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attacked the wrong nationality of vessel, they could suffer very severe penalties.

Maverick attitude

For various reasons, some privateers decided to go it alone and operate outside the area and nationalities specified in their letter of marque. Perhaps the most famous of these was William Kidd, or Captain Kidd, who was tried and executed for piracy on return from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Recent historians have suggested that Kidd only ever operated as a legitimate privateer, and that his trial and execution were a serious miscarriage of justice. Indeed, the blurred line between privateering and piracy often made true justice in such cases almost impossible. Privateers used a wide variety of ships,


including obsolete warships and converted merchantmen. Various investors would purchase the vessel, arm it and recruit a large crew. This was necessary because a lot of manpower was needed to take command of captured vessels. Although most privateer ships operated alone, it wasn’t unknown for them to hunt in packs – or even to sail with the regular navy. The English fleet which opposed the Spanish Armada in 1588 was partly made up of specially commissioned privateers. The golden era for privateers was between

the 15th century and 1856, when international legislation sounded the death knell for this kind of officially sanctioned activity. During this period, privateering waxed and waned, before

1856 After 400 lucrative years of

plundering vessels, international legislation introduced in 1856 sounded the death knell for ‘state-endorsed piracy’ reflecting the changing political arena around the world

trans-Atlantic settlements. Spain had issued a decree blocking foreign countries from trading in its Caribbean colonies. It was also a way to assert national power before the Royal Navy, founded in 1660, became a dominant force.


During the War of Austrian Succession, Britain lost a staggering 3,250 ships, largely to foreign privateers.


Towards the end of the 18th century and during the first part of the 19th, there was a number of unilateral and bilateral


During the American War of Independence there were very few American naval ships in service, so America was highly dependent on the services of

declarations limiting privateering, the first sign that ‘legalised piracy’ was being seen in a negative light.

privateers. Around 55,000 seamen and troops served on their ships, and they were a great asset during this conflict – taking around 300 British ships as prizes.


However, the real breakthrough came this year with the Declaration of Paris, signed by all major European nations,

finally disappearing – reflecting the changing political landscape around the world. So who were the last privateers? There was

a story that the United States Navy issued a letter of marque to Goodyear’s submarine- hunting airship, Resolute, during World War II – giving it the right to attack and sink enemy submarines. This tale is probably untrue, as the Navy would have been unable to issue the letter of marque without the endorsement of Congress of the President, and there’s no record of that happening. So maybe privateer- ing died out in the late 19th century after all.

which declared that ‘privateering is and remains abolished’. The US didn’t sign this declaration, though, as they wanted a stronger amendment protecting all private property at sea.


During the American Civil War, privateering took on several forms, including blockade running. Both North and South America used privateers, with the Confederate President Jefferson

Davis issuing letters of marque to anyone who would employ their ship to attack Union shipping or bring supplies through the Union blockade into southern ports.

Late 19th century

By the mid-19th century many

countries had passed laws forbidding their nationals from accepting any commissions with foreign privateers and its visibility declined.

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