Jaykizh

Pirates and Privateers

8 posts in this topic

Hi!

 

I have been looking for some historians' interpretations on the differences between piracy and privateers but I've found it difficult to find decent sources. Im focussing mainly between the mid-1600s to the early 1700s. 

I'm writing a paper for my A level coursework, so I need to find books and articles that relate to this chosen topic. I thought this would be a good place to ask :)

 

Thanks!

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The essential difference between pirates and privateers is that privateering was legal and piracy was not, though of course it goes deeper than that.

Privateers were private individuals granted a commission, or "letter of marque" by a state, allowing them to prey on the commercial shipping of an enemy state during wartime. The three key points to bear in mind are:

1. They were legally sanctioned and even in wartime that legality was, on the whole, respected by other nations.

2. They limited their attacks to shipping specified by their commission. If they had, say, an English commission to attack French shipping then they confined themselves to only attacking French shipping. Exceeding the terms of their commission by, say, attacking a Dutch or other English ship, would have been piracy. (It was not unknown for privateers to do exactly that, but at that point they became pirates rather than privateers.)

3. They operated only during wartime. Mostly... A government could also grant a "letter of reprisal" to someone whose goods had been seized by another nation during peacetime, allowing them, legally, to attack shipping of that nation in order to gain restitution, but that was much less common than privateering with a letter of marque during wartime.

Once a privateer had captured an enemy ship it then had to be taken to a friendly port where a Court of Vice-Admiralty would assess that it had been taken legally and "condemn" it, allowing the ship and cargo to be sold. The profits from the sale would then be divided between the crew of the privateer and the investors who had fitted out the privateer in the first place.

 

Pirates, by contrast, had no legal authority and pretty much robbed whoever they liked, then kept all of the profits for themselves. So, they were similar to privateers inasmuch as they used violence to capture ships at sea for profit, but very different in other respects.

 

There are loads of good books out there (and many many rubbish ones). I suspect a good one for you to start with would be David J. Starkey (ed.), Pirates and Privateers: New Perspectives on the War on Trade in the 18th and 19th Centuries (Exeter, 1997). If you want a much fuller list, I posted a fairly comprehensive bibliography HERE

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Fox, your explanation brought up something that I've been pondering for some time (but not doing the research).  Were colonial privateers during the American Revolution (or whatever name you Brits use...) treated as privateers or pirates if captured?  Were any captured during that war?  Just wondering if you've come across any references that might shed some light on this.

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Privateers were an interesting conundrum for the authorities at the time of the Revolution. Britain did not recognise that the US was a state with the authority to issue letters of marque, so American privateers were often referred to as pirates. However, Britain also recognised that in reality American privateers were belligerents rather than criminals so generally treated them as prisoners of war when they captured them.

 

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Fox's response covers a lot of ground, but I want to point out one thing that a lot of people miss, the difference between a letter of marque and a commission for a private man of war.  
Most of the time, when people think of privateers, they think of those holding a commission as a private man of war.  These commissions specified a ship could sail on a cruise with the specific intent of seeking out enemy commerce vessels of specific enemies of the nation in a specific geographic area at sea during a specific period of time.  These ships were intentionally manned and equipped to go hunt down enemy merchant ships.
Meanwhile, a letter of marque only allowed a vessel to attack enemies of the nation at sea if the happened to encounter in the course of a voyage involving other business. In most cases, it was a merchant on a commercial enterprise getting a letter of marque so they had the ability to legally attack an enemy vessel and legally claim her as a prize.  If the letter of marque vessel happened to think they had the ability and manpower to do this, the letter allowed it, but the weren't allowed to go cruising for enemy prizes (it's just a case of if they encounter an enemy during the voyage).  

This all comes from the article "The Origins and Regulations of Eighteenth-Century British Privateering" by David J. Starkey in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader.  

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Thank you so much. This information gives me a lot to work with. Time to get reading!

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https://youtu.be/LNWdRGAAjfM

Lynx is an interpretation of an actual privateer named Lynx built by Thomas Kemp in 1812 in Fell’s Point, Maryland. She was among the first ships to defend American freedom by evading the British naval fleet then blockading American ports and serving in the important privateering efforts.

Letter of MarqueAt the outbreak of the War of 1812, the American Navy consisted of only 17 ships – eight frigates, two brigs, and seven assorted smaller vessels including a few schooners which saw service in the Barbary Wars. When a nation went to war, owners of private vessels were granted special permissions, called “letters of marque,” to prey upon the enemy’s shipping; thus, “privateers.” While rarely engaging enemy warships, their impact was felt by English merchants who insisted on warship escorts for their vessels. To perform this duty, warships were drawn away from engaging the scant American Navy and blockading our coast, and thus did the privateers, motivated by profit, assist in our national defense. Among the Baltimore privateers was the sharp-built tops’l schooner, LYNX.

historyposter.jpgPrivateers were so effective at running the British blockade and harassing the British merchant fleet that the ship yards, which built them, became primary targets for British revenge. The most notorious of these were at Fell’s Point.

Fort McHenryBut in order to get to them, the British force had to sail beyond Ft. McHenry, which protected the entrance to Baltimore’s inner harbor and Fell’s Point. For 25 hours on 13 and 14 September 1814, the British bombarded the fort with over 1500 iron shot and mortar shells,but were unable to achieve their goal. It was here, on the morning of 14 September that Francis Scott Key, a lawyer from Georgetown, DC, was moved to write the “Star Spangled Banner” which, 131 years later, became our National Anthem.

Although captured early in the war, the original LYNX with her rakish profile and superior sailing abilities, served as an inspiration to those ships that would follow.

Edited by Bright

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On 22.9.2016 at 0:13 PM, Fox said:

Privateers were an interesting conundrum for the authorities at the time of the Revolution. Britain did not recognise that the US was a state with the authority to issue letters of marque, so American privateers were often referred to as pirates. However, Britain also recognised that in reality American privateers were belligerents rather than criminals so generally treated them as prisoners of war when they captured them.

 

Also the British ultimately issued their own privateers to attack the US rebels. Thus they indirectly admitted the rebels right to this kind of warfare. They did threaten to hang the captured rebels a few times tough.

 

(I studied Revolutionary privateering for a uni paper, relatively low level one but still.  Starkey's book mentioned above was one in the reference works.) 

 

 

Depending on the period for example this might be of use to you: Lydon, James G. Pirates, Privateers, and Profits. Upper Saddle River, NJ: The Gregg Press, Inc., 1970.

 

It is about colonial New Yorker privateers of 1600-1760s

Edited by Swashbuckler 1700

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