody; the very sight of my black flag would be sufficient to put an end to all thought of resistance on the part of my victims, who would no more think of fighting me, than a fat bishop would have thought of lifting his hand against Robin Hood and his merry men; and I truly believe that I expected my conscience to have a great deal more to do in the way of approval of my actions, than it had found necessary in the course of my ordinary school-boy life.
I mention these early impressions because I have a notion that a great many people—and not only young people—have an idea of piracy not altogether different from that of my boyhood. They know that pirates are wicked men, that, in fact, they are sea-robbers or maritime murderers, but their bold and adventurous method of life, their bravery, daring, and the exciting character of their expeditions, give them something of the same charm and interest which belong to the robber knights of the middle ages. The one mounts his mailed steed and clanks his long sword against his iron stirrup, riding forth into the world with a feeling that he can do anything that pleases him, if he finds himself strong enough. The other springs into his rakish craft, spreads his sails to the wind, and dashes over the sparkling main with a feeling that he can do anything he pleases, provided he be strong enough.
The first pirates who made themselves known in American waters were the famous buccaneers; these began their career in a very commonplace and unobjectionable manner, and the name by which they were known had originally no piratical significance. It was derived from the French word boucanier, signifying "a drier of beef."
Some of the West India islands, especially San Domingo, were almost overrun with wild cattle of various kinds, and this was owing to the fact that the Spaniards had killed off nearly all the natives, and so had left the interior of the islands to the herds of cattle which had increased rapidly. There were a few settlements on the seacoast, but the Spaniards did not allow the inhabitants of these to trade with any nation but their own, and consequently the people were badly supplied with the necessaries of life.
But the trading vessels which sailed from Europe to that part of the Caribbean Sea were manned by bold and daring sailors, and when they knew that San Domingo contained an abundance of beef cattle, they did not hesitate to stop at the little seaports to replenish their stores. The natives of the island were skilled in the art of preparing beef by smoking and drying it,—very much in the same way in which our Indians prepare "jerked meat" for winter use.
But so many vessels came to San Domingo for beef that there were not enough people on the island to do all the hunting and drying that was necessary, so these trading vessels frequently anchored in some quiet cove, and the crews went on shore and devoted themselves to securing a cargo of beef,—not only enough for their own use, but for trading purposes; thus they became known as "beef-driers," or buccaneers.
When the Spaniards heard of this new industry which had arisen within the limits of their possessions, they pursued the vessels of the buccaneers wherever they were seen, and relentlessly destroyed them and their crews. But there were not enough Spanish vessels to put down the trade in dried beef; more European vessels—generally English and French—stopped at San Domingo; more bands of hunting sailors made their way into the interior. When these daring fellows knew that the Spaniards were determined to break up their trade, they became more determined that it should not be broken up, and they armed themselves and their vessels so that they might be able to make a defence against the Spanish men-of-war.
Thus gradually and almost imperceptibly a state of maritime warfare grew up in the waters of the West Indies between Spain and the beef-traders of other nations; and from being obliged to fight, the buccaneers became glad to fight, provided that it was Spain they fought. True to her policy of despotism and cruelty when dealing with her American possessions, Spain waged a bitter and bloody war against the buccaneers who dared to interfere with the commercial relations between herself and her West India colonies, and in return, the buccaneers were just as bitter and savage in their warfare against Spain. From defending themselves against Spanish attacks, they began to attack Spaniards whenever there was any chance of success, at first only upon the sea, but afterwards on land. The cruelty and ferocity of Spanish rule had brought them into existence, and it was against Spain and her possessions that the cruelty and ferocity which she had taught them were now directed.
When the buccaneers had begun to understand each other and to effect organizations among themselves, they adopted a general name,—"The Brethren of the Coast." The outside world, especially the Spanish world, called them pirates, sea-robbers, buccaneers,—any title which would express their lawless character, but in their own denomination of themselves they expressed only their fraternal relations; and for the greater part of their career, they truly stood by each other like brothers.