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A colorized engraving from 1724 of Bartholomew Roberts (aka Black Bart Roberts), the notorious Welsh pirate. Source: Benjamin Cole/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The Difference between Pirates and Privateers (Video)

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In the realm of maritime warfare, understanding the disparity between a Pirate and a Privateer was crucial. While both engaged in seizing ships at sea, their legal standing set them apart significantly. Pirates operated outside the law, acting as outlaws with no allegiance or restrictions. Conversely, Privateers held licenses from governments, allowing them to attack enemy vessels during wartime within prescribed boundaries. Notably, Privateers adhered to regulations, including flag protocols, while Pirates operated without such constraints.

Organizationally, Privateers operated under commissioned captains, often backed by investors who provided resources and support. In contrast, Pirates formed grassroots crews through mutiny or recruitment, sharing spoils amongst themselves. While both profited from captured ships, Privateers had access to national ports for resupply and legal disposal of prizes, whereas Pirates relied on clandestine methods due to their outlaw status.

Discipline varied as well, with Privateers maintaining stricter rules in alignment with their commissions. In contrast, Pirates exhibited more lax behavior, often resorting to violence without regard for legal or ethical norms. Despite these distinctions, the line between piracy and privateering often blurred, especially in colonial territories where political interests diverged.

Ultimately, while Pirates faced condemnation and execution, Privateers garnered a degree of respectability, illustrating the nuanced perception of maritime warfare during the Golden Age of Privateering.

Top image: A colorized engraving from 1724 of Bartholomew Roberts (aka Black Bart Roberts), the notorious Welsh pirate. Source: Benjamin Cole/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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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