Why Privateers?

**This is part 1 of a 2 part series.

Why would a state decide to employ privateers? The image of a privateer that most people conjure up in their heads looks suspiciously like a pirate. Frankly, at the end of the day, there is very little difference between a privateer and a pirate. One man’s privateer is another’s pirate. This is not just a laymen’s/civilian perspective, but the perspective of many of those involved. Sir Francis Drake refused to come ashore after returning from his globe-spanning voyage (being the first Englishmen to circumnavigate the globe). He feared that his benefactor Queen Elizabeth, in his absence, was no longer on the throne and he feared the consequences of a more Spanish-friendly monarch not looking favorably on his privateering. But the question remains; why? Why would states choose to use such apparently unreliable, almost criminals?

Using the examples of Britain and the United States, this paper will show that the answer to this question is that the use of privateers was a cheap, effective form of hybrid warfare. A way for a state to wage war on an opponent economically while not risking one’s navy, while also getting some of the revenue from a successful capture. This paper will show that far from being a simple wink and nudge deal between the state and a privateer, there was much legal infrastructure around the use of privateers. Their ultimate downfall came in the face of ever larger, and ever more powerful navies and a shift in world economics, but even today privateering remains a means for states to wage war.

However, there were also limitations to this form of warfare. The privateer was often difficult to control and would be rather unwilling to risk too much. As Alexander Tabarrok states, “It [privateering] never accomplished exactly what the government wanted, but when governments could not easily raise the funds to maintain large navies and when the monitoring of navies was difficult, privateering was a good option.” This combined with the fact that the vessels that were licensed out for this type of work were decidedly not warships and, therefore, could not easily go toe-to-toe with one. Therefore, the privateer could be reliably expected to go for primarily commercial vessels.

But wait, what is a privateer? To quote Georg Friederich Martens privateering is “the expeditions of private individuals during war, who, being provided with a special permission from one of the belligerent powers, fit-out at their own expense, one or more vessels, with the principal design of attacking the enemy, and preventing neutral subjects or friends from carrying on with the enemy a commerce regarded as illicit." So effectively private warships, with special permission from a belligerent state, that, as stated previously, primarily target trade.

What was this special permission? This permission came in the form of a Letter of Marque and Reprisal. This was the document in which the legality of privateering rested. To quote Tabarrok, “A patent is to an inventor what a letter of marque and reprisal was to a privateer: a government-granted right to search out and claim prizes. Both systems take advantage of private incentives, but neither can operate without government.” The Letter of Marque and Reprisal is the contract that binds the privateer to the state they serve. And it is not binding to just the state that issued it, as Tabarrok states further, “Even the British, then the enemy, recognized that a privateer acted within the law of nations, and its captain and crew, if captured, would be accorded the same rights as captured officers and crew of the U.S. Navy.” They would need to always have this license with them.

The Letter of Marque’s contents would detail specifically whose ships could be targeted. And that said privateers needed to bring their captured prize back to a friendly port so that an admiralty court could examine the vessel and letter. This was to determine whether or not the former was an enemy ship (some would fly literal false flags) and whether or not the latter was valid and legal. To prove the vessel was an enemy ship, the privateer would need to rely on the papers, manifestos, crew, etc… on board the captured vessel.

Once the vessel was determined to have been a legal prize, the admiralty court would then condemn the ship and its contents and they would be sold at auction. The way a privateer was paid was usually through shares in the privateering firm. It was usually the case where the owners of the privateering vessel would receive half of the profits, while the captain and the crew received the other half, with a bit set aside for repairs, supplies, and maintenance. Unfortunately, at least half of the profits from the prize would be “eaten up” by taxes, duties, and the payment to the auctioneers, however, the profits in many cases were large enough to make up for this. However, as Tabarrok succinctly states, “Of course, not all voyages were successful. Privateering was a high-risk, high-reward profession.”

Privateering has some of its roots in the Middle Ages where there were plenty of cases of rulers hiring private vessels to augment their navies. A king usually only possessed a very small navy during this period. One of the roots of the Letter of Marque was under the reign of Henry III in England where he gave a Letter of Patent for the governors of the “Cinque Ports” (Hastings, Dover, Sandwich, Haythe, Romney, Rye, and Winchelsea). This letter granted this confederation of ports the right to trade and defend their ports.

Privateering began most officially to the Italian city-states. Where in the absence of any form of international government or courts, a merchant could seek damages by receiving a Letter of Marque and Reprisal. Tabarrok explains,

Letters of marque and reprisal, granted as early as the twelfth century, were designed to bring the anarchy of retaliation under the rule of law. A merchant whose property had been stolen could apply to his sovereign for a permit to take limited actions for the purpose of restitution, not revenge, against specified agents. A private cause of action was initially required, but in wartime, sovereigns began to issue letters of marque and reprisal that were good against any enemy ship. Thus, private means were used to wage public wars. (Tabarrok, 566)

Privateering began to take off after the discovery of the New World in the 15th century.


Cancian, Mark, and Brandon Schwartz. “Unleash the Privateers!” U.S. Naval Institute. U.S Naval Institute, November 4, 2020. Last modified November 4, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/april/unleash-privateers?fbclid=IwAR1t2HzG_wYSeDwu7s0B_OmVE0m-oQIA5Oz9mSTRnVaMEWlpnKLEwOx5Qs0.

Hillmann, Henning and Christina Gothmann, “Overseas Trade and the Decline of Privateering,” The Journal of Economic History 71, no. 3 (September 2011): 730-61. : https://www.jstor.org/stable/23018337

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Providence Island, 1630-1641:the Other Puritan Colony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.00270. EPUB

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Poling, Gregory, Tabitha Mallory, and Harrison Prétat . “Center for Strategic & International Studies.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 14, 2021. Last modified December 14, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.csis.org/.

Ross, Nicholas, “The Provision of Naval Defense in the Early American Republic: A Comparison of the U.S. Navy and Privateers, 1789–1815,” The Independent Review 16, no. 3 (Winter 2012): 417-433. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24563210

Tabarrok, Alexander. “The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Privateers: Alexander T. Tabarrok.” The Independent Institute. The Independent Institute, 2007. Last modified 2007. Accessed December 15, 2021. https://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?id=631.

“An Introduction to Privateering History.” Shady Isle Pirate Society. Last modified 2004. Accessed December 15, 2021. http://bbprivateer.ca/?q=node%2F11.


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