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A privateer was a private warship authorized by a country's government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping. Strictly, a privateer was only entitled by its state to attack and rob enemy vessels during wartime. Privateers were part of naval warfare of some nations from the 16th to the 19th century. The crew of a privateer might be treated as prisoners of war by the enemy country if captured. 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. From a 21st century point of view, privateering was a form of state-sanctioned piracy.

The privateer was a private person authorized by a national government to engage as a 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 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. The captured cargo and the prize vessel itself, if serviceable, would be sold at auction with the proceeds distributed among the privateer's owners, officers and crew; sometimes the vessels were commissioned into regular service as a warship.

Legal framework

Being privately owned and run, privateers did not take orders from the Naval command. The letter of marque of a privateer would typically limit activity to a specific area and to the ships of specific nations. Typically, the owners or captain would be required to post a performance bond against breaching these conditions, or they might be liable to pay damages to an injured party. In the United Kingdommarker, letters of marque were revoked for various offenses.

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.

Ships

Entrepreneurs converted many different types of vessels into privateers, including obsolete warships and refitted merchant ships. The investors would arm the vessels and recruit large crews, much larger than a merchantman, or a naval vessel would carry. (The large crews were intended to enable the privateers to crew the prizes they captured.) 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 Spanish Armada in 1588. Privateers generally avoided encounters with warships as such encounters would be at best unprofitable. Still, such encounters did occur. For instance, in 1815 Chasseur encountered HMS St Lawrence, herself a former American privateer, mistaking her for a merchantman until too late; in this instance, the privateer prevailed.

The United Statesmarker used mixed squadrons of frigates and privateers in the American Revolutionary War. 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.

History

England, and later the United Kingdommarker, used privateers to great effect and suffered much from other nations' privateering. In the late 16th century, English ships cruised in the Caribbean and off the coast of Spain, trying to intercept treasure fleets from the Spanish Main. 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 the activity of English privateers from regular naval warfare. Attacking Spanish ships, even during peace time, was part of a policy of military and economic competition with Spain, and helped provoke the first Anglo-Spanish War. 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. Elizabeth was succeeded by the first Stuart monarchs, James I and Charles I, who did not permit privateering. 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. During the subsequent war with Spain, Spanish and Flemish privateers in the service of the Spanish Crown, including the notorious Dunkirkers, captured 1,500 English merchant ships, helping to restore 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.

17th and 18th centuries

Privateers were a large part of the total military force at sea during the 17th and 18th centuries. During the King George's War, approximately 36,000 Americans served aboard privateers at one time or another. 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 merchant ships. 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.

Britons

England, which united with Scotland in 1707 to create the Kingdom of Great Britainmarker, practised privateering both as a way of gaining for herself some of the wealth the Spanish and Portuguese were taking from the New World, before England began her own trans-Atlantic settlement, and as a way of asserting her naval power before a strong Royal Navy had emerged.

Sir Francis Drake, who had close contact with the sovereign, was responsible for some damage to Spanish shipping, as well as attacks on Spanish settlements in the Americas in the 16th century. He participated in the successful English defense against the Spanish Armada in 1588, though he was also partly responsible for the failure of English Armada against Spain in 1589.

Sir George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland was a successful privateer against Spanish shipping in the Caribbeanmarker. He is also famous for his short lived 1598 capture of Fort San Felipe del Morromarker, the citadel protecting San Juan, Puerto Ricomarker. He arrived in Puerto Rico in June 15, 1598, but by November of that year, Clifford and his men had fled the island due to harsh civilian resistance. He gained sufficient prestige from his naval exploits to be named the official Champion of Queen Elizabeth I. Clifford became extremely wealthy through his buccaneering but lost most of his money gambling on horse races.

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 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 Indiesmarker as a privateer for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1592, Newport captured the Portuguese ship Madre de Deus (Mother of God), valued at £500,000.

Sir Henry Morgan was a successful privateer. Operating out of Jamaicamarker, he carried on a war against Spanish interests in the region, often using cunning tactics. His operation was prone to 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 took an enormous amount of booty, as well as landing his privateers ashore and attacking land fortifications, including the sack of the city of Panamamarker with only 1,400 crew .

Other British privateers of note include Fortunatus Wright, Edward Collier, Sir John Hawkins, his son Sir Richard Hawkins, Michael Geare and Sir Christopher Myngs. Notable British colonial privateers in Nova Scotiamarker 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.

Bermudians

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The English colony of Bermudamarker, 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.

The Bahamasmarker, which had been depopulated of its indigenous inhabitants by the Spanish, had been settled by England, beginning with the Eleutheran Adventurers, dissident Puritans driven out of Bermuda during the English Civil War. Spanish and French attacks destroyed New Providencemarker in 1703, creating a stronghold for pirates, and a thorn in the side of British merchant trade through the area. In 1718, Britain appointed Woods Rogers Governor of the Bahamas, and sent him at the head of a force to reclaim the settlement. Before his arrival, however, the pirates had been forced to surrender by a force of Bermudian privateers, issued letters of marque by the Governor of Bermuda.

Bermuda was in de facto control of the Turks Islands, with their lucrative salt industry, from the late 17th century to the early 19th. The Bahamas made perpetual attempts to claim the Turks for itself. On several occasions, this involved seizing the vessels of Bermudian salt traders. A virtual state of war was said to exist between Bermudian and Bahamian vessels for much of the 18th Century. When the Bermudian sloop Seaflower was seized by the Bahamians in 1701, the response of Bermuda Governor Bennett was to issue letters-of-marque to Bermudians vessels. 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.

Bermuda Gazette of 12 November, 1796, calling for privateering against Spain and its allies, and with advertisements for crew for two privateer vessels.


Bermudian privateers turned as aggressively on American shipping during the American War of Independence. The importance of privateering to the Bermudian economy had been increased not only by the loss of most of Bermuda's continental trade, but also by the Palliser Act, which forbade Bermudian vessels from fishing the Grand Banksmarker. Bermudian trade with the rebellious American colonies actually carried on throughout the war. The Americans were dependent on Turks salt, and one hundred barrels of gunpowder were stolen from a Bermudian magazine and supplied to the rebels at the request of George Washington, in exchange for which the Continental Congress authorised the sale of supplies to Bermuda, which was dependent on American produce. The realities of this interdependence did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm with which Bermudian privateers turned on their erstwhile countrymen.

An American naval captain , ordered to take his ship out of Boston Harbor to eliminate a pair of Bermudian privateering vessels that 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". A pair of Bermudian-born brothers , captaining two sloops, carried out the only attack on Bermuda during the war; all they achieved before they retreated was to damage a fort and spike its guns.

When the Americans captured the Bermudian privateer Regulator, they discovered that virtually all of her crew were 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 saw an encore of Bermudian privateering, which had died out after the 1790s. The decline of Bermudian privateering was 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 captured 298 ships, some 19% of the 1,593 vessels captured by British naval and privateering vessels between the Great Lakes and the West Indies.

United States



During the American Revolution, the American government issued privateering licenses to merchant captains during the Revolutionary War due to the relatively small number of commissioned American naval vessels. State governments also authorized privateers or "legal piracy" in an effort to take prizes from the British Navy and Tory (Loyalist) privateers.

About 55,000 American seamen served aboard the privateers. They quickly sold their prizes, dividing their profits with the financier (persons or company), and the state (colony). The Long Island Soundmarker 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, Connecticutmarker was a chief privateering port for the American Colonies, leading to the British Navy blockading it in 1778-1779. Chief financiers of privateering included Thomas & Nathaniel Shaw of New London and John McCurdy of Lymemarker. In the months before the British raid on New London and Groton, the a New London privateer took Hannah in what is regarded as the largest prize taken by any American privateer during the war. Retribution was likely part of Gov. Clinton's (NY) motivation for Arnold's Raid as the Hannah had carried many of his most cherished items. 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, which once captured nine British prizes in swift succession in the English Channelmarker.

The United States Constitution authorized the U.S. Congress to grant letters of marque and reprisal. Between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1812, less than 30 years, the Britain, France, Naples, the Barbary States, Spain, and the Netherlands seized approximately 2,500 American ships. Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of United States government annual revenues in 1800, and would lead the United States to crush the Barbary states in the Barbary Wars.

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, and the Confederate Constitution authorized use of privateers. However, the USA did offer to adopt the terms of the Declaration during the American Civil War, when the Confederates sent several privateers to sea before putting their main effort in the more effective commissioned raiders.

At the beginning of World War II, the United States Navy issued a Letter of Marque to the Airship 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.

In fiction

Writers of historical fiction have created several series that are set in privateering's heyday. Horatio Hornblower, a British Royal Navy officer created by C. S. Forester, had numerous encounters with privateers over the 11-novel span of his career. Patrick O'Brian's "The Letter of Marque" is one of his Jack Aubrey novels, set in the context of Nelson's navy during the Napoleonic Wars. In his book The Star Fox, science fiction writer Poul Anderson depicts a future in which the system of Letters of Marque has been revived and "space privateers" battle in starships.

Several computer games are set in the privateering era. The first was the Danish Kaptajn Kaper i Kattegat (Captain Kaper in Kattegat), was made in the early 1980s and centers around a Danish privateer attacking British ships in Danish waters. 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. Privateers feature 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 Star Trek universe the race known as the Breen were known to support privateering. In 2369 USS Minnesota was destroyed battling Breen privateers. (Star Trek: Minnesota: "Scream"). In 2366 the Breen attacked and captured the Cardassian vessel Ravinok, using its crew as slave labour in the Dilithium mines on Dozaria. (DS9: "Indiscretion").

In the manga/anime series One Piece, the Seven Warlords of the Sea are loosely based on the concept of Privateers.

Notes

  1. Bermuda Gazette and Weekly Advertiser August 15, 1795
  2. Spanish Privateers
  3. Privateering and the Private Production of Naval Power, Gary M. Anderson and Adam Gifford Jr.
  4. Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1688-1783. New York.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. p.197
  5. Maritimes: The Magazine of the Bermuda Maritime Museum. 2002. Vol. 15, No. 2. "Foreign Interlopers at Bermuda's Turks Islands", by Dr. Bill Cooke.
  6. Bermudiana, Ronald John Williams. Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1946.
  7. Bermuda From Sail To Steam: The History Of The Island From 1784 to 1901, Dr. Henry Wilkinson, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-1921593-2-1
  8. The Andrew And The Onions: The Story Of The Royal Navy In Bermuda, 1795 – 1975, Lt. Commander Ian Strannack, The Bermuda Maritime Museum Press, The Bermuda Maritime Museum, P.O. Box MA 133, Mangrove Bay, Bermuda MA BX. ISBN 0-9215600-3-6.
  9. Privateers or Merchant Mariners help win the Revolutionary War
  10. US Navy Fleet List War of 1812
  11. pp 20-21 Vaeth, J. Gordon Blimps and U-Boats 1992 US Naval Institute Press


See also



Further reading

  • Faye Kert, Prize and Prejudice Privateering and Naval Prize in Atlantic Canada in the War of 1812. Research in maritime history, no. 11. St. John's, Nfld: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1997.
  • A. Bryant Nichols Jr., Captain Christopher Newport: Admiral of Virginia, Sea Venture, 2007


External links




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