Letter of marque

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In the days of fighting sail, a Letter of Marque and Reprisal was a government license authorizing a private vessel to attack and capture enemy vessels, and bring them before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale. Cruising for prizes with a Letter of Marque was considered an honorable calling combining patriotism and profit, in contrast to unlicensed piracy which was universally reviled.[1] The French used the term lettre de course for their letters of marque, giving rise to the term corsair. Letter of Marque can sometimes describe the vessel itself: a "Letter of Marque" generally refers to a lumbering square-rigged cargo carrier that might pick up a prize if the opportunity arose,[2] whereas a "privateer" was a fast and weatherly fore-and-aft rigged vessel heavily armed and heavily crewed, intended exclusively for fighting.

A "letter of marque and reprisal" would involve permission to cross an international border to effect a reprisal (take some action against an attack or injury) authorized by an issuing jurisdiction to conduct reprisal operations outside its borders.

Contents

Etymology

Old English mearc, from Germanic *mark- ‘boundary; boundary marker’, from Proto-Indo-European *merǵ- ‘boundary, border’.

French, from Provençal marca, from marcar ‘seize as a pledge‘

Nomenclature history

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Clarendon Press, 1989) ( def. 1 of "marque" & def. 2a of "marque" defining "letter of marque"), the first recorded use of "letters of marque and reprisal" was in an English statute in 1354 during the reign of Edward III. The phrase referred to "a licen[s]e granted by a sovereign to a subject, authorizing him to make reprisals on the subjects of a hostile state for injuries alleged to have been done to him by the enemy's army."

Early history

During the Middle Ages armed private vessels enjoying their sovereign's tacit consent, if not always an explicit formal commission, regularly raided shipping of other nations, as in the case of Francis Drake's attacks on Spanish shipping of which Elizabeth I (despite protestations of innocence) took a share.[4] Grotius's 1604 seminal work on international law called De Iure Praedae (Of The law of Prize and Booty) was an advocate's brief defending Dutch raids on Spanish and Portuguese shipping.[5]

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