The 10 Lion’s Whelps built by the 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1628 are exemplars of the ‘war’ pinnace, a war ship that was built for several European navies for more than two centuries (c.1550-c.1750). The Whelps had sweeps (propelling oars) as well as sails (G R Balleine, All for the King, The Life Story of Sir George Carteret, Societe Jersiase, 1976, p10). England, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland deployed the war pinnace on a regular basis. The largest war pinnaces, also known as frigates, approximated England’s fifth rate and sixth rate small warships. A few war pinnaces were built to fourth-rate hull dimensions. However, these war pinnaces carried fewer cannon and had smaller crews than English fourth, fifth, and sixth rates. Fast and maneuverable when compared to a typical ship of the line, when they were under the command of an experienced captain with a crew that retained discipline during battle, many war pinnaces compiled impressive fighting and espionage records.

Capture of Kent by Confiance. Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

In international law, privateers are defined as “vessels belonging to private owners, and sailing under a commission of war empowering the person to whom it is granted to carry on all forms of hostility which are permissible at sea by the usages of war.” Privateers are usually required to post a bond to ensure their compliance with the government’s instructions, and their commissions are subject to inspection by public warships. In contrast, “piracy may be said to consist in acts of violence done upon the ocean or unappropriated lands, or within the territory of a state through descent from the sea, by a body of men acting independently of any politically organized society.”

Acts of piracy are distinguished from other acts of violence on or emanating from the high seas by the fact that the former “are done under conditions which render it impossible or unfair to hold any state responsible for their commission.” Though “the absence of competent authority is the test of piracy, its essence consists in the pursuit of private, as contrasted with public, ends.” Thus, the distinction between a privateer and a pirate is that the former acts under the authority of a state that accepts or is charged with responsibility for his acts, while the latter acts in his own interests and on his own authority. “Most acts of war which become piratical through being done without due authority are acts of war when done under the authority of a state.”

English privateering apparently began in the 1200s, when the king ordered vessels of the Cinque Ports (Hastings, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich, and Romney) to attack France. In 1243, Henry III issued the first privateer commissions, which provided that the king would receive half the proceeds. The English monarchy was also the first to issue a letter of marque, which was directed against Portugal, in 1295.

Initially there was a strong distinction between private reprisals and privateering. Letters of marque, which were issued in peacetime, allowed individuals to seek redress for depredations they suffered at the hands of foreigners on the high seas. For example, if an Englishman’s vessel were attacked by a Frenchman, a letter of marque would authorize the Englishman to seize something of equal value from any French vessel he encountered. This practice was an old one, dating back to well before the thirteenth century, and was based upon “the early theory that the group was responsible for the wrongs of each of its members.” It also reflected the absence of permanent embassies as a mechanism for resolving private international disputes on a regular basis.

Privateering, on the other hand, was a strictly wartime practice in which states authorized individuals to attack enemy commerce and to keep some portion of what they captured as their pay. Early on, however, the two practices became confused, apparently because “whenever a war broke out each party always claimed to be the party aggrieved, and when it justified its acts of hostility at all, it did so by connecting them in some way with the notion of reprisals.” Already boundaries between the legitimate and illegitimate were under practical challenge.

Adding a further complication to these practices was piracy. In 1413 England defined piracy as high treason. For over a century, the English king had turned a blind eye to the piracy of the Cinque Ports, probably because their piratical activities honed the skills sailors needed when serving as the king’s wartime privateers. As the Cinque Ports’ depredations escalated, however, the English passed an antipiracy statute. Nevertheless, because the ports were accustomed to engaging in piracy and because the well-born earned a good income by investing in piracy, English piracy was not suppressed.

In 1544 Henry VIII, in his war with France, gave blanket authorization for privateering and allowed the privateers to keep all the loot they seized. With the gradual crackdown on piracy and the requirement that privateers share their prizes with a host of public officials, the privateers’ contribution to British naval capacity had declined. Henry VIII’s action was designed to increase the incentives for privateering.

England gained naval superiority over Spain largely through the action of the Elizabethan Sea Dogs. These private adventurers, in collusion with the English Crown, engaged in all kinds of violent activities directed against Spain in the New World. Besides plundering Spanish ships and settlements, such Sea Dogs as Drake, Cavendish, Clifford (the third earl of Cumberland), and Raleigh engaged in what might be termed statesponsored terrorism. For example, Drake extorted large ransoms from two Spanish colonial cities by threatening to burn them to the ground. He actually destroyed three other cities. His sack of Peru netted him and his backers £2.5 million and repaid his backers, including Elizabeth, “47 for 1.” Cumberland, leading a purely private expedition, captured Puerto Rico in 1598.17 Other Sea Dogs behaved similarly, plundering, destroying, and extorting their way to fame and fortune in England and sharing their loot with the English Crown. Drake and Raleigh, of course, were knighted for their achievements.

The execution of Raleigh in 1618 marked the beginning of a temporary decline in English privateering. Though the Stuarts had made peace with Spain, Raleigh continued his depredations in Spanish America, assuming that the English monarchs “would secretly connive at violations of the treaty with Spain.” He was wrong.

A new English prize act, passed in 1708, produced the highest level of privateering activity to date. With this act, the privateer was allowed to retain all his prizes and was paid a bounty based on the number of prisoners he took. Moreover, in 1744 the king granted pardons to all criminals who would serve as privateers. By 1757, privateering had become something of a craze in England. During the eighteenth century, “political lobbies formed which defended and promoted the concerns of the `privateering interest.’” The year 1803 was the most violent and lawless period of maritime warfare in modern history, in part because England and France “were unable, even if willing, to control the hordes of desperate privateers and quasi-privateers who were nominally subject to them.”

French privateering differed from its British counterpart in two respects. First, while England allowed privateers to attack neutral commerce, France did not. Second, for England, privateers were auxiliaries to the navy; for France, they were the navy. France in 1400 required privateers to obtain prior consent and in 1398 and 1498 required them to post bond. Sixteenth-century French “privateers” were largely individuals acting on their own initiative. One French merchant, for example, sent seventeen ships to blockade a Portuguese port when one of his ships was seized by a Portuguese vessel. When Spaniards killed the leader of a French colonizing expedition in 1562, a French “gentleman” sent three vessels that made bloody reprisals against Spain.

Like their British counterparts, French privateers committed great depredations in the New World during the seventeenth century and were rewarded with letters of nobility. French filibustiers, under the direction of Santo Domingo’s governor, ransomed and pillaged Spanish towns. They also drove the English out of Hudson Bay.

The golden age of French privateering occurred after Colbert became secretary of state, despite France’s imposition in 1681 of onerous regulations on privateering. These included the requirement that a privateer post a fifteen-thousand livre bond and carry at least six guns, as well as a prohibition on ransoming prizes above a certain value. Apparently it was Colbert’s enthusiasm for expanding France’s commerce and building its navy that stimulated a heightened interest in maritime activities in general. At any rate, “the principal threat to British trade in the wars between 1689 and 1815 came from a large number of French privateers that put to sea from St. Malo, Dunkirk, and other ports along the French coast.” French privateering was greatly stimulated by the wars between 1689 and 1713, which disrupted the ports’ normally lucrative trade in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, leaving merchants with little other than privateering in which to invest.

The peak of French privateering occurred during the years 1689 to 1697. Both the number of French privateers and their success declined in subsequent wars. In the American War for Independence (1778-82), French privateers took about four prizes per vessel, while in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, they took only about one prize per vessel.

Privateers played a significant role in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13). British and American privateers seized more than 2,000 prizes, 30 with one New York group alone destroying fifty-four French and Spanish vessels. French privateers attacked Dutch, Venetian, and Portuguese ships and towns. In 1711, “a colossal [French] private expedition . . . defeated an entire Portuguese fleet and captured Rio de Janeiro.” In the mid-eighteenth century, French privateers nearly put an end to the slave trade between Africa and the British colonies in the Americas.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1739-48) saw another surge in privateering. Wishing to keep France out of the war, Britain initially discouraged privateering, which was always a potential threat to neutral commerce. 34 Between 1739 and 1741 only 30 prizes were taken by privateers. Once France entered the war, however, English privateering increased in importance. Between 1739 and 1748, New York privateers captured more than 240 prizes worth nearly £620,000. By the final years of the war, “French shipping had been largely driven from the sea lanes.” French and Spanish vulnerability to privateering attacks led them to ship their goods in Dutch vessels. The English Crown then turned privateers loose on the Dutch, who lost nearly £1.3 million in the course of the war. Besides attacking enemy shipping, English privateers “acted as auxiliary vessels, carrying troops, scouting, and on occasion even blockading enemy ports.” They also convoyed British merchant ships and served as a coast guard for the North American colonies. It is estimated that privateers took about 3,500 prizes during the war.

Privateering reached new heights in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), particularly after England announced its Rule of 1756. With this rule “neutrals were prohibited from carrying on any trade, directly or indirectly, with the French colonies, which trade was not guaranteed to them in time of peace.” This struck a “death-blow to the Dutch commerce, which had been growing rich on the French colonial trade for many years.” Though the rule brought French trade to a standstill, reprisals against England by other neutrals produced an alarming increase in insurance rates for English merchants, whose complaints led the Crown to tighten control over its privateers. Nevertheless, during the first four years of the war, it is estimated that English vessels took 1,000 French prizes. New York privateers were responsible for more than 300 of these, enjoying a profit of £1.5 million. Despite the English privateers’ success, French privateers took more than 300 English prizes. Nevertheless, the “Peace of Paris demonstrated forcibly how little influence privateering usually exercises on the result of a war; the losses of the English shipping were more than double those of the French, yet the treaty of peace was the most disgraceful, perhaps, that France ever signed.”

American privateers served both sides in the U. S. War for Independence. In the rebel cause, some 792 privateers captured or destroyed 600 British vessels worth an estimated $18 million. They took a total of 16,000 British prisoners. According to one report, insurance rates for convoyed vessels reached 30 percent and for unconvoyed, 50 percent. Losses to the West Indian trade are estimated at 66 percent. American privateers even operated in British waters so that Britain had to provide naval escort for shipping between Ireland and England. The Armed Neutrality of 1780 prevented any significant privateering activity against anyone but the belligerents. Evaluations of the effects of American privateering on the outcome of the war vary enormously. At one extreme is Maclay, who concludes that “it was this attack on England’s commerce that struck the mortal blows to British supremacy in America-not Saratoga nor Yorktown.” At the other is Sherry, who writes that

Yet as effective as the privateers may have been against commerce, they were all but useless against the Royal Navy. As a consequence, the British had no trouble controlling major colonial ports such as New York, Boston, and Charleston. Control of the ports by the Royal Navy meant that the British could move troops as they chose, could resupply easily, and could bring military pressure to bear where and when they chose. It was only when a French fleet blocked the British from relieving Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown that the Americans won their war for independence.

During the French Revolutionary wars, French privateers took 2,100 British vessels. In the War of 1812, 517 American privateers captured 1,300 prizes worth an estimated $39 million. They also took many of the 30,000 prisoners captured by American naval forces during the war. One American privateer ship, the Yankee, in six cruises captured 40 British vessels and captured or destroyed $5 million of British property.

Up through the first decade of the nineteenth century, privateering was a prominent feature of interstate conflict and war. It was effective as both a substitute and a foundation for state naval power. Privateering evolved into a weapon of the weak against the strong, as in the case of the United States and Britain during the War of 1812. However, it was invented and encouraged by the “strong” states of Europe, whose naval power was largely an outgrowth of privateering.


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