Scary Fact: Piracy Used to be Legal
Sounds like an oxymoron, right? Something along the lines of old teenager, bittersweet, words like that? It’s a little known fact that in the golden age of piracy (sixteenth through seventeenth centuries), piracy was legal when the monarch granted the right to a selected seafaring individual.
Let’s dive deeper and examine this bizarre historical anomaly a bit more. There are two key definitions to know:
Privateer: owner of a private ship out on the high seas during times when nations were at war. Held a 'Letter of Marque' and was expected to split proceeds of captured prize ships’ cargoes with the monarch.
Letter of Marque: a license authorizing the bearer to take a foreign ship by any force deemed necessary and to capture its captain, crew and cargo for the benefit of the licensee and his monarch. Of course the monarch wasn’t present for the actual capture and remained akin to a silent investor. It made for plausible denial by a monarch if a privateer’s ship was captured. Avoiding capture was everything a privateer’s vessel was about – typically they were built to outrun navy vessels and had a skilled crew.
THE SEAFARING VESSEL
Deception was part of the piracy game. Gunports were often concealed behind lengths of canvas, so the ship appeared innocent until it approached and the true piratical intent was noted. Other methods used to make pirate ships look like mere merchant ships included having women stationed on upper decks as well as carrying chicken coops in plain view. Imagine you’re just sailing home from a long voyage of many months, your cargo hold laden down with all the fancy new goods people back home are eager to purchase. You see a ship on the horizon, and breathe a sigh of relief seeing it’s a fellow merchant vessel. It approaches. It flies a misleading flag. The canvas comes off its gunports and … things don’t look good.
Privateer ships were often led by experienced pirates with crews made up of convicts, ne’er-do-wells and people deep in debt. An agreed-upon code of conduct was usually established to keep the peace. Captains knew they could be removed via majority vote of the crew. When a successful privateer returned home, the loot was divvied up amongst the crew, captain and investors using an agreed-upon percentage split. Everyone was hoping for a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme. The lucky ones achieved their goals. The unlucky ones tangled with real warships on the open ocean, or even merchant ships that outgunned and outfought them. In both cases, the results weren’t pretty. Life on board a privateer’s ship wasn’t glamorous, easy or fun. Rewards were earned only after risking one’s life and nothing was guaranteed. Captains and crews were often working drunk, and mutinies were not unheard of either. Sounds like a pretty lousy job description, doesn’t it?
Popular prize ship cargos included gold, jewels and spices from merchant trading voyages. Remember that Tudor and Stuart England were times when coffee and chocolate were relative novelties to society. Smoking was actually encouraged (true) to help calm the lungs dealing with the terrible air pollution in big cities. Sugar and rum were popular cargoes. Straight timber poles were imported from the New World (North America) when England’s resources were depleted (it’s well known that King Henry the Eighth had a voracious appetite for building oak-hulled ships). The biggest prize of them all was a fleet’s ‘treasure ship’, the one carrying gold, silver and jewels. If one was part of a crew capturing this elusive prize, then the rewards could be a decade or more of salary in one fell swoop. This fantasy haul made the poor living conditions aboard ship bearable; the dream of ending one’s own abject poverty for good was an allure many simply couldn’t resist.
The next time you hear someone joke about pirated software or movies, think back to the very real piracy challenges the world used to endure. Privateers sailed the high seas in a brazen manner, using Letters of Marque to justify their lawlessness. Some privateers with an expired Letter of Marque turned to open piracy with no regard for the consequences. Be thankful for today’s international open water agreements, strong military organizations and trade laws. Centuries ago things were much different out on the open ocean – and there was truly no such thing as a safe passage.
Konstam, A., Pirates 1660-1730, Osprey Publishing, United Kingdom, 1998.
Konstam, A., The Pirate Ship 1660-1730, Osprey Publishing, United Kingdom, 2003.
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