Letters of Marque
Pirate V. Privateer.
In the popular mind the words pirate and privateer are assumed to mean the same thing. However they were not and it was the possession of a Letter of Marque by the privateer which made the crucial difference.
The letter of marque was originally a means of righting a private wrong. An example may make things clearer; an English merchant has his goods stolen in France, he goes through the legal processes in France but can't obtain satisfaction.
Letters of Marque: c.1700-1856.
By the start of this period, the letter of marque as a remedy for a private wrong was no longer in use. It had now become an instrument of state. Governments could augment their national navy, during time of war, by issuing letters of marque to people, who met certain requirements, willing to outfit what was called a "Private ship of war".
Admiralty Prize Courts:
What is a Prize?
A Prize is a vessel which has been captured by a National ship of war, Privateer or a letter of marque. It was possible for an enemy vessel to be "embargoed" if it found itself in the unfortunate position of being in a hostile port on the declaration of war.
What is a Prize Court?
International law also known as the Law of Nations recognised the opertion of privateering and there was a generally agreed system by which it was determined whether a captured vessel was a legitimate prize; most maritime nations had courts specially constituted for the that purpose hence Prize Courts.
The importance of the British Prize Court?
Because Britain has, at some time, been at war with most of the maritime states of Europe, and on one occasion with the United States, means the records of Britain's Prize Courts contain the details of the thousands of European and American vessels.
What was the extent of prize taking?
A rough indication is given by the number of prize ships admitted to British Registry