A letter of marque and reprisal (French : lettre de marque; lettre de course) was a government license in the Age of Sail that authorized a private person, known as a privateer or corsair, to attack and capture vessels of a nation at war with the issuer. Once captured, the privateer could then bring the case of that prize before their own admiralty court for condemnation and transfer of ownership to the privateer. A letter of marque and reprisal would include permission to cross an international border to conduct a reprisal (take some action against an attack or injury) and was authorized by an issuing jurisdiction to conduct reprisal operations outside its borders.
Popular among Europeans from the late Middle Ages up to the 19th century, cruising for enemy prizes with a letter of marque was considered an honorable calling that combined patriotism and profit. Such privateering contrasted with attacks and captures of random ships, which was unlicensed and known as piracy; piracy was almost universally reviled.In reality, the differences between privateers and pirates were often at best subtle and at worst a matter of interpretation.
In addition to the meaning of the license itself, the terms letter of marque and privateer were sometimes used to describe the vessels used to pursue and capture prizes. In this context, a letter of marque was a lumbering, square-rigged cargo carrier that might pick up a prize if the opportunity arose in its normal course of duties. In contrast, the term privateer generally referred to a fast and weatherly fore-and-aft rigged vessel, heavily armed and heavily crewed, intended exclusively for fighting.
Marque derives from the Old English mearc, which is from the Germanic *mark-, which means boundary, or boundary marker, which is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *merǵ-, meaning boundary, or border. The French marque is from the Provençal language marca, which is from marcar, also Provençal, meaning, seize as a pledge.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary , the first recorded use of "letters of marque and reprisal" was in an English statute in 1354 during the reign of Edward III. The phrase referred to "a licen[c]e granted by a sovereign to a subject, authorizing him to make reprisals on the subjects of a hostile state for injuries alleged to have been done to him by the enemy's army."
During the Middle Ages, armed private vessels enjoying their sovereign's tacit consent, if not always an explicit formal commission, regularly raided shipping of other nations, as in the case of Francis Drake's attacks on Spanish shipping, of which Elizabeth I (despite protestations of innocence) took a share.Grotius's 1604 seminal work on international law, De Iure Praedae (Of The Law of Prize and Booty), was an advocate's brief defending Dutch raids on Spanish and Portuguese shipping.
King Henry III of England first issued what later became known as privateering commissions in 1243.These early licences were granted to specific individuals to seize the king’s enemies at sea in return for splitting the proceeds between the privateers and The Crown.
The letter of marque and reprisal first arose in 1295,50 years after wartime privateer licenses were first issued. According to Grotius, letters of marque and reprisal were akin to a "private war", a concept alien to modern sensibilities but related to an age when the ocean was lawless and all merchant vessels sailed armed for self-defense. A reprisal involved seeking the sovereign's permission to exact private retribution against some foreign prince or subject. The earliest instance of a licensed reprisal recorded in England was in the year 1295 under the reign of Edward I. The notion of reprisal, and behind it that just war involved avenging a wrong, clung to the letter of marque until 1620 in England, in that to apply for one a shipowner had to submit to the Admiralty Court an estimate of actual losses.
Licensing privateers during wartime became widespread in Europe by the 16th Century,when most countries began to enact laws regulating the granting of letters of marque and reprisal. Business could be very profitable; during the eight years of the American Revolutionary War ships from the tiny island of Guernsey carrying letter of marque captured French and American vessels to the value of £900,000 and continued to operate during the Napoleonic Wars.
Although privateering commissions and letters of marque were originally distinct legal concepts, such distinctions became purely technical by the eighteenth century.The United States Constitution, for instance, states that "The Congress shall have Power To ... grant Letters of marque and reprisal ...", without separately addressing privateer commissions.
During the American War of Independence, Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812, it was common to distinguish verbally between privateers (also known as private ships of war) on the one hand, and armed merchantmen, which were referred to as "letters of marque", on the other, though both received the same commission. The Sir John Sherbrooke (Halifax) was a privateer; the Sir John Sherbrooke (Saint John) was an armed merchantman. The East India Company arranged for letters of marque for its East Indiamen such as the Lord Nelson, not so that they could carry cannons to fend off warships, privateers, and pirates on their voyages to India and China—that they could do without permission—but so that, should they have the opportunity to take a prize, they could do so without being guilty of piracy. Similarly, the Earl of Mornington, an East India Company packet ship of only six guns, too carried a letter of marque.
In July 1793, the East Indiamen Royal Charlotte, Triton, and Warley participated in the capture of Pondichéry by maintaining a blockade of the port. Afterwards, as they were on their way to China, the same three East Indiamen participated in an action in the Straits of Malacca. They came upon a French frigate, with some six or seven British[ clarification needed ] prizes, replenishing her water casks ashore. The three British vessels immediately gave chase. The frigate fled towards the Sunda Strait. The Indiamen were able to catch up with a number of the prizes, and, after a few cannon shots, were able to retake them. Had they not carried letters of marque, such behaviour might well have qualified as piracy. Similarly, on 10 November 1800 the East Indiaman Phoenix captured the French privateer General Malartic, under Jean-Marie Dutertre, an action made legal by a letter of marque. Additionally, vessels with a letter of marque were exempt from having to sail in convoy, and nominally their crew members were exempt, during a voyage, from impressment.
During the Napoleonic Wars there were also two cases (Dart and Kitty), where British privateers spent some months off the coast of Sierra Leone hunting slave-trading vessels.
The procedure for issuing letters of marque and the issuing authority varied by time and circumstance. In colonial America, for instance, colonial governors issued them in the name of the king. During the American War of Independence, first the state legislatures, then both the states and the Continental Congress, then, after ratification of the Constitution, Congress authorized and the President signed letters of marque. A shipowner would send in an application stating the name, description, tonnage, and force (armaments) of the vessel, the name and residence of the owner, and the intended number of crew, and tendered a bond promising strict observance of the country's laws and treaties and of international laws and customs. The commission was granted to the vessel, not to its captain, often for a limited time or specified area, and stated the enemy upon whom attacks were permitted. For instance, during the Second Barbary War President James Madison authorized the Salem, Mass., brig Grand Turk to cruise against "Algerine vessels, public or private, goods and effects, of or belonging to the Dey of Algiers".(This particular commission was never put to use, as it was issued the same day the treaty was signed ending the U.S. involvement in the war—July 3, 1815.)
In Britain and in the 18th century, a Letter of Marque was issued by the High Court of Admiralty of Britain. It was normal for the proposed privateer to pay a deposit or bond, possibly £1,500 (current value £150,000) as surety for good behaviour. The details of the ship, including tonnage, crew and weapons were recorded. The ownership of these ships was often split into ⅛ shares. Prizes were assessed and valued with profits split in pre agreed proportions between the government, the owners and the captain and crew. 75:
A letter of marque and reprisal in effect converted a private merchant vessel into a naval auxiliary. A commissioned privateer enjoyed the protection and was subject to the obligations of the laws of war. If captured, the crew was entitled to honorable treatment as prisoners of war, while without the licence they were deemed mere pirates "at war with all the world," criminals who were properly hanged.
For this reason, enterprising maritime raiders commonly took advantage of "flag of convenience" letters of marque, shopping for cooperative governments to license and legitimize their depredations. French/Irishman Captain Luke Ryan and his lieutenants in just over two years commanded six vessels under the flags of three different nations and on opposite sides in the same war.Likewise the notorious Lafitte brothers in New Orleans cruised under letters of marque secured by bribery from corrupt officials of tenuous Central American governments, to cloak plunder with a thin veil of legality.
The letter of marque by its terms required privateers to bring captured vessels and their cargoes before admiralty courts of their own or allied countries for condemnation. Applying the rules and customs of prize law, the courts decided whether the letter of marque was valid and current, and whether the captured vessel or its cargo in fact belonged to the enemy (not always easy, when flying false flags was common practice), and if so the prize and its cargo were "condemned", to be sold at auction with the proceeds divided among the privateer's owner and crew. A prize court's formal condemnation was required to transfer title; otherwise the vessel's previous owners might well reclaim her on her next voyage, and seek damages for the confiscated cargo.
Often questions arose as to the legitimacy of the letter of marque in the case of divided sovereignty during civil wars. An English court, for instance, refused to recognize the letters of marque issued by rebellious Ireland under James II, and hanged eight privateer captains as pirates. Seventy-nine years later during the American Civil War, the Union charged officers and crew of the Confederate privateer Savannah with piracy, calling their letter of marque invalid since the Union refused to acknowledge the breakaway Confederacy as a sovereign nation.The case resulted in a hung jury, and after Confederate President Jefferson Davis threatened to retaliate by hanging one Union officer for each executed Confederate privateer, the Union relented and thereafter treated Confederate privateersmen honorably as prisoners of war.
Privateers were also required by the terms of their letters of marque to obey the laws of war, honour treaty obligations (avoid attacking neutrals), and in particular to treat captives as courteously and kindly as they safely could.If they failed to live up to their obligations, the Admiralty courts could — and did — revoke the letter of marque, refuse to award prize money, forfeit bonds, or even award tort (personal injury) damages against the privateer's officers and crew.
This section needs expansionwith: background on when major European nations and the US (Asian, and others) abolished privateering. You can help by adding to it.(March 2018)
Nations often agreed by treaty to forgo privateering, as England and France repeatedly did starting with the diplomatic overtures of Edward III in 1324; privateering nonetheless recurred in every war between them for the next 500 years.
Benjamin Franklin had attempted to persuade the French to lead by example and stop issuing letters of marque to their corsairs, but the effort foundered when war loomed with Britain once again.The French Convention did forbid the practice, but it was reinstated after the Thermidorian Reaction, in August 1795; on 26 September 1797, the Ministry of the Navy was authorized to sell small ships to private parties for this purpose.
Finally, after the Congress of Paris at the end of the Crimean War, seven European nations signed the Paris Declaration of 1856 renouncing privateering, and forty-five more eventually joined them, which in effect abolished privateering worldwide.The United States was not a signatory to that declaration. Despite the attempt to end privateering around the world, nations continued issuing letters of marque. In 1879 at the beginning of the War of the Pacific, Bolivia issued letters of marque to any vessels willing to fight for them. At the time Bolivia was under threat from Chile's fleet but had no navy.
In December 1941 and the first months of 1942, Goodyear commercial L class blimp Resolute operating out of Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, California, flew anti-submarine patrols. As the civilian crew was armed with a rifle, a persistent misconception arose that this made the ship a privateer and that she and sister commercial blimps were operated under letters of marque until the Navy took over operation.Without congressional authorization, the Navy would not have been able to legally issue any letters of marque.
Article 1 of the United States Constitution lists issuing letters of marque and reprisal in Section 8 as one of the enumerated powers of Congress, alongside the power to tax and to declare War. However, since the American Civil War, the United States as a matter of policy has consistently followed the terms of the 1856 Paris Declaration forbidding the practice. The United States has not legally commissioned any privateers since 1815, although the status of submarine-hunting Goodyear airships in the early days of World War II created significant confusion. Various accounts refer to airships Resolute and Volunteer as operating under a "privateer status", but Congress never authorized a commission, nor did the President sign one.
The issue of marque and reprisal was raised before Congress after the September 11 attacksand again on July 21, 2007, by Congressman Ron Paul. The attacks were defined as acts of "air piracy" and the Marque and Reprisal Act of 2001 was introduced, which would have granted the president the authority to use letters of marque and reprisal against the specific terrorists, instead of warring against a foreign state. The terrorists were compared to pirates in that they are difficult to fight by traditional military means. On April 15, 2009, Paul also advocated the use of letters of marque to address the issue of Somali pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden. However, the bills Paul introduced were not enacted into law.
Piracy is an act of robbery or criminal violence by ship or boat-borne attackers upon another ship or a coastal area, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable items or properties. Those who engage in acts of piracy are called pirates, while dedicated ships that are used by them are called pirate ships. The earliest documented instances of piracy were in the 14th century BC, when the Sea Peoples, a group of ocean raiders, attacked the ships of the Aegean and Mediterranean civilizations. Narrow channels which funnel shipping into predictable routes have long created opportunities for piracy, as well as for privateering and commerce raiding. Historic examples include the waters of Gibraltar, the Strait of Malacca, Madagascar, the Gulf of Aden, and the English Channel, whose geographic structures facilitated pirate attacks. A land-based parallel is the ambushing of travelers by bandits and brigands in highways and mountain passes. Privateering uses similar methods to piracy, but the captain acts under orders of the state authorizing the capture of merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation, making it a legitimate form of war-like activity by non-state actors.
Buccaneers were a kind of privateers or free sailors peculiar to the Caribbean Sea during the 17th and 18th centuries. First established on northern Hispaniola as early as 1625, their heyday was from the Restoration in 1660 until about 1688, during a time when governments were not strong enough and did not consistently attempt to suppress them.
A privateer is a private person or ship that engages in maritime warfare under a commission of war. Since robbery under arms was a common aspect of seaborne trade, until the early 19th century all merchant ships carried arms. A sovereign or delegated authority issued commissions, also referred to as a letter of marque, during wartime. The commission empowered the holder to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war. This included attacking foreign vessels and taking them as prizes, and taking prize crews as prisoners for exchange. Captured ships were subject to condemnation and sale under prize law, with the proceeds divided by percentage between the privateer's sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew. A percentage share usually went to the issuer of the commission.
Jean Lafitte was a French pirate and privateer in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century. He and his older brother Pierre spelled their last name Laffite, but English-language documents of the time used "Lafitte". This has become the common spelling in the United States, including places named after him.
The era of piracy in the Caribbean began in the 1500s and phased out in the 1830s after the navies of the nations of Western Europe and North America with colonies in the Caribbean began combating pirates. The period during which pirates were most successful was from the 1660s to 1730s. Piracy flourished in the Caribbean because of the existence of pirate seaports such as Port Royal in Jamaica, Tortuga in Haiti, and Nassau in the Bahamas. Piracy in the Caribbean was part of a larger historical phenomenon of piracy, as it existed close to major trade and exploration routes in nearly all the five oceans.
The Navy of the Confederate States (CSN) was the naval branch of the Confederate States Armed Forces, established by an act of the Confederate States Congress on February 21, 1861. It was responsible for Confederate naval operations during the American Civil War (1861–1865), fighting against the Union Navy / United States Navy.
Corsairs were privateers, authorized to conduct raids on shipping of a nation at war with France, on behalf of the French crown. Seized vessels and cargo were sold at auction, with the corsair captain entitled to a portion of the proceeds. Although not French Navy personnel, corsairs were considered legitimate combatants in France, provided the commanding officer of the vessel was in possession of a valid letter of marque, and the officers and crew conducted themselves according to contemporary admiralty law. By acting on behalf of the French Crown, if captured by the enemy, they could in principle claim treatment as prisoners of war, instead of being considered pirates. Because corsairs gained a swashbuckling reputation, the word "corsair" is also used generically as a more romantic or flamboyant way of referring to privateers, or even to pirates. The Barbary pirates of North Africa as well as the Ottoman Empire were sometimes called "Turkish corsairs".
The Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law of 16 April 1856 was a diplomatic policy agreed to by 55 nations. Written by France and Great Britain, its primary goal was to abolish privateering, whereby a belligerent party gave formal permission for armed privately owned ships to seize enemy vessels. It also regulated the relationship between neutral and belligerent and shipping on the high seas introducing new prize rules. They agreed on three major points: free ships make free goods, effective blockade, and no privateering. In return for surrendering the practice of seizing neutral goods on enemy ships, France insisted on Britain's abandoning its Rule of 1756 prohibiting neutral assumption of enemy coastal and colonial trade.
Prize money refers in particular to naval prize money, usually arising in naval warfare, but also in other circumstances. It was a monetary reward paid in accordance with the prize law of a belligerent state to the crew of a ship belonging to the state, either a warship of its navy or a privateer vessel commissioned by the state. Prize money was most frequently awarded for the capture of enemy ships or of cargoes belonging to an enemy in time of war, either arrested in port at the outbreak of war or captured during the war in international waters or other waters not the territorial waters of a neutral state. Goods carried in neutral ships that are classed as contraband, being shipped to enemy-controlled territory and liable to be useful to it for making war, were also liable to be taken as prizes, but non-contraband goods belonging to neutrals were not. Claims for the award of prize money were usually heard in a Prize Court, which had to adjudicate the claim and condemn the prize before any distribution of cash or goods could be made to the captors.
The Golden Age of Piracy is a common designation for the period between the 1650s and the 1730s, when maritime piracy was a significant factor in the histories of the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, Indian Ocean states, North America, and West Africa.
Prize is a term used in admiralty law to refer to equipment, vehicles, vessels, and cargo captured during armed conflict. The most common use of prize in this sense is the capture of an enemy ship and her cargo as a prize of war. In the past, the capturing force would commonly be allotted a share of the worth of the captured prize. Nations often granted letters of marque that would entitle private parties to capture enemy property, usually ships. Once the ship was secured on friendly territory, she would be made the subject of a prize case, an in rem proceeding in which the court determined the status of the condemned property and the manner in which the property was to be disposed of.
Piracy in the British Virgin Islands was prevalent during the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy", mainly during the age of 1690-1730. Privateering was also widely practised in the jurisdiction throughout frequent colonial wars, not least by emancipated slaves who, with in preference to back-breaking labour in the fields for pitiful wages, took enormous risks to capture fortunes on the seas with the sanction of the Crown. In 1808, Patrick Colquhoun, a prize agent for the Territory spoke of "the most daring outrages which are frequently committed by people of colour."
The Brethren or Brethren of the Coast were a loose coalition of pirates and privateers commonly known as buccaneers and active in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
The USS Beauregard began the war as a Confederate privateer. The Union Navy acquired the schooner from the prize court and outfitted the vessel for blockade duty.
The Confederate privateers were privately owned ships that were authorized by the government of the Confederate States of America to attack the shipping of the United States. Although the appeal was to profit by capturing merchant vessels and seizing their cargoes, the government was most interested in diverting the efforts of the Union Navy away from the blockade of Southern ports, and perhaps to encourage European intervention in the conflict.
Ambrose Light was a brigantine, operated by Colombian rebels. It was captured by USS Alliance as a suspected pirate vessel in 1885. The accusation of piracy was rejected by a court of law.
The Action off Charles Island was a naval battle fought during the War of 1812 in the summer of 1813 off Charles Island in the Galapagos. An American squadron of three vessels attacked three British armed whalers, and captured them. The engagement was notable for being one of the few to occur in the Pacific Ocean during the war and involved United States Marine Lieutenant John M. Gamble, the first U.S. Marine to command an American warship.
The Antelope, 23 U.S. 66 (1825), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States considered, for the first time, the legitimacy of the international slave trade, and determined "that possession on board of a vessel was evidence of property".
The West Indies Anti-Piracy Operations refer to the United States Navy presence in the Antilles, and surrounding waters, which fought against pirates. Between 1817 and 1825, the American West Indies Squadron constantly pursued pirates on sea and land, primarily around Cuba and Puerto Rico. After the capture of Roberto Cofresi in 1825, acts of piracy became rare and the operation was considered a success although limited occurrences went on until slightly after the start of the 20th-century.
HMS Cambrian was a Royal Navy 40-gun fifth-rate frigate. She was built and launched at Bursledon in 1797 and served in the English Channel, off North America, and in the Mediterranean. She was briefly flagship of both Admiral Mark Milbanke and Vice-Admiral Sir Andrew Mitchell during her career, and was present at the Battle of Navarino. Cambrian was wrecked off the coast of Grabusa in 1828.