How To Rule the Sea: A Guide for Privateers 1500 – 1800s [Real Pirates]

October 8, 2010

Imagine for a moment you are the king or queen of a country and war is on the horizon.  Both you and your enemies are dependent on the sea for trade, which keeps the economy going and taxes coming in.  If you want to win the war, you have to attack your opponent’s trading ships and keep them from pulling in money to continue fighting you.  For the sake of argument, we will say that both nations are roughly equal in the quality and quantity of ships in their navies and that you are desperately looking for a winning edge.

What would you do?

If your first thought was to buy and build more ships you would be wrong.  First, navies are expensive and require a lot of maintenance.  Second, the war might be over by the time your new ships are built.  So in the end, your nation might be bankrupt with a large navy it cannot even afford to maintain after the war.

On second thought, maybe you could hire some mercenaries.  Not really, because ships and crews are expensive and no one can afford to maintain a privately owned personal navy they can loan out to you in case of a war.

Here’s a hint:  how about getting the merchant ships you are protecting to do some of the fighting for you?  It sounds like a good idea, but how would you do it?

The answer is by legalizing piracy and creating what are called privateers or privately owned ships that are willing to fight for you.  The incentive for privateers to put themselves in harm’s way was that they would often be able to keep or sell off any cargo or ships that they captured.  Additionally, they sometimes could also receive a prize or bounty for capturing ships.  This is exactly what nations did from the 1500s through the 1800s, and it allowed them to use armed ships and sailors without spending tax dollars to build and maintain a navy.

Real Pirates at HMNS
Step aboard a recreation of the pirate ship Whydah in the Real Pirates exhibition – now open!
And, see a full set of photos from the exhibit on Flickr.

The first step in becoming a privateer or “legal pirate” was to receive a letter of marque.  Simply put, a letter of marque is an agreement between the owner of a ship and the government that allows the ship to attack a rival nation’s trading vessels.  One of the advantages of having a letter of marque over freelance piracy was that if you were captured by a rival nation’s navy, you would be treated as a military prisoner instead of being hung for piracy.

Privateers were so effective that the British government began to license privateers to attack and capture pirates that were plaguing the Atlantic during the 1700s.  These privateers were remarkably effective at curbing pirate raiding and helped bring to an end the golden age of piracy.

To see what life was like on a real pirate ship, visit the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open! You can also see privateer models Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am – 4:30 pm at the Houston Maritime Museum. Want to know more about pirates? This post is based on information in Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly.

Authored By Ben Pfeiffer

Graduating with a Master's in History from Texas Tech University, Ben Pfeiffer first developed a love of maritime history as an intern at the Battleship Texas. Currently, he is the Assistant Director of the Houston Maritime Museum where he is involved in educational programming, membership and volunteer coordination, exhibit design, and curatorial work. Ben will be contributing a series of posts in conjunction with the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS.

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