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Letter of marque given to Captain Antoine Bollo via the shipowner Dominique Malina from Genoa, owner of the Furet, a 15-tonne privateer, 27 February 1809. (Right) Drake viewing treasure taken from a Spanish ship, print courtesy New York Public Library. Source: Public Domain; New York Public Library/CC BY 3.0

The Enigmatic Letter of Marque: Legal Piracy Revealed (Video)


Privateering, often glamorized in tales of the high seas, was far more complex than popular narratives suggest. At its heart lay the elusive "Letter of Marque," a document laden with opportunity and risk.

Contrary to common belief, this letter wasn't a mere pardon for pirates. It was a gateway to a unique form of legal piracy, sanctioned by governments. However, obtaining such a letter was no simple feat.

Imagine the intricate dance of bureaucracy and negotiation required. First, a pirate needed absolution for past misdeeds, a pardon in the eyes of the law. Then, instead of a singular letter, they received a Commission, a bespoke contract outlining their duties as a privateer.

These commissions weren't just licenses to plunder; they were strategic tools in the game of maritime warfare. Merchants wielded them to seize enemy vessels, contributing to the economic strife between nations. Privateers, on the other hand, were like mercenaries of the sea, entrusted with disrupting enemy commerce.

But acquiring these commissions wasn't always a straightforward affair. It involved navigating the murky waters of politics and diplomacy, often with a hint of subterfuge. From royal decrees to gubernatorial favors, the path to legitimacy was fraught with challenges.

Yet, amidst the chaos, privateers found opportunity. Some forged documents, while others exploited loopholes to their advantage. It was a world where cunning often triumphed over legality, where the line between heroism and piracy blurred with each passing commission.

Top image: Letter of marque given to Captain Antoine Bollo via the shipowner Dominique Malina from Genoa, owner of the Furet, a 15-tonne privateer, 27 February 1809. (Right) Drake viewing treasure taken from a Spanish ship, print courtesy New York Public Library. Source: Public Domain; New York Public Library/CC BY 3.0

By Robbie Mitchell

Robbie Mitchell's picture


I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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