East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

A privateer is a private person or ship that engages in maritime warfare under a commission of war.[1] The commission, also known as a letter of marque, empowers the person to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war, including attacking foreign vessels during wartime and taking them as prizes. Historically, captured ships were subject to condemnation and sale under prize law, with the proceeds divided between the privateer sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew. A percentage share usually went to the issuer of the commission. Since robbery under arms was once common to seaborne trade, all merchant ships were already armed. During war, naval resources were auxiliary to operations on land so privateering was a way of subsidizing state power by mobilizing armed ships and sailors.

In practice the legality and status of privateers historically has often been vague. Depending on the specific government and the time period, letters of marque might be issued hastily and/or the privateers might take actions beyond what was authorized by the letters. The privateers themselves were often simply pirates who would take advantage of wars between nations to gain semi-legal status for their enterprises. By the end of the 19th century the practice of issuing letters of marque had fallen out of favor because of the chaos it caused and its role in inadvertently encouraging piracy.

A privateer is similar to a mercenary except that, whereas a mercenary group receives a set fee for services and generally has a formal reporting structure within the entity that hires them, a privateer acts independently with generally no compensation unless the enemy's property is captured.

Legal framework and relation to piracy

The letter of marque of a privateer would typically limit activity to one particular ship, and specified officers. Typically, the owners or captain would be required to post a performance bond. In the United Kingdom, letters of marque were revoked for various offences.

Boarding of the Triton (a British East Indiaman) by the French corsair Hasard.

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.

While privateers such as Kidd were commissioned to hunt pirates, privateering itself was often blamed for piracy. Privateering commissions were easy to obtain during wartime but when the war ended and privateers were recalled, many refused to give up the lucrative business and turned to piracy.[2] Colonial officials exacerbated the problem by issuing commissions to known pirates, giving them legitimacy in exchange for a share of the profits or even open bribes. The French Governor of Petit-Goave gave buccaneer Francois Grogniet blank privateering commissions, which Grogniet traded to Edward Davis for a spare ship so the two could continue raiding Spanish cities under a guise of legitimacy.[3] New York Governors Jacob Leisler and Benjamin Fletcher were removed from office in part for their dealings with pirates such as Thomas Tew, to whom Fletcher had granted commissions to sail against the French, but who ignored his commission to raid Mughal shipping in the Red Sea instead.[4] Kidd himself committed piracy during his privateering voyage (though he maintained his innocence and blamed his unruly crew) and was tried and executed upon his return. Boston minister Cotton Mather lamented after the execution of pirate John Quelch: "Yea, Since the Privateering Stroke, so easily degenerates into the Piratical; and the Privateering Trade, is usually carried on with so Unchristian a Temper, and proves an inlet unto so much Debauchery, and Iniquity, and Confusion, I believe, I shall have Good men Concur with me, in wishing, That Privateering may no more be practised, except there may appear more hopeful Circumstances to Encourage it."[5]

Other Languages
asturianu: Corsariu
Bân-lâm-gú: Su-lia̍h
беларуская: Капёры
български: Капер
català: Corsari
čeština: Korzár
Cymraeg: Preifatîr
dansk: Kaper
Deutsch: Kaperei
Ελληνικά: Κουρσάρος
español: Corsario
Esperanto: Korsaro
euskara: Kortsario
français: Corsaire
galego: Corsario
한국어: 사략
հայերեն: Կապերություն
hrvatski: Gusari
Ido: Korsaro
Bahasa Indonesia: Privateer
íslenska: Kapari
italiano: Corsaro
עברית: פריבטיר
Latina: Cursarius
lietuvių: Kaperis
magyar: Privatér
македонски: Гусар
Nederlands: Kaapvaart
日本語: 私掠船
norsk: Kaperfart
norsk nynorsk: Kaperfart
occitan: Corsari
polski: Kaper
português: Corsário
română: Corsar
русский: Каперы
Scots: Privateer
Simple English: Privateer
slovenčina: Kaper (osoba)
slovenščina: Gusarstvo
српски / srpski: Корсари
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Gusari
suomi: Kaappari
svenska: Kapare
тыва дыл: Корсарлар
українська: Корсари
中文: 私掠