Letter of marque Document in Red Sunrise | World Anvil

Letter of marque


A letter of marque is a letter from a government allowing a captain and/or ship to commit warfare to ships of the enemy of the state. It is a license legalizing piracy. It allowed privateers to attack other ships to take their cargo and/or their ship.

Letters of marque were not only issued during wartime but also outside of it, as a form of economic warfare. Just so that the country would gain an advantage in the world trade over another country. It was a very cheap form of war for a government as potential privateers were a lot of times expected to pay for the license. And there would be no cost at all for the country's own navy.

The letter would contain all the details of the privateer (the captain) which ships of which nation he was allowed to attack, in which area he could operate, from which date to date the letter was valid, if and how he was expected to return the ships he conquered to the country that issued the letter, and it would contain an agreement on how to divide the price money.

In the past it had happened that a single person gained letters of marque from more than one government, cheating the system. This practise not to be confused with flying a False flag which was a legal warfare tactic, bound by specific rules.

Price money

In the same fashion as with pirates the crew isn't awarded a salary but get shares of the loot, this led to unrest when a privateer could not find a suitable ship to attack, and they may be tempted to find the borders of their license and resort to piracy.

Any ship and cargo they gained had to be brought back to the country of the issuer of the letter. There, the government would take a sizeable share. As high as 90% of the value of ship and cargo, the rest was for the privateers.

Letter of marque for captain R.A. Oak

After the Battle at Klein Curaçao in the ABC War where the sailing vessel Sunset Dawn saved the Zr.Ms. Willem Barentsz by attacking and sinking the Almirante General. Captain R.A. Oak received a letter of marque from the King of the Netherlands, which worked retroactively to cover the events of the ABC war.

Subsequently all crew members were offered a blanket pardon for their pirate actions in the time before the ABC war, if they would supply the Dutch government their names and details. The pardon did not cover any other crimes. Unsurprisingly not a whole lot of crew members were interested in that, as they knew the governments of the world didn't know who they were, and they liked to keep it that way, also some of them had a history they didn't want catching up with them. In the end only Rose, Bobby and Alejandro got the pardon.

Pirate or Privateer

A privateer is a crew member of a ship sailing with a letter of marque. They are licensed by a state to attack and take over ships of the enemy of the state. By using their own ship. Simply said it is a licensed pirate who has to share the loot with the government.

A pirate is a crew member of a ship conducting in piracy, not bound by any nation's rules and laws, attacking and robbing ships of their own choice, keeping all the spoils themselves.

Also Privateers are the amazing followers of this World Anvil world.

Historical privateer

Piet Hein is maybe the most famous Dutch privateer, Admiral in the WIC. In 1628-1629 he commanded a fleet of 31 ships and sailed for the Caribbean with the plan to attack and hijack the Spanish Treasure Fleet that sailed annually back to Spain.

He was successful, otherwise he wouldn't have been famous, and captured the entire fleet. With a value of 12 million Gulden (1628). This amount was so big for the time that it had a visible effect on the world economics. Spain suffered and the Republic of the Netherlands, suddenly had the money to fund sieges in the 80 year war against Spain.

The share holders of the WIC got that year a 50% dividend payout. The stock market value of the WIC rose by 225%. They rewarded the crew of the privateer fleet with 17 months of extra salary. Piet Hein himself 6.000 Gulden and the crew 200 Gulden each.

Abolishment of Privateering

Nations who where each other's opponents often signed treaties which included both sides promising not to use privateers, or issue letters of marque. The first such agreement was in 1324 between England and France, but both countries broke that agreement in the first war between them. And privateering remained a general practice for 500 years.

During the American War for Independence (1775-1783) both belligerents used the services of privateers extensively. With the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law of 1856, most European countries agreed to stop issuing letters of marque.
But during the American Civil War(1861-1865) privateers where hired again, supported by Brittain. In 1879 with the War of the Pacific both Bolivia and Chile issued many letters of marque. With the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 it was again agreed to stop the system of privateering.

Commerce raiding

During both the first and second world war, the warring nations tried a new system. This time they used government-owned merchant ships, fitted out with hidden guns, manned by military personal. These ships used their peace time cargo space to fill it up with an enormous amount of supplies. So they could roam the ocean for months, even more than a year, without making port. Also they did carry much more crew, considering that they would have to put a prize crew on any ships they captured.

Their tactic was to sneak up on lonely merchants or small military navy vessels and surprise them with the sudden show of gun power. Their targets often surrendered as soon as they found out in what situation they had found themselves. The crew of the merchant raider would take over the prize ship and sail it back to their country of origin, first stripping it of anything useful for their own ship. These ships where either emptied of cargo by the home nation, sold back or repurposed as merchant ships or even as merchant raiders.

It even happened that two merchant raiders of two opposing nations found each other at sea and battled it out.


During WWII the USA did consider issue letters of marque to airships as they where privately owned and the crew was armed with rifles and they were flying anti-submarine patrols along the American coast.

Modern times

In our current time It has been suggest by several politicians and lawyers to issue letters of marque to mercenary groups to help fight the problem that the Somali pirates are to modern merchant shipping, as most governments are slow to act.


Author's Notes

In response to: Summer Camp 2021, prompt 19: A famous letter or message.

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Jul 13, 2021 10:18 by Amélie I. S. Debruyne

Its' fun that your characters crew got a letter of marque, though... I expect that they're not still used in the real world, right? -_- That 90% loot going back to the government is really a lot! Though they can't know exactly how much there was at the start... :p

To see what I am up to: World Ember 2023 list of articles.
Jul 13, 2021 11:56 by Bart Weergang

Thank you for the question! Added the chapter 'abolishment of privateering' to answer it :) but yes they are not used in the real world. at. the. moment.

Jul 13, 2021 12:03 by Amélie I. S. Debruyne

I love the new history section, it's nice to put all the separate historical periods together through the theme of privateer to see how this has evolved. And the last bit is really great to justify having privateers in your setting :D

To see what I am up to: World Ember 2023 list of articles.
Jul 13, 2021 12:11 by Bart Weergang

Yes, I see how me talking about one privateer in the 17th century is a big jump to the current time in my world. This has brought it much closer together. Thanks.