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A privateer was a private person or private warship authorized by a nation's government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping. Privateers were only entitled by their state to attack and rob enemy vessels during wartime and only ships of the country named in the letter of marque. Privateers were part of naval warfare of some nations from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The crew of a privateer, if captured, might be treated as prisoners of war by the enemy nation. The costs of commissioning privateers was borne by investors hoping to gain a significant return from prize money earned from enemy merchants.

Often used to allow the Pirate atmosphere without some of the... less civilized parts. Turning into a real pirate was a recurring problem with privateers. Of course, one nation's "privateer" is often another nation's "pirate". Indeed, until the eighteenth century the distinction wasn't formalized in international law, and any ship with enough muscle could go a-rovin on a whim however respectable it was in port. It was also common for an Intrepid Merchant to moonlight as a privateer. After all, all that was needed was a paper, and one could have the object of profiting by Plunder as well as being the subject of it.

Compare and contrast with Private Military Contractors. Do not confuse with Privateer, a Spin-Off of the Wing Commander games which we really ought to have an article for.

Examples of Privateer include:

Anime & Manga

  • The Seven Warlords of the Sea of One Piece are seven highly powerful pirates who've had their bounties canceled in exchange for working autonomously on The Government's behalf. They're notoriously hard to control, and some, like Crocodile, are/were actively working against the World Government.
    • Word of God notes that the Seven Warlords are indeed based off the privateers, and a few, notably Bartholomew Kuma, and inspired directly from them... if in name only.
  • Axis Powers Hetalia has a couple of strips which detail the story of England's privateers. Basically, England found a few pirates that were causing him trouble, and told them to "go beat up that Spain guy". They did, allowing England to get the upper hand over Spain. Whenever Spain complained to England, he would just apologize and say that the pirates were causing him trouble, too. That is, until Spain went over to England's house and saw him giving medals to the privateers. Whoops.
  • The pirate space ship Bentenmaru in Bodacious Space Pirates is operating under a latter of marque given to it during space wars.

Comic Books

  • In The DCU, the Black Pirate was a 16th-century costumed privateer working for the English against the Spanish.
  • Tess Bannister from the comic strip "Pirate Hearts" (set during the War of 1812) that ran in Penthouse Men's Adventure Comix.
  • In Cross Gen's El Cazador, Lady Sin's first minor adversary is the English privateer Redhand Harry.


  • The Sea Hawk
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest Lord Cutler Beckett offers pirate Jack Sparrow a Letter of Marque in exchange for his compass. In On Stranger Tides, Sparrow's former first mate Barbossa has himself become a privateer.
  • The hero of the 1952 movie The Golden Hawk is a privateer.
  • The enemy ship pursued by the crew of the Surprise in Master and Commander The Far Side of The World is a privateer.


  • Horatio Hornblower, a British Royal Navy officer created by C.S. Forester, had numerous encounters with privateers over the 11-novel span of his career.
  • Privateering is a major focus of Michael Crichton's novel The Pirate Latitudes.
  • In his book The Star Fox, science fiction writer Poul Anderson depicts a future in which the system of Letters of Marque has been revived and "space privateers" battle in starships.
  • In James Clavell's Shogun, pilot John Blackthorne (based on the real life English navigator William Adams) was a privateer.
  • Under the Jolly Rodger from the Bloody Jack series has Jacky as a privateer.
  • In the Aubrey-Maturin series, numerous privateers are encountered, and for a time Captain Aubrey himself becomes a privateer captain (though he much prefers the term "private man-of-war" or "letter of marque.")
  • Featured prominently in the Safehold series.
  • In one of the New Jedi Order novels, Han and Talon Karrde go on a series of raids against Vong-allied shipping transporting supplies and captives. He mentions to one aggrieved captain that since he's only targeting the Vong, he's a privateer, not a pirate. (Technically he's not, since nobody in the New Republic authorized it.)
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's Line of Delirium, Curtis Van Curtis, the second most powerful man in the Human Empire, used to be a privateer during the Vague War. Thousands of these were given small one-manned raider vessels to go after humanity's enemies (which was everyone at the time). Arguably, they did more damage to the enemy than the regular forces.
  • Ky Vatta in Vatta's War is a privateer in Space.
  • Mentioned occasionally in the Honor Harrington books. The majority of them seem to be outright pirates using a Letter of Marque as a shield to protect themselves if captured, particularly in poorly policed places like the Silesian Confederation, but more respectable ones turn up occasionally.

Live Action TV

  • In The West Wing, first lady Abbey Bartlet's status as a "daughter of the American revolution" is contested, as her "revolutionary" ancestor was in fact a privateer helping the revolutionaries for money. She's very insistent that he was a privateer, and not a pirate.
  • In the Star Trek universe, the race known as the Breen were known to support privateering. In 2369, USS Minnesota was destroyed battling Breen privateers. (Star Trek: Minnesota: "Scream"). In 2366, the Breen attacked and captured the Cardassian vessel Ravinok, using its crew as slave labour in the dilithium mines on Dozaria. (Deep Space Nine: "Indiscretion").
  • One of the characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyles the Lost World reluctantly reveals that an ancestor of his was a privateer. A female companion makes fun of him, automatically assuming this means "pirate." The character insists on "privateer," as the letter of marque means the ancestor served the crown.


  • The narrator of "The Mariner's Revenge Song" by The Decemberists mentions shipping out with a privateer in search of the man upon whom he seeks revenge.
  • "Barrett's Privateers" by Stan Rogers, about an ill-fated British privateer crew during the American Revolution.

Tabletop Games

  • Found in Traveller. Like everything else.
    • The Third Imperium officially reserves to itself the right to issue letters of Marque and only occasionally issues them. Member substates and power blocks sometimes hire space mercenaries but these are not supposed to depend on plunder for their upkeep. When exactly that rule is violated is rather blurey. It probably depends on what the local Imperial Noble considers appropriate to the interests of the Imperium and/or himself.
  • The Crimson Skies universe features bands of aerial privateers who have been awarded letters of marque by the new nations of North America to reward loyalty and direct piracy against that nation's enemies.
  • Rogue Traders from the Warhammer 40000 universe are half privateers, half Intrepid Merchants. They have actual letters of marque, some of which are hereditary.

Video Games

  • One of the six protagonists in Uncharted Waters II is a British privateer in charge of decimating the Spanish Armada.
  • In theory, you start out as one of these in Sid Meiers Pirates. Doesn't stop you from potentially turning against your employers, though.
    • You can actually get letters of marque from all four nations, making you a privateer of all of them.
  • It's one of the units in games like Civilization and Colonization.
    • In some of them (like Civilization 3), the Privateer unit has a hidden nationality, meaning you can attack without the victim knowing who's responsible. In Colonization it's the only way to attack without starting a full-on war, but in return all forts bombard on sight unidentified (not their own) Privateers just like enemy ships.
  • Futuristic version in the Wing Commander: Privateer games.
  • The Danish computer game Kaptajn Kaper i Kattegat (Captain Kaper in Kattegat) was made in the early 1980s and centers on a Danish privateer attacking British ships in Danish waters.
  • The MMORPG Pirates Of The Burning Sea, features the Privateer as one of the career (character class) choices for a player who chooses to represent one of the three player nations: Britain, France, or Spain.
  • In the second Broken Sword game, two NPCs are the descendants of a privateer (not a pirate) who claim he was falsely accused of acting without the correct papers by a governor and hung in order to get at his fortune.
  • Mass Effect universe has the Corsairs, a secret branch of Alliance Marines who act as independent groups outside of Alliance space. While not exactly pirates, their duties may include piracy, in addition to other black ops, and the Alliance can disavow any knowledge of them if they are caught. Jacob Taylor from the second game is an ex-Corsair.
  • In Vega Strike the Faction to which the Player Character's ship belong is plainly called so. As in, "anyone not affiliated with any legitimate faction nor branded pirate yet". And yes, there are defence and hit missions — against pirates and whatever factions trouble locals.
  • Unlike the other Covenant races in Halo, the Kig-Yar (Jackals) are not officially a part of it. Instead, they're paid mercenaries who have to, at least, pretend to believe in the holiness of the Forerunners. They operate their own ships and are allowed to raid non-Covenant ships and colonies.
  • The governments of the Commonwealth in the X-Universe offer "police licenses", which act like letters of marque. You're paid a preset bounty for destroying space pirates, Xenon, and Kha'ak, and destroying neutrals or allies costs you the license.

Real Life

  • Sir Francis Drake. So good at his job, he was knighted.
  • Since it was written in the 18th century, the U.S. Constitution provides for the issuing of Letters of Marque by Congress. A quick search shows that Congress exercised this power during the War of 1812, and the last U.S. craft alleged to operate under a Letter of Marque was the Goodyear blimp Resolute, which engaged in anti-submarine patrols in 1941 and 1942. It's been proposed that the United States issue Letters of Marque in response to the September 11, 2001, attack. While the practice has been forsworn by nations signatory to the Paris Declaration of 1856, the U.S. is not a signatory (issuing Letters of Marque is an enumerated power of Congress, it would take a Constitutional Amendment to remove it), but has abided by the provisions anyway. Once countries could afford adequate full-time navies, privateers became unnecessary.
  • During the early days of the American Civil War, the Confederacy issued several letters of marque.
    • Perhaps most notably, to the Alabama — the United States sued England, after the war, for damages because they had provided the guns.
  • Admiral Sir Henry Morgan was one of the most famous privateers. (Made all the more famous in modern times as a brand of rum...)
    • Morgan really pushed the limits of what a privateer was allowed to do. Of special note is him leading the assaults on Porto Bello and Panama City, the 3rd and 2nd largest cities in New World Spain at the time (this by the way is what got him knighted).
      • Notably, Panama City was considered unassailable by the Caribbean pirates because it was on the Pacific side, instead of the Atlantic side. Any pirate trying to attack would have to cross the Cape Horn of southern South America, making it a losing proposition. Henry Morgan landed his ships "near" Panama City, directed his pirates to march through the intense, deadly, unforgiving equatorial jungle, and attack the city by land. Panama City had numerous defenders. Henry Morgan won anyway, sacked the city, and marched all the valuables back to his ship.
    • Not just knighted; he was made Lt. Governor of Jamaica. Morgan pretty much held Refuge in Audacity as a code to live by.

 King Charles II: The Spanish tell me you're a pirate.

Morgan: They would say that, wouldn't they? They never liked the English.

  • William "Captain" Kidd was also a privateer, but was later branded a pirate (by an angry British naval officer when he fled rather than allowing most of his crew to be pressed into British naval service) and hanged.
  • Jean Lafitte was another famous pirate and privateer who fought for the US during the War of 1812. (During his lifetime, he fought as a privateer under a number of flags; a true pirate, his allegiances were all over the map.) Until then he had operated what was basically a private empire with a fleet bigger than the US Navy.