A privateer was an individual or a ship carrying authorization to attack enemy ships in a war, usually in the form of a letter of marque. Privateers were, in essence, legally-sanctioned pirates, with the only difference being that they were sponsored by a government. Indeed, many actual pirates started out as privateers, and simply began attacking ships they were not authorized to seize.
Local governments in the colonies often lacked manpower and resources to prosecute war against their parent nation’s enemies. In order to gain protection and to profit from the wars, they would hire privateers. The background of these individuals varied wildly — they could be merchants and entrepreneurs seeking to profit from the ongoing hostilities, or they could basically be hired thugs that the government legitimized in order to gain a share of their wealth and to turn them against their enemies.
A privateer’s duties were often synonymous with that of a pirate. They would raid merchant shipping belonging to enemy nations, capturing their ships and seizing their cargoes. They would also raid enemy settlements and fight against naval vessels. Privateers rarely were paid regular wages, instead keeping a share of their plunder. Usually, they would be required to bring the ships and cargo they captured back to their home port and present it to the admirality courts, who would condemn the plunder as spoils of war. It would then be auctioned off, with the largest share going to the government and the rest as payment to the privateer and his crew.
A privateer could therefore be seen as a seaborne militia of sorts — they were irregular military forces, not part of the sponsoring nation’s official navy, but still operating under their banner. Life aboard a privateering vessel was usually more free than that of a naval crew — the harsh discipline and strict orders did not apply, though the privateer captain would still have to exert control over his crew. Still, they were free to determine their own targets and destinations independent of the navy, so long as those targets were legal under the terms of their letter of marque.
To their enemies, privateers were often seen as identical to pirates, and the legal protections granted by their documents were routinely ignored. If captured, a privateer usually faced the same punishment they would as if they were a common pirate, that is, hanging at the gallows. Their legal protections, in effect, were only useful in interactions with their own nation and its allies.
Privateers often turned to actual piracy, due to the similarities between the activities and the crews hired to do them. This change of career was as simple as deciding to ignore the terms of the letter of marque and begin seizing ships of any flag. This option was usually quite attractive as well — a pirate, serving no nation, would not have to give up any shares of his plunder to any nation. Sometimes, the decision to turn pirate was made by simple majority vote among the crew, as was the case with the pirate Robert Culliford. In other cases, the captain wished to remain with their legal contract as a privateer, but faced pressure from their crew and were forced to turn pirate. This was the case with Captain Kidd, who set sail on a privateering expedition with a crew of former pirates. Prolonged conflict with his crew and slim pickings against enemies ultimately forced him to give in to their demands and attack ships indiscriminately. Privateer captains even faced mutiny, in which their crew would overthrow and replace them with a new captain, who would then engage in piracy.
Henry Morgan was perhaps the greatest privateer of all time. While usually referred to as a pirate, he spent his entire career operating under the protection of English law. The government of Jamaica, based in Port Royal, needed to utilize privateers to defend from Spanish attempts to retake the island. Morgan’s raids made him and his crew incredibly wealthy, and brought prosperity to the port town.
Privateering came to an end in the 1800s. The Paris Declaration of 1856 outlawed the practice, and was signed by the major European powers – including the naval powers of Great Britain and France. The United States rejected the declaration, claiming that it unfairly tilted the scales against the fledgling nation, as it lacked a large navy – but ultimately, it did not commission any privateers after 1815. With the rise of standing armies and navies, privateering became obsolete.