The Difference between Pirating and Privateering

Piracy has proliferated since the invention of boats over 10,000 years ago.(1) In the upcoming stories, we will hear a lot about pirates and privateers. European nations in the sixteenth century held peculiar codes of ethics when it came to snatching goods from other nations.


If one country was at war with another country, then seizing an enemy’s ships and its cargo was considered a legal act called privateering. Privateering missions were often referred to as Voyages of Reprisal. A captain had to receive the blessing of his monarch before he could act as a privateer. Those blessings, like permission slips, came in the form of a license known as a letter of reprisal or letter of marque issued by the king or queen. The license to be a privateer usually expired after six months. The privateer could capture the ship and capture the goods. However, he was required to respect the crew and let them go free. [Remember this when you read the story about Captain John Smith’s abduction by Protestant French pirates.]


On the other hand, if a country was not at war with the other country, then taking goods from another ship was considered pirating, and the other country had every right to complain. The trouble was that countries were constantly making and breaking peace treaties. It took months for news of peace or war to travel from Europe to a ship that was sailing around the West Indian Islands. A captain might think his country was at war when it was not, or visa versa. It was also very difficult to police the pirates in the very large seas and among thousands of islands.

During the early 1600s, French, English, Dutch, and Spanish pirates raided each other. Irish pirates, especially from Dunkirk, were particularly notorious. But there were equally villainous English pirates attacking English vessels and each other.

When England did not find gold and silver in America like the Spanish and Portuguese did, her mariners began stealing it from foreign ships. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth (r.1558-1603), the booty captured from privateering accounted for as much as ten per cent of England’s total national revenue [in other words £1 out of every £10]. The monarch’s high court kept from 10 to 20 percent of the prize. Owners of privateer ships kept two-thirds of the booty. The captain and his crew divided up the rest. During Elizabeth’s forty-five year reign, hundreds of privateering missions left England. They traveled in ships as small as twenty-ton pinnaces and as mighty as the Revenge. Their primary headquarters were the West Country ports of Bristol, Southampton, Falmouth, Weymouth, and Dartmouth.

Elizabeth’s successor, King James, prohibited privateering in 1604, calling it “a sordid and prosaic business.” But English pirates avoided his proclamation by raising a Dutch flag when they wanted to raid a treasure-filled vessel.

As European shipping moved west, so did piracy. In 1622, pirates of Selee appeared on the Newfoundland banks and seized more than forty vessels. This was an extremely hard time for Plimouth Colony, which had been established in 1620. They met difficulties sending furs and lumber to England to pay their debt to their investors. And they found it equally difficult to obtain supplies from England.

Between 1626 and 1629, King Charles infuriated his subjects by declaring war on both Spain and France. Before the wars, European ships ganged together against the pirates. But during the wars, the Christian states [countries] were too busy fighting each other to come to an agreement regarding piracy. That left the English Channel more vulnerable than ever. When King Charles called the ships in Bristol Harbour into action to wage his wars, the port’s merchants refused. Bristol was the West Country’s most important port. They thought the king should use his navy to fight the pirates rather than fight the French and Spanish.

As the wars subsided a Sir Thomas Button of Bristol began consolidating the efforts of the Christian states. He and his ship, the Phoenix, were very successful combating the pirates in the channel. But in the open Atlantic, each ship was on its own.

The Turks were the most organized. They raided from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, where piracy was the main means of sustenance. In 1629, the year before Winthrop’s Fleet departed, the port of Bristol “lost an exceedingly large number of ships to the Turkish corsairs,(2)” perhaps as many as “half their number,” “no fewer than twenty-three sail.” Ironically, piracy made exploration more difficult, while privateering paid the bills.

Next article: The First Settlements: Fishing Stages


  1. Supposedly, the oldest recovered boat in the world is a dugout known as the Pesse Canoe that dates back to between 8200 and 7600 BCE.
  2. Corsair meant a Mediterranean pirate. The word came from cursarius, which meant to plunder.