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If you’ve read the first book of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, you might already be familiar with the term “buccaneer” as it pertains to the 19th century and to the Gilded Age in particular. Early in the book, there is gossip amongst the Nob Hill blue bloods about Malcolm Alderdice, the patriarch of the Alderdice family, and his rise in business and society:
“Oh, that poor Penelope, the woman was such a lamb!
“Too good for him for the likes of her father’s clerk, to be sure. Can’t think why she married him.”
“Oh, that’s obvious, my dear. Where there’s money to be had, rest assured, the buccaneer shall have it.”
“True, Catherine, true. And who can say how far the buccaneer will go to make himself one of us?”
So the buccaneer was a popular image in the 19th century Gilded Age, especially in the realms of the public sphere.
Ever since I started writing historical fiction, definitions and word origins fascinate me, and the word “buccaneer” is no exception. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term as “any of the freebooters preying on Spanish ships and settlements especially in 17th century West Indies” (“Buccaneer”, n.d.). This is the way I think many of us picture the buccaneer — something off of a pirate ship, a bad guy who looks like Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.
But in the 19th century, the word took on the more figurative meaning that exists today in our modern world which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “an unscrupulous adventurer especially in politics or business” (“Buccaneer”, n.d.). As I mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age here, the 19th century was a time when big businesses were built, millionaires were made, and corruption and graft abounded. It wasn’t just about spending money in an excessive, lavish way. It was also about making it — any way you could, whether it skirted the laws of fair trade or not.
In this atmosphere, the modern buccaneer was born. Ambitious, ruthless, and driven, the buccaneer was a wheeler-dealer whose only interest was getting ahead and making money. Thus, he often used unscrupulous business methods. Probably the most infamous of these in the 19th century were the Robber Barons. These were men like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and J.P. Morgan. In San Francisco, there were specifically four heavy hitters who made up the railroad Robber Barons: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington.
We do, however, want to consider that these men, while ruthless in business, also did some good works. Many had the “pay it forward” attitude, and some of America’s most impressive institutions and cultural centers were built from their initiative. For example, Leland Stanford served as governor of California and instituted forest conservation and, as a believer in education, oversaw what is now San Jose State University and, of course, founded Stanford University.
And, interestingly, the term began to acquire less negative connotations around the mid-20th century, at least in Britain. According to this article from the BBC, several powerful corporate businessmen saw the term as connoting qualities of daring, adventure, and innovation.
While Malcolm Alderdice is not on the scale of Stanford or Carnegie, San Franciso society is none too keen to accept him into the fold, and this is part of the Alderdice family struggle in the series. There’s also another buccaneer who appears in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women. His name is Monte Leblanc, and he’s referred to by a minor character as “our cousin, the Canadian buccaneer”. His cousin (one of the San Francisco social matrons) insists he made his fortune “without ruffling any feathers”. Whether that’s true or not remains a question in the novel.
You can read more about Pathfinding Women, which will be out next month, here. You can also learn about Malcolm Alderdice and his buccaneering ways in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, which is currently on sale for 99¢. And if you want to know more about the series in general, including Book 4, which will be coming out at the end of 2020, you can go here.
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Buccaneer. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/buccaneer.