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Privateers > French Corsairs

French Corsairs


The French Corsairs or the French Privateers were a group of fearless entrepreneurs who famously plundered the shipping lanes of the British Empire and the Spanish Empire during the privateering era. During the 16th century it was considered fair game to assault the merchant ships and plunder them senseless for the treasures they were in turn plundering from the New World.

The name corsair is derived from the French phrase la course meaning the profession of privateering. The French word corsaire was derived from the Latin word cursus meaning a course or journey. Other linguistic influences to create the phrase corsair come from the Arabic word corsanni. The Arabic pirates were known as the Barbary Corsairs as well. The corsairs were not considered pirates and were employed by the various kings of the French Crown meaning they were given Letters of Marque stating they would not be prosecuted for crimes in their home country.

Corsairs were supposed to only attack ships of the enemy nation and would be punished the same as a pirate if a neutral nation was attacked. The benefit to the Crown was that the Royal Treasury would get a 1/4 percentage of the privateers plunder and thus deprive enemies of valuable resources. While the corsairs were supposed to be treated as war criminals this was often disregarded and foreign nations viewed all privateers as pirates and would hang them as such.


The corsairs can trace their origins back to the 12th century. While piracy has existed all throughout history and

Santo Malo

In 1144 a bishop named Jean de Châtillon gave the 44 acre fortified town of Santo Malo to the privateers and pirates who used it as an outpost for centuries to launch attacks on the ships coming into the Iberian Peninsula. It became so famous that in 1590 the residents declared it an independent republic. Like most other pirate republics the existence was brief, only four years and their motto was:

"Neither French nor Breton, but a Corsair am I"

Despite the early origins of French privateering its practice did not really become widespread until the Spanish ventured to the New World when they sponsored the voyages of Christopher Columbus. With the discovery and visions of untold riches the imperial nations of both the Spanish Empire and the Portuguese Empire raced to the New World with their conquistadors and began systematically plundering, conquering and enslaving the native civilizations. The massive explosion of wealth and treasure being transported on ships proved and irresistable target for other kingdoms and individuals around the world. And thus the Golden Age of Piracy began.

Treaty Of Tordesillas

French privateering really began in scope after the signing of the Treaty Of Tordesillas on June 7th, 1494 which divided the New World into respective spheres between the Spanish and the Portuguese. Its signing was presided over by the Pope and Alexander VI gave his approval through a papal bull. The treaty did not include either the French or the British which left them disenfranchised. After the signing Spain went even further and only allowed the colonies to trade with the Spanish.

As a result, the king of France, François I, banded together a group of corsairs, which included, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Jean (Fluery) Florin aka "The Florentino" and Jean d'Ango. They were nicknamed, "Gueux de la mer" meaning "Sea Tramps" or "Sea beggars" in English and were co-funded by the Dutch. In 1521, French privateers began a series of attacks of Spanish vessels returning from the West Indies. It was in such circumstances as this that both France and England allowed their corsairs to attack Spanish vessels in Europe and the West Indies, with the justification that they had letters giving official permission from their government, although these papers were sometimes false. Indeed, sometimes the politicians actively encouraged such ventures.The activities of the Corsairs were so profitable that the Marine Minister used this in his strategy to make money, and it became part of the budget of the French treasury. The Corsairs’ activities weakened France’s enemies; indeed, the English trade losses were very important from 1688 until 1717.The relationship between the Corsairs and the State changed not only depending on who was in power; but as well as the relationship between the state and the church. Indeed, privateering in France was initially fuelled by religious turmoil – and persecution beginning with the Protestant Reformation.

The Huguenots


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