True Pirates of the Caribbean

At the end of the seventeenth century, during the Nine Years War, the privateers commissioned by the Dutch Republic, based in the province Zeeland, captured booty that exceeded those of the infamous Dunkirk and St. Malo corsairs. About 24 million florin. These Zeeland pirates were known as the Pixaringos.

Together with the Wadden Sea area, the business of privateering and pirating was most entrenched, popular and supported in the Province of Zeeland. The Province has long roots in the privateer practice, reaching back to at least the fifteenth century. Around the year 1600, the privateers from the cities of Vlissingen and of Middelburg, also located on the Walcheren Island, were especially active in Spanish America, including the Caribbean. The southern Europeans called these privateers the Pechelingues or, indeed, the Pixaringos which was a bastardization of the word ‘Vlissingen’.

According to contemporaries, the Zeeland caper ships were ever willing, able and prepared to privateer. Ready to set sail the minute the government issued letters of commission. Also, according to contemporaries, the Zeeland privateers were known for their aggressiveness and were even declared outright devils.

They cloaked themselves in pious religiosity but were, in fact, thieves of heaven, church rogues, disgraces to religion, scandalous, ungodly, et cetera.

For those readers who think piracy and privateering were two different things, the answer is yes and no. Legally it was. In practice, however, the authorities of the Dutch Republics were extremely pragmatic. They followed a policy of tolerance, you could say. Sometimes pirates were convicted, sometimes not. Sometimes, if convicted, their punishment could be harsh according to what the laws prescribed, i.e. death. More often, admiralities and judges were much milder, despite these explicit laws. Even infamous pirates after a career of roaming the seas from the Coromandel Coast to the Caribbean, plundering ships of friendly nations of the Republics, and even that of the Republics itself, could re-establish themselves in Dutch high society.

The Geuzen at Leiden in 1574 – J.H. Isings

The reason behind this pragmatic approach of the Dutch authorities was that capers were needed to maintain Dutch hegemony at sea. But, also, because pirates were a central element of the freedom symbols and part of the national psyche. It were the pirates called the Watergeuzen ‘water brigands/beggars’ who successfully led the strife for freedom against Spain. Mid-sixteenth century, the Geuzen were not much more than a bunch of pirates operating in the Wadden Sea area of provinces Friesland and Groningen, and region Ostfriesland. Controlling the trade going through the sea straits between the islands. But the ‘water beggars’ also operated from region Westfriesland, controlling the Zuyder Sea.

Note – Read more in our posts Yet another wayward archipelago, It all began with piracy, and Island the Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea, and you will understand the coast and history of (former) Frisia is to a large extent one of hardcore piracy.

Further reading

  • Houter, J.J. & Doedens, A., De Watergeuzen. Een vergeten geschiedenis, 1568-1575 (2020)
  • Lunsford, V.W., Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands (2005)

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