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Privateering

Privateering. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Great Britain, Spain, France, and other European powers augmented the power of their navies on the high seas by mobilizing businesspeople to fit out their own vessels as warships. Americans continued to dispatch such private warships during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. European and American officials supported privateering because it threatened enemy commerce inexpensively; European and American merchants sent out vessels, aboard which thousands of mariners served, in hopes of making patriotic windfall profits. American privateering expanded in each imperial conflict. As Britain's New World possessions matured into populous, prosperous provinces, privateering became America's leading contribution to Britain's war efforts. Disrupting an adversary's commerce continued to dominate American naval thinking well into the nineteenth century because of the prohibitive cost of building a battle fleet comparable to Britain's Royal Navy.

Privateering has often been confused with piracy, but there were major differences between them. Privateering was a legal enterprise, conducted under state licenses called letters of marque and reprisal; governments subjected it to increasing regulation as it grew in scope and importance. Piracy, on the other hand, was a capital crime that European states had largely eliminated by the early 1700s. There was also a substantial difference in the types of people who participated in each endeavor. Some of the most important merchants in Europe and America invested heavily in private men‐of‐war, whereas piracy principally attracted disgruntled sailors and other marginal people.

Privateering had played an important role in the founding of England's New World empire. The Caribbean exploits of John Hawkins and Francis Drake prompted interest in colonization among England's governing circles. Walter Raleigh partially financed his Roanoke settlement by privateering expeditions against the Spanish, and indeed selected the site because it seemed to offer an ideal privateering base. Similarly, in 1607, the Virginia Company employed a veteran privateering captain, Christopher Newport, to convey settlers to Jamestown.

Privateers operated within the political economy of mercantilism, which recognized the expansion or protection of a nation's trade as a legitimate purpose of war. Acquisitive impulses did not have to be suppressed, but could be harnessed to increase national wealth and inhibit the enemy's ability to wage war simultaneously. Hence the inability of Britain, Spain, and the other European powers—and later the United States—to afford the staggering expenditures necessary for powerful navies prompted the rise of privateering.

Large seaports dominated American privateering because only the major cities possessed the requisite resources. Privateering voyages required entrepreneurial ability, shipping, and manpower. Experienced merchants, men unafraid of risk and who commanded sufficient capital to acquire, arm, and victual a strong vessel, were as necessary to successful cruises as skilled captains, whose reputations could attract large crews. Once a privateer captured an enemy merchantman, the owners' business skills were again crucial, because no income was earned until the prize was condemned in a vice admiralty court and the vessel and cargo were sold at a profit. Business correspondents, warehouse facilities, and market information were all necessary for success.

In addition to business skills, shipping and manpower were also more available in the larger ports. Although some vessels were constructed specifically for privateering, most private men‐of‐war were converted merchant ships; thus, ports with substantial merchant fleets could dispatch more privateers than their smaller neighbors. Because privateers captured and did not sink their prey, large crews for boarding parties were essential, and the principal ports more easily supplied the necessary numbers of men. All these factors made Newport, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston centers of American privateering during the colonial and early national periods.

American privateers hunted the Atlantic from Newfoundland to the Spanish Main, but concentrated on the Caribbean, where the pickings were richest. American warships captured thousands of vessels, earning investors, captains, and crews substantial income; successful privateers generated profits of nearly 150 percent during the eighteenth century.

From the sixteenth century through the early 1800s, so long as naval fleets could not control wartime shipping lanes, privateering dominated Atlantic maritime conflict and exerted a major influence on commerce. Privateering disappeared only when steam power ended the age of fighting sail. Steam warships were simply too costly to be owned by private investors. Although the European powers signed a treaty ending privateering only in 1857 and a few private warships saw action in the American Civil War, privateering largely ended at the conclusion of the War of 1812.
[See also Confederate Navy; Continental Navy; Naval Militia; Sea Warfare.]

Bibliography

Richard Pares , War and Trade in the West Indies, 1739–1763, 1936.
James G. Lydon , Pirates, Privateers, and Profits, 1970.
Gerome R. Garitee , The Republic's Private Navy: The American Privateering Business as Practiced by Baltimore During the War of 1812, 1977.
Kenneth R. Andrews , Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480–1630, 1984.
David J. Starkey , British Privateering Enterprise in the Eighteenth Century, 1990.
Carl E. Swanson , Predators and Prizes: American Privateering and Imperial Warfare, 1739–1748, 1991.

Carl E. Swanson

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privateering

privateering, former usage of war permitting privately owned and operated war vessels (privateers) under commission of a belligerent government to capture enemy shipping. Private ownership distinguished the privateer from an ordinary warship; letters of marque and reprisal (commission issued by a government) distinguished it from a pirate craft. The primary object of privateering was to harass the enemy, but it was often practiced as a retaliatory measure. Licensed privateering dates back to the 13th cent., but the great era of privateering was the period from 1589 to 1815, when privateers became auxiliaries to or substitutes for regular navies, and when weaker naval powers used privateers as an effective method of injuring a more powerful maritime rival. Privateersmen, who kept all or a part of their booty, often gained great wealth. After the defeat (1692) of the French fleet by the Dutch and English, France commissioned privateers, who preyed upon English commerce. In the American War of Independence and in the War of 1812 American privateersmen captured hundreds of prizes. The Confederate States issued letters of marque to the last privateers in history, but the Union blockade limited their effectiveness. In attempting to curb the abuses of privateering, nations required that captures be condemned in prize courts and that commissions (in restricted number) be granted only in the name of the sovereign. Privateersmen were free of naval discipline, and their desire for prize often led them to make no distinction between friendly and enemy shipping, to violate the rules of war, and to indulge in lawlessness after the conclusion of peace. These abuses led to the abolition of privateering by the Declaration of Paris (1856). This declaration does not prohibit the creation of voluntary navies consisting of private vessels under the control of a state, such as those used in World War II in the evacuation from Dunkirk.

See E. S. Maclay, History of American Privateers (1924, repr. 1968); W. B. Johnson, Wolves of the Channel (1931); C. W. Kendall, Private Men-of-War (1932); J. P. Cranwell and W. B. Crane, Men of Marque (1940); D. Woodward, The Secret Raiders (1955); D. B. Chidsey, The American Privateers (1962); C. L. Alderman, The Privateersmen (1965).

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Privateer

PRIVATEER

A privately owned vessel that is commissioned by one power to attack merchant ships from a hostile power. The term also refers to the commander or a crew member of such a vessel.

A privateer was commissioned by the issuance of a letter of marque and reprisal to commit hostile acts at sea, generally in accordance with the rules of war. Letters of marque and reprisal were issued by a state to its own subjects as well as to the subjects of neutral states. The owner of a vessel who accepted letters of marque from both belligerents was, however, deemed a pirate.

Privateering was abolished on an international scale with the ratification of the Declaration of Paris in 1856, which was signed by Great Britain, France, Turkey, Sardinia, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The United States, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela, however, did not consent to the declaration. The United States refused to join the treaty because the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to issue letters of marque, does not authorize it to participate in a permanent treaty abolishing privateering. Regardless, the act of privateering is considered a federal offense punishable by fine or imprisonment (18 U.S.C.A. § 1654 [2003]).

further readings

Woodruff, James J. 2002. "Merchants, Traders, and Pirates: The Birth of the Admiralty Clause." Tulane Maritime Law Journal 563.

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privateering

privateering was a device for commerce raiding in time of war whereby a privately owned, manned, and armed ship could operate on the high seas as a conventional warship, yet, in the event of making captures, was entitled to a very substantial share of their adjudicated value. The share was always capable of variation as between the sanctioning authority, usually the crown, and the proposer, prior to a voyage; and in every instance the agreement was encapsulated in the ‘letter of marque’, carried by the privateer as her warrant. In England privateering can be dated back to the late 13th cent., but the late 17th cent. and the whole of the 18th witnessed the apogee of the practice, pursued with especial vehemence by the French and the Dutch, and also by the seaboard colonies of North America during the American War of Independence. Privateering was abolished by the convention of Paris (1856).

David Denis Aldridge

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privateer

pri·va·teer / ˌprīvəˈtir/ • n. chiefly hist. an armed ship owned and officered by private individuals holding a government commission and authorized for use in war, esp. in the capture of enemy merchant shipping. ∎  (also privateersman) a commander or crew member of such a ship, often regarded as a pirate. • v. [intr.] engage in the activities of a privateer. DERIVATIVES: pri·va·teer·ing n.

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privateer

privateer Privately owned vessel with a government commission to capture enemy shipping. Government licences, called ‘letters of marque’, distinguished privateers from pirates. Crews were unpaid but were allowed to keep the booty. Privateering was at its height from the 16th to the 18th century. It was outlawed by most European powers in the Declaration of Paris (1856) and abolished by the Hague Conference of 1907.

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privateer

privateer between the 17th and 19th centuries, an armed ship owned and officered by private individuals holding a government commission and authorized for use in war, especially in the capture of merchant shipping. The word is recorded from the mid 17th century, and is formed from private, on the pattern of volunteer.

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privateer

privateeradhere, Agadir, appear, arrear, auctioneer, austere, balladeer, bandolier, Bashkir, beer, besmear, bier, blear, bombardier, brigadier, buccaneer, cameleer, career, cashier, cavalier, chandelier, charioteer, cheer, chevalier, chiffonier, clavier, clear, Coetzee, cohere, commandeer, conventioneer, Cordelier, corsetière, Crimea, dear, deer, diarrhoea (US diarrhea), domineer, Dorothea, drear, ear, electioneer, emir, endear, engineer, fear, fleer, Freer, fusilier, gadgeteer, Galatea, gazetteer, gear, gondolier, gonorrhoea (US gonorrhea), Greer, grenadier, hear, here, Hosea, idea, interfere, Izmir, jeer, Judaea, Kashmir, Keir, kir, Korea, Lear, leer, Maria, marketeer, Medea, Meir, Melilla, mere, Mia, Mir, mishear, mountaineer, muleteer, musketeer, mutineer, near, orienteer, pamphleteer, panacea, paneer, peer, persevere, pier, Pierre, pioneer, pistoleer, privateer, profiteer, puppeteer, queer, racketeer, ratafia, rear, revere, rhea, rocketeer, Sapir, scrutineer, sear, seer, sere, severe, Shamir, shear, sheer, sincere, smear, sneer, sonneteer, souvenir, spear, sphere, steer, stere, summiteer, Tangier, tear, tier, Trier, Tyr, veer, veneer, Vere, Vermeer, vizier, volunteer, Wear, weir, we're, year, Zaïre

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privateering

privateering •handspring • hamstring • herring •headspring • wellspring •airing, ballbearing, bearing, Behring, Bering, caring, daring, fairing, hardwearing, pairing, paring, raring, sparing, Waring, wearing •talebearing • childbearing •wayfaring • seafaring • cheeseparing •time-sharing • mainspring • keyring •gee-string • watch spring • offspring •boring, flooring, Goring, riproaring, roaring, scoring, shoring •drawstring • goalscoring •outpouring • bowstring • shoestring •bullring •auctioneering, clearing, earring, electioneering, engineering, gearing, orienteering, privateering, shearing •God-fearing • puppeteering •firing, retiring, uninspiring, untiring, wiring •during, mooring, reassuring, Turing •posturing • restructuring •meandering • rendering •pondering, wandering •ordering • maundering •plundering, thundering, wondering •offering • suffering • fingering •scaremongering • hankering •flickering, Pickering •tinkering • hammering • glimmering •unmurmuring • tampering •whimpering • whispering •smattering, unflattering •earthshattering • schoolmastering •Kettering • self-catering • wittering •quartering, watering •faltering • roistering • muttering •gathering • woolgathering •blithering •flavouring (US flavoring), unwavering •quivering •manoeuvring (US maneuvering) •covering • wallcovering •Goering, stirring, unerring

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