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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The American Privateers

Donald Barr Chidsey

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p9  2[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]Not to Split Hairs

Why did so many people hate privateering? What was there about this old‑time profession that made otherwise sane sailors — landsmen as well — see red?

First, some definitions. It is important that you know, right off, what privateering was — and wasn't.

It was once a widely practiced institution in America; it was a way of life; but it has been dead for more than a hundred years now, and present‑day ideas of what it was are likely to be blurred and faint.

Privateering was private war, at sea.

Once it had been private war on land as well. In the old days when a man had been offended by somebody across a border, and his chief or feudal lord did not wish to have a full-fledged, formal war on his hands, but sympathized with the man, a letter of marque might be issued giving that man permission to raise an army at his own expense and to cross the border at his own risk and to get back what he thought he was rightfully entitled to — if he could. That sounds mad to us today: it would set the whole  p10 world on fire. It seemed perfectly simple then, and even natural.

When wars were not so appallingly expensive and destructive there were more of them, and they could be entrusted to private parties.

The first letters of marque, or privateering licenses, then, were retaliatory measures — or at least pretended to be.

It soon became clear that private war on land was not practical. It led to many embarrassing situations. It provoked too many reprisals. Besides, it was generally agreed, private property, unless it was out-and‑out munitions of war, should be held inviolable, untouchable. To be sure, as long as there were soldiers there would be looting, but it must be unofficial looting, punishable, frowned upon; for ordinary purposes an army would pay for whatever it thought it had to take.

This accepted principle applied only to land war. On the high seas — that is, outside the three-mile limit, a limit agreed upon because at that time three miles was about as far as the best cannon could carry — all rules were off.

The theory was that since the sea belonged to nobody it belonged to everybody, and since it was not ruled by any acknowledged state or sovereign power it had no laws at all. When there was a war going on, as there usually was, private property that was three miles or more out had nothing sacred about it. It was free game. It could be legally seized.

Privateers took not just lead and gunpowder, bayonets and military boots — though they took these whenever they got a chance — but in a much greater degree they took  p11 lard, molasses, lumber, dried fish, salt, and anything else they considered marketable.

What was the difference between privateering and piracy? The difference is simple, but very important.

Piracy was illegal stealing at sea — or on land after a descent from the sea. That was the crime: theft. Assault, insult, mayhem, and murder might be parts of the piracy, but they were not essential parts.

The privateer had his paper, his license. The pirate had none. The privateer was allowed to plunder the ships of a given foreign nation only when his own nation was at war with that nation, and even then there were restrictions as to time and, often, territory. The license might be good for a year, six months, or even only three months, and sometimes it could not be used south or east or west or north of certain lines of latitude and longitude.

And often in the earlier days of privateering only certain types of cargo were made subject to stealing. But in the golden age — the War of 1812 — the privateer could take everything aboard an enemy vessel, besides taking the vessel itself.

In one of those word-association tests so popular today, suppose that you were given "pirate." It is ten to one that you would respond with "buried treasure." There was nothing like that in connection with privateering. In the first place, privateers seldom got a chance to lift church plate, silks of Samarkand, pearls, rubies from Mogok, and great brassbound chests filled with Spanish eight-real pieces (Long John Silver's parrot's "pieces-of‑eight"). In the second place, whatever they took was not legally theirs until it had been brought to one of their own ports  p12 where there was a vice-admiralty court. Then it was libelled (officially seized) and condemned and finally awarded to them. After that, it still had to be sold. So why bury it?

The pirate, on the other hand, was a law unto himself, or tried to be. He was a thief in times of peace as well as in times of war, robbing from vessels of any nationality, without respect for lines of latitude or longitude or for limits of time. The pirate was an outlaw, an enemy of all the human race. Every man's hand should be raised against him. And helping a pirate was in itself a punishable offense. The pirate had declared war upon his own kind, so there was only one punishment for him — death. In every land and at every time the whole weight of the law was against piracy.

Now, it is true that privateers not infrequently lapsed; they "went on the account" and became pirates. But the distinction is still there, as it was there three hundred years ago.

Some other names:

Corsair is simply the French for "courser," one who hunts down game. It was applied to privateers and pirates alike, though in English a "courser" or one who coursed or who was "on the course" could only be a pirate. And it generally meant that in French, too.

rover might not have been a pirate in fact, but he was probably a pirate at heart. It was a rather poetical designation, and never had anything to do with privateering, which was not a bit poetical.

Freebooter came from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, which  p13 might be translated as "free-booty‑er." It meant a pirate, undoubtedly.

Filibuster was a corruption of "freebooter," probably by way of the Spanish filibustero or the French filibustier. The latter spelling indeed was common in English until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the word took on a new meaning as well as a new spelling, unaccountably coming to stand for a nordamericano soldier of fortune who operated in State or Central America — a man like William Walker, who was called the "King of the Filibusters." Later still, in the twentieth century, it meant a legal but objectionable trick for obstructing the passage of legislation, usually by talking it to death.

Buccaneer is in another class entirely. The buccaneers originally and properly were men who hunted, slaughtered, and roasted or smoked the wild oxen and cattle with which some of the West Indian islands had been stocked years before — by pirates, likely enough, since pirates, denied the standard ports, were always looking for something to eat. The buccaneers sold this meat to the crews of passing vessels, who, again, could have been and often were pirates. The buccaneers did their roasting on wood frames which were called buccans (today we call them barbecues); hence the name. They were a rough, wild lot, the buccaneers, and though few of them were sailing men they often volunteered for piratical descents upon nearby shores. Henry Morgan's men at Panama were largely buccaneers, in the then accepted meaning of the word.

Not every buccaneer was a part-time pirate, though many were, and probably very few full-time pirates ever had been buccaneers. The names, however, became mixed  p14 in the public imagination until they grew to be synonymous — at least in the Caribbean area.

Now let's take a few examples.

Sir Francis Drake was a privateer, not a pirate. Undoubtedly he had Queen Elizabeth's permission for what he did. Although he never did produce this permission and it may have been merely verbal, Drake was at least semi-official. He was never an outlaw. A preacher's son and very devout, he justified his depredations by explaining that the Spaniards had set upon and robbed him at San Jan de Ulloa (the present Veracruz, Mexico). Now he was only getting his own back — at the point of a gun, to be sure, and with something like 10,000 per cent interest. However he could never afford to slip; for if he failed the Queen might disown him or even cut off his head. But Drake didn't mind that. He was used to taking chances.

John Paul Jones, in the eyes of the British, was a pirate. They called him that often, and vehemently. But in American eyes he was not even a privateer, for he held a captain's commission in the United States Navy. Yet the British, who did not recognize the United States Navy, probably would have hanged him if they'd caught him. They did not catch him.

The so‑called Sallee pirates and the Barbary Coast pirates of Africa were in truth privateers, though from the Western point of view they were particularly obnoxious privateers. They had bases. They had licenses. They even had a legal excuse for what they did. We know today that their activities were in truth a form of international blackmail; still they must be classed as privateers, not pirates.

 p15  On the other hand, the brothers Lafitte, Pierre and Jean, have been called inaccurately "the last of the pirates," but only because they were not the last. The practice of piracy persisted until very recent times along the China coast. The Lafittes were certainly pirates. They protested that they were privateers, because they only stole, on the high seas anyway, from Spanish vessels, and they held or claimed to hold a commission from the Republic of Cartagena in South America authorizing them to do just that. However at that time the Republic of Cartagena was purely a paper affair, a fiction. Queen Elizabeth I, the Emperor of Morocco, the Dey of Algiers and others of his ilk, not to mention the infant United States of America, were sovereigns or states recognized by at least some of their sovereign neighbors. The Republic of Cartagena was to be sure at war with Spain at that time, but nobody recognized Cartagena as a republic — nobody, that is, except the brothers Lafitte. Yes, they were pirates.

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Page updated: 20 May 13