Buccaneers, the name given to piratical adventurers of different nationalities united in their opposition to Spain, who maintained themselves chiefly in the Caribbean Sea during the 17th century.

The island of Santo Domingo was one of several in the West Indies which had early in the 16th century been almost depopulated by the oppressive colonial policy of Spain. Along its coast there were several isolated establishments presided over by Spaniards, who were deprived of a convenient market for the produce of the soil by the monopolies imposed by the mother country. Accordingly English, Dutch and French vessels were welcomed and their cargoes readily bought. The island, thinned of its former inhabitants, had become the home of immense herds of wild cattle; and it became the habit of smugglers to provision at Santo Domingo. The natives still left were skilled in preserving flesh at their little establishments called boucans. The adventurers learned "boucanning" from the natives; and gradually Hispaniola became the scene of an extensive and illicit butcher trade. Spanish monopolies filled the seamen who sailed the Caribbean with a natural hate of everything Spanish. The pleasures of a roving life, enlivened by occasional skirmishes with forces organized and led by Spanish officials, gained upon them.

Out of such conditions arose the buccaneer, alternately sailor and hunter, even occasionally a planter - roving, bold, unscrupulous, often savage, with an intense detestation of Spain. As the Spaniards would not recognize the right of other races to make settlements, or even to trade in the West Indies, the governments of France, England and Holland would do nothing to control their subjects who invaded the islands. They left them free to make settlements at their own risk. Each nation contributed a band of colonists, who selected the island of St Kitts or St Christopher, in the West Indies, where the settlers of both nations were simultaneously planted. The English and French were, however, not very friendly; and in 1629, after the retirement of several of the former to an adjoining island, the remaining colonists were surprised and partly dispersed by the arrival of a Spanish fleet of thirty-nine sail. But on the departure of the fleet the scattered bands returned, and encouragement was given to their countrymen in Santo Domingo. For buccaneering had now become a most profitable employment, operations were extended, and a storehouse secure from the attacks of the Spaniards was required.

The small island of Tortuga (north-west of Hispaniola) was seized for this purpose in 1630, converted into a magazine for the goods of the rivals, and made their headquarters, Santo Domingo itself still continuing their hunting ground. A purely English settlement directed by a company in London was made at Old Providence, an island in the Caribbean Sea, now belonging to Colombia. It began a little before 1630, and was suppressed by the Spaniards in 1641.

Spain was unable to take immediate action. Eight years later, however, watching their opportunity when many buccaneers were absent in the larger island, the Spaniards attacked Tortuga, and massacred every settler they could seize. But the others returned; and the buccaneers, now in open hostility to the Spanish arms, began to receive recruits from every European trading nation, and for three-quarters of a century became the scourge of the Spanish-American trade and dominions.

France, throughout all this, had not been idle. She had named the governor of St Kitts "Governor-General for the French West India Islands," and in 1641 he took possession of Tortuga, expelled all English from the island, and attempted the same with less success in Santo Domingo. England was absorbed in the Civil War, and the buccaneers had to maintain themselves as best they could, - now mainly on the sea.

In 1654 the Spaniards regained Tortuga from the French, into whose hands it again, however, fell after six years. But this state of affairs was too insecure even for these rovers, and they would speedily have succumbed had not a refuge been found for them by the fortunate conquest of Jamaica in 1655 by the navy of the English Commonwealth. These conquests were not made without the aid of the buccaneers themselves. The taking and re-taking of Tortuga by the French was always with the assistance of the roving community; and at the conquest of Jamaica the English navy had the same influence in its favour. The buccaneers, in fact, constituted a mercenary navy, ready for employment against the power of Spain by any other nation, on condition of sharing the plunder; and they were noted for their daring, their cruelty and their extraordinary skill in seamanship.

Their history now divides itself into three epochs. The first of these extends from the period of their rise to the capture of Panama by Morgan in 1671, during which time they were hampered neither by government aid nor, till near its close, by government restriction. The second, from 1671 to the time of their greatest power, 1685, when the scene of their operations was no longer merely the Caribbean, but principally the whole range of the Pacific from California to Chile. The third and last period extends from that year onwards; it was a time of disunion and disintegration, when the independence and rude honour of the previous periods had degenerated into unmitigated vice and brutality.

It is chiefly during the first period that those leaders flourished whose names and doings have been associated with all that was really influential in the exploits of the buccaneers - the most prominent being Mansfield and Morgan. The floating commerce of Spain had by the middle of the 17th century become utterly insignificant. But Spanish settlements remained; and in 1654 the first great expedition on land made by the buccaneers, though attended by considerable difficulties, was completed by the capture and sack of New Segovia, on the mainland of America. The Gulf of Venezuela, with its towns of Maracaibo and Gibraltar, were attacked and plundered under the command of a Frenchman named L'Ollonois, who performed, it is said, the office of executioner upon the whole crew of a Spanish vessel manned with ninety seamen. Such successes removed the buccaneers further and further from the pale of civilized society, fed their revenge, and inspired them with an avarice almost equal to that of the original settlers from Spain. Mansfield indeed, in 1664, conceived the idea of a permanent settlement upon a small island of the Bahamas, named New Providence, and Henry Morgan, a Welshman, intrepid and unscrupulous, joined him.