The 16th and 17th Centuries - Privateering's Golden Era
From its humble beginnings in the 13th century, privateering grew with the discovery of the New World in the 15th century. It really began to flourish during the 16th and 17th centuries which was a fascinating period in maritime history.
The power of the empires in this era was based on control of the seas rather than control of the land. Mercantile companies and private ship-owner captains became the backbone of many economies during this era. The trader-merchant owner/operator ships formed the "Wall Street" of the Europe. A man's or nation's fortune was based on what happened at sea. As new technologies allowed long and accurate sea voyages, the New World colonies were seized by the Spanish. In Europe, while Spain was trying to spread their power in the New World and exploit its treasures, the English, French and Dutch struggled to catch up with Spain. While the Spanish plundered the immeasurable wealth from the Native Indians, England and France sponsored Privateers to attack the Spanish ships that were transporting treasures from the New World back home.
By the late 17th century, Spain was no longer the unrivaled sea power. Other nations like France and England overtook Spain and expanded their fleets; and international sea-born trade became very popular. During this time, it was important to have a large fleet for not only trade, but for making sure that imperial colonies could be defended.
In order to protect the assets of a nation, and capture the assets of an enemy nation (like a modern day embargo) a large marine force was needed. It was determined that a fleet of private ship owner/captains proved to be the most effective and cost effeciant method of accomplishing this feat, especially during a time of war. It was cheaper and more cost effective, and the standing navy could be used to defend the "home" while the privateer could engage in defending interests abroad. These private warships consisted of individual Privateers who would indeed prove themselves worthy of defending a nation.
This promise of quick riches and nobility, struck a chord with the young gentlemen of the time. Indeed, by going to sea a young man could amass a small fortune and obtain wealth in a relatively short time period. In contrast to a peasant toiling for long periods working the land, or a lengthy apprenticeship in the mercantile trades, a member of a successful privateering crew could suddenly find himself wealthy enough to call himself a "gentleman". It was not unheard of for an unknown commoner to rise through the ranks and eventually be granted a peerage, although this was very rare.
Beyond the money, there was also the excitement and admiration of going to sea. A sailor back from a long voyage was looked upon with awe. He had been to strange lands and had met strange people. He had the courage to face enemy ships, and had tales of battle and victory. He had eaten foods that had never been seen before and looked upon beasts thought to exist only in the imagination. A farmer never had anything exciting to tell, but the sailor could keep the simple country-folk entranced for hours, never mind his penchant for stretching the truth.
Privateers & Pirates: Is there really a difference?
Privateers were not pirates. Pirates were generally considered lawless criminals who operated stateless vessels who attacked anyone's ships in peace or war, and followed their own unique customs and rules which generally bore only a loose resemblance to the elaborately regulated world of privateering. Many would argue that the difference is very slight indeed, as a privateer with a letter of marque, operating under license from one kingdom or nation, may be considered a pirate by another. The distinction is even further blurred, when outlaw privateers aligned with rogue political and religious rebellions and uprisings; and while not sanctioned or given license by a particular state or nation, formed coalitions and opposition forces against brutal regiemes in order to protest what was considered unfair treatment of the citizens by it's government. Indeed, there are those who argue that some pirates are outlaw heroes, resembling a sea going version of the legendary "Robin Hood" or "Zorro" . In fact, some pirates have committed acts of treason against a state, but have later been pardoned with honours.
In the earliest years of shipping, piracy was legitimatized in part by the rules of the Admiralty. In fact, it was reasonable to capture a cargo or ship, provided that reparations would be made to the individual or the state who lost the cargo. As long as payment was made for the loss of goods, and there was little or no loss of life, it wasn't necessarily considered an illegal act. In those early days, what distinguished an act of piracy as criminal behaviour was not the loss of material goods, but the loss of human life - for example, if sailors were killed without being given a chance for mercy or quarter.
The rules of the admiralty and rights at sea in Europe is generally summed up in the The Liber Niger Admiralitatis, or Black Book of the Admiralty. Once thought lost, it contains details on the appointment and office of admiral, the conduct of cases in the High Court of Admiralty, and a section on the examination and punishment of offenders, and includes the Laws of Oléron, a code of maritime law thought to have been compiled in the thirteenth century under English royal authority, initially to govern the Gascon trade which passed by the island of Oléron, off the west coast of France.
The origins of the book are vague, but it appears to have been laid out by Richard the Lionhearted or his mother around the 13th century.
Privateers primarily operated only in wartime or against a common enemy and only against enemy shipping, they did not pillage their own nation's vessels and operated under strict rules and regulations outlined by Admiralty law. They were, in many ways, in the same business as the navy which likewise paid its sailors and officers from the proceeds of captured ships.
One of the most commonly quoted and famous examples of privateers in action was the English fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. Queen Elizabeth I's privateers were known as "Sea Dogs". The best known of these was Francis Drake, whom she called "her pirate", other famous "Sea Dogs" included John Hawkins and Thomas Cavendish. Drake's adventures brought Elizabeth great wealth, and he was knighted in 1581. Almost all of the sea dogs were granted knighthood at some point in their careers as Elizabeth I, deemed privateering of greater importance than colonization. It may be one of the reasons why Raleigh's ships didn't return to the Roanoke Colony in the New World as planned, and what became of the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains a mystery to this day.
England wasn't the only nation to support privateering, the kings of France, and the Barbary States also supported their privateers, known as "corsairs". The Spanish had their "cosairos", the Dutch referred to privateers as "freebooters" (vrijbuiterij).
Privateers were both male and female. Although, most Privateers were male, some famous Privateer woman include: Jeanne de Montfort ("The Flame"), Jane de Belleville, and Jeanne de Clisson ("The Lioness of Brittany") who operated in 1343 against the French. Grace O'Malley ( Granuaile) was an Irish pirate/privateer who operated off the coast of Ireland and defended the Gaelic way of life against the British from 1550-1603. Although deemed by the British to be a pirate, she was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth I, once she had the chance to explain her position and the plight of the Irish to the court . In exchange for the pardon, she vowed to fight the Queen's enemies.
Privateers demonstrably considered their realm worth defending. In that, they were volunteers. But they were more than volunteers. They provided the means to protect their nation out of their own pockets. The United States of America used privateers to gain independance from Britain in 1776.
Privateering was eventually abolished by most European nations in 1856 Declaration of Paris. Although, Spain and the United States did not sign the declaration and continued to use privateers to augment their navies. By 1908, Spain and the United State would also recognize the declaration.
However, even today, Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution states, "Congress shall have power...to grant letters of Marque and Reprisal." A Letter of Marque and Reprisal was then the legal distinction between a privateer and a pirate. They authorized owners of privately owned warships to make war on the enemies of America.
It is true that some privateers turned to piracy during times of peace. They would prey upon neutral or enemy ships but rarely ships of their own country. This was highly frowned upon by the monarchy and there were severe penalties for any privateer that crossed the line to piracy. For example, Captain William Kidd originally a privateer, was hanged in 1701 for piracy because he could not produce a letter of marque. Most honourable privateers took up fishing and merchant trading during the slow times, and were often involved in exploring new trade routes and attempts at colonization.