Originally a religious sect active in France during the 1500s and 1600s, the Huguenots later emigrated to North America, where some turned to piracy. Few details exist about the activity of Huguenots involved in piracy, however a few instances are included in historical accounts of the time. Some accounts portray them more as colonists and explorers than pirates. However, it is known that French pirates, many of whom were Huguenots, ruled over several areas of the sea.
The Huguenots were French Protestants who were highly critical of the Roman Catholic church which ruled over France. Their criticism of Catholicism made them the subject of widespread persecution. In 1562, 1200 Huguenots were killed in Vassey, France. This massacre kicked off the eight brutal and bloody civil wars between Catholics and Protestants which lasted until 1598 . There were short-lived periods of peace, and in 1598 King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes effectively ending the Wars of Religion. The edict granted the Huguenots religious freedom in designated cities. As the Huguenots' power and number of followers increased, they were viewed as a threat and were mercilessly persecuted by the French monarchy. After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, life in France became so unbearable that an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Huguenots fled to other parts of Europe and to the United States, including Massachusetts, New York, and South Carolina.
Prior to exile, many Huguenots had already set out for the New World, many becoming pirates or explorers. They frequently fought the Spanish and Portuguese at sea. Some French privateers also raided ports on the Spanish main. They attempted to colonize several parts of the New World, including Guanabara Bay currently known as Rio De Janeiro in Brazil in 1555. They were driven out in 1567 by Mem de S‡, governor-general of the Portuguese colony of Brazil. The Huguenots claimed a number of coastal areas in Europe and North America, including La Rochelle, which was taken by Cardinal Richelieu in 1628 after a long siege. The loss of their stronghold hastened the Huguenots' political downfall.
The Huguenots' piracy was less about material wealth and more about religious beliefs, specifically their anti-Catholic views against the ardently Roman Catholic Spaniards. During their reign, Huguenot pirates reportedly waged attacks on several cities, including Cartagena, Santiago and Havana. They are also credited with killing Ignatius de Azevedo, a jesuit missionary, who is considered a martyr by Catholics. It is reported that about 50 Huguenot privateers, or pirates, operated in the English Channel in 1568, with Plymouth serving as their base. "La Popelini¸re," a book first printed in 1571, mentions Huguenot pirates and their attack on Santiago, and the author of "History of the Buccaneers of America," was himself a Huguenot buccaneer.
Today there exists The National Huguenot Society, as well as the Huguenot Historical Society in New Paltz, New York, both of which continue to preserve the history of these peoples.