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Privateers were often little more than state-registered pirates Words: Keith Ray

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irates have been around ever since man first put to sea, and are still with us today. As our readers will probably know, the 21st century has witnessed a

major increase in piracy, especially off the east coast of Africa. However, between the 15th and 19th centuries, an interesting variation of piracy, known as privateering, became commonplace around the world. Essentially, this was nothing more than a

legalised form of piracy – in so far as piracy could ever be described as lawful. Privateering was, in effect, the government employing official burglars who were allowed to break into private houses to steal goods that were then used to boost official revenues.

Job description

It sounds like complete nonsense today, of course. But at the time, such state-endorsed robbery was a simple fact of life, and very big business as well. Apart from having a different employer, the job description for pirates and privateers was an almost identical one. Privateering was simply

piracy under another name. Indeed, many individuals, and some very famous mariners, would switch backwards and

forwards between the two roles almost seamlessly throughout their careers. However, unlike pirates, privateers only

operated either at times of war or international tension, the latter often a precursor to war, and only against specific adversaries. A privateer could also be described as a

private individual or ship authorised by a government (through a letter of marque or reprisal) to attack and capture enemy vessels and bring them before a domestic court. Here, the ship and its cargo would be seized. In reality, cases often never came to court,

with the goods and ships simply being seized. Sailing around looking for prizes was

generally regarded as a noble and honourable profession that combined patriotism and profit. Piracy, on the other hand – essentially unlicensed privateering – was universally condemned. If caught, pirates could face the death penalty. Privateers weren’t part of a country’s navy, but very often supplemented the naval activities while providing a valuable contribution to the national purse. Privateers could also make a great deal of money for themselves as they typically worked on commission and took a share

of any proceeds. You might think that pirates would ‘go

legal’ to get in on the act, but this didn’t turn out to be the case.

The following is a timeline of some of the more significant landmarks in the history of privateering

15th century

Due to rampant piracy around Britain’s coast, merchant cities such as Bristol started equipping and arming ships at their own expense to protect themselves. Licensed by the Crown, these ships were authorised

to seize pirate vessels and bring them back to Bristol docks.


Queen Elizabeth encouraged the development of a supplementary navy of privateers, and as Anglo-Spanish

relations deteriorated leading to the

Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604, her fleet of privateers plundered Spanish vessels. Between 1563 and 1596, Sir Francis Drake made enough money from his exploits to buy, and then live in Buckland Abbey in Devon. His Great Expedition of 1585, with 21 ships and 1,800 soldiers

plundered Vigo on the Spanish coast and then Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands.

Drake then crossed the Atlantic to plunder Santo Domingo, Cartagena de Indias and the Spanish fort of San Augustin in Spanish Florida.


James I disapproved of privateering, so many switched back to regular piracy.

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