A PRIVATEER refers to both a privately owned vessel of war and to the sailors that manned them as well. Privateer ships sailed for different governments with a document called a “Letter of Marque and Reprisal” or “Letter of Marque” for short. This was basically a license issued by the different power, England, Spain, France and the Netherlands, to individual non-naval captains and crews to attack and capture the ships of enemy nations for a percentage of all booty taken. This system was especially favored in the New World of the 16th and 17th centuries when the Navies of the major powers were focused on the endless wars between European nations. Privateers represented colonial governments far from their parent countries. During the American Revolution, for example, the only Naval forces Colonial America had were Privateers, John Paul Jones being the most notable example.
But in the “Golden Age of Piracy” there was thin line between “technically” legal Privateering and outright Piracy which was often crossed, intentionally or not. If an English Privateer were captured by the Spanish, he would be tried and executed as a Pirate, and vice versa. With communications being what they were back in the day, a Privateer ship with a Letter of Marque might set out to voyage against an enemy, only to have peace break out between the former enemies while they were cut off from their home ports. Capturing a former enemy’s vessel was considered an act of Piracy and punishable by law. Many became Pirates by choice, especially after periods of peace when they were “Thrown up on the Beach,” no longer needed by the Powers that formerly depended on them. These sailor/ warriors had the ships and the skills to capture ships of ANY nation and thus many became Pirates-the Enemies of all Mankind!
But as long as the wars raged on,as they did through much of the 17th & 18th centuries, Privateers fought throughout the Caribbean for whichever nation paid them best.
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