Where does the word “filibuster” (freebooter) come from and What does filibuster mean?

Piracy flourished in the seventeenth century, probably more successfully and openly than ever before or since.

Spain had secured all of the rich new countries bordering the Caribbean Sea, and, although nominally at peace with the other maritime nations of Europe, France, Holland, and England, rigidly excluded those nations from establishing colonies in her domain.

Her own American colonies, moreover, were supposed to trade with Spain alone, a trade that was usually extortionate, and she ruthlessly seized any vessel caught within the “Spanish Main” to enforce her rule.

Such a condition could not be tolerated by Dutch, English, and French shipmasters, who knew the wealth that awaited them among the colonies. Their governments conveniently looked elsewhere while they armed themselves and set sail to capture Spanish ships, sink any that might interfere, and bring back wealth from New Spain.

Ultimately such a captain or a member of his crew, of whatever nationality, became generally known as a “buccaneer,” but one from Holland was first called a vrijbuiter, literally, a “free robber” or corsair. This, because of its sound and its resemblance to “free” and “booty,” became “freebooter” in English.

In French, however, it became first “fribustier” and then flibustier (the s probably inserted to show that the preceding vowel was long). These French forms were rarely used by English writers, who favored “freebooter” or “buccaneer” in telling of the pirates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But the French term passed into Spain, and there it suffered another alteration into filibustero.

It was but natural, then, that the American adventurer, William Walker, of the 1850’s should have been called a filibustero by Central Americans, a term that was shortened to filibuster in English. Walker, it may be recalled, was the young fellow who, in 1853, led an expedition of American adventurers in an attempt to capture the State of Sonora, Mexico.

The attempt failed, but two years later a similar expedition against Nicaragua succeeded to such an extent that he was able, briefly in 1857, to proclaim himself president. Driven out of the country later in the same year, he then attempted to capture Honduras in 1860, but was caught and shot by the Honduran government.

Our modern use of filibuster in legislative halls is harmless by comparison. At least it doesn’t involve piracy or acts of violence.

It probably arose through a mild comparison of the actions of legislators seeking to block a bill with the actions of Walker who sought to block international law.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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