By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
A privateer is just like a pirate, except legal. Privateers are privately or company-owned ships that are hired, or at least encouraged by one government to prey upon another nation’s ships during times of war. Privateers must carry legal documents testifying that they’re operating within the rules of legal warfare.
Assistants During Wartime
Privateers are typically a quick and easy way for a nation whose navy is stretched thin to fill out its maritime power against an enemy of greater strength. They not only harass the enemy, but they also generate profit. And if their crews work on a no purchase, no pay system, that is, no prey no pay, they’re probably highly motivated and carry a relatively low financial risk for the government backing them.
Some privateers were so good at their jobs that they became national heroes, like Sir Francis Drake and Henry Mainwaring.
So, privateering is a win-win-win situation right up until it isn’t.
Amnesty Proclamation for Fighting Piracy
Amnesty proclamations were a cheap tool for fighting piracy, just as privateers were a cheap tool for fighting navies. Basically, a government would declare that if you were a pirate but turned yourself in by such and such a date and promise not to be a pirate anymore, and also may be paid a nice, hefty fine, all would be forgiven.
For example, Charles II issued a royal declaration to try to address the pirate problem in the Caribbean:
In pursuance of His Majesty’s Resolution to send a Squadron of Ships into the West Indies under the command of Sir Robert Holmes, for the suppressing of the Pirats, either by Force or Assurance of Pardon, Orders are already given… That in case any such Pirats or Privateers shall within Twelve months either in Person or by their Agents surrender… His Majesty will thereupon grant unto such Pirat, Privateer or Privateers, a full Pardon for all Piracies or Robberies committed by them either upon Sea or Land.
Privateers are legal pirates, so why do they need a pardon? Well, privateers tend to turn into pirates. They have a nasty habit of exceeding the bounds of their charter licenses, called letters of marque, and attacking neutral or allied ships. Henry Morgan and Francis Drake are both good examples here. So is William Kidd, though unlike the first two examples, he was hanged for his transgressions.
Threat Represented by the Privateer Population
So, on the one hand, some privateers knowingly exceed the bounds of their commissions, which is at least their own fault. But there’s a bigger threat represented by the privateer population, and that’s that they’re hired to work in times of war. But sooner or later, even if it’s only temporary, peace will break out.
This means that unless the government that hired them has a step-down plan in place, the privateers are all immediately decommissioned and their crews are unemployed when the fighting stops, as are at the same time, many naval workers. The maritime labor market floods. Desperate men whose skills are primarily nautical and who need to feed themselves and who can’t find legal work may simply turn pirate, and many do.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Unemployment and Its Relationship with Piracy
Piracy is known globally, but it’s always a local phenomenon. Pirate motives, cultures and practices, as well as their relationship with the people on land are different, depending on time and place. That caveat in place, however, if you remember just one thing about pirates, it should be that the privateer problem, the fact that mass maritime unemployment leads to piracy, is a stunningly predictable one.
When Ming Dynasty China cracked down on legitimate marine trade; when James I of England cracked down on English privateering; at the end of the war of the Spanish Succession; at the end of the Napoleonic Wars; and even when 1990s Somali fishermen found themselves harassed out of a living by larger ships—the result was the same, pirates.
There may be something particular about life and sea that makes it especially difficult to be forced into a landlocked labor market. But the bottom line is that if you don’t want pirates attacking you, you should not fire your privateers without providing some kind of retirement or re-employment option.
It may seem that the transition from buccaneer or privateer to pirate is always an obvious cut, a conscious decision on the part of the bad actor to seek profits where he shouldn’t, but that isn’t really the case. Alexander the Great didn’t consider himself a pirate, but the Persians he was invading had their own opinion about him.
Common Questions about Privateers and How They Differ from Pirates
A privateer is just like a pirate, except legal. Privateers are privately or company-owned ships that are hired, or at least encouraged by one government to prey upon another nation’s ships during times of war. They are typically a quick and easy way for a nation whose navy is stretched thin to fill out its maritime power against an enemy of greater strength.
Amnesty proclamations were a convenient and inexpensive tool to fight piracy. Through them, a government would declare that if one was a pirate but turned himself in by such and such a date and promised not to be a pirate anymore, and also may be paid a nice, hefty fine, all would be forgiven.
Privateers are hired to work during wartime. But sooner or later the war ends and there is peace. If the government does not have a back-up plan for the privateers, they all become jobless. Thus, privateers, most of whom are skilled in the field of seafaring, simply become pirates for their livelihood.