Reason Behind Government Sanctioned Pirates

Government-sanctioned pirates, commonly known as privateers, played a crucial role in naval warfare and economic strategy during the Age of Sail. Privateering was essentially a legalized form of piracy, authorized by governments through the issuance of letters of marque. These letters granted private ship owners permission to attack enemy vessels and seize their cargo, with the understanding that a portion of the profits would be shared with the state. Several key reasons underpin the widespread use of privateers:

Economic Incentives

  1. Cost-Effective Naval Power:
    • Governments found privateering to be a cost-effective way to augment their naval forces without the need to build and maintain a large standing navy. By leveraging privateers, states could disrupt enemy trade and deplete their economic resources with minimal direct investment.
    • According to Paul E. Fontenoy in his book “The Sloop of War: 1650-1763,” privateers were particularly useful during wartime when navies were stretched thin. The economic burden of outfitting ships and paying crews fell to private investors rather than the state (Fontenoy, 1993).
  2. Economic Disruption:
    • Privateers were used to target the merchant shipping of enemy nations, aiming to cripple their trade and economy. The capture of merchant vessels not only deprived enemies of valuable goods but also disrupted their supply chains and trade routes.
    • As noted by N.A.M. Rodger in “The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815,” the British government extensively employed privateers during the wars with France and Spain, significantly impacting enemy commerce (Rodger, 2004).

Military Strategy

  1. Supplementing Naval Forces:
    • Privateers provided a valuable supplement to regular naval forces, increasing the number of ships available for maritime warfare. This was particularly important during extended conflicts when naval resources were overstretched.
    • For example, during the American Revolutionary War, American privateers played a significant role in harassing British shipping, capturing over 600 British vessels, which pressured Britain to divert naval resources away from offensive operations (Palmer, 1987).
  2. Flexibility and Reach:
    • Privateers were often more agile and could operate in areas where regular naval forces might not be present. Their ability to quickly mobilize and strike enemy shipping allowed for a more dynamic and widespread impact on enemy logistics.
    • As cited in “The Prize Game” by Donald A. Petrie, privateers operated not only in the Atlantic but also in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and along the coasts of North and South America, extending the reach of their sponsoring nations (Petrie, 1999).

Legal and Political Considerations

  1. Legitimacy and Accountability:
    • By issuing letters of marque, governments provided a legal framework for privateering, distinguishing it from outright piracy. This legal distinction helped maintain international relations, as privateers could be held accountable for their actions under the terms of their commissions.
    • According to “Pirates & Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy” by Tom Bowling, the legal status of privateers also allowed for the negotiation of prisoner exchanges and the return of captured goods, which would not be possible with unlicensed pirates (Bowling, 2003).
  2. Revenue Generation:
    • Privateering also generated revenue for the sponsoring state. Governments often took a significant share of the profits from captured prizes, which could be reinvested into the war effort or state coffers.
    • As highlighted by C. R. Pennell in “Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader,” privateers’ contributions to national treasuries were substantial, especially during prolonged conflicts when other sources of income were strained (Pennell, 2001).


The practice of privateering was a pragmatic response to the challenges of naval warfare and economic competition during the Age of Sail. By outsourcing maritime raids to private entities, governments could disrupt enemy trade, supplement their naval forces, and generate revenue, all while maintaining a veneer of legality and control. This complex interplay of economic, military, and legal factors underscores the strategic importance of privateering in historical maritime conflicts.


  1. Fontenoy, P. E. (1993). The Sloop of War: 1650-1763. Chatham Publishing.
  2. Rodger, N. A. M. (2004). The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815. Penguin Books.
  3. Palmer, M. A. (1987). Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control Since the Sixteenth Century. Harvard University Press.
  4. Petrie, D. A. (1999). The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail. Naval Institute Press.
  5. Bowling, T. (2003). Pirates & Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy. Hermes House.
  6. Pennell, C. R. (2001). Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. New York University Press.