Letters Of Marque

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Have you heard of letters of marque and wondering what it was all about? Letters of Marque and Reprisal documents were written permissions used hundreds of years ago which gave their owners authority to capture or destroy property belonging to a certain group or nation. In general, governments usually issued letters of Marque. From time to time,  a person who operated under a Letter of Marque and Reprisal was treated as a regular national army. During the Golden Age of Piracy, Letters of Marque were primarily used by privateers. Keep reading more to learn about letters of marque and how it related to pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Letters of Marque

To start with, a letter of marque and reprisal was a license issued by a government that authorized a private person, often referred to as a privateer or corsair, to attack and capture vessels of a nation at war with the issuer. If a ship was captured, the privateer was allowed to bring the case to admiralty court which would determine whether or not to allow transfer of ownership to the privateer. Likewise, a letter of marquel also included permission to cross an international border in order to conduct a reprisal. A reprisal is action against an attack or injury, and was authorized by an issuing jurisdiction that conducted reprisal operations outside its borders. Did you know that the terms letter of marque and privateer were sometimes used to describe the vessels used to pursue and capture prizes? When used this way, a letter of marque was considered a cargo carrier that could pick up a prize if an opportunity arose along its normal course of duties. On the contrary, the term privateer most often meant a fast vessel exclusively used for fighting that was heavily armed and heavily crewed.

When Were They Used?

The first Letter of Marque is recorded as issued in 1243 from Henry III of England. Initially, the original purpose of a letter of marque was for retaliatory reasons only, and not to be used as a declaration of war. However, during the wartimes they began to be issued more frequently in order to quickly organize a cheap naval army. During wartime, many governments authorized ship owners so they could equip themselves with arms in order to attack enemy war ships and subsequently seize merchant shipping. Also, during the age of buccaneers, every attack on Spaniards had to be authorized with some kind of letter of Marque. However, the authenticity of many letters of marques used at that time were questionable. During the 16th century, privateers had to give a percentage of any captured booty to the government as payment for the letter of marque authorization.  Since the Declaration of Paris in 1856, the use of Letters of Marque has been forbidden.

In conclusion, letters of marque were popular among Europeans from the late Middle Ages up to the 19th century. When compared with piracy, a letter of marque was considered an honorable calling that was able to combine patriotism with profit.  Likewise, privateering that operated under a letter of marque contrasted with random attacks and captures of random ships by pirates. Piracy was unlicensed and generally denounced by governments and common opinion. The truth is, the differences between privateers operating under a letter of marque and pirates were quite subtle and simply a matter of interpretation.