AskDefine | Define privateer

Dictionary Definition



1 an officer or crew member of a privateer [syn: privateersman]
2 a privately owned warship commissioned to prey on the commercial shipping or warships of an enemy nation

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A privately owned warship that had official sanction to attack enemy ships and take possession of their cargo.
  2. An officer or any other member of the crew of such a ship.
  3. A private individual entrant into a race or competition who does not have the backing of a large, professional team.


A privately owned warship
An officer or crew of a privateer ship
Motor racing: Private individual entrant

See also


  1. To function under official sanction permitting attacks on enemy shipping and seizing ship and cargo; to engage in government-sponsored piracy.

Extensive Definition

A privateer was a private warship authorized by a country's government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping. Privateering is often described as a form of "legal" piracy. Strictly, a privateer was only entitled to attack and rob enemy vessels during wartime. However, states often encouraged attacks on opposing powers while at peace, or on neutral vessels during time of war, blurring the line between privateering and piracy.
Privateers were an accepted part of naval warfare from the 16th to the 19th centuries, authorised by all significant naval powers. The costs of commissioning privateers was borne by investors hoping to gain a significant return from prize money earned from enemy merchants.


A privateer was a private warship authorized by a national government. At the time, many merchant vessels were armed with cannons, and naval officers and ratings expected to benefit from prize money if they captured an enemy ship. The privateer was distinguished by the legal framework it operated in—authorized to attack enemy shipping and be treated as prisoners of war if captured. If war was not declared, or if the privateer preyed on neutral shipping, the privateer might well be treated as a pirate by the enemy.
A privateer was an early sort of commerce raider, interrupting enemy trade. Privateers were of great benefit to a smaller naval power, or one facing an enemy dependent on trade: they disrupted commerce and hence enemy tax revenue, and forced the enemy to deploy warships to protect merchant trade. Privateering was a way of mobilizing armed ships and sailors without spending public money or commissioning naval officers. For more information on influential privateers, see the List of notable privateers.

Legal framework

Being privately owned and run, privateers did not take orders from the naval command. Often privateers were required to limit their activity to an agreed area or the ships of an agreed nation by their letter of marque. Often the owners or captain would be required to post a bond against breaching these conditions, or they might be liable to pay damages to an injured party. The French, in the Napoleonic Wars, destroyed letters of marque belonging to returning captains. In the United Kingdom, letters of marque were revoked for offenses like piracy, or firing on a warship's boat.
Conditions on board privateers varied widely. 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.


Any type of vessel could become a privateering vessel. The largest were of the same size and power as small frigates, while the smallest might be a 4-gun schooner. Some were built as warships: an old or unwanted warship might be sold off to privateer, and a privateer might, if captured by a warship, be commissioned into regular service. Others were essentially merchantmen; some vessels were long-range merchants making their regular trade routes but armed and ready to take advantage of any prize that might come their way.
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 1588 Spanish Armada. In fact, the early English attempts to settle North America, under the mandate granted to Sir Walter Raleigh, failed in part because no English ships were permitted to leave England's shores during the lead up to the Armada, as all merchant vessels were considered as having a potential part to play in England's naval defense (but this prevented the timely dispatch of relief to the New World settlement).
The United States used mixed squadrons of frigates and privateers in the War of Independence. 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.


England, and later the United Kingdom, used privateers to great effect and suffered much from other nations' privateering. In the late 16th century, British ships cruised in the Caribbean and off the coast of Spain, trying to intercept treasure fleets from the Spanish Main. The English government felt this was justified by the Spanish Armada seizing the ships of Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, who were trying to sell West African slaves to Spanish colonies, where that activity was illegal.
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 this activity from regular naval warfare. The privateering certainly had the support of Elizabeth I, who on occasion lent ships to or bought shares in expeditions. Attacking Spanish ships was part of a policy of aggressive competition with Spain, and helped provoke the first Anglo-Spanish War. Many Successes were relied on privateers also. Capturing a Spanish treasure ship would enrich the Crown as well as strike a practical blow against Spanish domination of America.
Magnus Heinason served the Dutch against the Spanish. While bringing home a great deal of money, these attacks hardly dented the flow of gold and silver from Mexico to Spain. More treasure reached Spain in the period 1585-1603 than at any other time in history. Elizabeth was succeeded by the first Stuart monarchs, James I and Charles I, who did not permit privateering. By the mid-19th Century, unregulated marine warfare fell out of fashion, perhaps due to the ever-increasing importance of maritime trade to neutral nations and perhaps due to the dominance of the sea (for the time being) by the British.
There were a number of unilateral and bilateral declarations limiting piracy between 1785 and 1823. However, the breakthrough came in 1856 when the Declaration of Paris signed by all major European powers stated "Privateering is and remains abolished". The USA did not sign because a stronger amendment, preventing 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, eligible for prize money. The only difference between this and privateering was that these volunteer ships were under the discipline of the regular navy.
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, more than double the number of the English merchant fleet at the start of the war. During the subsequent war with Spain, Spanish privateers, including many based in Dunkirk, captured 1,500 English merchants, restoring Dutch international trade. British trade, whether coastal, Atlantic or Mediterranean, was also attacked by Dutch privateers and others in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch wars.

18th century

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. In the following War of Spanish Succession, privateer attacks continued, Britain losing 3,250 merchantmen and with Dunkirk privateers alone seizing 959 prizes. The scale of losses meant that Parliament passed an updated Cruisers and Convoys Act in 1708 allocating regular warships to the defence to 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. While French losses were proportionally severe, the smaller, but better protected Spanish trade suffered less and it was Spanish privateers who enjoyed much of the allied plunder of British trade on both sides of the Atlantic.


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 defense against the Spanish Armada in 1588, though was partly responsible for the failure of English Armada against Spain in 1589.
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 daring 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. In 1590, after leading his men aboard an enemy ship off the coast of Cuba, his right arm was "strooken off", and Newport was referred to thereafter as, “Christopher Newport of the one hand.” In 1592, Newport captured the Portuguese, Madre de Deus "Mother of God." She was valued at £500,000, the most valuable prize captured during the Elizabethan privateering era.
Sir Henry Morgan was one of the most famous of all Privateers. Operating out of Jamaica, he carried on an audacious war against Spanish interests in the region, often using cunning tactics. His operation was prone to excessive cruelty of 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 is probably most famous for the enormous amount of booty he took, as well as landing his privateers ashore and attacking land fortifications, including the sack of the city of Panama with only 1,400 crew.
Other British Privateers of note include Fortunatus Wright, Edward Collier, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Michael Geare and Sir Christopher Myngs. Notable British colonial privateers in Nova Scotia include Alexander Godfrey of the brig The Rover (privateering ship) and Joseph Barss of the schooner Liverpool Packet. The latter schooner captured over 50 American vessels during the War of 1812.


The English (now British) colony of Bermuda, settled accidentally in 1609, turned from a failed agricultural economy to the sea after the 1684 dissolution of the Somers Isles Company. With a total landmass of 21 square miles, 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, during the 18th Century, preying on the shipping of Spain, France and other nations during a series of wars. They typically left Bermuda with very large crews. This advantage in manpower was vital in seizing larger vessels, which themselves often lacked enough crewmembers to put up a strong defence. The extra crew men were also useful as prize crews for returning captured vessels.
Despite close links to the American colonies (and the material aid provided the continental rebels in the form of a hundred barrels of stolen gunpowder), Bermudian privateers turned as aggressively on American shipping during the American War of Independence. An American naval captain, ordered to take his ship out of Boston Harbour to eliminate a pair of Bermudian privateering vessels, which 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. The only attack on Bermuda during the war was carried out by two sloops captained by a pair of Bermudian-born brothers (they damaged a fort and spiked its guns before retreating). It greatly surprised the Americans to discover that the crews of Bermudian privateers included Black slaves, as, with limited manpower, Bermuda had legislated that a part of all Bermudian crews must be made up of Blacks.
In fact, when the Bermudian privateer Regulator was captured, virtually all of her crew were found to be Black slaves. Authorities in Boston offered these men their freedom, but all 70 elected to be treated as Prisoners of War. Sent to New York on the sloop Duxbury, they seized the vessel and sailed it back to Bermuda. The American War of 1812 was to be the encore of Bermudian privateering, which had died out after the 1790s, due partly to the build up 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. During the course of the American War of 1812, Bermudian privateers were to capture 298 ships (the total captures by all British naval and privateering vessels between the Great Lakes and the West Indies was 1,593 vessels).

United States

The United States Constitution authorized the U.S. Congress to grant letters of marque and reprisal; the Confederate Constitution likewise authorized use of privateers. Robert Morris, the first American millionaire, partly became wealthy by privateering, and George Washington owned part of at least one privateer ship. The American government issued privateering licenses to merchant captains during the Revolutionary War due to the relatively small number of commissioned American naval vessels. The American privateers are thought to have seized up to 300 British ships. One of the more successful of these ships was the Prince de Neufchatel, once capturing nine British prizes in swift succession in the English Channel.
During the War of 1812, the British attacked Essex, Connecticut, and burned the ships in the harbor, due to the construction of a number of privateers. The US was not one of the initial signatories of 1856 Declaration of Paris, which outlawed privateering. However, the USA did offer to adopt its terms during the American Civil War, when the Confederates commissioned privateers from many nations.

In fiction

Writers of historical fiction have created several series which are set amidst the privateering era. Horatio Hornblower, a British Royal Navy officer created by C. S. Forester, had numerous encounters with privateers over the 11-novel span of his career. Patrick O'Brien's "The Letter of Marque" is one of his Jack Aubrey novels set in the context of Nelson's navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The genre of science fiction often borrows from other genres. This genre-blending approach is used by science fiction writer Poul Anderson, in his book The Star Fox, which depicts a future where the system of Letters of Marque is revived and space privateers battle in starships.
Several computer games are set in the privateering era. The MMORPG Pirates of the Burning Sea features the Privateer as one of the career (character class) choices for a player who chooses to represent one of the three player nations: Britain, France, or Spain. In game, Privateers get ability bonuses to boarding combat. Privateers are a unit in the computer games Sid Meier%27s Colonization and Civilization 3, and are also present in the expansion pack Beyond the Sword for Civilization 4. In Golden Sun: The Lost Age for Game Boy Advance, the character Piers starts as a privateer.
Privateers are referred to in songs, comic books, and cartoons. Elicid Barrett of the Stan Rogers song "Barrett's Privateers" is a privateer. As well, the Shichibukai from the manga comic book and anime series One Piece are loosely based on privateers.
Privateering is referred to during the 2006 film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, whereby Lord Beckett of the East India Trading Company attempts to trade a commission as a privateer on behalf of England to Captain Jack Sparrow in exchange for his unique compass.

Further reading

  • Faye Kert, Prize and Prejudice Privateering and Naval Prize in Atlantic Canada in the War of 1812. Research in maritime history, no. 11. St. John's, Nfld: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1997.
  • A. Bryant Nichols Jr., Captain Christopher Newport: Admiral of Virginia, Sea Venture, 2007
privateer in Breton: Brezel kourserezh
privateer in Bulgarian: Капер
privateer in Catalan: Corsari
privateer in Czech: Kaper
privateer in Danish: Kaper
privateer in Spanish: Corsario
privateer in Esperanto: Korsaro
privateer in Basque: Kortsario
privateer in French: Corsaire
privateer in Galician: Corsario
privateer in Croatian: Gusari
privateer in Ido: Korsaro
privateer in Italian: Corsaro
privateer in Hebrew: פריבטיר
privateer in Macedonian: Гусар
privateer in Dutch: Kaper
privateer in Japanese: 私掠船
privateer in Norwegian: Kaperfart
privateer in Norwegian Nynorsk: Kaperfart
privateer in Polish: Kaper
privateer in Portuguese: Corsário
privateer in Russian: Каперы
privateer in Serbian: Корсари
privateer in Finnish: Kaappari
privateer in Swedish: Kapare

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

AB, Ancient Mariner, Argonaut, Blackbeard, Captain Hook, Captain Kidd, Dylan, Flying Dutchman, Henry Morgan, Jean Lafitte, Neptune, OD, Poseidon, Varuna, able seaman, able-bodied seaman, air pirate, airplane hijacker, bluejacket, buccaneer, corsair, deep-sea man, fair-weather sailor, fisherman, freeboot, hearty, jack, jack afloat, jack-tar, jacky, limey, lobsterman, mariner, matelot, navigator, picaroon, pirate, rover, sailor, salt, sea dog, sea king, sea rover, seafarer, seafaring man, seaman, shipman, skyjacker, tar, viking, water dog, whaler, windjammer, windsailor
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