The so-called Golden Age of privateering occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was during this period that English, French, and Dutch maritime forces waged a nearly unceasing piratical war on the ascendant Spanish, who claimed almost all of Central and South America and because of that, began shipping massive amounts of gold and silver back to Spain.
In England, there were a great many great men involved in privateering operations against the Spanish. Known affectionately as “Sea Dogs” these men included in their ranks such men as Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, and Sir Walter Raleigh. All these men would make a name for themselves (not to mention a lot of money) raiding Spanish shipping, all in the name of England and the Protestant religion.
Sir Francis Drake, a staunch Protestant, decided to take the fight to the Spanish. He would launch a privately funded raid on Spanish silver galleys along the Pacific coast of South America, which he did from 1577-80, while also becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. The Queen expressed official regret over the incident but privately received a 4700% return on her investment, which earned Francis his knighthood. Nominal peace with Spain would continue for another 6 years, but disputes over trade (and the Netherlands) would lead to Philip II attempting to invade England in 1588. Here these Sea Dogs would also prove their worth by providing one of the main defenses for England against the Armada.
As the English began to settle in the West Indies (Caribbean) they would settle in such a manner that meant they were out of reach of the Spanish. However, one exception to this general rule during this period was the Puritan English settlement on Providence Island between 1630 and 1641. What makes this case unique is that Providence lies just off the coast of Central America. From the beginning, however, the Puritans thought that privateering would be their main form of business in the nascent colony.
To quote historian T.O Lloyd, “The Spanish were sometimes justified in thinking that a pirate base was precisely what English companies had in mind; in the 1630s the Providence Island Company was set up by determined Protestants who thought that plundering Catholic ships will be rewarded in this world and the next[.]” Privateering was from the outset one of the main opportunities presented to settlement in the West Indies. It would be the perfect way to strike a Catholic foe (Spain) by seizing the wealth that flowed from her American possessions. In turn, any Spanish treasure seized would support the settlement. This privateering would become a key aspect of the colony after it repulsed a Spanish invasion in 1636 when the newly minted Governor Robert Hunt would begin to rely on privateering as another means to finance the island. However, this new emphasis on privateering also increased the threat of Spanish invasion, so there was a general increase of military defense on the island with more gunners and the like being recruited for the job. However, this would only bolster the Spanish resolve to dislodge the Puritans from the island (they referred to it as a “den of thievery”). In 1640, the Spanish would try a second time only to be repulsed a second time.
It would seem that the Spanish had good reason to be irate with the English. As Kupperman states, “Corsairs from Providence Island had made life impossible along the Spanish coast; more merchant ships had entered the port of Cartagena in the two months since the English fell than in the previous two years.” During this same period, an economic downturn in New England would lead to plans of a mass exodus from New England to Providence under one Captain John Humphrey. This news perhaps hastened Spanish plans to oust the Puritans from their island stronghold. The Spanish would launch an invasion of 1,400 men on May 24, 1641, they would overtake the island by the 25th.
The Americans during the War of Independence relied heavily on the use of privateers. The Americans would commission around 700 privateering vessels compared to only 100 U.S Navy vessels. Many of the Founding Fathers even had stock in privateering vessels. This plays to the fact that privateering was far from the norm. To quote Alexander Tabarrok, “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.” - (Tabarrok, 2)
Several decades later the U.S would still be reliant on the use of Privateers to fight their wars. Here they would be able to capture approximately 2,500 British vessels and do approximately $40 million ($525 million today) in damage to the British economy. The U.S Navy, which Hillmann and Gathmann rather hurtfully refer to as “pitifully small,” was largely ineffective in this war, being mostly bottled up by 1813 by the superior British Royal Navy.
Privateering was an enterprise would take a sharp decline after the War of 1812. It would only make a very brief appearance in the American Civil War and some of the South American wars of independence from Spain. It would ultimately be banned by almost all nations in 1856, with only the United States and Spain refusing the ban, but they would both end it officially in 1908.
A huge part of this decline argues Tabarrok was that the very systems that made privateering possible came under attack. Privateering is a government system at the end of the day. As Tabarrok explains,
To understand why privateering ended, it is important to understand that it was always a government program. Viewed from today's perspective, privateering looks like "privatization," but it was such only in the same poorly phrased way that private prisons are privatization. Private prisons and privateering more accurately exemplify the contracting out of government services. With privateering, government uses private enterprise to serve its own ends. (Tabarrok, 572)
Tabarrok explains that the system of privateering was built around a complex incentive structure. A big part of this incentive structure was the ability to ransom vessels. If a vessel was captured and it proved to not possess any valuable cargo, the privateer captain and the prize’s captain might sit down and arrange for a ransom. This was in exchange of course for the privateers to not sink the vessel, so the ransom worked as an incentive for both sides to avoid unnecessary violence. However, by 1813 this essential incentive for privateers and their victims alike ended with both the U.S and Britain banning the practice of ransoming. The act of ransoming might have benefited the ships involved, but it did not benefit the government. “A ransomed ship lived to carry cargo another day, whereas, all else being equal, the government preferred to burn and sink the enemy ship…”
The government had the same begrudging view of the practice of paroling prisoners by privateers. This system meant that prisoners taken by a privateer could be paroled out with the promise that they would not return to the battlefield or even more helpfully for the privateer’s side, those same prisoners could be exchanged for their sides’ prisoners. “As governments grew stronger, they no longer had to accept ransoming and parole.”
Navies gave governments great flexibility with what they wanted to accomplish. Whenever navies became more effective and cost-effective than privateers, then privateers became less useful. As Nicholas Ross explains, naval operations take the form of 4 major purposes: to facilitate the invasion of enemy territory, to defend against invasion, to protect your nation’s commerce, and finally to weaken the enemy’s commerce. Public navies do all these things, while privateers are usually restricted to only weakening the enemy’s commerce.
The advancement of military technology played another substantial role in privateering's demise. Before the 1660s, private merchant vessels could be readily transformed into privateering vessels with the addition of more cannons and crew. However, after this point, warships began to be specially built and the cost-effective nature of a privateer began to wane.
Hillmann and Gathman also argue that privateering declined in Britain at the end of the 18th century due to the explosion in the profitability of trade. This effectively lured merchants and their vessels away from the incredibly risky business of effectively acting as a mercenary at sea. This combined with the decline in success rates for privateering, which fell from about 50% during the American Revolution to about 10% after the Napoleonic Wars.
However, just like piracy did not go away with the presence of ever larger and better navies, so too has privateering remained. Although in the periphery. A modern example of the modern use of privateering was seen in Somalia during the 1990s. As the country collapsed into turmoil, the coasts of Somalia remained undefended, which meant that illegal fishing and dumping became endemic. To solve this problem, many local fishermen began forming their maritime militia to stave off this illegal activity. Unfortunately, as with many privateers of the past, they would soon give in to temptation and would begin turning to piracy. This case is unique in the sense that no one was paying them to do it. They were truly a militia.
Two contemporary examples come from China and the United States. The former has had a maritime militia, composed of mostly commercial fishing boats, going back as far as 1974. Since then this Chinese Maritime Militia has been used as a way to lay claim to the many scattered reefs, atolls, islets, and since 2016 artificial islands in the area of the South China Sea. They are ostensibly engaged in commercial fishing. As Gregory Poling et al explain, “The militia’s outward identity as a commercial fishing fleet affords Beijing a powerful degree of deniability, allowing this force to be used to apply pressure on other claimants with little cost.” (Poling et al, 1)
In the case of the United States, there have been some tentative calls to perhaps use privateers in the next great power conflict between the U.S and China, and Russia. Col. Mark Cancian (USMC Ret.) and Brandon Schwartz argue that the U.S could augment our overstretched naval forces by issuing Letters of Marque to private contractor companies to target Chinese maritime shipping.
Tabarrok argues that world governments will continue to contract out to private entities to fight their wars. He states,
Privateers once again have a relative advantage because of their better incentives and greater flexibility. Therefore, we can expect to see continued "contracting out" of military services to private military forces, but this does not represent a genuine "privatization" of the military or of government. (Tarrobok, 576)
Privateers were used by governments to make up for the forces they lacked. These privateers were used from an already large, existing pool of merchant vessels to have them undermine their opponent’s trade and commerce. And, as has been demonstrated in this paper, they did a great deal of damage in the conflicts they participated in. Their overall decline in use and their eventual ban had to do with the shifting structure of incentives, not only were states now powerful enough to field sufficiently large public navies but global trade was now such that it was far more profitable for merchants to engage in legitimate trade. But as has been shown, privateers (although their form may be different) still exist and will continue to exist in the world as a form of hybrid force that can pursue a states’ interest. Or as has been shown in the case of the Somalis be a form of stopgap measure against illegal activity. At the end of the day, the world may shift and change around us but the more things change the more stays the same and privateers are here to stay.
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
Lloyd, T.O, The British Empire 1558-1995. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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.