Friday, July 31, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Do You Have Your Hall Pass, Mister?

"Letter of marque" is one of those terms that gets bonked around the piratosphere without anyone really thinking about it. I hear it referred to in
all kinds of goofy ways and kind of wonder if the people spouting the words really know what they're talking about. Now that's not to say that your humble Pauline is all knowing - far from it actually. All the same, Triple P is here to set the record straight and the reality is that a letter of marque is what separates the pirates from the privateers. Let's begin with a little history because oh! how I do adore the history.

First off the name. Marque is a word which in the Norman French spoken in England at the creation of letters of marque meant "seizure of merchandise". Now the story.

In the thirteenth century, King Henry III of England (that's him up there in all his entombed glory) had a cash flow problem. Engaged in never ending wars with both France and Spain, his treasury was getting down to that last layer of gold and England's citizens were shouldering a tax burden the would have made Atlas shrug. Then Henry, or one of his advisers perhaps, got a brainstorm. Why not give private ship's captains the right to raid enemy shipping as long as they share a portion (in this instance a staggering half) of their gains with the crown? Why the hell not! Private Captains quickly pledged their service to a handy piece of paper (vellum actually but who is keeping track, really) that allowed them to get rich and helped their King to not only swell the ranks of his navy but lift some of that clunky tax burden from the folks at home.

When the wars temporarily ceased, Henry saw nothing wrong with issuing a charming and I must say underused form of the wartime letters of marque. Known as letters of reprisal or special reprisal letters of marque, these little gems allowed a merchant captain who had goods stolen by pirates to plunder any ship from the original pirates' country of origin to recoup his losses (and then some, one has to imagine). Brilliant!

Letters of marque were a wonderful way for a cagey King with a need for cash and a few ports at hand to fill out, or even create, his naval presence. Henry VIII essentially created a privateer navy for England with letters of marque (the Henry number 3's navy having gone by the board some time before). His daughter, the clever Elizabeth, made her country rich and heroes of slavers like John Hawkins and adventurers like his cousin Francis Drake by buying into their enterprises and handing out letters of marque.

The French and Spanish were quick to sign on and European waters in the 16th and 17th century were jam packed with legal pirates taking each others' goods and chuckling as they sailed away. The gold and silver found in Central and South America by the Spanish conquistadors upped the ante by ten and it was off to the Spanish Main, papers in hand and high hopes billowing like full sails.

Here's where things got really gray really fast. By this time letters of marque had become like Butterball turkeys. They had a timer - usually set for one calendar year but there were exceptions - and when it popped up you became a pirate if you took further prizes without going back home and renewing your papers. But who has time to run back to England when you are gleefully pillaging Spanish galleons off Panama? You don't, do you? Sometimes even a trip to the nearest friendly port to find the local governor is too much and then a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. So yeah; more gold meant more pirates.

The last great purveyor of letters of marque was the Liberator of Half a Continent, Simon Bolivar. From approximately 1809 to 1820, Bolivar amassed a decidedly rag-tag navy of privateers from all over the Gulf and Caribbean states (including the U.S.). These men harassed Spanish shipping with Bolivar's Cartagenan letters of marque while he fought the war on land and then on paper to liberate Grand Columbia from Spain. Letters of marque were also issued by rebels in Argentina and Chile but on nowhere near the scale that Bolivar achieved. When his struggle, and his life, were finally fading away, Bolivar grew sickened by the majority of the men who claimed him as their benefactor. He withdrew all his letters of marque across the board and ended the last stand of the truly great privateers.

Sure, just because you could obtain a letter of marque didn't mean you were legit. There were forgeries, of course, and that "I left my license at home, officer" excuse came up now and then. For the most part, though, a bona fide letter of marque put you on track for society's smile when you came home rich and ready to settle down (maybe I should say if you came home at all).

Oh yeah, but don't think it will necessarily save you from hanging. One man's privateer is another man's pirate.


Timmy! said...

"One man's privateer is another man's pirate." Isn't that what Jean Laffite said to Captain Morgan in the Pirate Guys book that started a brawl? There you go again, Pauline... boiling down a history lesson into all the fun parts (without resorting to any Hollywood BS)... Damn, you're smooth...

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! You caught me. I think he said it the other way around but it applies either way. Smoooooooth...

WasABuc said...

Damn you're smooth. - Beavis has indeed visited this sight. its official.

And on the Captain Morgan thing..its kinda' obvious cause' the pirates were basically drunk all the time, right? Did he really stand there with one leg up on the side of the deck? And about his sword...was that composite, or did he use the older style aluminum. You get a harder slash-shot with the composite.

and one more thing, if you had a monkey for a drummer.....

Boooo'ner. Pantera! Take out the trash.

Thats all I'm saying.

Pauline said...

Ahoy WasABuck! Steel was the weapon of choice at the time so I'm going to go with your first suggestion. Also, Henry Morgan was a notorious sot so I'm going to say that he may, at some point, have lifted his knee in the air and then just forgot to put it down. Thusly, the "Got a little Captain in ya?" Morgan stance. But I'm just guessing at this point.

Timmy! said...

"Why is no one attending to my needs?"... Hey, at least Captain Morgan is remembered at a flamboyant (sp?) pirate and not a goofy cartoon like "Jean Lafoot the barefoot pirate"... which is pretty sad IMHO.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy and back it down! Now your taking a dig at family, and no one wants a duel on their hands, do they? Really?

Timmy! said...

No, Ma'am, we definitely do not!

Matt said...

Excellent little historical piece on the letter of marque. I actually do some research about the concept, as it could apply to modern times.

My question for you is if you know of anyone in your network that delves into any LoM research? I would be interested in talking with them or reading their blog.

Also, I have been trying to track down the last LoM issued by the US. Supposedly during WW2, congress issued one to the airship resolute--a Goodyear blimp. So that is my latest mission is to track down a copy of that document for reference. Take care. -Matt

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Matt! Thankee and how interesting your research must be! While I don't know anyone doing specific research on the letter of marque, there are several great books out there on both pirates and legitimate privateers as well as blue water navies that deal with the subject in depth. Two of my favorites are Benerson Little's "The Sea Rover's Practice" for the 17th/18th century perspective and Brian Lavery's "Jack Aubrey Commands" for the 19th century perspective.

I'd no idea that letters of marque were being issued in WW2 - and to airships no less! The research I've done only goes up to the Confederate smugglers during the U.S. Civil War.

I hope you come back often. I'd love to hear more from you.