Privateers and Letters of Marque

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

If you are even a little bit of a music “folkie,” you may be familiar with the words of Canadian Stan Rogers’ classic Barrett’s Privateers.

Oh, the year was 1778, how I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!

A letter of Marque came from the king

To the scummiest vessel I’d ever seen.

God damn them all!

I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold

We’d fire no guns-shed no tears

Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier

The last of Barrett’s Privateers.

(Stan Rogers, Fogarty’s Cove (2007) Track 5)

The song tells the fictitious story of the Nova Scotia privateer Antelope during the American Revolution. As I listened to it last week (one of those songs that once heard, you hum – hopefully not aloud – ceaselessly until its place is taken by another catchy tune), it suggested a good idea for an article.

First, a few definitions:

What exactly was a privateer? A privateer “in international law, is the term applied to a privately owned armed vessel whose owners are commissioned by a hostile nation to carry on naval warfare.”1 There term is also applied to an individual involved in such actions. A closely related term, “corsair” is defined as “a privately owned armed vessel whose owners are commissioned by a nation to carry on naval warfare on their behalf.”2 Perhaps just a fine semantic distinction, but these definitions imply that privateers were the guys “on the other side,” while “our side” were corsairs. Privateer, however, is the term that is applied most universally to any such ship or individual.

How did a privately-owned ship become designated as a privateer? Governing bodies issued what is known as a “letter of marque and reprisal” which served as a license authorizing a person to attack and capture enemy vessels. This letter would usually contain the person’s name, authorizing him to cross international boundaries; would specify national targets, and authorize seizure or destruction of assets (ships and cargos) or personnel (impressments of seamen).  If a reprisal (action against an attack or injury) was involved, the letter might include a description of the offense prompting the commission and a restriction on time, manner, place or amount. Once captured, a “prize” vessel’s disposition was determined by an Admiralty Court.

In essence, a privateer was a government-licensed pirate, although privateering was considered an honorable pursuit, allowing individuals both to demonstrate their patriotism and to make a profit during time of war. The practice was often used when no national navy existed. The ownership of a letter of marque meant “life or death” if a ship was captured. If the document could be produced, the officers and crew would be treated as prisoners of war; if it could not be produced, they would be declared pirates and hanged.

Privateers have sailed on the high seas throughout history. An international list of examples of letters of marquee and reprisal, and provides year and issuing authorities. The list begin with England in 1205 and ends with the United States in 1812. For example, in 1325, Holland issued a letter of marque and reprisal against Scotland; in 1413, England issued a letter against France for goods with a value not to exceed 5,250 marks; in 1703, England issued a letter against France and Spain for a period of six months. In 1812, the United States issued a letter of marque against Britain. A list of notable privateers on Wikipedia begins as early as 1360 with the Victual Brothers (Likedeelers), and includes such celebrities as Sir Francis Drake, Sir George Somers, Capt. Christopher Newport, and Jean Lafitte.

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states: “The Congress shall have the Power to “declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water…”3 The practice was followed throughout the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War (Confederacy only). Internationally, privateering was abolished by the Declaration of Paris in 1856, although several nations, including the United States, did not support the agreement. Further international law was established in the Hague Conferences of 1907 and 1922/23. The only U.S. craft to operate under a Letter of Marque since the War of 1812, the Goodyear blimp Resolute, armed with a rifle and flown by a civilian crew, patrolled the coast off Los Angeles for submarines in December 1941 and the first months of 1942.4 The issue of letters of marquee and reprisal was reintroduced following the 9/11attacks. As those events were termed “air piracy,” the Marque and Reprisal Act of 2001 (H.R. 3076) was introduced in Congress by Ron Paul, although not enacted into law. He raised the issue again in 2009 following the Somali pirate attacks.

Records concerning privateers and letters of marquee can be identified by using the Inventory of the Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library: Record Group 45, Inventory 18, (compiled by Geraldine N. Phillips and Rebecca Livingstone), one of the National Archives’ best finding aides. Although there are textual records for the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, I chose to look at those pertaining to the War of 1812 (this is an anniversary year, after all).

President James Madison requested a formal declaration of war and Congress agreed on 18 June 1812. In part, the declaration stated:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States in Congress assembled, That was be and is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland … and the United States of America … and the President of the United States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States, to carry the same into effect, and to issue private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marquee and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper … against the vessels, goods, and effects of the government of said United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland …5

Examples of requests for letters of marque are found in Correspondence Concerning Applications Received by Customs Collectors for Letters of Marque and Reprisal (1812-1815). The following letter to the [Customs] Collector of the District of Norfolk [Virginia?] was dated 2 February 1814:

…We make you acquainted with the Description and circumstances attending the Schooner now called the Four Friends lying in this port – for which we want a Commission as a cruizer. She was built in New York, burthen Forty Six Tons, was employed some time since by Com. Decatur in the service of the U. States as a look-out boat and Tender, has just perform’d a voyage to the W. Indies from thence to New Orleans, and to this port. She has Iron Stantions, R[?] Ropes and waste cloths, Arm’d with one six pounder on a carriage mid-ship, Fifteen muskets, Ten cutlasses, Six pistols, and will be furnished with all other Armament and Ammunition Necessary for a Cruize, to be man’d with twenty men or upward.6

Also included in these correspondence files is an “Abstract of Commissions Issued to Private Armed Vessels by David Gelston Collector of the District of the City of New York from the Commencement of the War to the 8th of May 1813.” This list includes forty-six entries including the commission number, to whom it was issued, when it was issued, denomination and name of vessel, name of commander, name of first lieutenant, burthen of the vessel, number in the crew, number and kind of arms, and names of sureties in the bond. For example, commission #468 was issued to William W. Story on 2 September 1812 for the schooner United We Stand; William W. Story commander, Peter Schuyler, first lieutenant; burthen 74 with a crew of 50; 2 cannons; bondsmen George Youle and Abraham Riker.7

The collection, Logs and Journals of American Privateers and State Navy and Merchant Vessels, October 1776 – October 1867, also provides excellent information concerning the life and experiences of privateers during the War of 1812. The log of Jeduthan Upton, Jr., master of the privateer Polly out of Salem, Massachusetts, describes the following event:8

Wed. 23rd [1812]. Commences with very bad weather and heavy sea. At 7 A.M. discovered a sail on our weather quarter. From her maneuvering we judged her a merchant ship. She had her top gallant masts and yards down and no foretopsail set. We immediately hauled our wind for the purpose of getting to winward of her, in which we successeded, but it died away calm for 4 hours. At 2 P.M. a small breeze sprang up. We stood for her. When within two gun shots she fired at us. We immediately hauled our wind from her to see if she would follow us. In a few minutes she hove round and stood for us. We thought at first we beat her, but she soon began to come upon us. I ordered the gun hove over and a number of casks of water stove but still she came fast upon us … She was within musket shot, continually firing her bow guns and cutting away our rigging. I, with the advice of my officers, thought to hold out longer would be madness … She sent her boat on board and took us all on the frigate Phoebe. Capt Hilgar who treated us more like friends than enemies. I was put in the gun room with the Lieut. And officers of marines who I found to be gentlemen: 1st, Mr. Ingraham, 2d, Mr. Pearson, 3rd, Mr. Iago, Purser, Mr. Surflin, 1st officer of marines, Mr. Buroughs, 2nd Mr. Sampson. She fired from 20 to 30 shot at us. So ends this most unfortunate day.

The log continues with more comments about his “pleasant company.” This log is a typescript copy and includes Upton’s birth and death dates, more information about his capture and eventual exchange, plus a genealogy of the donor of the log (Helen Joanna Merrill Slappy), tracing her lineage back to Jeduthun Upton.

Finally, the private journal of Gamaliel Pease, which he kept while onboard the private armed brigantine Saratoga of New York, included the following entries:9

Thursday 12th Augt [1813] … At 6 A.M. the S. End of Treneriffe bearing W.N.W. distant 3 leagues – the S. side of Canary S.E. by E. the wind light at 8 A.M. saw a sail under our Lee bow we bore away and made sail at 12 came very near her and taking in Studding sail

Friday 13 Augt At 20 minute past Mer. fired a musket which she hoisted English Colours. We run along side & the order was given her to “haul down the Cols.” which order was immediately Complyd with, sent our boat on board and brought her Capt & Crew. Who informs that she is the Brig Lloyd of Greenock – from Goree bound to Teneriffe She had on Board 5 Americans part of the Crew of the Privateer Brig Rambler from New P’ R.I.

If your ancestor owned a ship or was a seaman during the War of 1812, these records represent important background information for your research. While they are rich in names and events, you will have to invest the time to read them carefully as no indexing by name is available. They are, however, well worth your visit to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These original documents (and the occasional typescript copy) concerning the experiences of people in events of the War of 1812 make this era and this war very real, and, as always, will led to other records pertinent to your research.

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1 “What is a ‘Privateer’?”, Rob Ossian’s Pirate Cove (http://www.thepirateking.com/terminology/ definition_privateer.htm : accessed 29 October 2012.

2 “What is a ‘Corsair’?”, Rob Ossian’s Pirate Cove (http://www.thepirateking.com/terminology/

definition_privateer.htm : accessed 29 October 2012).

3 “Constitution of the United States” (Article 1, Section 8), United States Senate (http://www.senate.gov/civics/ constitution_item/constitution.htm : accessed 29 October 2012).

4 “Letters of Marque and Reprisal,” Constitution Society (http://constitution.org/mil/lmr/lmr.htm : accessed 29 October 2012).

5 Robert McNamara, “Privateers,” About.com (http://history1800s.about.com/od/1800sglossary/g/Privateers-definition.htm : accessed 29 October 2012).

6 Letter from C. K. Mallory, Esqr. to Butler Seymour, Norfolk, 2 February 1814, item 263, entry 575, Correspondence Concerning Applications, Received by Customs Collectors for Letters of Marque and Reprisal 1812-1815, Record Group 45, Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

7 Abstract of Commissions Issued to Private Armed Vessels by David Gelston Collector of the District of the City of New York from the Commencement of the War to the 8th of May 1813, item 266, entry 575, Correspondence Concerning Applications, Received by Customs Collectors for Letters of Marque and Reprisal 1812-1815, Record Group 45, Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

8 Log of Jeduthun Upton, Jr., entry 609, Logs and Journals of American Privateers and State Navy and Merchant Vessels, October 1776-October 1867, Record Group 45, Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

9 Gamaliel Pease’ Private Journal Kept on Board the Private Armed Brigantine Saratoga of N.Y. … entry 609, Logs and Journals of American Privateers and State Navy and Merchant Vessels, October 1776-October 1867, Record Group 45, Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

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