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Attacks upon seaborne trade and shipping have been a feature of human maritime activity since the seas were first used for the transport of goods and people. Such violent assaults have assumed various forms; some have been sanctioned by states and therefore deemed legitimate, whereas unauthorized commerce raiders have perpetrated others, often described as pirates. Among those empowered by states to attack shipping was the privateer, a private individual whose predatory activity had two potentially positive attributes. To the state, which authorized the practice by the issuance of a license (variously known as a privateer commission, letter of marque, lettre de marque, or kaapebrief), the privateer offered a cheap means of waging war, the damage inflicted on a rival's maritime assets being of some strategic value. To those individuals who equipped and manned these privately owned ships of war, the rewards were chiefly economic, for privateering was essentially a form of enterprise in which shipowners and seafarers risked their capital and their lives in a quest for prizes and, hence, profits.

Rooted in the medieval practice of reprisal, privateering was increasingly regulated by the legal codes and treaties that governed relations between Europe's maritime states from the sixteenth century. Accordingly, the issue of licenses was largely, though not necessarily, restricted to periods of declared war, and seized vessels and admiralty courts according to the due process of law adjudicated goods. It was only when the court had decided that the capture had been properly conducted that the properties were condemned and released as "good prize" to the captors. If the court found otherwise, however, it could order the errant privateer to restore the captured assets to their rightful owners and pay for the costs and damages the seizure had caused.

Privateering ventures assumed one of two main forms during the early modern era. First, there were licensed trading vessels. These merchantmen were furnished with a privateering license to provide their crews with an incentive to defend the ship against assailants, or to take inferior enemy craft, during the course of their primarily commercial voyages. Such chance encounters might yield prize money to augment seafarers' wages and shipowners' profits. Licensed traders—termed letters of marque in Britain—comprised a numerically significant component of Europe's privateering fleets, especially after 1700. In qualitative terms, too, they were important, for throughout the early modern era most relatively large, long-distance merchant ships were equipped with privateer commissions, and most carried more armaments and men than they would have done in peacetime.

Private ships of war constituted the second type of privateering venture. Rather than carrying cargoes, these vessels—most of which were converted merchantmen—"cruised" the shipping lanes to capture enemy vessels and cargoes. They ranged from small craft, which preyed on fishing and coastal vessels in inshore waters, to ocean-going ships despatched to intercept the high-value colonial cargoes conveyed to Europe in large, well-protected merchantmen. Crews that were large in relation to the vessel's size, and organized to fight the enemy and navigate prizes back to a home port for adjudication invariably worked private ships of war of all calibers. The crews also shared some of the financial risks of the venture, for they were normally remunerated through the ownership of a share in any prize money generated, rather than through the payment of a wage. Crews therefore forsook the money they could have earned in a trading or naval vessel for a stake in the profits of a predatory venture, a decision that might yield anything from a windfall to a nil return.

Whatever its form, privateering was integral to Europe's trading and shipping interests, especially from the 1560s to 1815. But it was an impermanent, volatile activity that varied greatly in scale and character over time and space. In some settings, it was significant both economically and as a means of waging war. In the late sixteenth century, for instance, privateers contributed greatly to the expansion of England's maritime interests. Privately owned vessels embarked for the New World intent on trading with, or raiding, Spain's imperial possessions, a design that was covertly encouraged—if not formally sanctioned—by Elizabeth I's government. Whereas the slaving voyages of Sir John Hawkins (1532–1595) and the circumnavigation of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) might be cast as piratical, the private vessels that preyed on Spanish trade during the 1585 to 1603 war largely acted with proper authority. With forty-three merchant-men comprising the backbone of Drake's squadron in the Armada campaign, privateering was the characteristic form of naval warfare in Elizabethan England. Moreover, it generated capital and helped to improve the seafaring labor supply from about 16,000 to 50,000 men, thereby adding impetus to England's emergence as a commercial power.

Spain's maritime interests were further harassed by privately owned Dutch commerce raiders. The semipiratical "Sea Beggars" were central to the Dutch Revolt in 1568 to 1572, whereas commissioned private forces largely dominated the nascent republic's sea war against the Spanish from the late 1570s. Spain moved on to the offensive in the 1620s by encouraging its Flemish subjects to set forth privateers against the republic's rapidly growing trade and fishing interests, a campaign that was supplemented by Spanish naval vessels—the "Armada of Flanders"—based at Dunkirk. This coordinated assault yielded some 1,880 prizes between 1629 and 1639, over 84 percent of which were taken by privateers. Sixty years later, and now a French port, Dunkirk was again the focal point of a major privateering campaign as Louis XIV (1638–1715) reduced expenditure on France's battle fleet and diverted resources into an attack on the "sinews" of the enemy's power, the trade of England and the Dutch Republic. This guerre de course (privateering war) resembled its Flemish-Spanish antecedent in that privateers with the operational and material support of state forces largely undertook it. It was also similar in effect. Although extensive damage was inflicted on enemy commerce, the strategy of guerre de course failed to deliver victory in the sea war.

There were other instances in which the quest for private profit served the military interests of states lacking naval resources, notably the extensive privateering campaigns mounted by the Americans in 1776 to 1783 and 1812 to 1814, and by the Confederacy in 1861 to 1865. In general, however, privateering became more of a business and less of a military tool as state navies developed into effective, permanent fighting forces. Market forces—that is, for instance, increasingly governed the scale and character of British privateering, prize-taking prospects interacting with the supply of vessels and men in the context of a range of commercial options. In the mid-eighteenth-century conflicts, investors in the major ports of London and Bristol fitted out a relatively large number of powerful private ships of war—many over 250 tons worked by crews of at least 150 men—to seize valuable French and Spanish colonial vessels believed to be sailing from the Caribbean without escorts. In contrast, in late 1780, the onset of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War precipitated a different privateering response, as more than 340 private ships of war of less than 100 tons were hurriedly despatched from small south-coast harbors to seize the innumerable unwary Dutch merchantmen thought to be sailing in the English Channel. In the 1793 to 1815 conflicts, with prize-taking opportunities greatly circumscribed by the stranglehold imposed on French trade by the navy, licensed trading vessels dominated British privateering activity.

The privateering business had for centuries stimulated the wartime economies of ports and generated speculative profits for shipowners and seafarers, albeit on an irregular basis. By 1815, such prospects had dimmed appreciably due to the preponderance of navies in the sea war, and the growth of safer, more rewarding commercial options. In the mid-nineteenth century, with steam propulsion and iron hulls now adding to the costs and capabilities of shipping, Britain—which had the most vessels and cargoes to lose—proposed that privateering be abolished. This was enshrined in the 1856 Declaration of Paris, although Spain and the United States did not ratify the agreement until 1907.

SEE ALSO Empire, British; Empire, Spanish; Gold and Silver; Hawkins, John; Piracy; Ships and Shipping; Wars.


Andrews, Kenneth. Elizabethan Privateering during the Spanish War, 1585–1603. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Bromley, John S. Corsairs and Navies. London: Hambledon Press, 1987.

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

Stradling, R. A. The Armada of Flanders: Spanish Maritime Policy and European War, 1568–1668. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Swanson, Carl E. Predators and Prizes: American Privateering and Imperial Warfare, 1739–1748. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

David J. Starkey

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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.]


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, 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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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 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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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 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 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.