When a Letter of Marque was provided by (or on behalf of) the Crown, hostile actions, like attacking and seizing enemy merchant ships, were no longer considered piracy and instead were encouraged. If a “Privateer”, who was basically a pirate with a license, held one of these documents, he could conduct his normal business without fear of the law interfering because he paid his taxes. If their treasures were shared with the Crown, these plundering seafarers were allowed to raid and capture rival ships as they see fit.
Letters of Marque
Letters of Marque can be traced back to the naval laws of ancient nations such as the Babylonians and Egyptians who sailed the Mediterranean for trade purposes. These official certificates were put into place to settle conflicts that could arise between sailors and maritime merchants when both groups were located outside the jurisdiction of any country. They were particularly helpful when resolving disputes that involved contracts for shipped goods, ransom for pirate ships, duty payments and the like. While Letters of Marque were most heavily used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, similar practices are still in place today.
Pirates with Permission
In a shrewd business move, the Crown decided that it had much to gain from piracy, so rather than outlawing the things pirates did outright, they could rebrand the swashbucklers as privateers. This allowed the King to keep a willing, if not unofficial, navy at his beck and call for the mere price of an official license bearing the Royal seal. Virtually any vessel could be used by a privateer holding a Letter of Marque, which he could show to anyone questioning his authority as proof that his actions were supported by the Crown.
England’s first known Letters of Marque were written in Latin or French, while English was introduced in the 16th century. It was common for them to declare the percentage of the treasure that would be shared with the Crown or describe how it would be divided once the ship was home. Letters evolved because pirates typically looked for loopholes and ways to maximize their profits, and soon made it clear that no goods were to be taken off of the ship and sold; they were instructed to reach the nearest port with the treasure-filled vessel to be evaluated by the proper authorities who could estimate the total value. Not to be overlooked, these documents sometimes spelled out who they were not allowed to attack and explained the punishments given for raiding friendly ships.
Learning more about the Letters of Marque is a compelling way to understand the riveting lives that pirates and privateers led.