A privateer was a private warship authorized by a country's government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping. Privateering is often described as a form of state-supported piracy. Strictly, a privateer was only entitled by its state to attack and rob enemy vessels during wartime. However, states often encouraged attacks on opposing powers while at peace, or on neutral vessels during time of war, blurring the line between privateering and piracy.
Privateers were an accepted part of naval warfare from the 16th to the 19th centuries, authorized by all significant naval powers. The costs of commissioning privateers was borne by investors hoping to gain a significant return from prize money earned from enemy merchants.
It has been argued that privateering was a less destructive and wasteful form of warfare, because the goal was to capture ships rather than to sink them.
A privateer was an early sort of commerce raider, interrupting enemy trade. Privateers were of great benefit to a smaller naval power, or one facing an enemy dependent on trade: they disrupted commerce and hence enemy tax revenue, and forced the enemy to deploy warships to protect merchant trade. Privateering was a way of mobilizing armed ships and sailors without spending public money or commissioning naval officers. Some privateers have been particularly influential in the annals of history.
Conditions on board privateers varied widely. Some crews were treated as harshly as naval crews of the time, while others followed the comparatively relaxed rules of merchant ships. Some crews were made up of professional merchant seamen, others of pirates, debtors and convicts. Some privateers ended up becoming pirates, not just in the eyes of their enemies but also of their own nations. William Kidd, for instance, began as a legitimate British privateer but was later hanged for piracy.
Privateers generally cruised independently, but it was not unknown for them to form squadrons, or to co-operate with the regular navy. A number of privateers were part of the English fleet that opposed the 1588 Spanish Armada. In fact, the early English attempts to settle North America, under the mandate granted to Sir Walter Raleigh, failed in part because no English ships were permitted to leave England's shores during the lead up to the Armada, as all merchant vessels were considered as having a potential part to play in England's naval defense (but this prevented the timely dispatch of relief to the New World settlement).
The United States used mixed squadrons of frigates and privateers in the War of Independence. Following the French Revolution, French privateers became a menace to British and American shipping in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean, resulting in the Quasi-War, a brief conflict between France and the United States, fought largely at sea, and to the Royal Navy's procuring Bermuda sloops to combat the French privateers.
England, and later the United Kingdom, used privateers to great effect and suffered much from other nations' privateering. In the late 16th century, British ships cruised in the Caribbean and off the coast of Spain, trying to intercept treasure fleets from the Spanish Main. The English government felt this was justified by the Spanish Armada seizing the ships of Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, who were trying to sell West African slaves to Spanish colonies, where that activity was illegal.
At this early stage the idea of a regular navy (the Royal Navy, as distinct from the Merchant Navy) was not present, so there is little to distinguish this activity from regular naval warfare. The privateering certainly had the support of Elizabeth I, who on occasion lent ships to or bought shares in expeditions. Attacking Spanish ships was part of a policy of aggressive competition with Spain, and helped provoke the first Anglo-Spanish War. Many Successes were relied on privateers also. Capturing a Spanish treasure ship would enrich the Crown as well as strike a practical blow against Spanish domination of America.
Magnus Heinason served the Dutch against the Spanish. While bringing home a great deal of money, these attacks hardly dented the flow of gold and silver from Mexico to Spain. More treasure reached Spain in the period 1585–1603 than at any other time in history. Elizabeth was succeeded by the first Stuart monarchs, James I and Charles I, who did not permit privateering. By the mid-19th Century, unregulated marine warfare fell out of fashion, perhaps due to the ever-increasing importance of maritime trade to neutral nations and perhaps due to the dominance of the sea (for the time being) by the British.
There were a number of unilateral and bilateral declarations limiting piracy between 1785 and 1823. However, the breakthrough came in 1856 when the Declaration of Paris signed by all major European powers stated "Privateering is and remains abolished". The USA did not sign because a stronger amendment, preventing all private property from capture at sea, was not accepted. In the 19th century many nations passed laws forbidding their nationals from accepting commissions as privateers for other nations.
The last major power to flirt with privateering was Prussia in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, when Prussia announced the creation of a 'volunteer navy' of ships privately owned and manned, eligible for prize money. The only difference between this and privateering was that these volunteer ships were under the discipline of the regular navy.
In the first Anglo-Dutch War, English privateers attacked the trade on which the United Provinces entirely depended, capturing over 1,000 Dutch merchant ships, more than double the number of the English merchant fleet at the start of the war. During the subsequent war with Spain, Spanish privateers, including many based in Dunkirk, captured 1,500 English merchants, restoring Dutch international trade. British trade, whether coastal, Atlantic or Mediterranean, was also attacked by Dutch privateers and others in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch wars.
During the Nine Years War, the French adopted a policy of strongly encouraging privateers, including the famous Jean Bart, to attack English and Dutch shipping. England lost roughly 4,000 merchant ships during the war. In the following War of Spanish Succession, privateer attacks continued, Britain losing 3,250 merchantmen and with Dunkirk privateers alone seizing 959 prizes. The scale of losses meant that Parliament passed an updated Cruisers and Convoys Act in 1708 allocating regular warships to the defence of trade.
In the subsequent conflict, the War of Austrian Succession, the Royal Navy was able to concentrate more on defending British ships. Britain lost 3,238 merchantmen, a smaller fraction of her merchant marine than the enemy losses of 3,434. While French losses were proportionally severe, the smaller, but better protected Spanish trade suffered less and it was Spanish privateers who enjoyed much of the allied plunder of British trade on both sides of the Atlantic.
Captain Christopher Newport led more attacks on Spanish shipping and settlements than any other English privateer. As a young man, Newport sailed with Sir Francis Drake in the daring attack on the Spanish fleet at Cadiz and participated in England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada. During the war with Spain, Newport seized fortunes of Spanish and Portuguese treasure in fierce sea battles in the West Indies as a privateer for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1590, after leading his men aboard an enemy ship off the coast of Cuba, his right arm was "strooken off", and Newport was referred to thereafter as "Christopher Newport of the one hand". In 1592, Newport captured the Portuguese Madre de Deus (Mother of God). She was valued at £500,000, the most valuable prize captured during the Elizabethan privateering era.
Sir Henry Morgan was one of the most famous of all privateers. Operating out of Jamaica, he carried on an audacious war against Spanish interests in the region, often using cunning tactics. His operation was prone to excessive cruelty against those he captured, including torture to gain information about booty, and in one case, using priests as human shields. Despite reproaches for some of his excesses, he was generally protected by Sir Thomas Modyford, the governor of Jamaica. He is probably most famous for the enormous amount of booty he took, as well as landing his privateers ashore and attacking land fortifications, including the sack of the city of Panama with only 1,400 crew.
Other British privateers of note include Fortunatus Wright, Edward Collier, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Michael Geare and Sir Christopher Myngs. Notable British colonial privateers in Nova Scotia include Alexander Godfrey of the brig The Rover and Joseph Barss of the schooner Liverpool Packet. The latter schooner captured over 50 American vessels during the War of 1812.
The English colony of Bermuda, settled accidentally in 1609, turned from a failed agricultural economy to the sea after the 1684 dissolution of the Somers Isles Company. With a total area of 21 square miles, and lacking any natural resources other than the Bermuda cedar, the colonists applied themselves fully to the maritime trades, developing the speedy Bermuda sloop, which was well suited both to commerce and to commerce raiding. Bermudian merchant vessels turned to privateering at every opportunity in the 18th century, preying on the shipping of Spain, France and other nations during a series of wars. They typically left Bermuda with very large crews. This advantage in manpower was vital in seizing larger vessels, which themselves often lacked enough crewmembers to put up a strong defence. The extra crewmen were also useful as prize crews for returning captured vessels.
By the mid-17th century, the Bahamas, which had been depopulated of its indigenous inhabitants, had become a centre for piracy, and a thorn in the side of British merchant trade through the area. The Governor of Bermuda responded by issuing letters of marque to Bermudian privateers which drove the pirates out of the Bahamas, in a prelude to Bermudian settlement of the islands. Bermuda was in de facto control of the Turks Islands, with their lucrative salt industry, from the late 17th century to the early 19th. In 1706, Spanish and French forces ousted the Bermudians, but were driven out themselves three years later by the Bermudian privateer Captain Lewis Middleton. His ship, the Rose, attacked a Spanish and a French privateer holding a captive English vessel. Defeating the two enemy vessels, the Rose then cleared out the thirty-man garrison left by the Spanish and French.
Despite close links to the American colonies (and the material aid provided the continental rebels in the form of a hundred barrels of stolen gunpowder), Bermudian privateers turned as aggressively on American shipping during the American War of Independence. An American naval captain, ordered to take his ship out of Boston Harbor to eliminate a pair of Bermudian privateering vessels, which had been picking off vessels missed by the Royal Navy, returned frustrated, saying, "the Bermudians sailed their ships two feet for every one of ours". The only attack on Bermuda during the war was carried out by two sloops captained by a pair of Bermudian-born brothers (they damaged a fort and spiked its guns before retreating). It greatly surprised the Americans to discover that the crews of Bermudian privateers included black slaves, as, with limited manpower, Bermuda had legislated that a part of all Bermudian crews must be made up of blacks.
In fact, when the Bermudian privateer Regulator was captured, virtually all of her crew were found to be black slaves. Authorities in Boston offered these men their freedom, but all 70 elected to be treated as prisoners of war. Sent to New York on the sloop Duxbury, they seized the vessel and sailed it back to Bermuda. The American War of 1812 was to be the encore of Bermudian privateering, which had died out after the 1790s, due partly to the build up of the naval base in Bermuda, which reduced the Admiralty's reliance on privateers in the western Atlantic, and partly to successful American legal suits, and claims for damages pressed against British privateers, a large portion of which were aimed squarely at the Bermudians. During the course of the American War of 1812, Bermudian privateers were to capture 298 ships (the total captures by all British naval and privateering vessels between the Great Lakes and the West Indies was 1,593 vessels).
During the American Revolution Privateers "or legal piracy" was approved by local state governments in an effort to take prizes from the British Navy and Loyalist Tories Privateers. Prizes taken were quickly sold with a division in profits going to the financing person/company and the state (colony). The Long Island Sound became a hornets nest of privateering activity during the American Revolution (1775-1783) as most transports to and from New York went through the Sound. New London, Connecticut was a chief privateering port for the American Colonies and in 1778-1779 the entire port was blockaded by the British Navy. Chief Financiers of privateering included Thomas & Nathaniel Shaw of New London and John McCurdy of Lyme, Ct. In the months before the British Raid on New London and Groton The HMS HANNAH was taken by a New London Privateer is regarded as the largest prize taken by any American Privateer during the war. Retribution (Arnold's Raid) was likely part of Gov.Clinton (NY) plan as the HANNAH carried many of his most cherished items. Other major privateering ports included New Haven and Stratford in Connecticut as well as Stonington, CT and Boston, MA. Portsmouth, NH, and Baltimore, MD.
The United States Constitution authorized the U.S. Congress to grant letters of marque and reprisal; the Confederate Constitution likewise authorized use of privateers. Robert Morris, the first American millionaire, partly became wealthy by privateering, and George Washington owned part of at least one privateer ship. The American government issued privateering licenses to merchant captains during the Revolutionary War due to the relatively small number of commissioned American naval vessels. The American privateers are thought to have seized up to 300 British ships. One of the more successful of these ships was the Prince de Neufchatel, once capturing nine British prizes in swift succession in the English Channel.
During the War of 1812, the British attacked Essex, Connecticut, and burned the ships in the harbor, due to the construction of a number of privateers. This was the greatest financial loss of the entire War of 1812 suffered by the Americans. The US was not one of the initial signatories of 1856 Declaration of Paris, which outlawed privateering. However, the USA did offer to adopt its terms during the American Civil War, when the Confederates commissioned privateers from many nations.
At the beginning of World War II, the United States Navy issued a Letter of Marque to the Resolute on the West Coast of the United States making it the first time the US Navy commissioned a privateer since the War of 1812.
Several computer games are set in the privateering era. The MMORPG Pirates of the Burning Sea features the Privateer as one of the career (character class) choices for a player who chooses to represent one of the three player nations: Britain, France, or Spain. In game, Privateers get ability bonuses to boarding combat. Privateers are a unit in the computer games Sid Meier's Colonization and Civilization 3, and are also present in the expansion pack Beyond the Sword for Civilization 4. In Golden Sun: The Lost Age for Game Boy Advance, the character Piers starts as a privateer. Privateers is a well-known guild in the nautical MMORG Voyage Century Online.
Privateers are referred to in songs, comic books, and cartoons. Elicid Barrett of the Stan Rogers song "Barrett's Privateers" is a privateer. As well, the Shichibukai from the manga comic book and anime series One Piece are loosely based on privateers.
Privateering is referred to during the 2006 film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, whereby Lord Beckett of the East India Trading Company attempts to trade a commission as a privateer on behalf of England to Captain Jack Sparrow in exchange for his unique compass.