Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Prize

Talk of prizes is cheap when one is around pirates and privateers. Seemingly contradictorily, it is dear as well. All sailors – even as recently as 100 years ago – loved a prize. But what exactly was a prize, legally? Was there even such a thing? As long as there have been ships at sea, the answers have been more complicated than one might imagine.

A number of prize acts have been passed by the various naval countries on both sides of the Atlantic, with the one that really got the ball rolling issued by Henry VIII of England to institute his all-privateer navy. Elizabeth I solidified these laws, with Queen Anne passing a revised act in 1708 and King George adding to it in 1793.

The next great wave of privateers would sprout up in 1810 when the government of Bolivar’s free Cartagena began issuing letters of marque. In all these situations, legal prizes were required to first be judged so via a libel in a court of the country issuing the letter of marque. Of course, this was not always possible and in some cases – notably the Laffites’ Barataria and Galveston operations – rarely if ever happened.

Prize acts, again often in theory more than practice, technically expired at the end of whatever war they were written for. A good example here is the resending of Queen Anne’s 1708 prize act which contributed greatly to the period known now as the Golden Age of piracy. Many recognizable names of the era, from Edward Teach to Howell Davis, had sailed with legitimate letters of marque and simply continued to take prizes after their papers expired, thus becoming pirates rather than privateers.

Prize goods were those taken legally from an enemy at sea. A prize master is the man given control of the prize ship to see her safely into a port controlled by the privateer’s or man-of-war’s country. Young officers often cut their teeth as commanders aboard prizes. Prize money was the result of the sale of prize goods and sometimes the ship itself, which was then divided according to the articles of the privateer or the navy in question. Prizeage was the share of that money belonging to the government.

No one can put the pieces together quite as succinctly as Admiral Smyth, however, so I offer the entry under “prize” from his The Sailor’s Word Book:

A vessel captured at sea from the enemies of a state, or from pirates, either by a man-of-war or privateer. Vessels are also looked upon as prize if they fight under any other standard than that of the state from which they have their commission, if they have no charter-party, and if loaded with effects belonging to the enemy, or with contraband goods. In ships of war, the prizes are to be divided among the officers, seamen &c., according to the act; but in privateers, according to the agreement of the owners.

And nothing could be more thorough than that in describing a lovely – and legal – prize. Happy Saturday, Brethren; I’m off to dine with the first mate. I’ll spy ye tomorrow for Seafaring Sunday.

Header: Revenue cutter Harpy chasing a smuggler via National Museum of Liverpool Blog


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I think tonight's prize will be a big juicy steak and a nice bottle of wine...

Happy Saturday to all.

Pauline said...

Done and done! Time for a nap.

Mimi Foxmorton said...

All pirates love a prive! :)

Pirate Girl

Pauline said...

Truer words were never spoken, PG!