Privateering, Piracy and Freebooting

Privateer, pirate, freebooter: these terms are often used synonymously. However, they refer to different people and activities.

A pirate is an outlaw. He is a seafarer who recognizes no authority other than his own. He will attack any ship, regardless of its nationality. Because he works independently, the pirate does not share his profits with anyone except his crew. He plies his "trade" in wartime and peacetime.

A privateer must be authorized by his sovereign or his country to conduct raids. He holds a letter of marque or a commission that proves he is acting on behalf of his sovereign. The privateer shares the profits from his raids with his outfitters and the Crown. His activities are considered legitimate only in time of war. If he captures a ship in peacetime, watch out—he is likely to be charged with piracy!

Freebooters were pirates who attacked Spanish ships and possessions in the West Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Larger-Than-Life Figures

How many movies, books, songs and legends celebrate the memory of privateers or pirates? Too many to count! Throughout history, the image of the pirate frightened people and made their imaginations run wild.

When we think of pirates and privateers, we think of ships lost at sea, fabulous treasures and captains who are real outlaws, plying their trade in the sunny Caribbean. Of course, everyone pictures the captain with a hook for a hand, a peg leg, a long beard, an eye patch, and a squawking parrot on his shoulder.

But the classic image of the pirate that we are all familiar with was created by Hollywood movies. Although it was inspired by real pirates from history, the image is closer to fiction than to fact.

Privateers on the St Lawrence

Pirates risked the death penalty if they were taken prisoner. Privateers, on the other hand, could receive rewards. Encouraged by their government, privateers contributed to the war effort against enemy nations.
Cross of Saint-Louis

In the history of New France, two heroes were awarded the Cross of St Louis by the King of France. Pierre Lemoyne d'Iberville, whom history remembers as an explorer and the founder of Louisiana, was a famous privateer on the St Lawrence and even in the West Indies. He had the reputation of being especially bloodthirsty.

Michel de Salaberry, who was known for his battle exploits at sea, was also a privateer, defending Louisbourg and Quebec City against the British. As a reward for his service, he was appointed captain of a store ship in the French navy, which was a significant honour.
Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

© 2006, Musée maritime du Québec and Naval Museum of Québec

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