Admiralty Prize Courts: Introduction

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.
Where as the pirate acted on his own authority attacking vessels of all states indiscriminately. The privateer was acting on a commission recognised under the Law of Nations.

Letters of Marque: Origin.

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.
On return to England he appeals to the Crown for satisfaction.
The case is investigated and found to be genuine. When no satisfaction can be obtained through diplomatic exchanges with France, the English merchant is granted a letter of marque against France.
This allows him to capture French shipping to compensate him for his stolen goods.
In this example one of the principle clauses of a letter of marque occurs, that of specifically naming the country whose vessels can be legally captured. There were heavy penalties if the property of other nations was violated.
This then was the original function of a letter of marque, or Letter of Reprisal as it was sometimes called, to right a private wrong.


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".
This gave the state a force which would attack the commerce of the enemy at no cost to public funds.
The vessels captured had to be brought before an Admiralty Court and tried to ensure they were a legal prize, and not the property of a neutral state. The grounds on which vessels could be condemned, that is adjudged to be a prize were complicated, and will be dealt with under the section on Prize cases.

An example the letter of marque found upon the Danish privateer Tordenskiold is given along with it's English translation.

Admiralty Prize Courts:

an international source for maritime history

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