privateering

privateering, former usage of war permitting privately owned and operated war vessels (privateers) under commission of a belligerent government to capture enemy shipping. Private ownership distinguished the privateer from an ordinary warship; letters of marque and reprisal (commission issued by a government) distinguished it from a pirate craft. The primary object of privateering was to harass the enemy, but it was often practiced as a retaliatory measure. Licensed privateering dates back to the 13th cent., but the great era of privateering was the period from 1589 to 1815, when privateers became auxiliaries to or substitutes for regular navies, and when weaker naval powers used privateers as an effective method of injuring a more powerful maritime rival. Privateersmen, who kept all or a part of their booty, often gained great wealth. After the defeat (1692) of the French fleet by the Dutch and English, France commissioned privateers, who preyed upon English commerce. In the American War of Independence and in the War of 1812 American privateersmen captured hundreds of prizes. The Confederate States issued letters of marque to the last privateers in history, but the Union blockade limited their effectiveness. In attempting to curb the abuses of privateering, nations required that captures be condemned in prize courts and that commissions (in restricted number) be granted only in the name of the sovereign. Privateersmen were free of naval discipline, and their desire for prize often led them to make no distinction between friendly and enemy shipping, to violate the rules of war, and to indulge in lawlessness after the conclusion of peace. These abuses led to the abolition of privateering by the Declaration of Paris (1856). This declaration does not prohibit the creation of voluntary navies consisting of private vessels under the control of a state, such as those used in World War II in the evacuation from Dunkirk.

See E. S. Maclay, History of American Privateers (1924, repr. 1968); W. B. Johnson, Wolves of the Channel (1931); C. W. Kendall, Private Men-of-War (1932); J. P. Cranwell and W. B. Crane, Men of Marque (1940); D. Woodward, The Secret Raiders (1955); D. B. Chidsey, The American Privateers (1962); C. L. Alderman, The Privateersmen (1965).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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