What was the difference between a pirate and a privateer?

Pirates were basically independent sea-borne robbers who went out on the sea, intercepted a ship, took it by force and then shared the cargo and money out between themselves. Obviously this practice was frowned on by the authorities who took steps to stamp it out and piracy was, and still is a criminal offence.

However, in some cases when a country was at war, private ships were manned and armed and used to attack enemy shipping. When these ships were sanctioned by the state it was termed "privateering". This legalised form of piracy was deemed to be alright because only enemy shipping was disrupted, hopefully only foreigners were killed and, best of all, the State got a share of the profit with neither outlay nor risk. It was also useful because it provided the authorities with a ready supply of intelligence on enemy activities.

Of course, It was terribly difficult to differentiate between a pirate and a privateer and so in 1689 the practice of issuing "Letters of Marque" became common. This was, in effect, a licence to thieve on the high seas. Once this became common it became much easier to identify who was indulging in a spot of criminal activity and who was indulging in a spot of patriotic free enterprise. Before these letters of marque were introduced the circumstances of any attack has to be looked into to determine whether it was of a piratical or privateering nature.


George Carteret and the English Civil War

Jersey privateers in the 18th century

The Privateer Lively, 1778

Thomas Pickstock and the Herald, 1798

Privateering chronology

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