Privateers and Privateering

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Privateers and Privateering

PRIVATEERS AND PRIVATEERING. The term "privateer" refers to a privately owned and armed vessel that operates under the terms of a letter of marque, a document that allows the vessel to attack the enemies of its sovereign nation without the danger of being branded a pirate. The term itself, which can be traced to 1664, apparently is an abbreviation of "private man of war." Before that date, however, privateers were simply referred to as letters of marque, named after the document that legally separated their actions from piracy.


Commerce raiding under the auspices of national sanction began as early as the thirteenth century in Europe. The crown traditionally issued letters of marque and reprisal to merchants during times of war. These documents were fundamentally based on the concept of reprisal. For instance, in 1242, when French vessels attacked the English coastline, Henry III issued letters of marque to the English merchants who had lost vessels to the attackers. Possession of a letter of marque legally separated a privateer from a pirate, which made the difference between life and death if captured. Whereas privateers sailed in the name of their mother country and within the constraints of a formal legal system, pirates illegally seized vessels without any recognition of nationality or sovereignty. Privateer prizes were adjudicated in admiralty courts, and the proceeds from the prizes were divided among crew and owners, with a portion given to the monarch. Based on such principles, the system remained essentially the same until the middle of the seventeenth century, when territorial expansion became increasingly important in the minds of most European politicians.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, American colonists actively participated in Britain's commerce-raiding operations. Americans sanctioned, commanded, and served on privateers during every major intercolonial conflict of the period. During the colonial era, privateering reached an apogee along the North American Atlantic coast. Privateering's popularity soared throughout the British Empire. From the docks of London to the wharves of Charleston, wealthy merchants invested in privateering ventures. The profitability of privateering provided capital to many colonial economies. Colonial newspapers devoted entire pages to royal proclamations encouraging privateering, as well as advertisements on behalf of privateer owners. They reported the capture of prizes and the subsequent auctions of the cargoes.

During war years, seamen flocked to privateers in the hope of escaping service onboard Royal Navy vessels. Because it contributed to a state's sea power without putting large financial stress upon the national treasury, privateering offered a popular means of warfare during an age dominated by mercantilist ideas. Consequently, American society had become well accustomed to the privateering enterprise by the beginning of the American Revolution.


At the beginning of the Revolution, the rebelling colonies were faced with a series of dilemmas. How would they defeat or even challenge the mighty Royal navy? Would America's ports be laid waste by cannon shot and their commerce destroyed by blockades? There was no American navy, and the idea of building one seemed utterly foreign to most members of the Continental Congress. Although the colonies had united for mutual protection, most were primarily concerned with their own defenses on a local scale.

Faced with such daunting problems, the colonies and the Continental Congress had three options. The first involved building a national navy, something that Congress began on 14 December 1775, despite a complete lack of funds, equipment, and men. Most Americans, however, understood that confronting British naval power head-on was all but impossible. The second option concerned coastal defense through navies funded and outfitted by individual colonies. Nearly every colony chose this method of defense in late 1775 and early 1776. Nevertheless, relying on each state to finance a navy also proved to be impossible. Consequently, the colonies turned to privateering. In November 1775, Massachusetts began issuing letters of marque and reprisal, soon to be followed by several of the other colonies.

Privateering clearly provided Americans the best possible method of fighting the British at sea. On March 23, 1776, Congress resolved that: "The inhabitants of these colonies be permitted to fit out armed vessels to cruize on the enemies of these United Colonies," and that "all ships and other vessels … belonging to any inhabitant or inhabitants of Great Britain, taken on the high seas, or between high and low water mark, by any armed vessel, fitted out by any private person or persons, and to whom commissions shall be granted, and being libeled and prosecuted … shall be deemed and adjudged to be lawful prize." Prizes were to be adjudicated in official state admiralty courts established upon the recommendations of Congress in 1775. Although suggested by Congress, these were not federal courts. The state courts, presided over by a judge and his marshal, both of whom were appointed by the state assemblies, included jury trials, payment in proportion of the vessel as salvage in the case of recapture, and a form of appeals. Congress established a federal appellate court, the first true federal court, and provided that appellants would pay triple costs if the state admiralty court's judgment was affirmed.

In legalizing privateering and recommending the establishment of admiralty courts, Congress realized the necessity of producing letters of marque for those individuals fitting out armed vessels. The commission, which closely resembled a British letter of marque, had blanks to be filled in by the state committees of safety or governors identifying the vessel, the master and owners, and the number of guns and crew. Obtaining a commission required posting a bond insuring compliance with congressional rules and regulations. Congress drafted the bond forms and issued them to naval officers in various ports and to the state governors.


The total number of American privateers that operated from 1775 to 1783 is impossible to fully determine. Nevertheless, an intelligent estimate can be made that nearly 3,000 American private men-of-war set sail, of which some 2,768 have been identified to date by historian Joshua Howard. Earlier estimates were based solely on the Congressional records and those of a few New England states, However, these estimated excluded the activities of southern privateers, and so do not accurately reflect the true number. The majority of the privateers appear to been more accurately described as trading vessels than as war ships. The average American privateer carried only four guns and a crew of fifteen men, making it quite unlikely that most would have been strong enough to capture an enemy merchant vessel. This supports the conclusion that American privateers operated for the country's economic survival as much as for taking prizes. However, such vessels as the Grand Turk, carrying 28 guns and a 140-man crew and the 26-gun brig Sturdy Beggar with a crew of 105, indicate that some vessels were specifically intended for fighting.

The actual effect American privateers had on the outcome of the war has been hotly debated. Many historians have rightfully claimed that privateers took available seamen away from the Continental navy. Others have pointed out that the Continental navy never formed a viable threat to the Royal navy, and that privateering was indeed the fledgling nation's best option. Lloyd's of London records nearly 3,000 British vessels as having been captured. A good proportion of these were evidently retaken, however the number is most likely not completely accurate. Several privateers, such as the John Hancock, General Stark, and Rattlesnake performed several successful voyages, capturing numerous British prizes. Although British shipping continued to rise during the war, American privateers played an important role in dampening the morale of the British public, as well as providing much needed goods to the Patriot cause. Whether for patriotism or profits, or a combination of the two, America's privateersmen played an important and quite often neglected role in winning the country's independence from Britain.


Bourguignon, Henry J. The First Federsl Court: The Federal Appellate Prize Court of the American Revolution, 1775–1787. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1977.

Continental Congress. "Congressional Resolves on Privateering., March 23, 1776." In Journals of the Continental Congress 1774–1789, vol. IV. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904–1937.

Kendall, Charles Wye. Private Men-of-War. London: Philip Allen & Co., 1931.

Kert, Faye. Prize and Prejudice: Privateering and Naval Prize in Atlantic Canada in the war of 1812. St. John's, Nfld.: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1997.

Lewis, Archibald, and Timothy Runyan. European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500. Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 1985.

Starkey, David. British Privateering Enterprise in the Eighteenth Century. Exeter, U.K.: University of Exeter Press, 1990.

                                   revised by Joshua Howard