Since at least the 13th century, rulers from Europe to Africa to Asia provided sea-raiders with authorisation to raid enemy ships at sea during war time. During a war, sea-raiders obtained prizes: enemy ships and cargoes, and took the crew prisoner on the ruler's behalf. The sea-raiding captain and his crew shared the prize revenue, with the ruler taking a share (commonly around 10% of the value). This ruler’s share helped fund the consolidation of their personal power, control their territory, and build their wealth. Prizes formed a crucial fundraising activity for fighting wars.
Authorised sea-raiding occurred across the world so sea-raiders went by different names depending on their geographic location. Some well-known names in English are:
Privateer: A name coined around 1660 for a sea-raider carrying authorisation from a European power. Also a name for the type of ship used.
Corsair: A sea-raider carrying authorisation from Mediterranean city-states (such as Tangier, Algiers and Tunis). Corsairs adhered to a patriotic-religious obligation founded on the Laws of the Prophet Mohammed.
Buccaneer: Buccaneers were accomplished sea-raiders of mixed nationalities based in the Caribbean region. During peacetime, they smoked the meat that formed the basis of their name (boucan). When war broke out, European colonial powers authorised buccaneers to fight, usually against the Spanish.
Dunkirkers: Flemish sea-raiders loyal to Spain operating since at least 1488 from the port of Dunkirk. Despite France owning Dunkirk from 1646, the Dunkirkers’ maintained their loyalty to Spain for at least 25 years, continuing to attack French ships during wartime.
Ilanun: a general term meaning 'pirate' used to describe the Iranun ethnic group of the southern Philippines who undertook sea-raiding throughout the region.
Bajak laut: Indonesian word translated as 'pirate' and used to describe the sea-raiders who lived among the maritime people of the Indonesian archipelago.
How could an authorised sea-raider prove he or she was not a pirate?
The difference between a pirate and an authorised sea-raider lay in the sea-raider’s capacity to produce a commission. For the sea-raider, the commission justified their prize-taking and identified what prizes to take, when to take them and where to dispose of them. For the sovereign, the commission proved the sea-raider’s actions to the sovereign's enemies. Commissions can take the form of letters of marque, passes, or papers.
For many sea-raiders, a commission was not evidence of their allegiance to a sovereign or their legal identity. Patriotism did not drive the sea-raiders' commission requests, financial gain did. Some sea-raiders sailed with any commission from any power that would grant them and indiscriminately seized ships and terrorised trade. For example, many corsairs were of Christian origin. Buccaneers held little allegiance to any of the French, British, Dutch or Spanish colonies of the Caribbean, that's why many turned to piracy during peacetime. These sea-raiders did not greatly care which government authorised their commission or even whether the date was still valid.
What commissions did do was allow the sea-raider some protection in law to avoid arrest for piracy. More importantly, they enabled the holder to bring their prize into port and receive the financial benefit of it.
To receive their share of the prize proceedings, sea-raiders needed to sail their prize to a sympathetic port and await a decision on it from a Prize Court.
Prize Courts primarily examined the national character of the prize. This meant the sea-raider needed to produce evidence that the prize belonged to the sovereign’s enemy. Evidence usually took the form of the captured ship’s papers and the testimony of the master and other principal officers onboard at the time of capture.
The Prize Court acted as the corrector of the misdeeds of authorised sea-raiders and ships of war. It was not just a purveyor of law, but an important vessel to communicate the control of individuals at sea. Prize decisions affected a variety of people: admirals, captains, privateers, investors, seamen, shipowners, merchants, and the relatives and associates connected to them, so decisions attracted considerable popular interest and the tribunals loomed large in the public eye. During war, the prize court exerted control over the actions of individuals. They not only ensured sea-raiders observed all necessary caution and conformed to the rules of international law, but also demonstrated this control to other sovereigns, especially neutrals.
Prize Law determined:
That the goods of an enemy, on board the ship of a friend could be taken;
That the lawful goods of a friend, on board the ship of an enemy ought to be restored;
That contraband goods, going to the enemy, though the property of a friend, may be taken as prize; because supplying the enemy with what enables him better to carry on the war, is a departure from neutrality.
By the maritime law of nations, universally and immemorially received, there is an established method of determination whether the capture be, or be not, lawful prize.
The decline of authorised sea-raiding (privateering) by European powers
Authorised sea-raiding remained crucial to the European wars fought throughout the 18th century. As the century progressed, privateering became a popular and respectable outlet for the capital and labour of ship-owners and seafarers. More practically, privateering commissions exempted a ship from impressments (the forcing of seafarers into the Navy), and meant the ship could sail during periods of embargo on shipping and without waiting for convoy. Increased lucrative employment prospects, combined with the ubiquity of war and the positive public perceptions of privateers as patriots and heroes to significantly reduce the allure of piracy.
When the long Revolutionary Wars ended in 1815, the European powers turned their attention to centralising authority and power through the state. The development of marine chronometers, steam technology and a change of construction materials from wood to steel facilitated significant technological advancement in ocean travel, including the building of navies. By the mid-19th century, the British government had built a strong and capable navy and neither Britain nor France had authorised sea-raiding for over forty years. To the British, it was ‘the weapon of the weaker naval power’ and the only real threat to naval supremacy. The British-led negotiations to abolish it culminated in the Declaration of Paris and set and solidified new international rules of Maritime Law. Notably, the Americans refused to sign the abolition agreement.
This new world order made states responsible for the violent actions of citizens at sea, but it did not resolve the logistical and financial challenges of piracy suppression.