The word "corsair" comes directly from the French word corsaire, itself borrowed from the Italian corsaro. This derives from the Latin cursus, meaning "course", journey or expedition. The French word corsaire may have originated as a mispronunciation of the Arabic word qarṣan. The French Navy had many Corsairs as Captains and Admirals, and many of their best had been trained on Malta by the Order of St. John.
The Golden Hind - Captain Drake's famous ship.
Elizabeth I awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581 which he received on the Golden Hind in Deptford.
Corsairs were privateers, authorized to conduct raids on shipping of a nation at war with France, on behalf of the French crown. Seized vessels and cargo were sold at auction, with the corsair captain entitled to a portion of the proceeds. Some of the best trained Corsairs of the Mediterrean, Atlantic and Caribbean waters were taught by the Navy of St. John on the island of Malta. Although not French Navy personnel, corsairs were considered legitimate combatants in France (and allied nations), provided the commanding officer of the vessel was in possession of a valid Letter of Marque (Lettre de Marque or Lettre de Course, the latter giving corsairs their name), and the officers and crew conducted themselves according to contemporary admiralty law. By acting on behalf of the French Crown, if captured by the enemy, they could in principle claim treatment as prisoners of war, instead of being considered pirates. Because corsairs gained a swashbuckling reputation, the word "corsair" is also used generically as a more romantic or flamboyant way of referring to privateers, or even to pirates. The Barbary pirates of North Africa as well as Ottomans were sometimes called "Turkish corsairs".
In the 16th century began the activities of European pirates and corsairs in the Caribbean. The corsairs were individuals who were financially backed by their governments to make armed attacks on Spanish ships and possessions in the Americas. Sometimes their violent attacks destroyed everything in their path, spreading terror throughout the Caribbean coasts, yet they also helped establish colonies in remote areas.
French corsairs roamed the Antillean waters to intercept Spanish ships that were returning to Spain full of goods they plundered from the Americas. These pirates made their bases on Mona Island on the shipping route between Hispaniola and San Juan. In 1528, they attacked and destroyed the port of San Germán and in 1553 the French corsair François Le Clerc led a fleet that systematically sacked and burned Antillean ports, paralyzing trade between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. In 1554, another strategic attack by Jacques Sores destroyed Havana. In the second half of the 16th century, beginning in the 1570s, the English joined the ranks of corsairs in the Caribbean. The main reason was because England and Spain, for both political and religious reasons, were enemies at that time.
Jean-François de La Roque de Roberval (c. 1500–1560), known to the Spanish as Roberto Baal, was a Protestant French nobleman and adventurer who, through his lifelong friendship with King Francis, became the first Lieutenant General of New France (Canada). As a corsair, he attacked towns and shipping throughout the Spanish Main, from Cuba to Colombia. When his appointment as the first Lieutenant General of New France did not work out, he attempted to repay his debts through privateering. The Spanish Caribbean was his main target, since at that time France and Spain were at war. Known to the Spanish as Roberto Baal, in 1543 he sacked Rancherias and Santa Marta, followed by an attack in 1544 on Cartagena de Indias. In 1546, ships under his command attacked Baracoa and Havana. The next year, he retired from pirating. He died an Huguenot martyr.
One of the most famous English corsairs was Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 28 January 1596), an English sea captain, privateer, slave trader, naval officer and explorer of the Elizabethan era. Sir Francis Drake seized the Nombre de Dios port in Panama in 1572, along with a shipment of treasure from Peru that was destined for Spain. Drake was a great and careful strategist and he terrorized the coasts of Puerto Rico en 1559. Spain reacted to the situation by creating a system of fleets and galleons to provide protection to its commercial ships and later built fortifications to improve the security of San Juan. The first fortification was La Fortaleza, capable of housing a large number of people in case of an attack. The construction of this fortification was followed by El Morro, which faced a big attack by the English while still under construction. The first attack was led by Sir Francis Drake in 1559 and consisted of a fleet of 26 ships with 1,500 sailors and 3,000 invaders. Drake entered the port in the night and burned some of the ships he found. The light from the fire allowed the natives to attack and force Drake to abandon the bay.
In 1598, George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland, attacked and, unlike Drake, was successful in landing on the beaches of Cangrejos. His men marched along the coast to what is known today as Condado. With this approach, Cumberland took the city and demanded the castle surrender, but when Governor Antonio de Mosquera refused, he ordered an attack on the fortification. The side of San Felipe del Morro facing land was destroyed. Part of the city was burned and sacked and a shipment of slaves, sugar, ginger and hides was taken.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Dutch added to the attacks because of Spain’s prohibition on trade with them. They made clandestine settlements on the coasts of Venezuela, Guyana and Hispaniola to trade salt, tobacco and hides.
In 1624, a huge Dutch fleet took control of the city of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, but the Spanish were able to recapture it. Seeking revenge, Balduino Enrico decided to attack and take control of Puerto Rico in 1625. He invaded and took control of La Fortaleza, sacking houses and religious sites. He closed the San Antonio Bridge, establishing a checkpoint that prevented communication with the rest of the island. Balduino demanded surrender, but the governor refused and continued to fight with a surprise attack, both on land and sea. The cannons were recaptured and communication was restored with the rest of the island. Balduino fled after burning and sacking the city. After this attack, Spain rebuilt and made the islet of San Juan a respectable and beautiful citadel.
Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy (1584–1660) was a French nobleman, very suddcessful and decorated Corsair for the French Navy, and Bailiff Grand Cross of the Knights of Malta. He governed the island of Saint Christopher from 1639 to his death in 1660, first under the Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique and later under the Knights of Malta themselves. Poincy was the key figure in the Hospitaller colonization of the Americas and Godfather of the Buccaneers of Tortuga.
On 12 January 1638 Poincy set sail for the Caribbean on board La Petite Europe. On February 20 he took up his commission as Lieutenant Governor of the Isles of America and Captain general of the French at St. Christophe (Kitts). He arrived wearing the regalia of the Knights of St John of Malta and soon dispensed with the authority of the French king, declaring "The people of St Kitts will have no other Governor than Poincy and will take no orders from the King of France."
Poincy instructed one of his followers, the infamous Huguenot Jean Levasseur with sixty buccaneers, to drive the English out of Tortuga and build Fort Rocher. Levasseur was successful, and on 6 November 1640 a treaty was drawn up between Poincy and Levasseur which allowed religious toleration and trade between the two islands.
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