Privateer

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A privateer was a private person or private warship authorized by a country's government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping. Privateers were only entitled by their state to attack and rob enemy vessels during wartime. Privateers were part of naval warfare of some nations from the 16th to the 19th century. The crew of a privateer might be treated as prisoners of war by the enemy country if captured. The costs of commissioning privateers was borne by investors hoping to gain a significant return from prize money earned from enemy merchants.

It has been argued that privateering was a less destructive and wasteful form of warfare, because the goal was to capture ships rather than to sink them.[1]

The privateer was authorized by a national government to engage as a 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 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. Some privateers have been particularly influential in the annals of history. The captured cargo and the prize vessel itself, if serviceable, would be sold at auction with the proceeds distributed among the privateer's owners, officers and crew; sometimes the vessels were commissioned into regular service as warships.

Contents

Legal framework

Being privately owned and run, privateers did not take orders from the Naval command. The letter of marque of a privateer would typically limit activity to a specific area and to the ships of specific nations. Typically, the owners or captain would be required to post a performance bond against breaching these conditions, or they might be liable to pay damages to an injured party. In the United Kingdom, letters of marque were revoked for various offenses.

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.

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