A Brief History of English Privateers

Discover the history of English privateering from its origins to its end.

May 9, 2023By Cale Gressman, BA History, BA Philosophy

english privateers


Since mankind began to make its way across the world’s oceans and lakes to transport goods, so too have pirates preyed on those goods. Throughout history, (and into the present) governments have struggled to contain this threat. However, the same tactics have also been used by states to wage war. As one of the most notable nations to engage in this type of warfare, England stands as an excellent example of the use of privateers during warfare.


What Is a Privateer?

letter of marque
American Letter of Marque, 1776, via allthingsliberty.com


To quote the 19th-century legal scholar Georg Friederich Martens privateering is “the expeditions of private individuals during war, who, being provided with a special permission from one of the belligerent powers, fit-out at their own expense, one or more vessels, with the principal design of attacking the enemy, and preventing neutral subjects or friends from carrying on with the enemy a commerce regarded as illicit.”


So what “special permission” gave allowance to what is effectively state-sanctioned private warfare? This permission came in the form of the Letter of Marque and Reprisal. Appearing in an early form in the 12th century, this document would grant recipients the right to reprisal and restitution; not revenge. Issued not only by the crown but often by lower-level officials, it defined what enemy vessels could be targeted. It also afforded a privateer, if captured, the same guarantees that any other prisoner of war would receive i.e not being hung for piracy as was the usual practice.


Assuming the recipient of the Marque was successful, the captured vessel would be taken back to a friendly port in order to be presented before an admiralty court. Here, the court would examine the vessel and the letter to ensure that the vessel seized was in fact a legal prize. Once the legality of the prize was determined, the admiralty court would sell off the ship and its cargo at auction.

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A privateer’s pay was determined by shares in said privateer’s firm. It was usually the case that about half of the profit would go to the ship’s captain, with the rest being split between the crew and any repairs or supplies needed. Unfortunately, this was only gross profits, before anything could be divided up, about half would go to the state in the form of taxes, fees, and duties.


Origins of the English Privateer

cinque ports
Location of the Cinque Ports and their limbs, by Clem Rutter, Rochester, Kent, via Wikimedia Commons


English privateering has its roots in the Middle Ages with the rise of the Cinque Ports. A confederation of the ports at Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, Romney, and Hyth, who, in exchange for certain rights and exemptions, built and maintained a naval force that the English Crown could call upon in the event of an invasion. Before the rise of standing navies, much of Europe’s powers were reliant on the outfitting of merchants’ vessels to wage their wars on the high sea. While their true origins are obscure, the Cinque Ports’ origins can be narrowed down to the reign of Edward the Confessor (1005-65).


During the reign of Henry III, the Cinque Ports would be formally recognized in a “general charter” in 1260. Individual ports were previously mentioned in the Domesday Book (1085), however, this general charter was the first time that the confederation was collectively recognized and granted certain privileges (freedom of trade and defense) in exchange for their services. These services were usually to transport goods and men in the event of war.


The Golden Age of Privateering 

lines of demarcation
Lines dividing the non-Christian world between Castile and Portugal: the 1494 Tordesillas meridian (purple) and the 1529 Zaragoza antimeridian (green), by Lencer, via Wikimedia Commons


Privateering in Europe would hit its collective stride after the discovery of the New World at the close of the 15th century. With Spain being granted most of Central and South America in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), Spain quickly began to exploit the wealth of its newly acquired possessions. This wealth came from the massive amounts of gold and silver from the former Aztec and Incan Empires. Left out in the proverbial cold, other European powers, primarily the English, French, and Poruguese, struggled to catch up to an ascendant Spain.


To strike at Spain financially, these states would commission privateers to prey on the many treasure-laden Spanish galleys as they made their way back to Spain. This is where the story of many of England’s most famous privateers come to the fore. Pithily titled the “Sea Dogs” this list includes the likes of Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Martin Frobisher, and Sir Walter Raleigh. These privateers would play pivotal roles in not only privateering but also the defense of England and its expansion into North America.


sir francis drake young privateer
Sir Francis Drake, by Jodocus Hondius, 16th century, via the National Portrait Gallery


Sir Francis Drake stands out as the most famous of these Sea Dogs. A staunch Protestant he was committed to fighting the Spaniards. From 1562 to 1569, he likely assisted his first cousin John Hawkins in his slaving voyages to West Africa, which effectively created the “English Slave Triangle.” This was all in an effort to break the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on the slave trade.


As his career came into its own he would launch a privately funded voyage to raid Spanish silver galleys along the Pacific coast of South America. Lasting from 1577 to 1580, he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Queen Elizabeth I would express official regret over the actions of Drake but privately received a 4700% return on her investment in the voyage. This event is what would earn Drake his knighthood.


william segar sir walter raleigh privateer
Sir Walter Raleigh, by William Segar. 1598, via History.com


Sir Walter Raleigh was heavily involved in early attempts by England to colonize the New World. While he engaged in privateering, Raleigh would also make efforts to try to establish English settlements in the Americas. The Caribbean and the Spanish Main were dominated by the Spanish whose navy would repel any attempt by the English or others to settle there. This left the English and other European powers to settle on the smaller islands in the Caribbean and further north in North America. Ultimately Raleigh’s choice of Roanoke for settlement was because it was deemed to be close enough to raid Spanish settlements and ships, but far enough away to be protected against Spanish reprisals.


During this entire period, Spain and England were nominally at peace, but disputes over trade, piracy, and the fate of the Spanish Netherlands would lead to the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War. Drake would lead a successful attack on Spanish naval forces at the Bay of Cadiz in 1587. This would be followed by Philip II’s attempt to invade England in 1588. Here these Sea Dogs would also prove their worth by providing one of the main defenses for England against the Spanish Armada.


spanish armada
Launch of fireships against Spanish armada, 7 August 1588, by Netherlandish School, 16th century, via Greenwich Museums


What followed were several failed attempts by the Sea Dogs to further their attacks on the Spanish. In 1589, Drake would lead an “English Armada” against Spain, which would end in failure. This would be followed in 1595, by the failure of the Drake-Hawkins Expedition, and in 1597, by the failure of the Essex-Raleigh Expedition. The Spanish too would attempt three more invasions of the British Isles (1596, 1597, and 1601) all of which would lead to failure.


In 1604, the Spanish under Phillip II and England under the newly crowned James I would negotiate a peace that would finally end hostilities. While Drake and Hawkins would die on a voyage, Raleigh would be executed to appease the Spanish in 1618 after a failed expedition had resulted in a conflict with the Spanish. The result of this peace was a return to the status quo antebellum.


The Privateer to Piracy Pipeline

chart of west indies
Chart of the West Indies, 1796, via the British library


What happened when the utility of the privateers wore out? As Izidor Janžekovič (2020) states, “After James I of England signed the peace treaty with Spain in 1604, the majority of the Elizabethan privateer navy was disbanded, which led to economic hardship and many sailors turning to piracy.” Piracy would be a major thorn in the side of all European powers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The 17th century can be described as the “heyday of English piracy.” At this point in time, privateers would still be used to help maintain security at sea for several decades until European navies could begin to contain the threat of piracy.


However, there was still room for the use of privateers. Until the Treaty of Madrid (1670), the Spanish did not recognize any of the English colonies in the Caribbean as being legitimate. While these small colonies did possess small garrisons, they were in no way enough to repulse any serious invasion. So, to bolster their own defenses, these English settlements made frequent use of privateers. Peace could still be maintained through the old rule of no peace beyond the line,” which effectively meant that, while acts of piracy and raiding occured in the New World, this would not mean war in Europe.


Once English claims to Caribbean possessions were legitimized, privateers had to decide whether to settle down or become pirates. Some like Henry Morgan would go legit and become Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, while others did not.


capture of blackbeard edward teach privateer
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920, via HistoryExtra.com


Many of history’s most famous pirates would have their start as privateers, with many switching back and forth over the course of their careers. One example would be Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard. He is thought to have begun his career as an English privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) in the Caribbean. He is first heard of as a pirate in 1716 and by the time of his death at the hands of the British Navy in 1718, he would cement himself as being one of history’s most famous pirates.


william kidd privateer
William Kidd, by Sir James Thornhill, 18th century, via historydefined.net


Another example is William Kidd, who would spend most of his career acting as a privateer for the English. However, in 1698, he, under threat by his mutinous crew, and was forced into piracy. Like many others, his career was short, and by 1699 he was arrested in Boston and shipped back to England in 1700. Despite his efforts to convince authorities that he had been forced into piracy, he was subsequently hanged in 1701.


The Golden Age of Piracy would come to an end sometime around the 1720s. In 1718, the British Navy brought the Bahamas more firmly under their control. This would deprive these assorted pirates of their main base of operations in the Caribbean.


Wars in North America 

american privateer general armstrong
American privateer “General Armstrong” Capt. Sam. C. Reid. N. Currier, 1838-1856, via USNI.org


Privateering would occur in many conflicts throughout the 18th century, and it made a major resurgence during the American Revolutionary War. The nascent Americans relied heavily on privateers. Throughout the war, the Continental Navy had only 64 ships versus over 1,500 privateering vessels. American privateers would seize over 2,000 British vessels over the course of the war. In total, about 55,000 Americans would serve onboard privateer vessels. The use of privateers would, in fact, be enshrined in the U.S., Constitution.


The situation would not change much for the United States by the War of 1812. This war would also feature the heavy use of privateers, this time by both sides. Privateers employed by the United States would capture as many as 2,500 British vessels and do as much as $40 million ($525 million today) in damages to the British economy. These privateers would effectively be the only American naval presence at sea after 1813, with the Royal Navy having bottled up the U.S. Navy at port.


British privateers would also participate heavily in the conflict. As The Canadian Encyclopedia states“Of some 40 privateers the most successful were the Sir John Sherbrooke, the Retaliation and the Liverpool Packet. The schooner Liverpool Packet was the most successful privateer of the whole War of 1812, with some 50 prizes valued at between $264 000 and $1 000 000.” The War of 1812 would be the last time that privateering featured heavily in a conflict.


The End of Privateering

edouard dubufe congres de paris
Congrès de Paris, by Edouard Louis Dubufe, 1856, via Napoleon.org


After the end of the War of 1812, the use of privateers fell quickly out of fashion. There were brief reappearances of it during the American Civil War and during the Latin American wars for independence. This would end permanently in 1856 when the Declaration of Paris outlawed privateering. Every major European power would sign this declaration with the exception of the U.S. and Spain. Although they too would join in 1908.


So why did it end? Izidor Janžekovič explains it this way, “Previously, (war)ships had been assembled only during wars, but they were now kept in peacetime as well.” The growth of state navies was also caused by the increased effectiveness of state taxation. Prior to the 17th century, it was difficult and expensive for state administrations to raise sufficient funds to not only build but also maintain navies.


taking of the kent by robert surcouf privateer
The Taking of the ‘Kent’ by Robert Surcouf (1773-1827) in the Gulf of Bengal, 7th October 1800, Ambroise-Louis Garneray, 1852, via Wikimedia Commons


Navies gave governments greater flexibility to do what they wanted to accomplish. As Nicholas Ross explains, navies have four major purposes: the invasion of enemy territory, to defend against invasion, to protect commerce, and to attack enemy commerce. Public navies can do all these things, while privateers are usually restricted to raiding enemy commerce.


Another factor was the advancement of military technology. Prior to the 1660s, merchant vessels could be readily outfitted as privateering vessels. However, warships began to be specially built and the effectiveness of privateers began to be negated.


In its time, privateering was a useful and effective way for money-strapped states to quickly build up a naval force. As Alexander Tabarrok states, “It [privateering] never accomplished exactly what the government wanted, but when governments could not easily raise the funds to maintain large navies and when the monitoring of navies was difficult, privateering was a good option.” But ultimately, public navies were far more effective at doing the job that governments wanted, while privateers were usually ineffective at fighting anything beyond merchants’ vessels.

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By Cale GressmanBA History, BA PhilosophyCale was born in Colorado and currently lives in Northern Minnesota. He completed his BA in History, Philosophy, and Religion at the University of North Dakota and graduated in May of 2022. He is taking a gap year before applying for graduate school to complete his PhD in history. He is passionate about history in a wide range of areas, including American, European, military, and intellectual/philosophical history. He also enjoys writing and historical research.