What Were Letters of Marque?

Did you know that Letters of Marque and Reprisal documents were written permissions that were used hundreds of years ago? Letters of marque were official authorizations that allowed individuals to capture or destroy property belonging to a certain group or nation. For the most part, governments usually issued letters of Marque and persons operating under a Letter of Marque and Reprisal were treated as a regular national army. During the Golden Age of Piracy, Letters of Marque were primarily used by privateers. Read more below about the history of letters of marque.

What Were Letters of Marque?

To begin with, a letter of marque and reprisal was an official license that was issued by a government to authorize a private person to attack and capture vessels of a nation at war with the issuer. The authorized person was referred to as a privateer or corsair. In the event that a ship was captured, the privateer was then allowed to bring the case to admiralty court. The court would rule whether or not to allow transfer of ownership to the privateer. Letters of marque included permission to cross an international border as needed in order to conduct a reprisal. To define, a reprisal is action against an attack or injury that was authorized by an issuing jurisdiction that conducted reprisal operations outside its borders. Likewise, letters of marque and privateers were terms used to describe the vessels that pursued and captured prizes as well. As a result, a letter of marque that accompanied a cargo carrier could pick up a prize if an opportunity presented itself along its normal course of duties. Similarly, the term privateer typically referred to a fast, heavily armed vessel that was exclusively used for fighting.

12th Century to 19th Century

In 1243, Henry III of England issued the first documented letter of marque. At that time, the function of a letter of marque was for retaliatory purposes only. It was not to be used as a declaration of war. Later, letters of marque were issued during wartime to allow for quick organization of cheap naval armies. Similarly, many governments authorized ship owners with letters of marque so they could sufficiently arm themselves in order to attack enemy war ships and subsequently seize merchant goods. Likewise, every attack on Spaniards had to be authorized with some kind of letter of marque during the age of buccaneers. Not surprisingly, the authenticity of many letters of marques used during that period were questionable. In the16th century, privateers were required to give a percentage of any captured booty to the government. That percentage was considered payment for the letter of marque’s official authorization. Later in 1856, the Declaration of Paris ruled that the use of Letters of Marque is forbidden.

To conclude, letters of marque were commonly used among Europeans starting in the late Middle Ages up through the 19th century. A letter of marque was considered an honorable calling that was able to combine patriotism with profit.  Privateering with a letter of marque was considered valid when compared with random attacks and captures by pirates. While piracy was unlicensed and generally denounced by the public, the differences between privateers using a letter of marque and pirates acting on their own free will are minimal.

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