Filibusters and boats on the Vlie

How do we know that Bush–for all his rhetoric–is soft on pirates? Because otherwise, surely, Bill Frist would have rebirthed filibusters as Catalan fills de puta, “whoresons.” I can’t get into the OED, but here’s the fairly vague Barnhart dictionary of etymology (1988):

How do we know that Bush–for all his rhetoric–is soft on pirates? Because otherwise, surely, Bill Frist would have rebirthed filibusters as Catalan fills de puta, “whoresons.” I can’t get into the OED, but here‘s the fairly vague Barnhart dictionary of etymology (1988):

Doublet: A pair of words which share a common origin, but which have distinct shades of meaning. The words vibrate and vibrant are both derived from the Latin word vibrare, ‘to vibrate, shake’, but whereas vibrate means ‘to shake; quiver’, vibrant means ‘vigorous, energetic, radiant’.

Filibuster (vrijbuiter) n. deliberate hindering of legislation by making long speeches, etc. About 1851, in American English Fillibustier, Flibuster; later Filibuster (1855) any American who engaged in uprisings in Latin America, especially Cuba and later in Mexico and Nicaragua; borrowed from Spanish Filibustero a freebooter, and from French Flibustier. The word is recorded earlier in English Flibutor pirate or adventurer, again in reference to activities of such individuals in the region of the Caribbean (before 1587); borrowed from Dutch vrijbuiter freebooter. The relationship of borrowing from Dutch to French and Spanish and English is unclear. Perhaps French Flibustier came from English Flibutor, and earlier directly from the Dutch in the form of Fribustier. The distinction of nomenclature among the adventurers in the Caribbean area during the 1500’s and 1600’s is confused by the activities they engaged in. The French settlers hired as hunters for the Spanish (buccaneers), were driven out and turned to plundering so that the Bucaner took on the new meaning of pirate; this overlapped with the Freebooter or Filibuster (Flibuster) or common rover. Doublet of Free-booter.

JF Bense’s Dictionary of the Low-Dutch element in the English vocabulary delves deeper, suggesting cross-fertilisation with the Dutch vlieboot:

According to Skeat (dict 804) and N.E.D. (s.v.) there is no doubt that the ultimate source of the word is Du. vrijbuiter. In M. Du. occurs the word vribuyt, meaning ‘taking of free (i.e. retaining as free property by him who takes) booty’. The expression was op vribuyt (vrijbuidt) gaan, hence the sb. vrijbuiter (Kil. vribueter, praemiator; praedo cui quicquid ab hoste capitur, in praemium cedit et pirata)(Mnl. Wdb.).
Though dissimilation may account for the change of r in Du. vrijbuiter to l in Eng. flibutor, Fr. flibustier and Sp. filibusters (Skeat, Princ. Etym. I. 376), yet we think the possibility, as suggested by N.E.D., of the l being due to the influence of Du. vlieboot (eng. flyboat, Fr. flibot, Sp. Flibote) very likely, considering that vlieboot is recorded by N.E.D. in the form flyboat as occuring some ten years earlier than flibutor. Fr. fribustier is older than flibustier (Littré). A more difficult matter it is to account for the s in the French and Spanish words cited above, whether derived direct from Du. vrijbuiter, or indirectly from du. through the English doublet of filibuster freebooter.

Columnist The Tatler in the Montreal Herald of 1903/3/7 tells us more about the vlieboot:

It was once believed that this term originated from the River Vly, in Holland, on which steam small sailing vessels of less than one hundred tons were met with frequently during the seventeen century. They were called “flyboats,” either from their great speed or from the name of the river; they were, however, met with in other parts of Holand. The Spanish called them “filibote” or “filibote.” The buccaneers of the West Indies who at first used rowboats at length adopted the flyboat for their practical expeditions. Hence the Spanish began to call these men “filibusteros,” the French “filibusters.” The use of the term latterly became more general, and was applied to all pirates.


More modern authorities now repudiate this derivation, and claim that the term is derived from the Danish “fribytter,” from which came the later German term “ferbeuter,” and the French “fribuster,” the “s” not being sounded. The term freebooter has the latter origin. In a Dutch work, “De Americaensche Zee Rookers,” published 1678, the inhabitants of the West Indies are thus classed: 1. Buccaneers or hunters; 2. Filibusters or Rookers; 3. Habitants or settlers. A filibuster is a person who fits out a warlike expedition not recognized by any national government; this is the present signification of the term.

The vlieboot derivation actually makes a good deal of sense to me, either by itself (see The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 10, Number 59, September, 1862) or–as Brense suggests–in conjunction with vrijbuiter. I don’t know who The Tatler’s “modern authorities” were, but they may have been operating along the same lines as eighteenth century Royal Navy captain James Burney, who wrote in History of the buccaneers of America (1803):

Some authors have given a derivation to the name flibustier from the word “flyboat” because, say they, the French hunters in Hispaniola bought vessels of the Dutch, called flyboats to cruise upon the Spaniards. There are two objections to this derivation. First the word “flyboat” is only an English translation of the Dutch word “fluyt,” which is the proper denomination of the vessel intended by it. Secondly, it would not very readily occur to anyone to purchase Dutch fluyts, or flyboats, for chasing vessels.

Burney’s first objection makes no sense–I can’t imagine anyone translating fluyt as “flyboat” (although an English-speaker might conceivably have interpreted fluyt as fluyboot (Dutch)/flyboat, and vlieboot turns up before fluyt in Dutch–but his second is interesting. His point is that this type of boat was designed to specialise in bulk cargo transport on inland waterways, not for pursuing and engaging other vessels, but I think that he’s wrong.

In the C16th the Vlie connected the Netherlands inland waterways with the North Sea, which it entered between the islands of Vlieland en Terschelling, and was the principal channel used by those sailing north and east, to the Hanze ports in north Germany and the Baltic, and was also an important base for ships sailing west, to the Mediterranean and to other continents. It was thus the scene of fierce battles involving the local and global powers, and fleaboats (conventional English transcription) were in the thick of the action.

The first (ambiguous) reference I’ve found is from 1575, in which “Een vlietsche Boot, seer vreeslijck schoot” (A Vliet boat fired a terrible shot). I think vliet is used here in its meaning “stream”, “water”, rather than to refer to the stinking ditch of Roman origin connecting The Hague and Delft. The editorial note agrees, and tells us that this is what Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft referred to as a vlieboot in his tradition-inventing Nederlandse historiën (1642-1656), when Adriaen Corneliszoon van Vlissinge, seeing a colleague under pressure, attacked the Spaniards in his vlieboot. Unfortunately it’s not clear whether Hooft is using 16th or contemporary terminology. It’s also unclear where this site sourced its information, but the message is clear: vlieboten were small but heavily-manned and -armed, and capable of seeing off larger Spanish vessels.

My problem–and Burney’s apparent vindication–is that the Spanish often use filibote–generally accepted as their version of vlieboot–to refer to a cargo vessel, not a warship. Here’s a letter from Philip II of Spain dated 1593/7/3 dealing with bread shipments from the east (grain and wood were the two major imports from the Baltic):

Queda entendido lo que rrefirio el maestre del filibote de amburgo [Hamburg] que vino a laredo con cargo de pan y la comodidad que ay en ese corregimiento

The reference in Pedro Simón’s 1600 tale of overseas conquests Noticias historiales de las conquistas de Tierra Firme en las Indias Occidentales is more ambiguous:

largas licencias para que pudiera traer mucha más gente de la que él pedía, y para que se le dieran cinco fustas, filibotes y navíos grandes y bien capaces para todo lo que trajese.

There’s a good article here, which, in explaining the differences between the various vessels, makes me suspect that the Philip’s cargo boat and Caribbean pirate ships, while having come to differ from one another as a result of the functional requirements made of them, nevertheless had a common parent–efficacious and economical–on the Vlie.

Bense’s problem with accounting for “the s in the French and Spanish words cited” (eg, how the hell do you get from flyboater, one who travels in a vlieboot, to flibustier) may be explicable in terms of the gradual elision from the spoken language from certain words of certain consonants, consonants which nevertheless continued to be used in writing. Here are a couple of C17th illustrative equivalents which serve as well for the vrijbuiter as for the vlieboot derivation:

Dutch French
fluit fluste
buit buste

Explaining the r/l situation in fribuste/flibuste is slightly more difficult (except for Korean parents). I think I’ve heard this kind of thing happening in Spain, but I can’t remember where. However, it does turn up in Cuba, where pirates used to hang around in large numbers (and still do, according to Mr Bush).

(This is all idle speculation. If you’ve got access to real dictionaries and corpses and I’m wrong, please pillage and burn to your heart’s content.)

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Last updated 08/06/2005

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Kaleboel (4325):

Mediterranean Sea (73): The Mediterranean Sea is a sea connected to the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by the Mediterranean Basin and almost completely enclosed by land: on the north by Southern Europe and Anatolia, on the south by North Africa, and on the east by the Levant.

Spain (1882):

Translation (788):

Vlie (1): The Vlie or Vliestroom is the seaway between the Dutch islands of Vlieland, to its southwest, and Terschelling, to its northeast.


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