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East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray. Confiance Kent fight.jpg
East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

A privateer is a private person or ship that engages in maritime warfare under a commission of war. [1] The commission, also known as a letter of marque, empowers the person to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war, including attacking foreign vessels during wartime and taking them as prizes. Historically, captured ships were subject to condemnation and sale under prize law, with the proceeds divided between the privateer sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew. A percentage share usually went to the issuer of the commission. Since robbery under arms was once common to seaborne trade, all merchant ships were already armed. During war, naval resources were auxiliary to operations on land so privateering was a way of subsidizing state power by mobilizing armed ships and sailors.

Letter of marque governmental authorization of privateering

A letter of marque and reprisal 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 effect a reprisal and was authorized by an issuing jurisdiction to conduct reprisal operations outside its borders.

Prize (law) term used in admiralty law

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.


In practice the legality and status of privateers historically has often been vague. Depending on the specific government and the time period, letters of marque might be issued hastily and/or the privateers might take actions beyond what was authorized by the letters. The privateers themselves were often simply pirates who would take advantage of wars between nations to gain semi-legal status for their enterprises. By the end of the 19th century the practice of issuing letters of marque had fallen out of favor because of the chaos it caused and its role in inadvertently encouraging piracy.

A privateer is similar to a mercenary except that, whereas a mercenary group receives a set fee for services and generally has a formal reporting structure within the entity that hires them, a privateer acts independently with generally no compensation unless the enemy's property is captured.

Mercenary Soldier who fights for hire

A mercenary, sometimes known as a soldier of fortune, is an individual who takes part in military conflict for personal profit, is otherwise an outsider to the conflict, and is not a member of any other official military. Mercenaries fight for money or other forms of payment rather than for political interests. Beginning in the 20th century, mercenaries have increasingly come to be seen as less entitled to protections by rules of war than non-mercenaries. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions declare that mercenaries are not recognized as legitimate combatants and do not have to be granted the same legal protections as captured service personnel of a regular army. In practice, whether or not a person is a mercenary may be a matter of degree, as financial and political interests may overlap, as was often the case among Italian condottieri.

The letter of marque of a privateer would typically limit activity to one particular ship, and specified officers. Typically, the owners or captain would be required to post a performance bond. In the United Kingdom, letters of marque were revoked for various offences.

A performance bond, also known as a contract bond, is a surety bond issued by an insurance company or a bank to guarantee satisfactory completion of a project by a contractor. The term is also used to denote a collateral deposit of good faith money, intended to secure a futures contract, commonly known as margin.

Boarding of the Triton (a British East Indiaman) by the French corsair Hasard. Triton-Hasard-stitched.jpg
Boarding of the Triton (a British East Indiaman) by the French corsair Hasard .

Some crews were treated as harshly as naval crews of the time, while others followed the comparatively relaxed rules of merchant ships. Some crews were made up of professional merchant seamen, others of pirates, debtors, and convicts. Some privateers ended up becoming pirates, not just in the eyes of their enemies but also of their own nations. William Kidd, for instance, began as a legitimate British privateer but was later hanged for piracy.

A convict is "a person found guilty of a crime and sentenced by a court" or "a person serving a sentence in prison". Convicts are often also known as "prisoners" or "inmates" or by the slang term "con", while a common label for former convicts, especially those recently released from prison, is "ex-con" ("ex-convict"). Persons convicted and sentenced to non-custodial sentences tend not to be described as "convicts".

William Kidd Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean

William Kidd, also known as Captain William Kidd or simply Captain Kidd, was a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Some modern historians, for example Sir Cornelius Neale Dalton, deem his piratical reputation unjust.

Hanging suspension of a person by a ligature

Hanging is the suspension of a person by a noose or ligature around the neck. The Oxford English Dictionary states that hanging in this sense is "specifically to put to death by suspension by the neck", though it formerly also referred to crucifixion and death by impalement in which the body would remain "hanging". Hanging has been a common method of capital punishment since medieval times, and is the primary execution method in numerous countries and regions. The first known account of execution by hanging was in Homer's Odyssey. In this specialised meaning of the common word hang, the past and past participle is hanged instead of hung.

While privateers such as Kidd were commissioned to hunt pirates, privateering itself was often blamed for piracy. Privateering commissions were easy to obtain during wartime but when the war ended and privateers were recalled, many refused to give up the lucrative business and turned to piracy. [2] Colonial officials exacerbated the problem by issuing commissions to known pirates, giving them legitimacy in exchange for a share of the profits or even open bribes. The French Governor of Petit-Goave gave buccaneer Francois Grogniet blank privateering commissions, which Grogniet traded to Edward Davis for a spare ship so the two could continue raiding Spanish cities under a guise of legitimacy. [3] New York Governors Jacob Leisler and Benjamin Fletcher were removed from office in part for their dealings with pirates such as Thomas Tew, to whom Fletcher had granted commissions to sail against the French, but who ignored his commission to raid Mughal shipping in the Red Sea instead. [4] Kidd himself committed piracy during his privateering voyage (though he maintained his innocence and blamed his unruly crew) and was tried and executed upon his return. Boston minister Cotton Mather lamented after the execution of pirate John Quelch: "Yea, Since the Privateering Stroke, so easily degenerates into the Piratical; and the Privateering Trade, is usually carried on with so Unchristian a Temper, and proves an inlet unto so much Debauchery, and Iniquity, and Confusion, I believe, I shall have Good men Concur with me, in wishing, That Privateering may no more be practised, except there may appear more hopeful Circumstances to Encourage it." [5]

Francois Groginet was a French buccaneer and pirate active against the Pacific coast of Spanish Central America.

Edward Davis or Davies was an English buccaneer active in the Caribbean during the 1680s and would lead successful raids against Leon and Panama in 1685, the latter considered one of the last major buccaneer raids against a Spanish stronghold. Much of his career was later recorded by writer William Dampier in A New Voyage Round the World (1697).

Jacob Leisler Leader of the Leisler Rebellion, de facto governor of New York

Jacob Leisler was a German-born colonist in the Province of New York. He gained wealth in New Amsterdam in the fur trade and tobacco business. In what became known as Leisler's Rebellion following the English Revolution of 1688, he took control of the city, and ultimately the entire province, from appointees of deposed King James II, in the name of the Protestant accession of William III and Mary II.

Noted privateers

Privateers who were considered legitimate by their governments include:


Entrepreneurs converted many different types of vessels into privateers, including obsolete warships and refitted merchant ships. The investors would arm the vessels and recruit large crews, much larger than a merchantman or a naval vessel would carry, in order to crew the prizes they captured. Privateers generally cruised independently, but it was not unknown for them to form squadrons, or to co-operate with the regular navy. A number of privateers were part of the English fleet that opposed the Spanish Armada in 1588. Privateers generally avoided encounters with warships, as such encounters would be at best unprofitable. Still, such encounters did occur. For instance, in 1815 Chasseur encountered HMS St Lawrence, herself a former American privateer, mistaking her for a merchantman until too late; in this instance, however, the privateer prevailed.

The United States used mixed squadrons of frigates and privateers in the American Revolutionary War. Following the French Revolution, French privateers became a menace to British and American shipping in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean, resulting in the Quasi-War, a brief conflict between France and the United States, fought largely at sea, and to the Royal Navy's procuring Bermuda sloops to combat the French privateers. [6]

Overall history

16th-century trade routes prey to privateering: Spanish treasure fleets linking the Caribbean to Seville, Manila-Acapulco galleons started in 1568 (white) and rival Portuguese India Armadas of 1498-1640 (blue) 16th century Portuguese Spanish trade routes.png
16th-century trade routes prey to privateering: Spanish treasure fleets linking the Caribbean to Seville, Manila-Acapulco galleons started in 1568 (white) and rival Portuguese India Armadas of 1498–1640 (blue)

The practice dated to at least the 13th century but the word itself was coined sometime in the mid-17th century. [7] England, and later the United Kingdom, used privateers to great effect and suffered much from other nations' privateering. During the 15th century, "piracy became an increasing problem and merchant communities such as Bristol began to resort to self-help, arming and equipping ships at their own expense to protect commerce." [8] These privately owned merchant ships, licensed by the crown, could legitimately take vessels that were deemed pirates. This constituted a "revolution in naval strategy" and helped fill the need for protection that the current administration was unable to provide as it "lacked an institutional structure and coordinated finance". [9] [10]

The increase in competition for crews on armed merchant vessels and privateers was due, in a large part, because of the chance for a considerable payoff. "Whereas a seaman who shipped on a naval vessel was paid a wage and provided with victuals, the mariner on a merchantman or privateer was paid with an agreed share of the takings." [9] This proved to be a far more attractive prospect and privateering flourished as a result.

During Queen Elizabeth's reign, she "encouraged the development of this supplementary navy". [11] Over the course of her rule, she had "allowed Anglo-Spanish relations to deteriorate" to the point where one could argue that a war with the Spanish was inevitable. [12] By using privateers, if the Spanish were to take offense at the plundering of their ships, Queen Elizabeth could always deny she had anything to do with the actions of such independents. Some of the most famous privateers that later fought in the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) included the Sea Dogs.

In the late 16th century, English ships cruised in the Caribbean and off the coast of Spain, trying to intercept treasure fleets from the Spanish Main. At this early stage the idea of a regular navy (the Royal Navy, as distinct from the Merchant Navy) was not present, so there is little to distinguish the activity of English privateers from regular naval warfare. Attacking Spanish ships, even during peacetime, was part of a policy of military and economic competition with Spain – which had been monopolizing the maritime trade routes along with the Portuguese helping to provoke the first Anglo-Spanish War.[ citation needed ] Capturing a Spanish treasure ship would enrich the Crown as well as strike a practical blow against Spanish domination of America. Piet Pieterszoon Hein was a brilliantly successful Dutch privateer who captured a Spanish treasure fleet. Magnus Heinason was another privateer who served the Dutch against the Spanish. While their and others' attacks brought home a great deal of money, they hardly dented the flow of gold and silver from Mexico to Spain.

Elizabeth was succeeded by the first Stuart monarchs, James I and Charles I, who did not permit privateering. There were a number of unilateral and bilateral declarations limiting privateering between 1785 and 1823. However, the breakthrough came in 1856 when the Declaration of Paris, signed by all major European powers, stated that "Privateering is and remains abolished". The US did not sign because a stronger amendment, protecting all private property from capture at sea, was not accepted. In the 19th century many nations passed laws forbidding their nationals from accepting commissions as privateers for other nations. The last major power to flirt with privateering was Prussia in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, when Prussia announced the creation of a 'volunteer navy' of ships privately owned and manned and eligible for prize money. The only difference between this and privateering was that these volunteer ships were under the discipline of the regular navy.

CSS Savannah, a Confederate privateer. Privateer Savannah.jpg
CSS Savannah, a Confederate privateer.

17th, 18th and 19th centuries

Privateers were a large part of the total military force at sea during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the first Anglo-Dutch War, English privateers attacked the trade on which the United Provinces entirely depended, capturing over 1,000 Dutch merchant ships. During the subsequent war with Spain, Spanish and Flemish privateers in the service of the Spanish Crown, including the Dunkirkers, captured 1,500 English merchant ships, helping to restore Dutch international trade. [13] British trade, whether coastal, Atlantic, or Mediterranean, was also attacked by Dutch privateers and others in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch wars.

During King George's War, approximately 36,000 Americans served aboard privateers at one time or another. [14] During the Nine Years War, the French adopted a policy of strongly encouraging privateers, including the famous Jean Bart, to attack English and Dutch shipping. England lost roughly 4,000 merchant ships during the war. [14] In the following War of Spanish Succession, privateer attacks continued, Britain losing 3,250 merchant ships. [15] Parliament passed an updated Cruisers and Convoys Act in 1708 allocating regular warships to the defence of trade.

In the subsequent conflict, the War of Austrian Succession, the Royal Navy was able to concentrate more on defending British ships. Britain lost 3,238 merchantmen, a smaller fraction of her merchant marine than the enemy losses of 3,434. [14] While French losses were proportionally severe, the smaller but better protected Spanish trade suffered the least and it was Spanish privateers who enjoyed much of the best allied plunder of British trade, particularly in the West Indies.

During the American Civil War privateering took on several forms, including blockade running while privateering in general occurred in the interests of both the North and the South. Letters of marque would often be issued to private shipping companies and other private owners of ships, authorizing them to engage vessels deemed to be unfriendly to the issuing government. Crews of ships were awarded the cargo and other prizes aboard any captured vessel as an incentive to search far and wide for ships attempting to supply the Confederacy, or aid the Union, as the case may be.


Woodes Rogers' men search Spanish ladies for their jewels in Guayaquil, 1709 Privateer Captain Woodes Rogers.jpg
Woodes Rogers' men search Spanish ladies for their jewels in Guayaquil, 1709

England and Scotland practiced privateering both separately and together after they united to create the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. It was a way to gain for themselves some of the wealth the Spanish and Portuguese were taking from the New World before beginning their own trans-Atlantic settlement, and a way to assert naval power before a strong Royal Navy emerged.

Sir Andrew Barton, Lord High Admiral of Scotland, followed the example of his father, who had been issued with letters of marque by James III of Scotland to prey upon English and Portuguese shipping in 1485; the letters in due course were reissued to the son. Barton was killed following an encounter with the English in 1511.

Sir Francis Drake, who had close contact with the sovereign, was responsible for some damage to Spanish shipping, as well as attacks on Spanish settlements in the Americas in the 16th century. He participated in the successful English defence against the Spanish Armada in 1588, though he was also partly responsible for the failure of the English Armada against Spain in 1589.

Sir George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, was a successful privateer against Spanish shipping in the Caribbean. He is also famous for his short-lived 1598 capture of Fort San Felipe del Morro , the citadel protecting San Juan, Puerto Rico. He arrived in Puerto Rico on June 15, 1598, but by November of that year Clifford and his men had fled the island due to fierce civilian resistance. He gained sufficient prestige from his naval exploits to be named the official Champion of Queen Elizabeth I. Clifford became extremely wealthy through his buccaneering, but lost most of his money gambling on horse races.

An action between an English ship and vessels of the Barbary corsairs Willem van de Velde de Jonge - Een actie van een Engels schip en schepen van de Barbarijse zeerovers.jpg
An action between an English ship and vessels of the Barbary corsairs

Captain Christopher Newport led more attacks on Spanish shipping and settlements than any other English privateer. As a young man, Newport sailed with Sir Francis Drake in the attack on the Spanish fleet at Cadiz and participated in England's defeat of the Spanish Armada. During the war with Spain, Newport seized fortunes of Spanish and Portuguese treasure in fierce sea battles in the West Indies as a privateer for Queen Elizabeth I. He lost an arm whilst capturing a Spanish ship during an expedition in 1590, but despite this he continued on privateering, successfully blockading Western Cuba the following year. In 1592, Newport captured the Portuguese carrack Madre de Deus (Mother of God), valued at £500,000.

Sir Henry Morgan was a successful privateer. Operating out of Jamaica, he carried on a war against Spanish interests in the region, often using cunning tactics. His operation was prone to cruelty against those he captured, including torture to gain information about booty, and in one case using priests as human shields. Despite reproaches for some of his excesses, he was generally protected by Sir Thomas Modyford, the governor of Jamaica. He took an enormous amount of booty, as well as landing his privateers ashore and attacking land fortifications, including the sack of the city of Panama with only 1,400 crew [16] .

Other British privateers of note include Fortunatus Wright, Edward Collier, Sir John Hawkins, his son Sir Richard Hawkins, Michael Geare, and Sir Christopher Myngs. Notable British colonial privateers in Nova Scotia include Alexander Godfrey of the brig Rover and Joseph Barss of the schooner Liverpool Packet . The latter schooner captured over 50 American vessels during the War of 1812.


The English colony of Bermuda (or the Somers Isles), settled accidentally in 1609, was used as a base for English privateers from the time it officially became part of the territory of the Virginia Company in 1612, especially by ships belonging to the Earl of Warwick, for whom Bermuda's Warwick Parish is named (the Warwick name had long been associated with commerce raiding, as exampled by the Newport Ship, thought to have been taken from the Spanish by Warwick the Kingmaker in the 15th Century). Many Bermudians were employed as crew aboard privateers throughout the century, although the colony was primarily devoted to farming cash crops until turning from its failed agricultural economy to the sea after the 1684 dissolution of the Somers Isles Company (a spin-off of the Virginia Company which had overseen the colony since 1615). With a total area of 54 square kilometres (21 sq mi) and lacking any natural resources other than the Bermuda cedar, the colonists applied themselves fully to the maritime trades, developing the speedy Bermuda sloop, which was well suited both to commerce and to commerce raiding. Bermudian merchant vessels turned to privateering at every opportunity in the 18th century, preying on the shipping of Spain, France, and other nations during a series of wars, including: the 1688 to 1697 Nine Years' War (King William's War); the 1702 to 1713 Queen Anne's War; [17] [18] the 1739 to 1748 War of Jenkins' Ear; the 1740 to 1748 War of the Austrian Succession (King George's War); the 1754 to 1763 Seven Years' War (known in the United States as the French and Indian War, this conflict was devastating for the colony's merchant fleet. Fifteen privateers operated from Bermuda during the war, but losses exceeded captures); the 1775 to 1783 American War of Independence; and the 1796 to 1808 Anglo-Spanish War. [19] [20] By the middle of the 18th century, Bermuda was sending twice as many privateers to sea as any of the continental colonies. They typically left Bermuda with very large crews. This advantage in manpower was vital in overpowering the crews of larger vessels, which themselves often lacked sufficient crewmembers to put up a strong defence. The extra crewmen were also useful as prize crews for returning captured vessels.

The Bahamas, which had been depopulated of its indigenous inhabitants by the Spanish, had been settled by England, beginning with the Eleutheran Adventurers, dissident Puritans driven out of Bermuda during the English Civil War. Spanish and French attacks destroyed New Providence in 1703, creating a stronghold for pirates, and it became a thorn in the side of British merchant trade through the area. In 1718, Britain appointed Woodes Rogers as Governor of the Bahamas, and sent him at the head of a force to reclaim the settlement. Before his arrival, however, the pirates had been forced to surrender by a force of Bermudian privateers who had been issued letters of marque by the Governor of Bermuda.

Bermuda Gazette of 12 November 1796, calling for privateering against Spain and its allies during the 1796 to 1808 Anglo-Spanish War, and with advertisements for crew for two privateer vessels. Bermuda Gazette - 12 November 1796.jpg
Bermuda Gazette of 12 November 1796, calling for privateering against Spain and its allies during the 1796 to 1808 Anglo-Spanish War, and with advertisements for crew for two privateer vessels.

Bermuda was in de facto control of the Turks Islands, with their lucrative salt industry, from the late 17th century to the early 19th. The Bahamas made perpetual attempts to claim the Turks for itself. On several occasions, this involved seizing the vessels of Bermudian salt traders. A virtual state of war was said to exist between Bermudian and Bahamian vessels for much of the 18th century. When the Bermudian sloop Seaflower was seized by the Bahamians in 1701, the response of the Governor of Bermuda, Captain Benjamin Bennett, was to issue letters of marque to Bermudian vessels. In 1706, Spanish and French forces ousted the Bermudians, but were driven out themselves three years later by the Bermudian privateer Captain Lewis Middleton. His ship, the Rose, attacked a Spanish and a French privateer holding a captive English vessel. Defeating the two enemy vessels, the Rose then cleared out the thirty-man garrison left by the Spanish and French. [21]

Despite strong sentiments in support of the rebels, especially in the early stages, Bermudian privateers turned as aggressively on American shipping during the American War of Independence. The importance of privateering to the Bermudian economy had been increased not only by the loss of most of Bermuda's continental trade, but also by the Palliser Act, which forbade Bermudian vessels from fishing the Grand Banks. Bermudian trade with the rebellious American colonies actually carried on throughout the war. Some historians credit the large number of Bermuda sloops (reckoned at over a thousand) built in Bermuda as privateers and sold illegally to the Americans as enabling the rebellious colonies to win their independence. [22] Also, the Americans were dependent on Turks salt, and one hundred barrels of gunpowder were stolen from a Bermudian magazine and supplied to the rebels as orchestrated by Colonel Henry Tucker and Benjamin Franklin, and as requested by George Washington, in exchange for which the Continental Congress authorised the sale of supplies to Bermuda, which was dependent on American produce. The realities of this interdependence did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm with which Bermudian privateers turned on their erstwhile countrymen.

An American naval captain, ordered to take his ship out of Boston Harbor to eliminate a pair of Bermudian privateering vessels that had been picking off vessels missed by the Royal Navy, returned frustrated, saying, "the Bermudians sailed their ships two feet for every one of ours". [23] Around 10,000 Bermudians emigrated in the years prior to American independence, mostly to the American colonies. Many Bermudians occupied prominent positions in American seaports, from where they continued their maritime trades (Bermudian merchants controlled much of the trade through ports like Charleston, South Carolina, and Bermudian shipbuilders influenced the development of American vessels, like the Chesapeake Bay schooner), [19] [24] [25] and in the Revolution they used their knowledge of Bermudians and of Bermuda, as well as their vessels, for the rebels' cause. In the 1777 Battle of Wreck Hill, brothers Charles and Francis Morgan, members of a large Bermudian enclave that had dominated Charleston, South Carolina and its environs since settlement, [26] [27] captaining two sloops (the Fair American and the Experiment, respectively), carried out the only attack on Bermuda during the war. The target was a fort that guarded a little used passage through the encompassing reef line. After the soldiers manning the fort were forced to abandon it, they spiked its guns and fled themselves before reinforcements could arrive. [28]

A Bermuda sloop engaged as a privateer. Bermuda sloop - privateer.jpg
A Bermuda sloop engaged as a privateer.

When the Americans captured the Bermudian privateer Regulator, they discovered that virtually all of her crew were black slaves. Authorities in Boston offered these men their freedom, but all 70 elected to be treated as prisoners of war. Sent as such to New York on the sloop Duxbury, they seized the vessel and sailed it back to Bermuda. [29]

The War of 1812 saw an encore of Bermudian privateering, which had died out after the 1790s. The decline of Bermudian privateering was due partly to the buildup of the naval base in Bermuda, which reduced the Admiralty's reliance on privateers in the western Atlantic, and partly to successful American legal suits and claims for damages pressed against British privateers, a large portion of which were aimed squarely at the Bermudians. [30] During the course of the War of 1812, Bermudian privateers captured 298 ships, some 19% of the 1,593 vessels captured by British naval and privateering vessels between the Great Lakes and the West Indies. [31]

Amongst the better known (native-born and immigrant) Bermudian privateers were Hezekiah Frith, Bridger Goodrich, [32] Henry Jennings, Thomas Hewetson, [33] and Thomas Tew.

Providence Island colony

Bermudians were also involved in privateering from the short-lived English colony on Isla de Providencia, off the coast of Nicaragua. This colony was initially settled largely via Bermuda, with about eighty Bermudians moved to Providence in 1631. Although it was intended that the colony be used to grow cash crops, its location in the heart of the Spanish controlled territory ensured that it quickly became a base for privateering.

Bermuda-based privateer Daniel Elfrith, while on a privateering expedition with Captain Sussex Camock of the bark Somer Ilands (a rendering of "Somers Isles", the alternate name of the Islands of Bermuda) in 1625, discovered two islands off the coast of Nicaragua, 80 kilometres (50 mi) apart from each other. Camock stayed with 30 of his men to explore one of the islands, San Andrés, while Elfrith took the Warwicke back to Bermuda bringing news of Providence Island. Bermuda Governor Bell wrote on behalf of Elfrith to Sir Nathaniel Rich, a businessman and cousin of the Earl of Warwick (the namesake of Warwick Parish), who presented a proposal for colonizing the island noting its strategic location "lying in the heart of the Indies & the mouth of the Spaniards". Elfrith was appointed admiral of the colony's military forces in 1631, remaining the overall military commander for over seven years. During this time, Elfrith served as a guide to other privateers and sea captains arriving in the Caribbean. Elfrith invited the well-known privateer Diego el Mulato to the island. Samuel Axe, one of the military leaders, also accepted letters of marque from the Dutch authorizing privateering.

The Spanish did not hear of the Providence Island colony until 1635, when they captured some Englishmen in Portobelo, on the Isthmus of Panama. Francisco de Murga, Governor and Captain General of Cartagena, dispatched Captain Gregorio de Castellar y Mantilla and engineer Juan de Somovilla Texada to destroy the colony. [34] The Spanish were repelled and forced to retreat "in haste and disorder". [35] After the attack, King Charles I of England issued letters of marque to the Providence Island Company on 21 December 1635 authorizing raids on the Spanish in retaliation for a raid that had destroyed the English colony on Tortuga earlier in 1635 (Tortuga had come under the protection of the Providence Island Company. In 1635 a Spanish fleet raided Tortuga. 195 colonists were hung and 39 prisoners and 30 slaves were captured). The company could in turn issue letters of marque to subcontracting privateers who used the island as a base, for a fee. This soon became an important source of profit. Thus the Company made an agreement with the merchant Maurice Thompson under which Thompson could use the island as a base in return for 20% of the booty. [36]

In March 1636 the Company dispatched Captain Robert Hunt on the Blessing to assume the governorship of what was now viewed as a base for privateering. [37] Depredations continued, leading to growing tension between England and Spain, which were still technically at peace.

On 11 July 1640 the Spanish Ambassador in London complained again, saying he

understands that there is lately brought in at the Isle of Wight by one, Captain James Reskinner [ James Reiskimmer], a ship very richly laden with silver, gold, diamonds, pearls, jewels, and many other precious commodities taken by him in virtue of a commission of the said Earl [of Warwick] from the subjects of his Catholic Majesty ... to the infinite wrong and dishonour of his Catholic Majesty, to find himself thus injured and violated, and his subjects thus spoiled, robbed, impoverished and murdered in the highest time of peace, league and amity with your Majesty. [38]

Nathaniel Butler, formerly Governor of Bermuda, was the last full governor of Providence Island, replacing Robert Hunt in 1638. Butler returned to England in 1640, satisfied that the fortifications were adequate, deputizing the governorship to Captain Andrew Carter. [39]

In 1640, don Melchor de Aguilera, Governor and Captain-General of Cartagena, resolved to remove the intolerable infestation of pirates on the island. Taking advantage of having infantry from Castile and Portugal wintering in his port, he dispatched six hundred armed Spaniards from the fleet and the presidio, and two hundred black and mulatto militiamen under the leadership of don Antonio Maldonado y Tejada, his Sergeant Major, in six small frigates and a galleon. [40] The troops were landed on the island, and a fierce fight ensued. The Spanish were forced to withdraw when a gale blew up and threatened their ships. Carter had the Spanish prisoners executed. When the Puritan leaders protested against this brutality, Carter sent four of them home in chains. [41]

The Spanish acted decisively to avenge their defeat. General Francisco Díaz Pimienta was given orders by King Philip IV of Spain, and sailed from Cartagena to Providence with seven large ships, four pinnaces, 1,400 soldiers and 600 seamen, arriving on 19 May 1641. At first Pimienta planned to attack the poorly defended east side, and the English rushed there to improvise defenses. With the winds against him, Pimienta changed plans and made for the main New Westminster harbor and launched his attack on 24 May. He held back his large ships to avoid damage, and used the pinnaces to attack the forts. The Spanish troops quickly gained control, and once the forts saw the Spanish flag flying over the governor's house, they began negotiations for surrender. [42]

On 25 May 1641, Pimienta formally took possession and celebrated mass in the church. The Spanish took sixty guns, and captured the 350 settlers who remained on the island – others had escaped to the Mosquito coast. They took the prisoners to Cartagena. [43] The women and children were given a passage back to England. The Spanish found gold, indigo, cochineal and six hundred black slaves on the island, worth a total of 500,000 ducats, some of the accumulated booty from the English raids. [44] Rather than destroy the defenses, as instructed, Pimienta left a small garrison of 150 men to hold the island and prevent occupation by the Dutch. [45] Later that year, Captain John Humphrey, who had been chosen to succeed Captain Butler as governor, arrived with a large group of dissatisfied settlers from New England. He found the Spanish in occupation. [46] Pimienta's decision to occupy the island was approved in 1643 and he was made a knight of the Order of Santiago. [43]

Spain and its colonies

The Spanish Amaro Pargo was one of the most famous corsairs of the Golden Age of Piracy. Amaro Pargo.jpg
The Spanish Amaro Pargo was one of the most famous corsairs of the Golden Age of Piracy.
Miguel Enriquez. Miguel Enriquez.jpg
Miguel Enríquez.

When Spain issued a decree blocking foreign countries from trading, selling or buying merchandise in its Caribbean colonies, the entire region became engulfed in a power struggle among the naval superpowers. [47] The newly independent United States later became involved in this scenario, complicating the conflict. [47] As a consequence, Spain increased the issuing of privateering contracts. [47] These contracts allowed an income option to the inhabitants of these colonies that were not related to the Spanish conquistadores. The most well-known privateer corsairs of the eighteenth century in the Spanish colonies were Miguel Enríquez of Puerto Rico and José Campuzano-Polanco of Santo Domingo. [48] Miguel Enríquez was a Puerto Rican mulatto who abandoned his work as a shoemaker to work as a privateer. Such was the success of Enríquez, that he became one of the wealthiest men in the New World. His fleet was composed of approx. 300 different ships during a career that expanded 35 years, becoming a military asset and reportedly outperforming the efficiency of the Armada de Barlovento. Enríquez was knighted and received the title of Don from Philip V, something unheard of due to his ethnic and social background. One of the most famous privateers from mainland Spain was Amaro Pargo.


Advertising for the auction of the prize Chelmers of London, brig captured by the French privateer Junon in 1810. Privateer prize auction.jpg
Advertising for the auction of the prize Chelmers of London, brig captured by the French privateer Junon in 1810.

Corsairs (French: corsaire) 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 (and allied nations), provided the commanding officer of the vessel was in possession of a valid Letter of Marque (fr. Lettre de Marque or Lettre de Course), 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 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 Ottomans were sometimes called "Turkish corsairs".


Corsairing (Italian : corso) was an important aspect of Malta's economy when the island was ruled by the Order of St. John, although the practice had begun earlier. Corsairs sailed on privately owned ships on behalf of the Grand Master of the Order, and were authorized to attack Muslim ships, usually merchant ships from the Ottoman Empire. The corsairs included knights of the Order, native Maltese people, as well as foreigners. When they captured a ship, the goods were sold and the crew and passengers were ransomed or enslaved, and the Order took a percentage of the value of the booty. [49] Corsairing remained common until the end of the 18th century. [50]

United States

Chasseur, one of the most famous American privateers of the War of 1812, capturing HMS St Lawrence Chasseur vs St Lawrence.jpg
Chasseur , one of the most famous American privateers of the War of 1812, capturing HMS St Lawrence

American Revolutionary War

During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress, and some state governments (on their own initiative), issued privateering licenses, authorizing "legal piracy", to merchant captains in an effort to take prizes from the British Navy and Tory (Loyalist) privateers. This was done due to the relatively small number of commissioned American naval vessels and the pressing need for prisoner exchange.

Naval battle off Halifax, Nova Scotia BriggObserveregagingtheJack29May1782HalifaxPublRDodd1Sept1784BerleyRobisonCollectionUSNavalAcademy.jpg
Naval battle off Halifax, Nova Scotia

About 55,000 American seamen served aboard the privateers. [51] They quickly sold their prizes, dividing their profits with the financier (persons or company) and the state (colony). Long Island Sound became a hornets' nest of privateering activity during the American Revolution (1775–1783), as most transports to and from New York went through the Sound. New London, Connecticut was a chief privateering port for the American colonies, leading to the British Navy blockading it in 1778–1779. Chief financiers of privateering included Thomas & Nathaniel Shaw of New London and John McCurdy of Lyme. In the months before the British raid on New London and Groton, a New London privateer took Hannah in what is regarded as the largest prize taken by any American privateer during the war. Retribution was likely part of Gov. Clinton's (NY) motivation for Arnold's Raid, as the Hannah had carried many of his most cherished items. American privateers are thought to have seized up to 300 British ships during the war. The British ship Jack was captured and turned into an American privateer, only to be captured again by the British in the naval battle off Halifax, Nova Scotia. American privateers not only fought naval battles but also raided numerous communities in British colonies, such as the Raid on Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (1782).

The United States Constitution authorized the U.S. Congress to grant letters of marque and reprisal. Between the end of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, less than 30 years, Britain, France, Naples, the Barbary States, Spain, and the Netherlands seized approximately 2,500 American ships. [52] Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of United States government annual revenues in 1800 [53] and would lead the United States to fight the Barbary states in the First Barbary War and Second Barbary Wars.

War of 1812

During the War of 1812, both the British and the American governments used privateers, and the established system was very similar. [54] U.S. Congress declared

that war be and the same is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their Territories; and that the President of the United States is herby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States to carry the same into effect, and to issue to private armed vessels of the United States commissions of marque and general reprisal, in such forms as he shall think proper, and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the Government of the said United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the subjects thereof. [55]

President Madison issued 500 letters of marque authorizing privateers. Overall some 200 of the ships took prizes. The cost of buying and fitting of a large privateer was about $40,000 and prizes could net $100,000. [56]

Captain Thomas Boyle was one of the famous and successful American privateers. He commanded the Baltimore schooner Comet and then later in the war the Baltimore clipper Chasseur. He captured over 50 British merchant ships during the war. One source [57] estimated a total damage to the Royal Navy from Chasseur's 1813-1815 activities at one and a half million dollars. In total, the Baltimore privateer fleet of 122 ships sunk or seized 500 British ships with an estimated value of $16 million, which accounts about one-third of all the value of the all prizes taken over the course of the whole war. [58]

James De Wolf JDe Wolf.jpg
James De Wolf

On April 8, 1814, the British attacked Essex, Connecticut, and burned the ships in the harbor, due to the construction there of a number of privateers. This was the greatest financial loss of the entire War of 1812 suffered by the Americans. However, the private fleet of James De Wolf, which sailed under the flag of the American government in 1812, was most likely a key factor in the naval campaign of the war. De Wolf's ship, the Yankee, was possibly the most financially successful ship of the war. Privateers proved to be far more successful than their US Navy counterparts, claiming three-quarters of the 1600 British merchant ships taken during the war (although a third of these were recaptured prior to making landfall). One of the more successful of these ships was the Prince de Neufchatel , which once captured nine British prizes in swift succession in the English Channel.[ citation needed ]

Jean Lafitte and his privateers aided US General Andrew Jackson in the defeat of the British in the Battle of New Orleans in order to receive full pardons for their previous crimes. [59] [60] [61] [62] [63] Jackson formally requested clemency for Lafitte and the men who had served under him, and the US government granted them all a full pardon on February 6, 1815. [64] [65]

However, many of the ships captured by the Americans were recaptured by the Royal Navy. British convoy systems honed during the Napoleonic Wars limited losses to singleton ships, and the effective blockade of American and continental ports prevented captured ships being taken in for sale. This ultimately led to orders forbidding US privateers from attempting to bring their prizes in to port, with captured ships instead having to be burnt. Over 200 American privateer ships were captured by the Royal Navy, many of which were turned on their former owners and used by the British blockading forces. Nonetheless, during the War of 1812 the privateers "swept out from America’s coasts, capturing and sinking as many as 2,500 British ships and doing approximately $40 million worth of damage to the British economy." [54]

1856 Declaration of Paris

The US was not one of the initial signatories of the 1856 Declaration of Paris which outlawed privateering, and the Confederate Constitution authorized use of privateers. However, the US did offer to adopt the terms of the Declaration during the American Civil War, when the Confederates sent several privateers to sea before putting their main effort in the more effective commissioned raiders.

American Civil War

During the Civil War Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued letters of marque to anyone who would employ their ship to either attack Union shipping or bring badly needed supplies through the Union blockade into southern ports. Many of the supplies brought into the Confederacy were carried aboard privately owned vessels. When word came about that the Confederacy was willing to pay almost any price for military supplies, various interested parties designed and built specially designed light weight seagoing steamers, blockade runners specifically designed and built to outrun Union ships on blockade patrol. [66] [67]

19th Century

No letter of marque has been legitimately issued by the United States since the 19th century. The status of submarine hunting Goodyear airships in the early days of World War II has created significant confusion. According to one story, the United States Navy issued a Letter of Marque to the Airship Resolute on the West Coast of the United States at the beginning of World War II, making it the first time the US Navy commissioned a privateer since the War of 1812. [68] However, this story, along with various other accounts referring to the airships Resolute and Volunteer as operating under a "privateer status", is highly dubious. Since neither the Congress nor the President appears to have authorized a privateer during the war, the Navy would not have had the authority to do so by itself. [69]

Latin America

"Corsario" (Privateer) by Mexican artist Mauricio Garcia Vega. 014Corsario.jpg
"Corsario" (Privateer) by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Warships were recruited by the insurgent governments during Spanish American wars of independence to destroy Spanish trade, and capture Spanish Merchant vessels. The private armed vessels came largely from the United States. Seamen from Britain, United States and France often manned these ships.

See also

Related Research Articles

History of Bermuda

Bermuda was originally discovered in 1503 by Spanish explorer Juan de Bermúdez. In 1609, the English Virginia Company, which had established Jamestown in Virginia two years earlier, permanently settled Bermuda in the aftermath of a hurricane, when the crew and passengers of Sea Venture steered the ship onto the surrounding reef to prevent it from sinking, then landed ashore. Bermuda's first capital, St. George's, was established in 1612.

Piracy Act of robbery or criminal violence at sea

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. 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.

Buccaneer In the seventeenth century, sailors lived on the hunt for wild beef and pork, smoked meat and sold skins.

Buccaneers were a kind of privateer or free sailor peculiar to the Caribbean Sea during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Bermuda sloop sailing vessel developed on the islands of Bermuda in the 17th century

The Bermuda sloop is a type of fore-and-aft rigged single-masted sailing vessel developed on the islands of Bermuda in the 17th century. Such vessels originally had gaff rigs with quadrilateral sails, but evolved to use the Bermuda rig with triangular sails. Although the Bermuda sloop is often described as a development of the narrower-beamed Jamaica sloop, which dates from the 1670s, the high, raked masts and triangular sails of the Bermuda rig are rooted in a tradition of Bermudian boat design dating from the earliest decades of the 17th century. It is distinguished from other vessels with the triangular Bermuda rig, which may have multiple masts or may not have evolved in hull form from the traditional designs.

French corsairs French privateers authorized by the French crown

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".

Commerce raiding A form of naval warfare

Commerce raiding is a form of naval warfare used to destroy or disrupt logistics of the enemy on the open sea by attacking its merchant shipping, rather than engaging its combatants or enforcing a blockade against them.

USS Nonsuch was a moderately successful privateer built in 1812 and then an armed schooner in the United States Navy during the War of 1812. She was sold for breaking up in 1826.

Baltimore Clipper

Baltimore Clipper is the colloquial name for fast sailing ships built on the mid-Atlantic seaboard of the United States of America, especially at the port of Baltimore, Maryland. The name is most commonly applied to two-masted schooners and brigantines. These vessels may also be referred to as Baltimore Flyers.

Golden Age of Piracy outbursts of piracy in maritime history from the 1650s to the 1730s

The Golden Age of Piracy is a common designation given to usually one or more outbursts of piracy in the maritime history of the early modern period. In its broadest accepted definition, the Golden Age of Piracy spans the 1650s to the late 1720s and covers three separate outbursts of piracy:

  1. The buccaneering period of approximately 1650 to 1680, characterized by Anglo-French seamen based on Jamaica and Tortuga attacking Spanish colonies and shipping in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific
  2. The Pirate Round of the 1690s, associated with long-distance voyages from the Americas to rob Muslim and East India Company targets in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea
  3. The post-Spanish Succession period extending from 1716 to 1726, when Anglo-American sailors and privateers left unemployed by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, turned en masse to piracy in the Caribbean, the North American eastern seaboard, the West African coast, and the Indian Ocean
Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda known as HMD Bermuda, the dockyard at the core of the Royal Navy base in Bermuda

HMD Bermuda was the principal base of the Royal Navy in the Western Atlantic between American independence and the Cold War. Bermuda had occupied a useful position astride the homeward leg taken by many European vessels from the New World since before its settlement by England in 1609. French privateers may have used the islands as a staging place for operations against Spanish galleons in the 16th century. Bermudian privateers certainly played a role in many Imperial wars following settlement. Despite this, it was not until the loss of bases on most of the North American Atlantic seaboard threatened Britain's supremacy in the Western Atlantic that the island assumed great importance as a naval base. In 1818 the Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda officially replaced the Royal Naval Dockyard, Halifax as the British headquarters for the North America and West Indies Station.

Henry Jennings was an 18th-century English privateer from the colony of Bermuda, who served primarily during the War of the Spanish Succession and later served as leader of the pirate haven or "republic" of New Providence.

Piracy in the British Virgin Islands

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."

<i>Chasseur</i> (1812 clipper)

Chasseur was a Baltimore Clipper commanded by Captains Pearl Durkee, William Wade (1813) and Thomas Boyle (1814-1815). She was one of the best equipped and manned American privateers during the War of 1812.

HMS Pictou was a 14-gun schooner that the Royal Navy captured in 1813. She served briefly on the Royal Navy's North American station, capturing one or two merchantmen before the American frigate USS Constitution captured and destroyed her during the War of 1812.

West Indies Squadron (United States)

The West Indies Squadron, or the West Indies Station, was a United States Navy squadron that operated in the West Indies in the early nineteenth century. It was formed due to the need to suppress piracy in the Caribbean Sea, the Antilles and the Gulf of Mexico region of the Atlantic Ocean. This unit later engaged in the Second Seminole War until being combined with the Home Squadron in 1842. From 1822 to 1826 the squadron was based out of Saint Thomas Island until the Pensacola Naval Yard was constructed.

Action off Charles Island

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.

West Indies anti-piracy operations of the United States

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.

Insurgent privateer

The insurgent privateers were private armed vessels recruited by the insurgent governments during the Spanish American wars of independence to destroy Spanish trade and capture Spanish merchant vessels.


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Further reading